By Ron Clark and Merritt Clark
This article is an analysis of the publication history of the poem titled
We also now know that the poem was widely re-printed in many newspapers and periodicals during the period 1943-1945, often under other titles, and without any author credit. The publication history of the poem has only recently been able to be researched, due to the large number of old newspapers and books becoming available in digital format on the internet. This publication history, in upward of 50 newspapers and periodicals, is documented in this article. To use a modern term, the poem “went viral.”
There are interesting back-stories that describe how and why the investigation of this poem's history came about, but the important point is that the poem was published in a 1991 book of the collected poems of General George S. Patton, and has made its way onto a variety of internet websites, with Patton listed as the author. This authorship credit has been proven incorrect, and so acknowledged by the editor of the Patton poetry book.
The poem was originally published on April 13, 1943 on page 1 of the Boston News Bureau, a now-defunct Boston newspaper.
Microfilm archives exist at the New York Public Library. A copy of the poem as published on page 1 is shown in the sidebar above (click to enlarge),
and in the transcript to the right (click to enlarge). (Note: this transcript has a one-line update of language, explained
The initials “W.S.A.” appear with the poem, which is known (from family history) to be W. Sterling Atwater.
The poem was also published the next day, April 14, 1943, in the New Haven Register newspaper, with the initials “W.S.A.”, and the line “from the Boston News Bureau”. The likely reason it was published here is because the author, W. Sterling Atwater, was born and raised in the New Haven area, and had several prominent relatives still in the area (in Derby, Ct, outside New Haven), who might have submitted the poem to the newspaper, or suggested its publication.
We know from family oral history that W. Sterling Atwater enjoyed writing poetry and submitted poems to newspapers for publication. He told family members he wrote the subject poem, and gave an original clipping of the New Haven Register poem to his great-nephew around 1944, who memorized it and has enjoyed reciting it for many years. W. Sterling Atwater also had at least one other poem published by the Boston News Bureau newspaper, in 1944. This second poem was much more serious, and had its own sad story surrounding it; this part of the story is included at the very end of this article.
In 1991, the poem was included in the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire”, edited by Carmine A. Prioli. The version of the poem in this book had several small differences from the original April 1943 version, discussed later.
In 1998, two relatives of W. Sterling Atwater wrote to Dr. Prioli about this apparent incorrect attribution of the poem to General Patton, and Dr. Prioli acknowledged the error. In a letter of reply dated November 24, 1998, he wrote
“I must thank you for setting the record straight. It seems incontrovertible that your great uncle, W. Sterling Atwater, must have been the author of “Reference,” the poem I mistakenly attributed to General Patton.”
This poem was found on a typewritten sheet, among Patton's papers, along with many other poems written by him. The inclusion of the poem in the book of Patton's poetry was a simple mistake in attribution, at a time when none of the material currently on the internet was available. More detail about the attribution of the poem to General Patton is contained in the later section “The Patton Version of the Poem”.
Note: While this article focuses on the one poem that General Patton did not write, it should be noted that he was an avid amateur poet, as the 85 other poems published in Dr. Prioli's book demonstrate. Although Patton's poems were not published until 1991, his papers were publicly available to biographers in the Library of Congress, and the movie Patton (1970) contains a scene in which Patton recites several lines from one of his own poems, “Through a Glass Darkly”. (See this scene on YouTube, click here.)
The whole story of the investigation that led to the exchange of letters with Dr. Prioli is told later in this article, and Dr. Prioli's letter is reproduced.
In 1998, when the initial investigation took place, the only copies of this poem on the internet were taken from Dr. Prioli's book, and were located on a few websites devoted to information about General George S. Patton. Although crediting Patton as the author was incorrect, we did not undertake then to correct this misinformation.
When we came back 18 years later to renew an interest in the story of the poem, we found two important changes:
We have decided it's time to publicly set the record straight, with this article on the internet serving as documentation about the poem and its history.
It is requested that websites and other re-publications of this poem which propagate the incorrect authorship credit to George S. Patton make some note of the correct author credit. They are free to cite this article as a reference.
In 1991, the poem was included in the book The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire, edited by Carmine A. Prioli.
