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What follows is a piece I posted on my blog. See here for the blog post, which includes links to all the poetry. I am very much interested in what RAT people would have to say on this.


A colleague and friend who teaches English at the high school where I teach Latin gave a presentation today on poetry from World War I. It was brilliant and featured much history about various aspects of WWI warfare, on which my friend is something of an expert. Numerous pieces of poetry riveted me, including Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier," Siegfrid Sassoon's "Dreamers," and W.B. Yeats's "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death." Thumbing through his copy of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, I was further struck by several poems of Wilfred Owen, including "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo," Dulce et Decorum Est," and "Mental Cases."

Among my thoughts as he led the students through these poems, showed them clips from the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, and passed around an Enfield rifle from the era, was why we have no poetry like this from antiquity. We have war poetry, of course. Homer, the founder of Western literature, wrote the most famous war poem of all time. Yet Homer's images of teeth clenching the bloody dust as brazen arms clatter to the ground, while graphic, are pure poetic metaphor. This is good stuff, mind you, but it is nothing, nothing like what you find in the poems cited above. Catullus writes more intimate stuff, but his poem 101 on the death of his brother, while poignant, is nothing so gritty as any of these, and his "Mentula" poems poke fun at a commanding officer who is an S.O.B., but again, this is a far cry from Owen and the others. The WWI pieces are intensely personal, immediate, tightly focused, real, gritty, and raw. There is no glory here.

So why did we not get anything like this from antiquity? My thoughts fall along a couple of lines posed as questions. Could it be that ancient warfare was not as horrific as the modern incarnation? I am Roman military re-enactor, so I know that there was plenty of horror on the ancient battlefield. We are all familiar with the centurion in the Roman army, who led the troops, but fewer people know that there was another officer, the optio, who pushed the men from behind as the natural tendency in battle is always away from danger and toward safety. Yet as my friend pointed out in his presentation, three men working a machine gun in WWI could take out 120 men in five minutes. Shrapnel offered grisly wounds. Could it be that the poetry changed along with the change in the horrors of war?

Or could it be that with wider-spread literacy and more accessible writing instruments, we are more likely to get poetry from the rank-and-file soldier's perspective? We know nothing of Homer, or if there even was a Homer, and Vergil certainly never picked up a shield and spear. Catullus himself alludes to the expense of writing materials in one of his poems, so it is unlikely an average legionary would write such poems.

Chances are, it is a combination of these and other reasons. Without question, this will change my teaching of Vergil and Catullus
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Comments I have already received on Facebook run as follows.

Insightful. Do you think it was an expectation in the ancient world to fight in such harsh conditions, and so it was unremarkable? The Vindolanda tablets are much more pedestrian (rank-and-file) than the other sources you mention, but I cannot recall anything about battle or war. Maybe it was the soldier's duty to fight and kill, and protect those back home from the harsh realities? Please correct any misconceptions I may have - ancient war is certainly NOT my forte!

Judging by the passage of time and the scarcity of known authors from antiquity... If there were any soldiers who wrote poetry or wrote of their accounts, wouldn't it have been incredibly difficult for their writings to one: be manifested into text, two: become published in some manner, or three: withstand the many hundreds of years that have passed since their time? Catullus and Vergil are two important Latin authors by more factors than we may realize, which may or may not discount the possibility of these 'soldier-authors' existences.

All of the above, but the literacy of the common soldier seems most likely. Also, the rise of postmodern philosophy and dehumanization of the way wars were fought may have also contributed. You could try looking back along war poetry's evolution and see if you can nail down when this shift in attitude changed
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Quite obvious really: poetry occupied a different social niche for the ancients, they would have been utterly perplexed by our largely informal poetics where someone like Carol Anne Duffy may be considered "technical" or, god help us, American free verse is permissible.

