Tuesday, 2 June 2009

War and Latin Literature

Why do poets reach for Latin literature when they write about war? I heard a terrific panel discussion yesterday by two of my colleagues, Henry Power and Ed Paleit. Their subject was the poetry of the English Civil War, and the ways in which writers may have used the Latin classics (especially Virgil and Lucan) to show allegiance to one side or another. David Norbrook has argued that the attention given to Lucan is the sign of a nascent republican poetry from the 1620s onwards, and that Virgil is favoured by royalist sympathisers, but Ed and Henry demonstrated the dangers of such clean distinctions. Translations of the same passages could seem differently relevant after 1642, 1649 and 1660, and the poets themselves often reflected this awareness as they revised their works for new editions.

Henry made clear that the Civil War produced a spike in translations of the Latin classics, particularly Virgil's Aeneid. The same turn to classical tradition occurred during the Great War, when the public-school-educated officer classes tried to make sense of their experiences through the literature of war with which they were most familiar. (They knew their Greek as well: The Winter of the World contains four different versions of Simonides' epitaph for the dead at Thermopylae and claims that there were many others.) Probably the most famous lines in Great War poetry come from Horace. Yet Owen's use of classical tags and phrases is revealing because, unlike that of (say) Sassoon, Blunden and Graves, his grasp of Latin was not assured. 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' began as 'Apologia pro Poema Mea' before Sassoon corrected the faulty grammar. Why is it, then, that Owen draws on Latin, when his own knowledge is so insecure? Is it just a sky-hook?

Recently, Andrew Motion wrote a quatrain poem called 'Causa Belli' disapproving of the Iraq War. This belongs in an Owenite tradition for several reasons, not least because he seems not to know his Latin. I suspect that the phrase he wanted was 'casus belli'. On first publication, the poem came with a gloss (handed down authoritatively in both The Guardian and the BBC website) which mistook 'causa' as plural. 'They read good books, and quote, but never learn', Motion's poem says of our political leaders, with unintended irony.

That most Latinate of modern poets, Geoffrey Hill, also alludes to Grotius but rather more successfully, in 'De Jure Belli ac Pacis' from Canaan. Are there other examples from our own time? It may be that 'Dulce et Decorum Est' has become so pervasive as to act as a deterrent: not a deterrent to war, unfortunately, but a deterrent to war poems with Latin tags.


  1. not wholly on topic perhaps, but reading your post reminded me of JE Brookes' "Thermopylae 1941", which I mention in case you haven't bumped into it...

  2. Interesting topic. Did not know about this tendency..but now I can remember some facts that take me to this topic.

    Good discussion...nice blog...Liked the subject so much!

    Best Brazilian Regards,


  3. Thank you, both, for your comments. Dru, I don't know that poem, but I'm glad to have read it now. It's here: http://www.salamanderoasis.org/poems/b/brookes-je/thermopylae1941.html

  4. Hi Tim...I saw you are professor in english literature...I would like to have some tips about authors. I think I just know Shakespere, W. Blake (some other I'm not sure that are britsh). We can be in touch privately...


  5. Geoffrey Hill - yes, you will be pleased to know that Jos Smith and I spent Thursday afternoon discussing 'Mercian Hymns' and 'Tenebrae' and we are both total converts. He reminds me of Donne - the 'fusion of sensibility' that Eliot admired, cerebral and sensuous at the same time. The sonnet 'Te Lucis Ante Terminum' is so sensously overpowering that it defeated my attempts at rational analysis and Jos had to help me out. That has never happened to me before. Now I understand why students sometimes say they don't want to analyse a poem they love. I gather the title is a hymn sung at Compline - an extra layer of resonance. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Rafael --- please email me.
    Jacky --- I know what you mean about Hill. I recommend The Triumph of Love (1998), which is as good as contemporary poetry gets. I'll try to blog about it at some point. I do discuss it in Modern English War Poetry, but there's plenty more to say. Here's a timely passage, given the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings:

    ... on D-day men
    drowned by the gross, in surf-dreck, still harnessed
    to their lethal impedimenta.

  7. Hello Tim

    Interesting post! Thank you. I recently had to whip together a short tutorial on Owen's use of classical imagery for a rather random schools one day workshop on 'war, remembrance and the classics'. Wasn't really an area I had explored before but I found putting together a display of Owen's materials fascinating and the kids were really interested (it presented an unusual fusion for them I think). I strayed away from 'Dulce' other than to make a few points about language use. Anyway it's up here in our Archive http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/education/pathways/users/ww1lit/paths/q38o9n/viewer/ . Any comments gratefully received!

    Kate Lindsay

  8. I enjoyed that online tutorial, Kate. I'd like to know what classical literature Owen had read, in what versions, and how good his Latin was. Antaeus, the Titans, etc. --- they would have been part of the 'myth kitty', as would 'Dulce et Decorum Est' for that matter. That's not a criticism of Owen, but it's revealing that he should have turned to popular classical sources.

  9. Simon Fielding3 July 2009 at 18:43

    Fascinating posts. Is there a classical source for the 'soldier's grave' image that recurs in Hardy's Drummer Hodge, and several poems of Housman, and again in Brooke's The Soldier? I don't suppose it's original for a moment...

  10. I think you're right, Simon. Stellification occurs in any number of classical sources. More recently, I think you'd have to look at Wordsworth's Lucy poems: 'Rolled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees'. That's very close to 'Drummer Hodge', although Hardy darkens what is consolatory in Wordsworth. Then, of course, Brooke makes it positive again.

  11. Simon Fielding5 July 2009 at 12:18

    The Housman poems I was thinking of especially were Illic Jacet and Astronomy - I think Geoffrey Hill is right to differentiate them from the 'idealised elegaic militarisms' of Shropshire Lad - but the grave / connection to the universe trope is the common link as you say.

    Interestingly, while re-reading Housman's Last Poems in pursuit of this, I was struck by the 'Invasion Scare' imagery of XXIX - 'Sleep my lad; the French are landed,/London's burning, Windsor's down'. But soon he's back to the sleeper with his 'cloak of earth' about him.