Friday 22 January 2010

Patrick Shaw-Stewart: 'I saw a man this morning'

Elizabeth Vandiver's brilliant forthcoming study, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War, takes its title from the penultimate line of Patrick Shaw-Stewart's 'I saw a man this morning'. I ought to wait until the official publication date (18 February 2010) ticks past before saying very much about Vandiver's book, so by way of drumroll I will focus on Shaw-Stewart's poem. It seems to have been his only poem, found after his death written into his copy of Housman's A Shropshire Lad.

Shaw-Stewart was an Old Etonian, and a Classics scholar of legendary genius. Vandiver makes the point enjoyably and in revealingly excessive detail when she quotes at length a letter which Shaw-Stewart wrote to the most celebrated beauty of her age, Lady Diana Manners. Explaining how Lady Diana might enjoy sexual relations with him while preserving her virginity, Shaw-Stewart has recourse to the Classics, quoting liberally (in what Vandiver calls 'ascending order of erotic satisfaction') various sexual practices as described in Aristophanes, Theocritus and Ovid. It seems that much of this may have been lost on Lady Diana, who did not have the Greek or Latin to be able to translate. Perhaps she asked her parents.

Shaw-Stewart sailed on the Grantully Castle to the Dardanelles with Rupert Brooke, and served in Brooke's burial party. Like many public-school-educated men of his generation, he welcomed the idea of fighting at Gallipoli: 'It is the luckiest thing and the most romantic. Think of fighting in the Chersonese... or alternatively, if it's the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book.' Shaw-Stewart survived Gallipoli, but was killed in France on 30 December 1917.

Vandiver convincingly dates 'I saw a man this morning' to 13 July 1915, because of the reference to 'three days' peace' on the island of Imbros. Shaw-Stewart was unexpectedly recalled from leave that day, having spent three days on Imbros.   

I saw a man this morning
  Who did not wish to die:
I ask and cannot answer,
  If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
  Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
  Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
  Across the Aegean Sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
  Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
  Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
  Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
  And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
  And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
  So very hard to die?
Thou knewest, and I know not---
  So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
  From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
  Flame-capped, and shout for me.

The allusion in the final lines is to Homer's Iliad --- the passage beginning at 18.203 --- in which Athena sets a golden cloud around the head of Achilles and kindles a fire from it: 'He stood there and he shouted... and he raised immense confusion among the Trojans'.


  1. I wonder how many poets play on the various meanings of shells. Edmund Blunden does, I think. Is it a particularly WW1 play on words, in some way suiting the imaginary landscape of the trenches?

    1. What do you mean by imaginary landscape of the trenches? Do you mean imagery? There is nothing imaginary about the trenches in the 1st World War. They were hell-holes.

  2. I am 66 and a pacifist, and yet for many years, when facing something difficult, I have murmured those last lines:
    Stand in the trench, Achilles,
    Flame-capped, and shout for me.

    Elizabeth Vandiver is a noted professor of classics here in the US and a good friend. I am so glad to see this report here.

  3. I found this piece fascinating and beautiful. I am an amateur poet and trying to study different forms and writers.

  4. Thank you for the kind words. I've checked with OUP that I can write about Elizabeth Vandiver's book before its official publication date. I hope to say something more detailed about it in the next fortnight.

    As for puns on 'shells', perhaps the most famous is Sassoon's 'Glory of Women': 'You make us shells'. The women work in the munitions factories, and they hollow men out. I don't know the Blunden example --- where is it?

    Vandiver points out that, as well as the obvious shell/hell, the name Helen is dragged in. (In Greek, helein means to destroy.) The lines 'hell of ships and cities, / Hell of men like me' seem to allude to Aeschylus's Agamemnon 681-90, especially the repetitive catalogue of 'helanas, helandros, heleptolis' (ship-destroyer, man-destroyer, city-destroyer).

    I ought to have said about the letter to Diana Manners that Shaw-Stewart seems to have been quoting his Classical sources from memory. Vandiver cites this as evidence of his extraordinary learning. But as any quondam schoolboy knows, one always remembers the naughtiest bits.

  5. Interesting that in his one and only poem (I suppose there's no doubt of authorship) Shaw-Stewart works from ballad form and imposes Classical learning, seashells-shells-hells-Helen wordplay, and lesser stuff to shape a poem mixing high and low, and ending so memorably. He should have penned more.

  6. It is perhaps interesting to note that Shaw Stewart made use of his learning and his Herodotus in his letters to Ronald Knox, referring to the places they passed and visited by discreet reference to the Classical events for which they were noted, thus bypassing the censors.

    Shaw Stewart was part of an extraordinary group of officers on the Grantully Castle which included Rupert Brooke, Charles Lister, Frederick Kelly and Denis Browne - a group who became known amongst the other men on the ship as 'The Latin Club'.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. You may be interested to know (if not already) that Edward Marsh (sponsor of the Georgian anthologies) gave Patrick Shaw-Stewart a wrist watch and Herodotus, Dennis William Browne a folding mirror and a pocket edition of the Iliad and Rupert Brooke a pocket Shakespeare (in two small volumes) and a book on Turkey - as parting gifts, prior to their sailing to Gallipoli.

  9. This poem has always seemed so sad to me, especially since he died in battle. It's almost like he wrote his own epitaph. I just love the imagery and the emotion it conveys.

  10. The reason this is Shaw-Stewart's only poem is that, although he survived the Gallipoli Campaign, he did not survive the war. This poem was found among his personal effects which were returned to his family upon his death.

  11. Hello. I would like to use this image of Shaw-Stewart and one other on the LMM News website but am having trouble locating the copyright owner. Can you tell me if you sought copyright permission, or maybe, like the poem, because SS has been dead for more than 70 years it's not necessary? Thanks for your time.