Tuesday, 2 June 2009
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.