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IN THE FIFTH SKETCH separating the longer stories of In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway writes:
 They shot the six ministers at half-past six in the morning against the
 wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were
 wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the
 shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick
 with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain.
 They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of
 water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the
 officer told the soldier it was no good trying to make him stand up. When
 they fired the first volley he was sitting in the water with his head on
 his knees. (IOT51)

This miniature masterpiece of compressed emotion describes the execution of Greek cabinet ministers near Athens on 28 November 1922, following a disastrous war with Turkey.(1)

In his extended analysis of this sketch, Michael Reynolds points out that Hemingway would have taken special interest in the trial because he had earlier covered the Greek retreat for the Toronto Star. Hemingway wrote his vignette three months after the executions, relying largely on two newspaper accounts (conveniently reprinted by Reynolds). Reynolds adds that Hemingway changed the time, weather, place, and participants from his source material in order to produce a version that would be "true ... to the author's view of the postwar world where heroic action was no longer possible except for a select group of professionals who could maintain their grace under pressure" ("Two Hemingway Sources" 83).

One of the changes not discussed by Reynolds, however, is the sentence, "There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard." Commenting on this image, David Seed notes that "The wet dead leaves on the courtyard anticipate the death of the ministers, help to establish a sombre tone, and in fact are probably borrowed from one of [Ezra] Pound's imagist poems-- Liu Ch'e, which evokes absence through the image of a deserted courtyard" (18). The relevant Pound lines are "Dust drifts over the courtyard,/ ... and the leaves/Scurry into heaps and lie still .../A wet leaf clings to the threshold" (quoted in Seed 33). Pound's lines mention dead leaves, to be sure, but the courtyard in his poem is "deserted" and there is no mention of violent death.

Although Pound seems to be translating a Chinese poem, the association of dead leaves with dead men is a traditional image in western literature, a topos originating with Homer and passed down in later literature, especially in the genre of the epic, the genre most associated with traditional concepts of the hero.(2) The topos begins in Book VI of The Iliad, when the Greek Diomedes encounters an unknown warrior on the battlefield before Troy. Before attacking, Diomedes asks his opponent to identify himself, and Glaukos, a Lykian, gives his famous reply (lines 144-51):
 Great-hearted Tydeides, why enquirest thou of my generation? Even as are
 the generations of leaves such are those likewise of men; the leaves that
 be the wind scattereth on the earth, and the forest buddeth and putteth
 forth more again, when the season of spring is at hand; so of the
 generations of men one putteth forth and another ceaseth. (Lang, Leaf, and
 Myers trans. 105)

The death of heroes on the battlefield of Troy, then, is part of the natural rhythm of things, as natural as the change of foliage in autumn. But is Glaukos merely saying that death is natural, or is he saying that human existence, even the existence of heroes, has no more meaning in the scheme of things than a dead leaf falling from a tree?

The latter reading of Glaukos' comment fits especially well the particular context of Hemingway's vignette, which describes the futile, unheroic death of some modern Greek "warriors" (the War Ministers) specifically connected with another "Trojan" war (modern Turkey being the site of ancient Troy). This time, however, the Greeks lost, and somebody had to be blamed. Interestingly, Reynolds' analysis of Hemingway's use of the newspaper accounts of the executions shows clearly that Hemingway rejected almost completely the first account, which tried to portray the executed men as traditional heroes ("Two Hemingway Sources" 81-82). From Glaukos' point of view, as from Hemingway's, the death of such men is part of the natural course of things--sad, meaningless, and unheroic).(3)

Such sentiments indicate that Hemingway may well have found in the texts of Homer more than the stylistic affinities pointed out by Kathleen Morgan. According to Morgan, "Hemingway's narrative shares with Homer's not only the basic principles of eyewitness presentation and selection of affective details, but also many specific techniques in the service of these principles" (71). This connection probably began early in Hemingway's life, for Morgan notes that "Hemingway was introduced to classical myth and Homer in high school, where, as he later reported to Maxwell Perkins, he read excerpts from the Lang, Leaf, and Myers translation of The Iliad" (71). This translation of Homer later formed part of Hemingway's library in Cuba (Hemingway's Reading 138). Moreover, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was also familiar with The Odyssey, since he made use of several passages from the latter in The Sun Also Rises (87). A good possibility exists, therefore, that Hemingway was familiar with the leaf simile from Homer, whether or not he came across it again in the poem by Pound.

