Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in the British Poetry of the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 455. ISBN 978-0-19-954274-1. UK £79.00.
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa
At Delville Wood, just north of Longueval in France, stands a memorial to commemorate those South African soldiers that fell during the Battle of Somme (1916). Atop a Roman archway stands a flat dome, on which there is a bronze sculpture, designed by Alfred Turner, of two young men standing with their hands clasped over a war-horse. The memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, was inspired by Thomas Macaulay's poem, 'The Battle of Lake Regillus', taken from his Lays of Ancient Rome (1842), in which, in the words of Baker, 'the Great Twin Brethren [Castor and Pollux] appeared from the skies to fight in the ranks of Rome.'[] For him, the coming together of Castor and Pollux in this legendary story could represent the uniting of Afrikaner and English South Africans, recent enemies in the Anglo-Boer War, to fight on the side of the British Commonwealth against a common foe. For Baker, classical antiquity became a model from which a new South African identity could be forged.[] Propagandist uses of the classics like this demonstrate the importance of the field of classical reception studies and works like the monograph under review. With Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War, Elizabeth Vandiver examines the uses of the Classics made by British First World War poets, which she rightly signals as a lacuna in the field (pp. ixf.).
Vandiver sets clear parameters for her study: while omitting the work of many poets, both famous and unknown, in her reading (and skim reading) of almost 900 poets, Vandiver has selected poets and poems that she considers to have engaged with classical antiquity in ways worth noting (pp. xf.). However, she has limited her scope on the classical side too, preferring to focus more closely on epic and elegiac literature from the classical world, at the expense of pastoral poetry and tragedy. Vandiver is also quick to highlight that her study is not a study in literary criticism of the poems themselves, but rather one of cultural history, and as such, poems of unequal quality merit study (p. xi).
The Introduction (pp. 1-30) begins by first offering some caveats about the way we read First World War poetry. Vandiver states, '[t]his book strives consciously to avoid lingering assumptions about what constitutes the proper subject and content of war poetry. I include idealistic pro- war poetry as well as idealistic anti-war poetry precisely because I do not assume ex hypothesi that the former -- even if written in 1917 or 1918 -- must be somehow less “authentic” than poetry that more closely fits the conventional pattern of increasing disillusionment and passionate protest' (p. 8). Rejecting the 'old paradigm', in illustration of her point, Vandiver continues to provide two case studies of 'misreadings': H. W. Garrod's 'Neuve Chapelle' (pp. 10-14) and Rudyard Kipling's 'Common Form' (pp. 15- 21). The Introduction concludes with a survey of the ways in which the war poets appealed to the idea of 'Rome' with completely diverse rhetorical agendas (pp. 21-28).
Building on the work of scholars like Christopher Stray and Edith Hall, Chapters 1 and 2 focus on two interconnected factors that played a role in shaping the classical reception of Great War poets: education and class.[] Chapter 1, '"Sed miles, sed pro patria": Classics and Public-School Culture' (pp. 33-92), surveys classical education at public-schools like Eton and Marlborough College (as well as grammar schools) and demonstrates that the ethos of these schools influenced a highly tendentious reading of the classics, one which in turn influenced the poets produced in this system. Chapter 2, 'Like the Roman in brave days of old': Middle- and Working- Class Classics (pp. 93-162), continues in this vein, but shifts the focus onto the less elite schools of Britain and the middle- and working-class poets they produced. Here, unlike those from more prestigious schools who more readily had direct access to the classics in the original languages, often the poets produced in these schools had to be autodidacts, relying on translations, compendia of classical exempla and handbooks for their knowledge of the classical world. One example of a highly influential text and popular disseminator of classical knowledge at this period is Macaulay's already mentioned Lays of Ancient Rome (pp. 97-104). Along with her study of some of the so-called 'trench journals', which provide useful evidence of the levels of classical education at this period, Vandiver, for the remainder of the chapter, narrows her focus onto three representatives of this kind of poet: Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and J. W. Streets.
