Shaemus O’Sheel (1886-1954)


[bapt. James Shields; occas. err. Seamus/Seumas O’Sheel;] b. New York City, 19 Sept. 1886; studied English and History at Columbia U., 1906-08; contrib. criticism to NY reviews and wrote anti-British wartime propaganda alleging that Cecil Rhodes had left money in his will for the reconquest of America; contributed to G. S. Viereck’s journal Fatherland in 1914-18 and issued “The War of 1920” (serialised in the Fatherland, 1915), predicting an alliance against America between Mexico and Japan, supported by Britain;
issued pamphlets, “A Trip Through Headline Land” and “The Catechism of Balaam, Jr.”, rubbishing reports of German defeats; served as aide to James O’Gorman (NY Democratic Senator); opposed withdrawal of Gen. Pershing’s punitive expedition sent to Mexico to capture Pancho Villa; issued Blossomy Bough (1912) and The Light Feet of Goats (1915); joined Poetry Soc. of America; mbr. of Gaelic Society; issued Seven Periods of Irish History (1915);
he was barred from Poetry Committee for support of 1916 Rising in Dublin, and defended members threatened with expulsion for alcoholism - citing the case of Edgar Allen Poe; defended Viereck when threatened with expulsion for pro-German sentiments, Dec. 1918; he professed himself ‘a very ardent communist and a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union’ (letter to Art Young, 17 April 1938) and defended Germany in 1939-45, serving on the American League of Writers’ Keep America Out of War Committee, Jan. 1940;
best-known in Irish literature as the author of the poem entitled, after Macpherson’s Ossian of 1760, ‘‘They went forth to battle, but the always fell [...] &c.’; d. 2 April 1954; an obituary appeared in the New York Times on 4 April 1954; his Antigone and Selected Poems (Penn. UP 1961) appeared posthumously.

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  They Went Forth to Battle, but They Always Fell”
  They went forth to battle, but they always fell;
Their eyes were fixed above the sullen shields;
Nobly they fought and bravely, but not well,
And sank heart-wounded by a subtle spell.
They knew not fear that to the foeman yields,
They were not weak, as one who vainly wields
A futile weapon; yet the sad scrolls tell
How on the hard-fought field they always fell.

It was a secret music that they heard,
A sad sweet plea for pity and for peace;
And that which pierced the heart was but a word,
Though the white breast was red-lipped where the sword
Pressed a fierce cruel kiss, to put surcease
On its hot thirst, but drank a hot increase.
Ah, they by some strange troubling doubt were stirred,
And died for hearing what no foeman heard.

They went forth to battle but they always fell;
Their might was not the might of lifted spears;
Over the battle-clamor came a spell
Of troubling music, and they fought not well.
Their wreaths are willows and their tribute, tears;
Their names are old sad stories in men’s ears;
Yet they will scatter the red hordes.
—Published in Jealous of the Dead Leaves (NY 1928)

“Thanksgiving for Our Task”
  The sickle is dulled of the reaping and the threshing-floor is bare;
The dust of night’s in the air;
The peace of the weary is ours:
All day we have taken the fruit and the grain and the seeds of the flowers.

see full-text version, attached.

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Viereck Project [NY]: ‘[...] An Irish Republican, O’Sheel wrote extensive, anonymous anti-British propaganda during the First World War, which Viereck published in the Fatherland, or as individual pamphlets. His “The War of 1920”, serialized in the Fatherland in 1915, described a future where the export of American munitions combined with the success of Andrew Carnegie’s pacifism movement has left America defenseless and an alliance between Mexico and Japan, aided and financed by Britain, lays waste to the American Southwest. “The War of 1920” depicts the Germany selling arms to Britain, despite its ostensible neutrality, and casts its public as easily swayed by atrocity stories planted by a British controlled media. Ultimately, however, Germany and Ireland ally to save America from British tyranny and aggression. (A very similar scenario was used in William Randolph Hearst’s 1917 serial Patria, though Hearst contented himself with exclusively American heroes and Japanese and Mexican villains.)’ [For full text, see Viereck Project online - ; accessed 24.09.2010.]

Louis Untermeyer characterized O'Sheel's poetry as possessing "mysticism and a muffled heroism". (Modern American Poetry, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & Co. 1921; quoted on the O’Sheel page at Wikipedia - online; accessed 04.09.2011].

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Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1995): ‘In a famous poem of the period, it was said of the Celts that “they went forth to battle and they always fell”: the lament is for an heroic distant past and for the sense of failure in every subsequent challenge to empire. Theses laments, and the allied myth of a golden age, were allowed by the imperialists, and sometimes even encouraged when, as in Shaemus O’Sheel’s much-anthologised poem, they were uttered in the occupier’s language.’ (p.31.)

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There is an O’Sheel entry on in the Encyc. Brittanica and a Shaemus [sic] O’Sheel page at Wikipedia - online; accessed 04.09.2011].

The Viereck Project in Wikispaces [online]- frequently cites George S. Viereck, Spreading Germs of Hate (NY: H. Liveright 1930) [see extract under Commentary, supra.]

Syracuse Univ. Library: ‘The Shaemas O’Sheel Letters consist of two letters from Shaemas O’Sheel to artist Art Young regarding possible collaboration on a book. “A kind of book of indignation, as one might say ... grand drawings from your pen, putting some of the evils and some of the villains of this age on the spit, turning them over a slow fire, to the accompaniment of ‘poems’ in which I would strive to echo ... the Olympian force of your pen.” O’Sheel speaks, half-jokingly, of his desire “to begin the rehabilitation of my name, and even introduce it for the first time to the cruel generations of the youthful who know me not.”.’ (Available online - accessed 04.09.2011.)

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Under the Influence?: O’Sheel’s best-known line is clearly based and equally well-known phrase in Macpherson’s Ossian: ‘They went forth to war but they always fell’ (1760; Cath-loda, Duan ii.)

James Joyce: In Ulysses Joyce O’Madden Burke quotes ‘they went forth to battle and they always fell’ (“Aoelus” [Bodley Head Edn. p.110).

Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (1996; Flamingo edn. [UK] 1997), quotes: ‘They went forth to battle, but the always fell, / Their eyes were fixed above the sullen shields. / Nobly they fought and bravely, but not well, / And sank heart-wounded by a subtle spell.’ (p.236.)

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