In correspondence about the poem, in 1998, Dr. Prioli explained how the poem was included in the book of Patton's poetry.
As soon as I read your letter I went back to my files and located my copies of the Patton manuscripts. The poems themselves are deposited in two collections, one at the Library of Congress and the other at the US military academy at West Point. They exist in handwritten and typewritten form. The manuscript of “Reference” is contained in the Library of Congress archives along with most of Patton's other poems. I've enclosed a Xerox copy, so you can see that it's one of the typewritten poems. There are a few relatively minor differences between this version and the one that you sent me, but the major difference is that the copy in the Patton papers does not display the initials “W.S.A.” Had these initials been there, I would not have included the poem among those composed by Patton. (He did not always append his name to his poems, but whenever he did he used the initials “G.S.P.” or sometimes just “-G-.” The numbers in the margin are the ones I wrote on my copy of the poem.) However, since the poem was among Patton's other poems and there was no attribution to anyone else, I simply assumed it was written by the General.
I did have some reservations, though. The poem struck me as more polished than most of the General's other verses, even though the humor was very like his own. There were other minor problems, too, especially the reference to “the firm of Blair and Blair.” When I shared the poem with Patton's daughter, Ruth Ellen, she couldn't identify the reference either. But she knew her father's poetry better than anyone, and did not say that the poem was not his. In a way, I took her acceptance of the poem as an additional evidence of her father's authorship.
At the time the mistake was discovered, in 1998, Dr. Prioli offered a plausible explanation of how the poem might have ended up among Patton's papers, suggesting Mrs. Patton (who lived outside Boston during the war) saw the poem in the Boston News Bureau and re-typed it and sent it to her husband, who would have enjoyed the satiric commentary on Washington bureaucracy. However, in hindsight it now seems more likely that Patton's copy came from a different published copy of the poem, of which we now know there were many. If this is true, it would mean the Boston News Bureau was not the source of Patton's copy, and it may or may not have been Mrs. Patton who sent him a copy.
We have not tried to catalog the websites where the poem has been or currently is listed as one of Patton's poems. Websites come and go, and contents change. One can Google the phrase “division of provision for revision” or “checker's checker's checker”, plus “Patton” to find current websites containing the Patton version of the poem.
There are three important versions of the poem, plus several small variations that are less significant. The three versions are:
Other differences among the published copies of the poem we have found on the internet in old newspapers and periodicals are:
The astonishing new news in 2016 when we revisited the poem story, was the number of copies found on the internet in digitized old newspapers and periodicals, from the Congressional Record of 1944, to The West Australian newspaper in Perth, Australia. The poem clearly resonated with many audiences during 1943-1945, and later. It seems to have found favor with anyone who interacted with the government bureaucracy during the war, which was of course nearly everyone.
The list at the bottom of this page includes items from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There are newspapers, trade magazines, law journals, and more. None (amazingly) gives credit to “W.S.A.” as the author except the original two publications in April 1943. Some indicate the poem was copied from another publication, or indicate the poem was submitted by a reader. A few seem to claim authorship for someone else entirely.The list at the bottom of this page does not include the “Patton version” of the poem, because this list is publications of the poem that pre-date Dr. Prioli's 1991 book.
Some of the published copies of the poem in the list below contain references to an earlier publication, as the source of the material. One of the more interesting is The Gazette, from Montreal, October 30, 1943. The prologue to the poem, shown to the right, says
(Official publication, National Press Club, Washington)This led to an inquiry to the archives of The National Press Club, in Washington, DC. Its publications are not available on the internet, but a check of the archives revealed that the poem was indeed published in The National Press Club's official newsletter Goldfish Bowl, in the Sept/Oct 1943 edition. (See details in the publications table at the end of this article).
(Editor's Note: The subjoined masterpiece appeared mysteriously and anonymously in the precincts of the War Production Board. It has been variously attributed to Donald Nelson and nearly every official under him.)
The poem was included in the Congressional Record of 1944.
In an address to the Texas and Southwestern Cattleraisers Association, US Representative Richard M. Kleberg of Texas recited the full text of the poem. The point of his including the poem, if any, is however obscured by his lengthy and obtuse remarks. The speech was subsequently recorded for posterity in the Congressional Record of 1944, as members of Congress could do for speeches delivered somewhere other than on the floor of Congress.
