21 November 2017

Quickened to Full Life by War (OFS ¶ 56) -- Living the Iliad

Julian Grenfell

Julian Grenfell was a poet and soldier of the Great War, who embraced the idea of battle and the war even as he also sneered at the lives of Staff Officers safely away from the trenches.  The moment before he died in hospital of a wound suffered at the front, a ray of sunlight came through his window. Grenfell said 'Phoebus Apollo', his last words. Within three months the war also claimed his brother. His mother received a letter of condolence from a family friend, in which the writer evokes both Christ and Apollo in the hope of offering some consolation:

How often Christ's cry upon the cross re-echoes through one's aching soul; that most desolate and piercing cry the saddest ever uttered in this sad world.... We do not know how God answered it; but we believe that, in spite of cruelty and sin and death, the answer is peace. I think the answer to you comes through the testimony, the living proof, of those most glorious boys, who never looked back, and went to death like Bridegrooms, like Phoebus Apollo running his course; Phoebus, who sent his shafts to Julian in his last moments on earth, and was answered by the flicker of his eyes; that gleam from Julian which will speak to you, in the long hours of waiting and darkness, of the immortality of the soul and the deathlessness of love.  
(Vandiver 204-205)
In her exceptional book, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great WarElizabeth Vandiver comments on the 'remarkable ... unproblematized, matter-of-fact manner' in which the letter joins Christianity and Greek Mythology. It reflects the society from which the poetry of the Great War sprang, regardless of whether the poet was Grenfell or Brooke, Rosenberg or Owen:
In a cultural situation in which the elder generation chose to phrase its condolence letters and its exhortations in such terms, it is small wonder that poets who were themselves soldiers employed a similar amalgamation of Christian and pagan imagery and concepts, in which the idea of the soldiers as new Christ, who lays down his life for his friends and his country, is inextricably intertwined with classical exempla.  Some poets invoked not just classical allusions but the Olympians by name, and in a tone that would imply utter sincerity did we not know that the soldiers of 1914 were nominally, and often much more than nominally, Christians, and their poetry is permeated with invocations of Jehovah and Christ. Yet, although of course no British poet (soldier or civilian) writing in 1914-18 would have claimed to 'believe in' the Olympian gods in the sense of assuming those gods' objective reality, pagan imagery of the Olympians and the heroes is inextricably interwoven with Christian imagery. The Christian soldier must fight for justice and the protection of the weak; it is his Christian duty -- and Zeus and the heroes of Troy will spur him on to do so.
(Vandiver 206)
Clearly for Greek mythology to wield such imaginative power over these poets and their contemporaries, it must have been as alive as their faith was, even if not as objectively real. It is what we know, what we love and believe in, and what we find important that help us parse our experiences, all of them of course, but most noticeably those that shock our innocence and challenge the way we have seen things so far. Not long ago I wrote about C.S. Lewis and asked what it must have been like to go off to The Great War with a head full of Homer, as so many of his generation did. It was in discussing that post with Connie Ruzich that I learned about Vandiver's book, which explores precisely all the different ways in which British poets of The Great War used the imaginative tool given them by their knowledge of Homer and the Classics to grapple with the war and its meaning.

In that book, moreover, I came across a poem I am not sure I'd seen before.  However that may be, the poem now struck me in a new way:
Deaf to the music, once a boy
    His Homer, crib in hand, had read;
Now near the windy plains of Troy,
    He lives an Iliad instead.
Of these lines by Edward Shillito -- and I have not yet been able to ascertain whether they comprise the entire poem, or are but a selection, since the book in which they appear is hard to come by (road trip!) -- Vandiver aptly remarks:
Far from saying that the actual experience of real war shows the boy how insufficient literature in general and Homer in particular are, Shillito's poem implies instead that the actual experience of war shows the boy precisely how real Homer is. The contrast is not between reading the Iliad and experiencing actual war but between reading the Iliad and experiencing the Iliad. Thus the Iliad is assumed to occupy both realms -- active and contemplative -- simultaneously. 
(246, italics original)
Shillito's verses and Vandiver's observations on them together brought to my mind remarks by another veteran of The Great War, who had a similar experience, but with a different mythology. In his essay On Fairy-stories, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote:
Poetry I discovered much later in Latin and Greek, and especially through being made to try and translate English verse into classical verse. A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war. 
(OFS ¶ 56)

