The Poetry of War

Cambridge University Press, 2008

Link to Cambridge Catalogue

This book shows how poets from Homer to Bruce Springsteen have responded to the intensity and horror of war. Acutely aware of the presence of beauty in the midst of slaughter, poets have often recognized the aesthetic dimensions of violence. Some have celebrated combat as sublime in its grandeur and terror, while others have acknowledged the dark connection between violence and the erotic. They have seen the links between sexual desire and military aggression, but they have also described the sacrifices made in war as acts of love that lead to the birth of beauty. Yeats’s memorable lines—”All changed, changed utterly, / A terrible beauty is born”—capture a lasting truth.

Poetry offers thoughtful readers precious insights into war—moral, political, and aesthetic ways of understanding war that are valuable precisely because they are not simple. Poets have given memorable expression to the personal motives that send men forth to fight: honor, shame, comradeship, revenge. They have also helped shape the larger, more corporate ideas that nations and cultures invoke as incentives for warfare: patriotism, religion, empire, chivalry, freedom.
In a world still at war, we need language about war that goes deeper than journalism. By using traditional conventions of language and older patterns of meter to describe scenes of present chaos and violence, poets offer a more thoughtful, retrospective account of war than television or print journalists, who must necessarily focus on the immediate moment and the hard facts. A reader attentive to both syntax and form will hear several kinds of meaning at once in poetic language, a complexity that makes irony possible. Through meter, metaphor, and irony, poets invite their readers to contemplate war from several points of view at once. The greatest war poets praise the victor while mourning the victim; they honor the dead while raising deep questions about the meaning of honor.

My first two chapters explore honor and shame, two powerful personal motives for violence. To invoke the idea of honor, some poets draw upon the language, ideas, and weapons of past eras. They find it easier to imagine a soldier with a “broken lance” dying in a “high hour” than to describe a soldier with a rifle and a gas mask dying with thousands of others. Other poets, however, look unsparingly at present horrors, and dismiss what their cultures call honor as male bonding, self-love, and pride.

Beneath the high-sounding clichés about honor lurks the fear of appearing weak or cowardly, the dread of shame. In the Iliad, Homer describes the disastrous results of the system anthropologists call “shame culture,” but later readers and translators have sometimes missed or suppressed his shrewd moral insights. Even after Christianity supposedly replaced “shame culture” with “guilt culture,” shame retained its power, both for individuals and for nations.

My next two chapters, on empire and chivalry, move toward national and corporate motives for war. Poets helped to develop the myth of empire, celebrating the idea of spreading “civilization” to the far corners of the world and urging imperial powers to “Take up the White Man’s burden.” But the greatest poet of empire, Virgil, is acutely aware of the human and moral costs of empire. Although later readers distorted and simplified his work, as they did Homer’s, thoughtful readers of Virgil have followed him in tracing the harmful effects of empire on the imperialists themselves.

The myth of chivalry is almost entirely the creation of poets, who invented a system of polite and honorable ideals at odds with the shameful and violent reality of medieval warfare. Even after artillery made knights in armor obsolete, poets went on developing the closed, fictional world of chivalry, which maintained a persistent hold on the imagination in later periods by linking martial feats with nobility, Christian faith, and the love of women. Already fraudulent as a description of medieval warfare, chivalry provided later poets with an elegant way of avoiding present realities; it gave governments an appealing myth for recruitment.

In wars of all periods, men have felt intense affection for each other. Even cultures intolerant of other kinds of affection between men have celebrated such affection in military contexts. In poems on comradeship, personal and public motives for warfare collide. Those most deeply touched by the fellowships of combat have often been cautious about describing them, yet out of that very reticence, the greatest poets of wartime comradeship have made high art.

My final chapter concerns the idea of liberty, the most powerful motive for warfare in the West in recent centuries. Eighteenth-century poets, I argue, created a mythology of liberty on which modern politicians still draw. Democratic concern for the common man and principled opposition to slavery, motives first felt personally, then adopted as national policies, turned out to provide new reasons to fight, and ultimately led to the high-sounding claim that World War I was “the war to end all wars.” The ideal of fighting for freedom, richly developed by some poets and sardonically undercut by others, provides a perspective from which to criticize shameful wars, including the American conquest of the Philippines in the 1890s and the more recent wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

The Poetry of War honors poetry as an art of memory, and urges modern readers and politicians to consider the wisdom embodied in poetry. Though sometimes dismissed as an elite art-form with a minuscule audience, poetry is also now reaching a wider public. Poetry “slams” are an indication of the continuing power of verse, and hip-hop music, which is essentially poetry, has dominated popular radio in the West for more than a decade. At a time when every kid on the subway knows that kind of poetry by heart, I believe it is possible to engage general readers in a discussion of the deeply connected energies of poetry and war.