An interesting reference to the poem is contained in the publication Proceedings of the annual meeting of the American Warehousemen's Association (1943), in which a speaker is quoted as saying
“It may still be mythical, but I heard about it coming east. I understand, Mr. McLain, that there is now going to be a Division of Provision for Revision. (Laughter) That alphabetical one hasn't come out yet, perhaps.”Laughter from the audience may indicate that there some recognition of the phrase among the audience.
A special interesting case is a YouTube video of a man reciting this poem. It can be viewed on this YouTube channel.
There are several interesting cases where the poem is not simply re-printed, but it, or a segment of the poem, was incorporated into an advertisement or editorial article, such as the example shown at the right, from a newspaper in Perth, Australia, 1944.
The first phase of our investigation began in 1998. M. Clark, one of the co-authors of this article, memorized this poem around 1944, when he was given a newspaper clipping by the author, our great-uncle, W. Sterling Atwater. He has been able to recite it from memory ever since, and did so at a family gathering in 1998. As the conversation moved on to the topic of the relatively young World Wide Web - the internet - we jokingly wondered if “The Poem” had made its way onto the internet yet. We were amazed to get a “hit”, which turned out to be on a website devoted to information about General George S. Patton, Jr. Further investigation found the poem on this website had been taken from the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire”, edited by Carmine A. Prioli.
More research was needed using M. Clark’s original newspaper clipping, and it was found to have come from a local newspaper, The New Haven Register, April 14, 1943. The newspaper archives revealed what had been cut off the original clipping - an additional line that said “from the Boston News Bureau”. That original publication was eventually found, using the archives of the Boston News Bureau at the New York Public Library.
Meanwhile, M. Clark wrote to Dr. Prioli about the discrepancy, enclosing the New Haven Register clipping that included the initials “W.S.A.”. Dr. Prioli's reply is reproduced in this image. He agreed with the conclusion that W. Sterling Atwater was the author of the poem, as quoted earlier, and that the attribution to Patton was an error. He enclosed a copy of the typewritten poem as found in the Patton archives at the Library of Congress, and explained, as quoted earlier, why the poem was included in the book of Patton's poetry.
A second edition of the Lines of Fire book will correct this error, if a second edition is printed. In 1998, we did not attempt to correct the information on websites that had taken a copy of the poem from the Lines of Fire book.
The second phase of the investigation was in 2016, and focused on old newspapers and periodicals that have become available on the internet in digital format since 1998, and can be found using internet search tools such as Google, Google Books, Newspapers.com, and other search tools for specialized digital archives of old printed materials.
This section will later cover in some detail the different search engines and search terms that were used in 2016 to locate the poem on the internet. While the amount of content on the internet has exploded in recent years, and the ability to search continues to improve, searching for this poem has demonstrated that comprehensive searching is still part art as well as science.
The table below contains all the known publications of the poem, between 1943 and 1991, when the book “The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr.: Lines of Fire” was published.
The table is a work in progress in several respects. Full citations, notes, and images of the publications are being worked on. There are also a few duplications, which may be the result of publications being digitized more than once and listed under slightly different titles in different catalogs.
Most of the images for Other Publications below are “snippet view” images from Google Books. Actual page images from these publications are not available online, even though the books have been digitized and indexed for searching.