They would have had what we deem "songs" though, just as Virgil depicts his shepherds singing, most likely in Saturnian metre and probably also Saturae. Either way we were never going to get any of the emotive descriptive stuff of the likes of Owen since it just wasn't the cultural norm.
Some books of The Bellum Civile of Lucan are full of horrors of war (Caesar and Pompey).
A couple of points to add to those above:

Firstly, the class thing is very important: to write poetry, you need not only the time and solitude to craft it but an immersion in the canon of past poetry - a creative education, in other words. The first world war was one of the first in which large numbers of civilians were called to fight on the front line; many of those civilians (like Sassoon, Owen, Brooke) were highly educated men, and many of them were already poets. They brought their poetry to the battlefield, rather than having it formed there (even if some, like Sassoon, became very different and much better poets in the process!).

There were Roman war poets - one Furius Bibaculus, an equestrian officer in Caesar's army, apparently wrote an epic on the Gallic wars, although only one fragmentary line remains today (something about somebody falling off a horse, I think...). Albinovanus Pedo was a cavalry commander in Germanicus's campaign of AD16, and also a poet - a section of his work is preserved in Seneca's Suasoriae, describing a nightmarish voyage into the North Sea - but it's the cosmic horror of the deep rather than the horror of war that moves Pedo. Both of these men (and there were many like them, no doubt) were educated aristocrats, and wrote in the accepted epic tradition.

Secondly, while Roman poetry had a broad spectrum, from epic to satire and smutty epigram, the sentiment of modern war poetry would have been quite alien to the Roman mind. This was a society that watched criminals being gored by wild animals for entertainment, after all. A lot of the horror in the modern war poets comes from an ideal of the sanctity of life and the fellowship of man, and the wanton demolition of that sanctity by industrialised carnage - not something, perhaps, the Romans would have recognised, or cared to admit if they did.

The nature of war has also changed, of course - while ancient battles were fought up close, with blood and wounds spectacularly visible, they were also comparatively brief. A lot of the horror of modern warfare - particularly the attritional trench warfare of 1914-18 - come from its impersonality and duration. The soldier is forced to endure scenes of massive violence and suffering, often while having to remain passive. Cause and effect breaks down. This creates, in turn, a feeling of unreality, and the assumption that those 'back home' will never understand what the soldier has experienced: that brilliantly angry Sassoon poem 'Blighters' expresses a sentiment that the Roman soldier, living his life in a military environment and unexposed to the patriotic hypocrisies of civilian life, could surely never have experienced.

A brief but interesting review article here, meanwhile, wonders whether the rise in post traumatic stress disorder is directly related to the use of explosives in war... Confusedhock:
Nathan, et al., excellent observations! I am in class at the moment, but look forward to responding in more detail as soon as I can.
I'd also like to emphasise what Nathan said about ancient warfare being comparatively brief. Trench warfare was hell not only when an over-enthusiastic officer decided to "go over the top" and charge a well-defended machine gun position with bayonets, but large (I believe) because of the incessant bombardments by artillery shells, occasionally containing the dreaded gas of Owen's most famous poem.

Adrenaline might help in the Roman impetus, but it's destined to give you courage and energy for a short burst of fight-or-flight, not to support you through hours or days sitting miserably in a trench where you keep being hit by shells and can't even get out to put your dead where you don't have to see them all the time.

One of the great improvements of Field Marshal P├ętain to the Battle of Verdun was to create a system of rotation, which left divisions only one to two weeks at the front before relieving them (the Noria-system). It did mean that sooner or later everyone was going through the "Hell of Verdun". I wonder whether this is something the Romans tried to do with their rotation of troops in the triplex acies, however that worked in practice...

As an aside, it's interesting that Owen's "old lie" "Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori" is actually taken from Horace (Odes III.2.13), a poet who was able to write this after not only serving as a soldier, but also fleeing in shameful panic from Philippi after having thrown aside his shield (Odes II.7.10)!
Quote:The WWI pieces are intensely personal, immediate, tightly focused, real, gritty, and raw. There is no glory here.

So why did we not get anything like this from antiquity?
What follows is something of a shot from the hip, without prior research, so I expect to be shot down in flames. However, it seems to me that this is the wrong question. The First World War poems are, to my mind, entirely atypical. There is nothing like them, either before or since; even the poems of the Second World War do not compare. Where are the equivalent poems of the Boer War, the Napoleonic wars or the War of the Spanish Succession, for instance? I know of none. The question should be, perhaps, not 'Why is there nothing like this from antiquity?' but 'Why is the First World War poetry as it is?'