It is Europe’s darkest time in near memory. American warrior poet Alistair Stears, thrown into Italian WWI through his mother’s love for an Italian colonel, experienced a convoy of the dying through burning provinces of Italy in the terrible retreat of 1917. It brought from him the great English poem of the Italian war.
One war later, all gracious things await destruction, knowledge is burned, thought coarsened, manners trashed, perverted faith and truth follow the dictators’ flags-vultures to grace. Stears is a famous poet now, married into German-Italian nobility and determined with his wife to fight the Axis powers. He risks everything to protect Italy and all else he loves. He finds that the bravest and fiercest resistance may be the rightness of a poem, the closing of a letter, the welcome of guests, the embrace of a bride, faith toward a fallen friend-and that it may also come from the barrel of a gun. Spanning both world wars, The Poet’s War finds loyalty, patriotism, war, deception, intrigue, romance, love, and death swept up in a maelstrom that spans generations and changes Europe forever.
A Q&A with Francis O’Neill Author, The Poet’s War
Question: How, if at all, did writing this book differ from writing your earlier works in the
80s and 90s?
Francis O’Neill: My ‘style,’ a word I rather shy from, is never and always the
same. Reading my first real book (Agents of Sympathy) it seems written by anyone but
me; if you ask me to say exactly where the difference lies, I don’t think I could. My
characters, now and ever, float up out of deep pools, and I am always startled to meet
Question: Who do you consider to be the great “warrior poets” whom your protagonist
Alistair may or may not be modelled after?
Francis O’Neill: True ‘great warrior poets’ are very scarce, both being rather full-time
jobs. Alistair (and I) would insist that the saint, the warrior, and the artist meet as points
of a triangle, by which they are joined–but they are not the same. Castiglione, Alistair’s
hero and the great essayist of the courtier-warrior would agree, though he did not quite
If you mean ‘poets of war,’ then, 1,2,3: Homer, Virgil, the poet of Le Geste de Roland.
Question: What can a return to the era of grace and civility teach us in modern times?
Francis O’Neill: Grace has nothing to do with an era, though more understood in
certain past eras than our own. What is it, and what is it not? Among those I have
actually known the two most certainly endowed with grace have been HH Prince Geza
von Hapsburg, and my grandmother’s late head parlour maid. How seen? A certain
lightness. A capacity to make everybody nearby somehow happy by doing nothing that
anybody can see. Attention. Voice.
In the Revolution, by the guillotine (it was abominably run, as you might expect), a
nobleman and a lady he knew well, both condemned and filthy from the dungeon, were,
as you might say, ‘next to go.’ He said, “Madame, I fear that this time I must pass in
front of you.” She replied, “Mon ami, surely you will not take my lady’s prerogative from
me at the very end.” Magnificent, because grace is never so much grace as in the face
Grace is not a time. It is not crinolines. It is light. It is holding yourself up from the floor. It
is preferring loyalty to advantage.
Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?
Francis O’Neill: Believe in God. Have good manners. Never mail a letter the day you
write it. Don’t keep women waiting. Don’t eat chocolate with Sauternes or a cigar. Never
be rude unintentionally. That’ll about do it.