Friday 29 January 2010

Elizabeth Vandiver: Stand in the Trench, Achilles

Elizabeth Vandiver states in her introduction to Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (OUP, £75) that 'This book's emphasis is on cultural history and the reception history of classics rather than on literary criticism of the poems I discuss. I therefore consider classical reception in poems of extremely varied quality.'

I don't mind admitting that I nearly gave up at that point. Time is too short to be squandered on books which can't tell (or, more infuriatingly, refuse to tell) the difference between good and bad poetry. But I am relieved to have persevered. Vandiver is among the most discriminating of critics, and although she offers a thorough account of the extent of classical learning among very ordinary poets, she also dwells on the greats. 'Rosenberg, Owen, Graves, Sorley and the like do not need my praise', Vandiver asserts; but, despite herself, she gives it anyway. And like any good critic, she reserves her best writing for the best poems.

Vandiver has little truck with the familiar myth that the recruits of 1914-15 were patriotic innocents, and that the War (and especially the Somme) forced them into bitterness and disillusionment. Tracing classical references through the poetry of the War, she is able to show the extent to which Homeric ideals (in particular) sustained soldiers and helped them to make sense of their experiences. Those ideals were sometimes renounced, but the most immediate strength of Vandiver's book lies in its counterblast to those readers who believe that there is only one acceptable response to Horace's infamous line: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Her account of Grenfell's 'Into Battle' is definitive, not least because she is able to point out why the poem's 'Homeric conception of war' made it so popular at the time and so widely derided now. 'Had he lived', writes one critic, 'Grenfell's outlook and his poetry may have changed as disillusion and anger were engendered by protracted trench warfare and needless mass slaughter.' The same is often said about Brooke (for whom Vandiver also makes a convincing case), but these critical orthodoxies are exposed by Vandiver as patronising and wrong-headed. Grenfell's crime is not to think what Owen and Sassoon think. Yet no one ever stops to wonder whether Owen's attitude to the war would have become more positive had he lived to see its successful conclusion.

Occasionally, I don't quite follow Vandiver's argument, as when she overrules her initial reaction to H. W. Garrod's Simonidean 'Neuve Chapelle' in the light of other poems by Garrod. And a wonderful reading of Shaw-Stewart's 'I saw a man this morning' seems finally to go awry in its claim that Shaw-Stewart 'stresses the separation between the poem's speaker and Achilles... [and] recognizes the unbridgeable gap between them.' However, it would be odd if I could find nothing to disagree with in 400 pages of densely argued prose. Vandiver's close readings are superb, and not merely when her extraordinary acoustic memory enables her to tease some classical allusion out of the most unlikely places.

The book is abrim with research about the classical education of public schoolboys. That may sound dryasdust, but it is enthrallingly written and on the sly it provides a fascinating socio-historical account of the making of the officer classes, many of whom 'found in Latin and Greek a lasting source of imaginative inspiration'. Thanks to Owen and Sassoon, it is too easy now to think of that inheritance as foolish, equipping the men badly for the new technological horrors of which Achilles and Hector had no knowledge. Yet Vandiver shows that, for many, Homeric codes survived the shock of the war, and inspired them (as Shaw-Stewart and Grenfell were inspired) under the most terrible conditions. Those codes inspired great poetry, too, and Vandiver's book allows us to hear it clearly above the babble of the disapprovers.


  1. "The book is abrim with research about the classical education of public schoolboys"
    Not only public schoolboys; grammar schoolboys usually received a similar education and sdult education and self-education series like Everyman's Library emphasised classical literature in the original orin translation.

  2. That's a very good point, Roger. Elizabeth Vandiver does discuss classics at grammar schools, as well, albeit after the attention to public schools and in a sub-section marked 'Coda'. Greek was compulsory for Oxbridge entrance, so, as Vandiver puts it, 'Parents' motivations for insisting that their sons' grammar schools... should continue to teach Greek were undoubtedly very often practical rather than ideological.'

  3. Charlotte Higgins mentions this book and the poem from which its title is taken in her Guardian blog post, a follow-up to her long piece on the Iliad and war, at

  4. Thank you, Terrence. I'm very pleased to have seen Charlotte Higgins's follow-up. The only bit which puzzled me was her ending: 'The war itself is a "fatal second Helen" – an appalling waste of men, a conflict fought for no clear purpose.' I haven't seen any evidence that Shaw-Stewart believed that. 'I saw a man this morning' doesn't argue that case. Only a minority of Shaw-Stewart's contemporaries believed it. The 'clear purpose' was to halt Prussian militarism, and in so doing, to protect the sovereignty of nation states such as Belgium. After such a strong essay, Higgins's curious coda shows the grip that the 'futility' myth still has on us all.

  5. Dear Tim
    Your review here has made me determined to borrow Elizabeth Vandiver's book - following on from Charlotte Higgins's wonderful article, which I found compelling and inspiring. In my last collection FROM THE WORD GO (Bloodaxe) I tried to discover different ways of colliding lyric/sonnet forms with this material, to respond to what was happening in Iraq in 2003 and after - with (I'm sure) mixed results. It's strange, and in itself revealing, how few traces there are of that conflict in contemporary poetry. (For one thing; we're not there, we're not a generation of soldier poets). Charlotte's article has driven me back to try to confront this matter again - how, I don't yet know.
    I'm also a Gurney fan - keen to see the new, much needed, edition.
    Best wishes
    Nick Drake

  6. You may be interested in a new, long overdue biography of Patrick Shaw Stewart (who wrote 'stand in the trench, Achilles'...) - An Edwardian Meteor by Miles Jebb;not sure who has published it, but it's available from Amazon etc. It sheds new light on the relationships within that well-known group of brilliant, tragic friends, so many of whom were destined to fall in the 1st world war.

  7. I'm currently writing on this for my dissertation. My only problem when analysing the poetry in regards to classical literature is that as an English Lit. student, not a Classics one, I'm having to use translations for comparison analysis. This is obviously going to lead to mis-readings if I'm not careful, and was wondering if you knew which translation of 'The Odyssey' and 'The Aeneid' (prior to 1914) would be most appropriate.
    Thank you.