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Classical allusions in Owen and Rosenberg’s war poems

Wilfred Owen is one of the most studied of the war poets, and his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is undoubtedly the best-known example of classical reception in First World War poetry. The poem ends with seven Latin words from Horace Odes 3.2: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. Owen bitterly denounces these words as ‘the old Lie’.

Modern readers are now more likely to identify the words dulce et decorum est pro patria mori with Owen rather than with Horace, but Owen himself was never fully proficient in Latin. He studied Latin at his first school, the Birkenhead Institute. But his family moved to Shrewsbury when he was 14 and this put an end to his formal study of Latin. His continued attempts to master the language on his own were never fully successful.

Most Owen scholars have not focused on the question of how he came to know the Latin phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. This Latin ‘tag’ appears frequently in anthologies of famous quotations. It was also very popular as an inscription on gravestones and memorials, so Owen’s use of the Latin words is not direct evidence that he had actually read Horace Odes 3.2. In my previous work on Owen, I had assumed that he probably knew only dulce et decorum at second hand. But working on this commentary has changed my thinking on this question.

As I read and re-read Owen’s poems and concentrated on tracing any and all classical elements in them, it became evident to me that ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is not an outlier in Owen’s work. At least eight of Owen’s poems include Horatian connections, ranging from structural parallels to quotations, allusions, and echoes. Owen may not have progressed far enough in his formal Latin study to read Horace at school, but clearly he did indeed read at least some of the Odes at some point, and he engaged with Horace across a wide range of his own work.

As with Horace, so with other classical authors and with classical culture. Classics forms a crucial substratum for many of Owen’s works. This is evident in the published versions of some of his best-known poems. In addition, our commentary’s examination of Owen’s manuscript variants, discarded versions, and fragments reveals the importance of classics even for some poems where the printed versions retain no classical references at all. The manuscripts show that Owen considered incorporating a reference to the abduction of Persephone into ‘Exposure’, for instance. ‘Apologia pro poemate meo’ at one point contained a reference to Homeric gods watching human battles. One iteration of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ referred to the Homeric flowers asphodels among its imagery of mourning and remembrance. Among Owen’s juvenilia, ‘To Poesy’ (probably his earliest extant poem), directly states that thorough knowledge of classical culture, myth, and languages is crucial for a poet’s craft. Our commentary elucidates the extent to which Owen cleaved to this belief throughout his own poetic career. [Elizabeth Vandiver]

Isaac Rosenberg’s Trench poems offer poetic reworkings of images and motifs from antiquity that both complement and differ from the work of Brooke, Sorley, and Owen. Rosenberg was born in Bristol and killed in action in France 1918. He came from a poor immigrant family and his early education gave no opportunities for studying classical material. After leaving school, he was able to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, and he benefitted from contacts made at the Whitechapel Public library and via tutors at Birkbeck College, who lent him copies of the poetry of Donne, Blake, and Shelley. He was familiar with the Iliadic episodes of the Trojan War and probably also read Aeschylus in translation. His rabbinic cultural heritage had embedded knowledge of the episodes, figures, and imagery of the Hebrew Bible and he was sensitive to the language of the well-known English translation of the Old Testament, the King James Bible.

These elements came together in the poems that he composed during the war, often in extreme conditions in France—some surviving manuscripts are written in pencil on mud-stained scraps of paper. Rosenberg was a private soldier and only volunteered in the hope of obtaining an allowance for his mother. His letters contain harrowing details of the arduous conditions, compounded by the antisemitism that he encountered. However, he hoped that the experience of the war would enrich his poetry and was convinced that the task of the poet was to be ‘perverse’. His Trench poems rarely comment directly on the rights and wrongs of the war or on his own suffering. Instead, they focus on episodes in conflict, exploring and communicating these through images from Homer, the Hebrew Bible, and poetry in English. Our commentary maps these interactions and analyses their resonance for Rosenberg and for subsequent readers and poets. Key examples include the metaphor in ‘August 1914’ of slaughter in war as a desecration of harvest, bringing together Homer and motifs from the cultures of the ancient near-East. Its image of ‘A burnt space through ripe fields / A fair mouth’s broken tooth’ anticipates the post-war poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

Rosenberg’s poetic ‘perversity’ underpins his variations on the motif of the poppy, notably in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. In Homer, the fragility of the poppy was the metaphor for the death of Gorgythion in Iliad 8. In WWI Flanders, the poppy was not only a feature of the ecology but, according to Siegfried Sassoon, was, with the larks, a reassuring cliche favoured by journalists and the unknowing public back in Britain (for whom it later became an emblem of remembrance). In Rosenberg, the poppy is a symbol both of bloodshed and of nuanced sensibility. His capacity for creating images that were both tangible and ironic also opened the way for eco-critical readings of human agency and the environment. The commentaries explore connections between this thread and the ancient texts. [Lorna Hardwick]

Check out part one of this blog post from the authors of Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen: Classical Connections and Greek and Roman Antiquity in First World War Poetry: Making Connections

Featured image by Jr Korpa via Unsplash

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