Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.43

Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War. Classical Presences.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xx, 455.  ISBN 9780199542741.  

Reviewed by Mario A. DiCesare, SUNY Binghamton (

[For responses to this review by Elizabeth Vandiver and Emily Greenwood, please see BMCR 2011.12.50 and 2012.01.20.]

This big book deals with a large part of World War I British poetry identifiable as "classical reception." Reading almost 900 of some 2,225 identified war poets, Vandiver found that over 400 "used classics in ways ... worth noting." The "Classical presences" rubric tells us not expect close analysis or sophisticated distinctions of the sort common when scholars studied allusion or imitation. Rather, this book's focus is on social and cultural history. The introduction sets forth basic assumptions, especially the decision to ignore concerns about poetic quality. Indeed, little of the verse cited would ordinarily qualify as poetry. Further, Vandiver is dismissive of the "old paradigm"—the attitude towards the war expressed in the poetry of such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But she allows that the "old paradigm ... dies remarkably hard" (6).

The main body of the book falls into three parts and six chapters.

The first chapter discusses classics as the basic ethos (in games and the training of gentlemen) that led so many "old boys" in 1914 to view "enlistment as an obligation" (35). The discussion of the "value of classics, muscular Christianity, and games intertwined" is occasionally a bit starry-eyed. E.g., she bypasses the subject of homosexuality in the schools and, even while allowing that most boys did not grasp "even the rudiments of the classical languages," her study on the whole elides the problems of underachievement.

The second chapter turns to poets who did not have the benefit of a public or grammar school education, eventually focusing on three poets—Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, and J. W. Streets. Her presentation is thorough and well- informed, but her investigation into the translations they may have used produces scant results; only in Owen's work does she find a few "verbal reminiscences of particular translations" (113). The long section on Owen explores his biography, particularly his classical studies, but it has to be noted that Owen's poetry is not primarily indebted to the classics.

Part II, "Representing War," first examines the ways poets from different backgrounds used specific classical devices or scenes, with emphasis on Marathon and Thermopylae. One long section treats Julian Grenfell's "Into Battle," a poem well regarded in its own time despite sing-song tetrameters (197). Concluding the third chapter, she argues convincingly for a sympathetic sense of their patriotism, especially given the extraordinary number of volunteers from the upper classes. Her assertion (203) that the notion of sacrifice is Christian, not classical seems untenable in view of, e.g., Vergil's Aeneid or Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, in both of which sacrifice is heroic.

Chapter four discusses how modern poets used the Trojan War, emphasizing the Gallipoli campaign. Her poets focus on the soldiers' Homeric valor. The chapter contains a rich discussion of Patrick Shaw-Stewart, especially his manuscript poem, "I saw a man this morning," which uses "the Troy-Gallipoli comparison to unparalleled effect." Her careful discussion of the date of that poem is typical of her discriminating scholarship. But despite the abundant information, we get no sense that the Gallipoli campaign, with its half-milllion casualties, was a disaster.

In Part III, focussed on commemorative poems, the informative discussion of Brooke's "The Dead" does not provide convincing classical links. Line 10 of Sorley's great sonnet, "Yet many a better man has died before," chillingly evokes Achilles's words to Lycaon (Iliad xxi). Two famous poems get rich readings. Robert Graves's semi- comical "Escape" records his seeming death and happy escape from Cerberus thanks to some morphia he slips Cerberus. In Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting" the katabasis theme provides an estranging element of considerable force. Powerfully enhancing that estrangement is a prosodic feature unavailable to classical poetry— oblique or slant rimes. To cite just the first couplets: escaped / scooped, bestirred / stared. These jar us continually and unnervingly, until the heart-searing final couplets' rimes friend / frowned, killed / cold.

Chapter 6, on commemorative poems, presents Simonides' epitaphs as models and then turns to poems celebrating Rupert Brooke. I found the verses reflecting Simonides's influence far more interesting to the book than the many verses on Brooke. In nearly thirty pages on the "Apotheosis" of Brooke, most of the verse cited is banal at best. Ironically, despite these admirers' classical forms and allusions, Brooke's own poetry shows only scant relationship to classical poetry.1

The "Conclusion" considers adaptations by poets of "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." I read this section puzzled by the notion that these adaptations manifest "classics." In the examples cited—many of them risible —we get little sense of Horace. Here is an instance (hardly unique) where the notion of reception becomes unhelpful. To study the relationship between a modern writer and a classical writer one needs to probe the interrelationship (in both directions) between the two. Much of what's in this book falls into the category of echo or reminiscence rather than allusion or evocative imitation. Owen has grappled directly with the line he cites. While classical scholars often consider broad references as "reception," that hardly seems sufficient. Surely the practice needs fuller theoretical grounding than is currently available. Too, her claim that Owen's line is "a rejection of the classical tradition" (403) would seem to assume that classical literature was uniformly bellicose, a notion that is simply belied by the evidence. For instance, the harsh realities pounded home by Vergil and the horrors Lucan associates with war bear testimony to the mixed attitudes of "classics" towards war. Much medieval and Renaissance commentary was explicit about war's horrors.

I must now take note of some problems. At the outset, Vandiver notes that she could only scratch the surface, so she chose to emphasize "social and cultural history." But she does occasionally engage in literary criticism, even at times while dealing with manifestly third-rate verse. Her determination not to discriminate between true poets and mere versifiers induced a profound weariness as I read all that verse. Much of it may make a point but it is not poetry.

Despite the enormous learning here, contexts are often absent, most notably the Great War itself. We rarely get a sense of that war's horrors. She would have done well to explore the remarkable memoirs by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, published a decade after the war. These books provide a revealing look at the bloodiest war in history. But this book ignores the horrors. We read virtually nothing of the 1.5 million casualties of the First Battle of the Somme (July 1916), 21,000 British soldiers slaughtered or mortally wounded the first day; or of the 700,000-plus casualties in the Battle of Verdun, one of the bloodiest battles in history. There is no notice of the heartbreaking fact that some 400,000 British soldiers, "missing, believed killed" (as the military notices put it), had no known graves, their bodies swallowed up in the shell-torn mud.

Still, she is right to emphasize one aspect of context: the patriotic mood at the beginning of the war. Well before conscription in 1916, hundreds of thousands of young Englishmen joined up, very many of them highly educated, the greatest volunteer force in history. In this context, Vandiver appears to enjoy an implicit certainty that in the classical world no one could doubt Horace's oft-cited Dulce et decorum. It is difficult to square this with the horrors delineated by Vergil and Lucan, for instance, or with the clear antipathy to war obvious in the Odyssey, particularly in the Achilles episode (Book xi) but also reflected in the massive and bloody act of vengeance, which is obviously intended to be brutally pleasing as it is carried out by Odysseus, clearly sanctioned by Zeus, and bloodcurdlingly supported by Athena.

Some of this book seems an argument against the poetry of Owen and others. Ignoring poetic quality, she privileges amateur verse, even doggerel. One can applaud her sympathy for those earnest young men going out to fight and die, but her deliberately unselective approach leads to an abundance of poor verse that wearies the spirit. Too much of it is rhetoric in Yeats's sense ("Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry"). Occasionally (but rarely) she misreads her texts—e.g., she describes Alec de Candole's sonnet "I saw them laughing once" as "resigned" and "bleak" (213). But this poem, drawing shrewdly on classical images, indicts the war, expressing fierce outrage at its meaninglessness.

Her style is usually clear, at times eloquent. Understandably, in a book this large and ambitious, there will be clunkers. Examples: "a deplorable waste at worst" (202). She writes oddly that "Grenfell increases the poem's Homeric tone" (189). "The lines' focalization on the dying man's point of view shatters the earlier stance of detachment..." (301). Apart from the awkwardness of this last example, how do you "shatter" a "stance"? And this: "Assurance of the beneficence of God has been lost along with the sense of beneficent nature" (310).

Her critical vocabulary leaves something to be desired. She overuses such sterile terms as paradigm, reception, reference (as a verb), reference point, conception, interaction. Using postal codes as abbreviations is especially jangling: "MA" rather than "Mass." for Massachusetts. Disconcertingly, most of the time she does not provide line numbers for quotations. Only when she referred to sonnets or whole poems did I feel comfortable with her citations. Often, too, she does not go beyond the bare words of the "source" quote, ignoring full context. If that is according to reception theory, it leaves even larger holes in the relationship than I had imagined.

Despite these problems, the book is remarkable in many ways: the nearly 1,000 footnotes, many of which provide leads gleaned from obscure sources, including manuscript and other archives and public records; the astonishing quantity of poetry and verse which she read, cited, and commented on; the extensive bibliography, suggesting that she can't have missed much. The book seems to me most useful as a compendium of information about the poets of the Great War. Her study opens discussion of their body of work to a wide audience and invites others to follow her lead. The work she has done to nail down the facts, particularly biographical details of the authors she cites, is as remarkable as is the exactness she strives for. This substantial volume will be particularly valuable to anyone concerned with or interested in the little-known poets and verse cited.

In her last paragraph, she describes how poetry of the Great War reflected the classics:

A way to frame the aggression of the Kaiser; a source of appropriate elegies for the eternally youthful dead; a measure of an autodidact's learning; a strengthening and heartening foundation for the concept of Liberty; a dead weight of meaningless platitudes that must be cast aside; a source of solace for the weary soldier in the trenches; a template against which one's own experience of the war could be read: classics was all of these, and more, for writers trying to express the varying degrees of their own war.


1.   Not untypically, Geoffrey Fyson's overwrought "After Many Years" melts into sentimental confusion in the line "O rainbow youth with lips of gold!"

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 23:35:03, Monday, 16 January 2012