[Disclaimer: I have also published with OUP’s ‘Classical Presences’ series; other than this I have no connection with Elizabeth Vandiver. We met for the first time at this year’s Annual American Philological Association Conference.]
I puzzled over DiCesare’s review (BMCR 2011.12.43) of Elizabeth Vandiver’s Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford University Press, 2010). I know and admire Vandiver’s book, but I scarcely recognized it from this review. Whatever else it does, a scrupulous academic review should fairly represent the argument of the work in question. Instead, through failing to describe Vandiver’s argument with due care and attention DiCesare has written a highly misleading review. The most serious shortcoming of the review is the way in which DiCesare misrepresents what Vandiver set out to do in this book. Through sloppy and selective quotation, DiCesare implies that Vandiver has produced a cultural history of classical receptions in the poetry of the First World War because she regarded a comprehensive survey of the surviving poetry as too big a task. I quote from paragraph ten of DiCesare’s review: ‘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.”’ No page quotation is offered in support of this claim because no corresponding passage exists in the Preface or Introduction. Instead, if the reader consults the Preface and Introduction to Vandiver’s work, they will find the following statements, from which DiCesare has culled reductively. This is what Vandiver actually writes in the Preface (pp.ix-x): ‘…no one has yet done a thorough examination of classical reception in First World war poetry. This book undertakes to fill that lacuna, at least partially, although I can make no claim to have done more than scratch the surface of what is an astonishingly vast amount of material.’ On page xi Vandiver explains that, ‘This book’s emphasis is on cultural history and the reception history of classics rather than on literary criticism of the poems I discuss. I therefore consider classical reception in poems of extremely varied literary quality.’
Contrast this with DiCesare’s account, which suggests that Vandiver was writing under a series rubric (OUP’s ‘Classical Presences’ series) that eschews close and sophisticated literary analysis. I quote from the first paragraph of the review: ‘The “Classical presences” rubric tells us not expect close analysis or sophisticated distinctions of the sort common when scholars studied [sic] allusion or imitation. Rather, this book’s focus is on social and cultural history.’ Firstly, DiCesare should have taken the time to acquaint himself with the aims of the series before traducing it in this way; secondly, there is no necessary tension between literary analysis and social and cultural history.
DiCesare repeatedly finds fault with Vandiver’s decision to focus on the sociology and cultural critique of classical receptions in the poetry of the Great War, and to use these perspectives as a point of entry into the literature rather than criteria of aesthetic merit. At two points in the review DiCesare complains about his weariness at having to read through bad poetry. Thus, in the tenth paragraph of the review he remarks that Vandiver ‘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.’ This distinction between verse, on the one hand, and poetry on the other hand, is tendentious. By ‘poetry’ DiCesare presumably means ‘good poetry’. This distinction also belies a flawed interpretation that fails to historicize the poetry of this period in its broader literary context, i.e. the context of Edwardian poetry and the so-called Georgian poetry that followed — little of which now strikes readers as good poetry. In fact, much of the poetry of the First World War that modern tastes have canonized was revolutionary for its time and part of a vigorous debate about what constituted ‘good poetry’.
I also found DiCesare’s accusation that Vandiver’s book ‘ignores the horrors’ of the Great War (paragraph 11) unfair. I read Vandiver’s work as a work of scholarship that also serves as a monument to the war and the narration of its suffering. Her book is pervaded by a strong sense of the ineffable loss that the poets — skilled and unskilled — strained to represent.
If one wants to underscore the horrific sacrifice and indescribable suffering of the men who died in the trenches, and of those proximate casualties who lived through the First World War and its catalogue of losses, then it strikes me that taking the time to read their poetry, whatever one thinks of its aesthetic merits, is the least that an interested reader can do. There is no direct reciprocity with the dead, but we can try to comprehend the words in which contemporaries, both solider and civilian poets, struggled to articulate both the glory and the futility of the war. As Vandiver explains at the close of the Introduction, ‘The same images, tropes, and ideas could be used to opposing effects; classics was enlisted to support and protest the war’s genesis and its conduct, to validate and to call into question the sacrifice of young men’s lives.’ (p.30).
The immense contribution of Vandiver’s book is that she identifies and skillfully analyzes the role of a polyvalent classical tradition in the complex cultural nexus through which British poets attempted to articulate the scale of the war and its devastation. Through her careful correction of many mistaken assumptions that continue to prevail about the poetry of the Great War (many of which I have been guilty of myself), Vandiver’s book better equips us for a conversation with these poets.
I have taken the trouble to write this response because I regard Vandiver’s work as a colossal work of scholarship that has unearthed a treasury of archival material relevant to the study of classical receptions in British poetry of the First World War; DiCesare acknowledges this in the final paragraph of his review. But she has done more than this and has produced a work that offers an important reappraisal and correction about the field of signification of classical receptions in this poetry, which in turn is a substantial and far-reading contribution to scholarship on the literature of the First World War and which cannot fail to leave a lasting impression on how classicists study and teach the poetry of war, from Homer onwards.