|Publication||Location||Publication Date||Page||Merton/ Morton||Poem Image||Page Image||Notes|
|Boston News Bureau||Boston, MA||April 13, 1943||p. 1||Merton||Click to View||Click to View||Credit: “W.S.A.”|
|New Haven Register||New Haven, CT||April 14, 1943||Merton||Credit: “W.S.A.”|
|Bay of Plenty Beacon||New Zealand||Sept 21, 1943||p. 2||Merton||Click to View|
|Montreal Gazette||Montreal, Canada||Oct 30, 1943||p. 8||Merton||Click to View||credit: from The National Press Club,Washington, DC (see item below)|
|The Eugene Guard||Eugene, Oregon||Dec 20, 1943||Merton||Click to View|
|The Gallup Independent||New Mexico||Dec 23, 1943||Morton||Click to View||Click to View||Credit: “Artesia Advocate”|
|The New Times||Melborne, Australia||July 7, 1944||p. 1||Merton||Click to View||credit: “Metal Finishing” magazine, September 1943|
|The Dayton Review||Dayton, Ohio||Aug 10, 1944||p. 4||Morton||Click to View|
|The Milwaukee Journal||Milwaukee, WI||June 12, 1945||p. 12||Morton||Click to View||additional cartoon; credit: “from Personnel Administration Magazine” (item below)|
|Corvallis Gazette Times||Corvallis, Oregon||March 16, 1945||Morton||Click to View|
|The Oelwein Daily Register||Oelwein, Iowa||Aug 9, 1944||p. 4||Morton||Click to View||Credit: “Iowa Motor Truck News”|
|Middlesboro Daily News||Middlesboro, KY||Feb 23, 1944||Morton||Click to View||Credit: “from the Surplus Record - Feb 1944”|
|Commercial Advertiser||Potsdam, NY||Jan 4, 1944||p. 2||Morton||Click to View||Click to View||Abbreviated and modified version. Source credited as: “Gluey Gleanings of Commercial Paste Co.”|
|Medford Mail Tribune||Medford, OR||Mar 17, 1944||Morton||Click to View||Abbreviated version. Credit: “Houston Line” (may be reference to Houghton Line)|
|The St. Maurice Valley Chronicle||Quebec, Canada||May 25, 1944||Merton||Click to View|
|The West Australian||Perth, Australia||July 17, 1944||n/a||Click to View||Click to View||4 lines only - checker's checker stanza, in an advertisement|
|The Malvern Leader||Malvern, Iowa||Aug 17, 1944||Morton||Click to View||Credit: “we swiped from the Iowa Taxpayer bulletin which had evidently swiped it from the Iowa Motor Truck News”|
|Construction||Sydney, Australia||Sept 20, 1944||Merton||Click to View||Credit: “Bulletin of the Institute of Engineers”|
|The Lowville Leader||Lowville, NY||Feb 15, 1945||p. 5||Merton||Click to View||Click to View|
|The Record Argus||Greenville, Pennsylvania||Dec 13, 1950||p. 13||n/a||Click to View||Click to View||Modified version; claim of local authorship; within a used car dealer advertisement|
|The Record Argus (reprint of above)||Greenville, Pennsylvania||Sep 19, 1951||p. 9||n/a||Click to View||Click to View||same as above|
|Congressional Record of 1944||Record of the US Congress||1944||p. A1513||Morton||Click to View||In speech by US Representative Richard M. Kleberg of Texas|
|Goldfish Bowl (Official Publication of the National Press Club)||National Press Club's newsletter||Sept/Oct 1943||p. 8||Merton||Click to View||Click to View||Prolog (presumably tongue-in-cheek) credits staff of the W.P.B.|
|Proceedings of the annual meeting of the American Warehousemen's Association||1943||p 139||n/a||Click to View||phrase “Division of Provision for Revision” used in a speech|
|Charette (Journal of the Pittsburgh Architectural Club)||October, 1944||Merton||Click to View||Click to View|
|Kansas Government Journal||January, 1945||Morton||Click to View||Click to View|
|U.S. Air Services||1944||p. 50||Morton||Click to View|
|Service Schedule||1944||p 130||Morton||Click to View||Credit: “ Lt. Louis Sanns”|
|Metrol||A journal published in Detroit||1943||Morton||Click to View||chigger; copy at U. Mich. library|
|Petroleum Management||1950||p. E-22||Morton||Click to View|
|Petroleum Engineer||1950||p. E-22||Morton||dup of above item|
|Finance||1944||Morton||Click to View|
|Journal of the American Institute of Architects||1944||p. 90||Morton||Click to View||credit: “contributed through George Harwell Bond”; chigger|
|AIA Journal||1944||p 90||Morton||dup of above item|
|Fortnightly Telephone Engineer||June 1, 1944||p. 4, 32||Morton||Click to View|
|Typo Graphic||Jan 1944||Morton||Click to View|
