Sunday, November 11, 2018

11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month

Perhaps all wars require a mythic dimension to put alongside their otherwise irredeemable horror and brutality. The abduction of Helen by Paris adds a romantic sheen to what may actually have been a protracted struggle between the Achaean and Hittite Great Kings over trade access to Asia Minor.

In Homer's version of the Trojan War, of course, the irony of the whole thing lies in the fact that Helen is back as reigning Queen of Sparta by the beginning of the Odyssey, and is clearly inclined to see the whole thing as a youthful bagatelle. There's a slight edge to it all still, though.

In her version, she was the only one to recognise Odysseus when he entered the besieged city disguised as a beggar, and aided him in his mission, having (by then) repented her past indiscretions:
... since my heart was already longing for home, and I sighed at the blindness Aphrodite had dealt me, drawing me there from my own dear country, abandoning daughter and bridal chamber, and a husband lacking neither in wisdom nor looks.
Her husband Menelaus's account is, to say the least, a little different. He sees her as, if not an active collaborator with the Trojans, at any rate somewhat ambivalent in her support of the Greeks:
You circled our hollow hiding-place, striking the surface, calling out the names of the Danaan captains, in the very voices of each of the Argives’ wives. Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, and I, and Odysseus were there among them, hearing you call, and Diomedes and I were ready to answer within, and leap out, but Odysseus restrained us, despite our eagerness. [Odyssey 4, 220-89]
The Allied soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, just across the straits from Hissarlik, the probable site of ancient Troy, were by no means unaware of these parallels. Their classically trained young officers were, indeed, preoccupied by the subject - possibly to the exclusion of other, more vital, concerns.

Jean Giraudoux: La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu
[The Trojan War will not take place] (1935)

Take, for instance, Patrick Shaw-Stewart's famous poem "Achilles in the Trench":
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.
The poem is valorised not only by those remarkable last two lines, but also by its author's own death, on active service, in 1917. I suppose what it's always recalled to me, though, rather than all of Achilles' dazzling deeds in the Iliad, are the last words we hear in his own voice, when he encounters Odysseus on his own journey to the Underworld:
Odysseus, don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead. [Odyssey 11, 465-540]

Kurz & Allison: First Battle of Bull Run (1861)

The American Civil War famously began in Wilmer McLean's front yard and finished in his back parlour.

McLean, a wholesale grocer, was so appalled by the experience of having his farm fought over in the first major engagement between the Union and Confederate armies, that he relocated his family in 1863. Unfortunately, the place he chose, an obscure little hamlet called Appomattox Courthouse, turned out to be the location of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.

That's what I mean by a mythic dimension. There's no real meaning in this strange coincidence, but it seems to betoken some kind of cosmic symmetry in things: a design behind all the relentless bloodshed human beings seem determined to mete out upon one another.

Wilfred Owen: Selected Poems (2018)

Another, of course, is the awful fatality of Wilfred Owen's life and death. He died, on the 4th of November 1918 - almost exactly one hundred years ago - in an assault on the Sambre–Oise Canal. However, as the Folio Society are at pains to remind us in the advertisement for their sumptuous new illustrated edition of his selected poems:
... his parents received the telegram announcing his death on 11 November itself, just as the church bells rang out in Shrewsbury to mark the end of the Great War.
There lies the apparent design. The poet who wrote in the draft preface to his as yet unpublished poems:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
dominion or power,
Except War.
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
could somehow not be permitted to survive the war. Like Abraham Lincoln, or Achilles himself, he had to fall victim to it in order to achieve his full status as a sacrificial victim.

"He died that we may live." That's the kind of unctuous platitude that tends to come out on these occasions. And yet, it's hard to avoid a sense of strangeness about the whole thing, about the idea that the author of "Anthem for Doomed Youth" could not himself be allowed to outlive the war that turned him into perhaps the greatest of all war poet since Homer.

Mary Renault: The King Must Die (1958)

Mary Renault perhaps puts it best, in her novel The King Must Die (about the myth of Theseus), where she tries to explain the Ancient Greek concept of moira as:
The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn round it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the share of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end. Moira is all these things.
"The king must go willingly, or he is no king." Whether it is Abraham Lincoln going to Ford's Theatre to show himself to the public one last time, Wilfred Owen refusing to accept non-active service away from the Front Line, or Achilles weeping with Priam over the body of Hector, there is something superhuman about all these noble, almost transcendent gestures.

The armistice itself is replete with legends: many of them clustering around the strange symmetry of "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

In the cult British TV Sci-fi classic Sapphire and Steel, for instance (pictured at the head of this post), the storyline called "The Railway Station" concerns an out-of-the-way deserted railway platform haunted by a First World War soldier.

The precise nature of his grievance, and the reason he's been able to gather so many other disgruntled souls around him, hinges on the armistice: specifically, on the equation he keeps on drawing on the windows of the building:
11 / 11 / 11 / 11 = 18
It turns out that he was killed eleven minutes into that eleventh hour, and was thus an altogether unnecessary sacrifice to the gods of war.

Thomas Keneally: Gossip from the Forest (1975)

An even more complex set of ironies is explored in Thomas Keneally's 1975 novel Gossip from the Forest (subsequently made into a powerful, atmospheric film), about the German deputation sent to negotiate the surrender, and the subsequent murder by a right-wing fanatic of their leader, politician Matthias Erzberger, whilst walking in the Black forest a few years later.

From the Forest of Compiègne to the Black Forest, in fact.

Lady Ottoline Morrell: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (1920)

I don't mind admitting, though, that my favourite of all of the poetic moments associated with the armistice is the one recorded in Siegfried Sassoon's great poem "Everyone Sang":
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Sassoon survived. He went on to write many (mostly disappointing) further volumes of poems, but also a wonderful series of war memoirs and autobiographies. He got married, had a son, lived a long life. So let's not get too beguiled by the beautiful symmetries and high-mindedness of these seductive legends:
It is well, as Robert E. Lee said, that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.

Or, as the somewhat more mordant A. E. