'Arma virumque cano'?
The book begins with the ancient Greeks who show no sign of conscience; for them war is a part of life, and there is gratitude for survival as they hang up their arms in votive offering. Horace, though enjoying the delights and prosperity of peace, sings gloriously of war when `a Roman thought hath strook him'. Arab panegyric, of the time and shortly after the time of the Prophet, celebrates the heroes of a holy war in which God himself slays the enemy. A brief nota bene at the end of the study reminds the reader that some centuries later, and under Greek influence, a more humane spirit makes itself felt in the epic of the Persian poet Nizami. Erasmus is against war, and expresses that brilliantly; his Dulce bellum inexperto might have served as a title for this collection, and especially for the excellent paper on Neo-Latin verse by Hermann Wiegand. A valiant understanding of the glory of war combined with a dislike of peace is shown by Bertran de Born; this paper has a bibliography, a feature that might usefully have been included in all the nine papers in the volume. The papers were delivered in the winter of 1991-2; a paper on Brecht, unregrettably only seventeen pages long, reads differently after the collapse of world-Communism and the subsequent action of Russian forces within what a Moscow government thinks of as Russia. A paper in French on l'Homme-canon points anti-fascistically into the future.
English poetry finds a place in the volume, but one looks in vain for a sympathetic account of good poetry celebrating battle and victory. The poem [Index No. 1894] on the Flemish Insurrection of 1302, from MS Harley 2253, is seen as anti-French propaganda. The variety of Middle English war poetry might have been better exemplified, and from the same manuscript, by reference to the poem on the Battle of Lewes [Index 315 5], and early English jingoism might have been well exemplified by Minot's anti-Scottish poem on the Battle of Bannock-burn [Index 3080]. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect better coverage from a study only fifteen pages long. The longest paper in the book, heavily dependent on biographical and literary studies, is about the English poets of the Kaiser's War; Brooke, Sassoon, Sorley (misspelt Soley, p. 213), and Owen, all of them had served at the front and were inevitably unmilitaristic.
I long for something on the bourgeois values enshrined in the distinction between good and bad verse. England has good war poetry, often by minor poets: Thomas Campbell's `Ye Mariners of England', `The Battle of the Baltic', or `Hohinlinden' are well known and used to be admired for their spirit -- as once were those `Who rush to glory or the grave!' John Philips's `Bleinheim: a Poem' is less well known perhaps, and less often praised than it deserves for its glorification of a Churchill and his triumph, as in lines 141-70 (1705 edition, pp. 7-8):
Here CHURCHILL, not so prompt
To Vaunt, as Fight, his hardy Cohorts joins
With Eugene's German Force. Now from each Van
The brazen Instruments of Death discharge
Horrible Flames, and turbid streaming Clouds
Of Smoak sulphureous; intermix't with these
Large globous Irons fly, of dreadful Hiss,
Singeing the Air, and from long Distance bring
Surprizing Slaughter; on each side they fly
By Chains connex't, and with destructive Sweep Behead
whole Troops at once; the hairy Scalps Are whirl'd
aloof, while numerous Trunks bestrow Th'ensanguin'd
Field; with latent Mischief stor'd Show'rs of Granadoes
rain, by sudden Burst Disploding murd'rous Bowels,
fragments of Steel, And Stones, and Glass, and nitrous
Grain adust. A Thousand Ways at once the shiver'd
Orbs Fly diverse, working Torment, and foul Rout With
deadly Bruise, and Gashes furrow'd deep. Of Pain
impatient, the high prancing Steeds Disdain the Curb,
and flinging to and fro, Spurn their dismounted Riders;
they expire Indignant, by unhostile Wounds destroy'd.
Thus thro each Army Death, in various Shapes, Prevail'd;
here mangled Limbs, here Brains and Gore Lye clotted;
lifeless Some: With Anguish These Gnashing, and loud
Laments invoking Aid, Unpity'd, and unheard; the louder
Din Of Guns, and Trumpets clang, and solemn Sound Of
Drums o'ercame their Groans.
Nothing in this book recalls the glory and the agony of battle so well as did Philips here in 1750, nothing in the late-twentieth-century ideology of the book rivals the naive anti-war spirit so well as Southey's hackneyed `The Battle of Blenheim' which, in 1799 (published 1800), ironically counterpoises sentiments, such as are expressed in Philips's `Bleinheim', when Old Kaspar instructs his grandchildren and their naive prattle instructs him and us:
Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
And our good Prince Eugene.
Why 't was a very wicked thing!
Said little Wilhelmine.
Nay -- nay -- my little girl, quoth he,
It was a famous victory.
Like little Wilhelmine, the essays in this book suggest that peace is preferable to war and find fault with politically unreconstructed poets whose triumphant verse celebrates Bellonian glory.
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|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1995|
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