In attempts to express themes of duty, honour, and glory, the battles of the Persian Wars, such as Marathon and Thermopylae, were often used as a source of inspiration in First World War poetry, as Chapter 3, '"The riches of a Spartan soul": Duty, Honour, Glory, and Sacrifice' (pp. 165-227), clearly demonstrates. Classical models often competed with Christian ones, often forging a kind of syncretism, Vandiver states, '[t]his syncretism is perhaps most noticeable in the work of very young poets who were educated in public schools. Since classical literature in public schools functioned as something close to a sacred text that worked with institutionalized participation in Christian rituals to produce the “manly” youth, it is no surprise to find classics and Christianity intertwined in the works of young men who went straight from public school into the army.' (p. 210). Along with a reading of Julian Grenfell's poem 'Into Battle', sensitive to its Homeric antecedents, Chapter 3 also provides discussion of Rupert Brook, Alec de Candole, Noel Hodgson, H. Rex Freston, and Arthur Graeme West. Each of varying merits and abilities, Vandiver is eager to conclude that poetic reactions and stances to the war were as varied as the poems and poets themselves. However, in each of these different paradigms, the classics were adopted not only to provide sources of inspiration for these points of view, but also to justify and support them (p. 227).
Chapter 4, 'The heroes stir in their lone beds': The Second Trojan War (pp. 228-80), includes discussion of Patrick Shaw- Stewart's 'I saw a man this morning', found inscribed on the back flyleaf of his copy of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Apart from giving Vandiver's book its title (the line 'Stand in the trench, Achilles' is taken from the penultimate line of the final stanza of the poem), her reading of this poem supports the premise of the entire chapter: that Homeric (and Vergilian) warfare, despite being used by the modern solider-poet to make sense of his experiences in battle, cannot, in fact, offer a paradigm for many of the elements of modern warfare (p. 231). Vandiver enumerates some of the major difference between these two modes of warfare (pp. 230-32), nevertheless, many poets of the First World War appropriated the Trojan War, along with its Homeric heroes, in order to transcend the realities of battle, whether at Gallipoli or on the Western Front (p. 232).
As with other aspects of the war, classical literature and culture provided a rich source to mine for ways of thinking and speaking about, but perhaps most importantly commemorating those who sacrificed their lives in the war effort (pp. 391f.). A discussion of Simonides' famous epitaph for the Spartan dead at Thermopylae features as a part of the focus of study in Chapters 5 and 6 (pp. 283-392), which are concerned with how these soldier-poets, as well as other non- combatant mourners, dealt with themes of death and remembrance in their poetry in an attempt to commemorate their fallen comrades, friends and family members. One minor, but interesting, piece of information for this reviewer to learn, was the use of a poem by W. S. Boyle, based on Simonides' couplet, to commemorate the fallen in the Great War (p. 338). Interesting because, as this reviewer has shown elsewhere, this poem (only slightly modified) was also in fact used earlier to commemorate the dead of the Battle of Isandlwana (1879) during the Anglo-Zulu War.[] That fact that poems could simply be interchanged as the context of new wars and war deaths occurred, seems somehow to negate the gravitas of the commemoration.
Vandiver concludes the book by surveying the multivalent responses of First World War poets to the famous Horatian tag dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (taken from Odes 3.2 and made most famous by Wilfred Owen's appropriation of it). Borrowing Barbara Goff's description of 'the classical object' being pulled by forces not itself, which deploy it for their own purposes, Vandiver has consistently demonstrated that the reception of the classics by the British poets of the Great War was never neutral.[] Not only will this study benefit the discipline of classics, especially by proposing new lines of enquiry, but, it should be hoped that those in the wider academic community -- scholars from history and literary studies in particular -- take note of the ability of classical reception studies to enrich their own disciplines.
[] Herbert Baker, Architecture and Personalities (London 1944) 90.
[] For more on the cultural politics involved in the setting up of the memorial, see: Bill Nasson, 'Delville Wood and South African Great War Commemoration', English Historical Review 480 (2004) 57-86.
[] Particularly Stray's research on classical education in the Victorian- Edwardian period in Britain leading up to the First World War, and Hall's research on class structures and access to the study of classics; see the bibliography for details.
[] See: J. Murray, 'An African Thermopylae? The Battles of the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879', Akroterion 54 (2009) 51-68; 'Heroes of '79 – Natal Carbineer's Memorial', Natal Witness, 6 November 1907.
[] 'Introduction', in Barbara Goff (ed.), Classics and Colonialism (London 2005) 13; quoted in Vandiver (p. 393).