I remember the first time I heard this song. Uh, sort of. I remember that I was in the Sanders Theater at Harvard and it was performed by John Gorka. Exactly WHEN that was is a mystery. But I was certainly struck right between the eyes by this song and it is still on my playlist.
The story of the genesis of this song is a little muddy. The summary is that a young woman wrote this poem during WWII, and John put them to music a few years back. There’s a bit of an urban legend that it was found by a nurse in a fallen soldier’s belongings in the Philippines, but no.
Here’s a video of JG’s version and the lyrics are below.
Here are the lyrics:
Let them in, Peter,
They are very tired
Give them couches where the angels sleep
And light those fires
Let them wake whole again
To brand new dawns
Fired with the sun
Not wartime’s bloody guns
May their peace be deep
Remember where the broken bodies lie
God knows how young they were
To have to die
God knows how young they were to have to die
Give them things they like
Let them make some noise
Give roadhouse bands, not golden harps
To these our boys
And let them love, Peter
‘Cause they’ve had no time
They should have trees and bird songs
And hills to climb
The taste of summer in a ripened pear
And girls sweet as meadow winds
With flowing hair
Tell them how they are missed
And say not to fear
It’s gonna be alright
With us down here
Let them in, Peter…
Here’s a blurb on the original poem and the author.
This article excerpt appeared in the Sunday Edition of the Oakland Tribune on December 17, 1961, page 2S.
“It was the summer of 1942, and things were not going well for us in the war,” said Elma Dean in her quiet voice, “and so many of our sons, some of my friend’s sons, were being killed. I was going around with tears in my eyes.”
Her tears for the heartbreak of other mothers were crystalized in a poem, “Letter to St. Peter, ” and the tiny Oakland housewife suddenly became known around the world. Her sonnet of lament for boys so young to die, and hope that something would make up for what they missed down here, brought her letters from mothers throughout the nation, was inscribed on the wall of an American cemetery in England, was read by a United States senator at another cemetery in Europe, and found its way even into the National Geographic and the Congresssional Record.
“It was a maybe a little sentimental,” said the author “and it isn’t the best poem I’ve done, but it was what the public liked the best. I’ve been in many anthologies–not the vanity kind–but I am happiest about being in Louis Untermeyer’s ‘Mid-Century Edition of Modern American and British Poetry”– and it was another poem, one from the New Yorker.”
In the process or becoming a poet, winning awards and getting into anthologies, Elma also enjoyed being a wife and mother–and now grandmother. [About her husband’s reaction to her poetry,] “I’m afraid he’s an admirer of mine,” said Elma with a gentle, hazel-eyed smile. “When I showed the St. Peter poem to him, as I always do when I think I’ve done something any good, he said, “this will make the readers Digest.”
Letter To Saint Peter
By Elma Dean
Let them in, Peter, they are very tired;
Give them the couches where the angels sleep.
Let them wake whole again to new dawns fired
With sun not war. And may their peace be deep.
Remember where the broken bodies lie…
And give them things they like. Let them make noise.
God knows how young they were to have to die!
Give swing bands, not gold harps, to these our boys.
Let them love, Peter,-they have had no time-
Girls sweet as meadow wind, with flowering hair…
They should have trees and bird song, hills to climb-
The taste of summer in a ripened pear.
Tell them they are missed. Say not to fear;
It’s going to be all right with us down here.