Indeed, one might well say that for the lad in Shillito's poem, the Iliad was 'quickened to full life by war.'  While I don't for a moment imagine that Tolkien needed a crib of Homer, Beowulf, or any other text, I find the parallel between his statement about fairy stories and Shillito's about Homer striking. Both chose to represent the effect of war as a bringing to full life to something not so before. If Shillito's young man found himself suddenly in the Iliad, as it were, Tolkien had already started down the road to Faërie. Philology had already given him the taste for fairy stories, but only the experience of war brought that taste 'to full life'.

It's certainly easy enough to see how the chaos, gore, and dismemberment that Grendel visited on Heorot every night could have become more vivid to a young subaltern on the Somme in 1916; and how the resistless doom that stalked Kullervo might have seemed more than just a tragic story to an officer with a life expectancy of six weeks (as was the common belief; cf. Tolkien, Letters, no. 43). Even many years after he wrote On Fairy-stories Tolkien still spoke of that time in words that convey a feeling of powerlessness in the face of something far more vast: 'to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends was dead' (FR xxiv). Tolkien being Tolkien, we should probably allow that by 'involved' he means far more than a dull variant of 'include'. In Middle English 'envolve' means 'envelop', as in John Lydgate's Troy Book: 'Vnhappyly with hap þei were envoluyd' (TB 2.3223): 'To their misfortune they were by fortune enveloped.' Sounds about right here. More importantly, however, the sudden shift from the impersonal forces and dates of Tolkien's first sentence here to the lonely private grief of the second stuns like a hammerblow. 

A similar disquiet born of memory can be heard in C. S. Lewis's letters of September 1939 in which he twice records 'the ghostly feeling that it has all happened before -- that one fell asleep during the last war and had a delightful dream and now has waked up again' (letters of  September 15th and 18th), and on October 2nd Lewis writes in a letter to his brother that the call-up of men 20 to 22 years of age would affect Tolkien's eldest son. Small wonder, then, that Tolkien or any man who felt he had been so 'caught' should think of escape, but it is the escape of the prisoner of war he speaks of, not of the deserter fleeing his duty. An important distinction is being made here. The prisoner of war who escapes is fulfilling his duty, and he escapes to carry on the fight, not to avoid it. Thus Tolkien is not speaking of an escape into fairy tales, but an escape through fairy tales. Just as Greek mythology did for others, fairy tales afforded Tolkien a way in which to parse his experience of the war and a framework in which to express the struggle to do so. 

In May 1944 in a letter to his son, Christopher, then in the RAF, Tolkien recommended writing as a means of expressing what he was feeling in the service:
I think also that you are suffering from suppressed 'writing'. That may be my fault. You have had rather too much of me and my peculiar mode of thought and reaction. And as we are so akin it has proved rather powerful. Possibly inhibited you. I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes.  
(Letters, no. 66)
Just as the bitterness of exceptional voices like Sassoon and Owen did not sum up all the possible reactions to the war (as many once believed, following Paul Fussell's brilliant The Great War and Modern Memory), so too Classics and Greek Mythology were not the sole means of expressing or working through those reactions. In recent years scholars have been moving towards a broader view of the poetry of The Great War, as well as a more balanced assessment of Tolkien vis à vis the other writers of his 'Modern' era. We need to do the same with the reaction that found expression in the 'mode' of fairy tale and fantasy. To write The Fall of Gondolin while recovering from trench fever is not the same as to fall for the Cottingley Fairies. We don't need to defend it as if it were. 


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