Glaukos' comparison of dying men to falling leaves, of course, fits not only Chapter V from In Our Time, but is also compatible with Hemingway's general world view in the 1920s. As we know from the longer narratives like A Farewell to Arms, this point of view was one of post-war disillusionment with traditional concepts of military heroism. In fact, the image of falling leaves appears again in the multi-layered first and third paragraphs of A Farewell to Arms (1929), where it carries the same implication.(4) To be sure, Hemingway's "own aesthetic options carried him away from the literary kind of myth-adaptation [represented by Eliot's Wasteland, Joyce's Ulysses, or Pound's Cantos] and over into that deeper area of psychological symbol-building which does not require special literary equipment to be interpreted" (Baker 88); nevertheless, such "equipment" does afford the reader additional pleasure and insight, and provides a way of universalizing what may otherwise be taken for an isolated instance of human suffering or at least for an experience unique to the twentieth century.


(1.) Slabey 40. For dates of composition, and early publication data on Hemingway's vignettes, see Tetlow, who points out that Chapter V was "the only one to survive from the Little Review without changes" (28). For Hemingway's purpose in including the vignettes with the other stories of In Our Time, see Harrison.

(2.) Other uses of the topos include Virgil's Aeneid VI.309-12, where the dead in the underworld are said to be as "thick as the leaves of the forest that at autumn's first frost dropping fall" ("quam multa in silvis autumni frigore primo /lapsa cadunt folia...."). Building on Virgil, Dante writes of the lost souls in Hell, "As in autumn the leaves remove themselves one after the other, until the branch sees all its raiment on the ground: so the evil seed of Adam throw themselves from that shore...." ("Come d'autunno si levan le foglie / l'una appresso de l'altra, fin che `l ramo / vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie: / similemente il mal seme d'Adamo / gittansi di quel lito...." Inferno 3.112-16). Still another example occurs in Paradise Lost, when Milton says of the fallen angels in Hell, they "lay intrans't / Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / In Vallombrosa...." (1. 301-3).

(3.) Although Homer is often considered a champion of the traditional notion of military glory, most readers of The Iliad and The Odyssey can cite places in the two texts where the Greek poet presents war and military glory as anything but heroic. Consider the comment, for example, of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors at Troy, to Odysseus, as the latter meets his dead friend in the underworld (Book XI of The Odyssey). When Odysseus tries to flatter him as a hero honored by all the Greeks, even in his death, Achilles cuts him short, saying that Odysseus does not know what he is talking about. It is better, says Achilles, to be a living slave of the poorest peasant on earth than to be the greatest hero among the dead in the lower world (lines 487-91).

(4.) In particular, Hemingway writes in the first paragraph, "Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves" (AFTA 3). The image continues in the third paragraph, where Hemingway writes, "in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain" (4). Here, too, the fallen leaves are juxtaposed with the unheroic deaths of the "only seven thousand" who died of cholera in the Italian army (4).


Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Dante. Inferno. Ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling. New york: Oxford UP, 1996.

Harrison, James M. "Hemingway's In Our Time." The Explicator 18 (May 1960): Item 51.

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner's, 1930.

--. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner's, 1929.

Lang, Andrew, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers. Trans. The Iliad of Homer. New York: Modern Library, n.d.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed: Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1957.

Morgan, Kathleen. Tales Plainly Told: The Eyewitness Narratives of Hemingway and Homer. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1990.

Reynolds, Michael. "Two Hemingway Sources for In Our Time." Studies in Short Fiction 9.1 (1972): 81-86.

--. Hemingway's Reading, 1910-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Seed, David. "`The Picture of the Whole': In Our Time." Ernest Hemingway: New Critical Essays. Ed. A. Robert Lee. Totowa, NJ: Barnes, 1983.

Slabey, Robert M. "The Structure of In Our Time." The South Dakota Review 3.1 (1965): 38-52.

Tetlow, Wendolyn. Hemingway's In Our Time: Lyrical Dimensions. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1992.

Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, 1-6. Ed. and trans. H. R. Fairclough. Loeb Series No. 63. 1935. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965.

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Publication:The Hemingway Review
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Date:Mar 22, 2000

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