My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It was my great pleasure some years ago to discover Paul Fussell's marvelous The Great War and Modern Memory, which remains one of the best blendings of literary criticism and history I have yet read. And even though subsequent research has made clear that Fussell (among others) did not cast his net wide enough, and consequently gave too much emphasis to the bitterness and disillusion of war poets like Sassoon and Owen, there is still much to learn from his pages.
Elizabeth Vandiver's Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War explores how British poets, male and female, soldier and private citizen, with widely varying knowledge of Latin and Greek, used what they knew to process their experiences in and attitudes towards The Great War. As she does so, she makes perfectly clear how very wide the range of opinion was among them:
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 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 realities of their own war.
Vandiver's knowledge of Greek and Roman poetry allows her to handle masterfully all the many transformations the poets of The Great War worked on their material. And if the conclusion seemed to me to speak too much of Rupert Brooke, there is a lesson in that too for the reader, especially this one. For the hero cult that attended Brooke's memory and poetry in and after the war is essential for understanding the way the poet and those who tended his shrine drew on the classics of Greek and Roman poetry. A full understanding requires that we examine even those parts of the picture that we don't understand or care for. Brooke, as enshrined, may seem to me a good fit for a song by Carly Simon, but I cannot ignore the evidence because of that.
What emerges is a fascinating and significant portrait of a culture using the tools it had to search for the meaning of so many of the concepts they had grown up with, all of this at the dawn of a calamitous century.