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Finding the classics in World War I poetry

It is a paradox that interest in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome has increased at the same time that the extent of detailed knowledge about Greece, Rome, and the associated languages has declined. This affects perceptions about antiquity in the public imagination and among creative writers. Readers and new writers have many different starting points that shape how they first encounter the ancient texts and their receptions. Oxford Classical Reception Commentaries focus on the interactions between ancient texts and how they have been read and reworked across time, place, and language. We the editors have started from the premise that analysis of close textual relationships both enriches and is enriched by further ways of creating and describing connections—for example, through perceptions about figures such as Achilles; through associations generated by mediating literature and art; through the intense pressures of contexts and the lived experience of writers, readers, and scholars. All these can turn a low-level generalised awareness into a heightened perception of the continuing creative force of ancient cultures in the modern world.

The pivotal role of classical connections in World War I poetry shaped our choice for the first phase of OCRC, which will be in print and online. The poetry that emerged from the battlefields of the First World War influenced how that war was regarded at the time and subsequently. The commentaries offer insights into the many-faceted poetry of unease associated with WWI, an unease that ranged from fear of fear itself to challenges to the political and ethical rationales associated with the war. The poetics of unease co-existed with the poetry of survival, which was also multi-faceted, encoding strategies for living in the moment as well as for coping with trauma.

We have chosen to focus on four poets, all of whom died in the war: Rupert Brooke, Charles Hamilton Sorley, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg. All produced fine and memorable poems that continue to be read and appreciated today. All made distinctive use of classical material. They differed considerably in education and class background. Brooke and Sorley received a classical education in the elite schools of the time. Owen received a ‘middling’ education and tried to acquire some Latin. Rosenberg, the only non-officer among the four, was from a poor family, had limited education, and did not read Latin or Greek, but as an autodidact acquired an extensive knowledge of literature in English. Mapping how their poems interacted with classical material therefore entails a considerable range of connections. The commentaries also discuss how the chosen poets engaged with earlier texts in English and how their work in turn influenced other writers (e.g., Brooke and W. B. Yeats; Rosenberg, Pound and Douglas; Owen and Longley). In the commentaries on individual poems, we have not hesitated to experiment with a range of approaches and to ‘stretch’ the boundaries of conventional analysis of classical receptions.

Rupert Brooke’s small war output includes one of the most cited poems of WWI. His sonnet ‘The Soldier’, which begins ‘If I should die, think only this of me’, is still studied in schools and universities; this is despite its young author’s naïve enthusiasm for the combat which he was never really to experience (he died of an infected insect bite en route to the Gallipoli campaign in northwest Turkey), much criticised in later commentary. It was published in The Times and read aloud in St Paul’s Cathedral as a public promotion of positivity about the war and the new front opening up in the East.

Our commentary shows for the first time that this famous poem draws on a rich range of classical texts for its key content and even its form: the idea of fighting and being buried in a ‘foreign field’ evokes the Greek expedition to Troy and its fatal consequences for many of them, as narrated in Greek epic (Homer) and tragedy (Aeschylus), while its length and theme fit those of the brief Greek epitaphic epigram. Such echoes of the Trojan War are very fitting for a poem which imagines the author’s death in a campaign which was about to take place at Gallipoli in Turkey, very close to the site of ancient Troy where Homer’s heroes had fought each other in the Iliad, a proximity of which Brooke and his similarly educated fellow officers were fully aware.

Brooke’s sonnet had immediate impact on other war writers. There is a strong case that it influenced another famous poem of WWI, W. B. Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ (1919). Yeats had met Brooke before the war and admired his good looks, and both poems present in the first-person ideas about dying in war—idealistic for Brooke, more fatalistic for Yeats. In particular, the opening words of Yeats’ airman (representing a real friend who was lost in the air for the then Royal Flying Corps, the future RAF ), ‘I know that I will meet my fate’, looks like a firm response to Brooke’s opening, ‘If I should die’, and the overall view of Yeats’ airman, that he has no patriotic stake in the war himself, looks like a reaction to Brooke’s nationalistic claim that his future grave will be ‘a corner of a foreign field / that is forever England’.

In a future post, we shall look at how Wilfred Owen drew on classical material to add a critical edge to his poetry. We also outline how Isaac Rosenberg’s Trench poems relate Greek and Hebrew sources to the environment of war-time Flanders.

Featured image by Jr Korpa via Unsplash

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