|Institute in Personnel Administration||1944||p 24||Morton||Click to View|
|Personnel Administration||1944||p 118||Morton||dup of above, but different page number|
|Kentucky State Bar Journal||1944||p 91||Morton||Click to View|
|Louisiana Bar Journal,||1955||p. 15-16||Morton||Click to View|
|The Canadian Chartered Accountant||1944||p 54-55||Merton||Click to View|
|Michigan Purchasing Management||1943||p 111||Merton||Click to View||“Quoted from the October '43 issue of The Houghton Line”|
|Massachusetts Law Quarterly||1943||p 34||Merton||Click to View||Page image not available online; TOC only|
|Thread of Victory (by Frank L. Walton, book)||1945||p 223-224||Merton||Click to View||Click to View|
|Illinois Technograph||1945||p 88||Merton||Click to View||Credit: “an officer in one of our Army depots..”|
|Proceedings / Meeting of Electric & Gas Industry Accountants||1944||p. 7-8||Morton||Click to View|
|Alaska Mukluk Telegraph||Newsletter of Alaska C.A.A.||March 1944||p. 6||Merton||Click to View||Click to View|
|The Pricked Ear||a weekly newsletter published from 1957-1960 created for the Gryphon community and Freshmen of Lehigh University.||1957-1960 (volume 6, no. 13)||p. 8-9||Merton||Click to View||OCR text only; poor quality; no original page images. Credit: “appeared in the Brown and White on October 4,1955” (see next item)|
|Lehigh University Brown and White||Newspaper of Lehigh Univ.||October 4, 1955||p. 2||Merton||Click to View||Click to View||Cited in Pricked Ear, above. Accompanied by long humorous Editor's Note.|
|Unverified Other Publications|
|American law and lawyers: law, government, the legal profession in action||Professional newsletter. Vol 5, No. 30||August 24, 1943||Morton||No image yet; search hits in Google Scholar indicate this issue.|
|The Houghton Line||published by E.F. Houghton & Co., Philadelphia (metalfinishing company)||October 1943||cited in Michigan Purchasing Management; also possible reference by Medford Mail Tribune|
|Gluey Gleanings||published by Commercial Paste Co., Columbus, Ohio||cited in Potsdam Commercial Advertiser newspaper|
|Iowa Taxpayer bulletin||cited in Malvern Leader newspaper|
|Iowa Motor Truck News||cited in Malvern Leader newspaper; also in The Oelwein Daily Register newspaper|
|Surplus Record (business directory of surplus, new, and used machinery||Feb 1944||cited in Middlesboro Daily News newspaper|
|Artesia Advocate||community newspaper of Artesia, New Mexico||cited in Gallup Independent newspaper|
|Bulletin of the Institute of Engineers||a publication in Malaysia had this title||cited in Sydney Construction newspaper|
The other poem we know about, titled “The Time Will Come”, was published in 1944, exact date unknown. It is shown in the image to the right (click to enlarge), which is a later reprint of the poem that appeared in the Brown University Alumni magazine. A day or two after this poem appeared in the Boston News Bureau, the following article was published in the newspaper.
War sometimes carries its own strange touches of the dramatic or tragic, linked with the fates or fortunes of individual personalities caught in the great web of conflict. Occasionally there would seem to enter almost weirdly an element of prophecy or premonition.
Such an incident came yesterday to the notice of the Boston News Bureau in connection with a poem printed on its first page that day, entitled "The Time Will Come." That poem had feelingly told of the emotions which would greet those returning from battle or would lament the unreturning - the “tears of joy in welcome of the living” or else “the tears of sorrow for the dead,” - and also had bespoken the greater grief threatening a future world if those dead had died in vain and if the “hope and destiny of generations lie buried on the slope of Calvary.”
We learned that about noon yesterday, precisely when the author of those verses, W. S. Atwater, was showing the reprint to some of his associates in the Hope Webbing Company of Providence, R. I., was the moment when a telephone call came to him from the War Department informing him of the death in action in Italy of his son, Captain Charnley K. Atwater of the Air Corps.
Fate plays strange pranks.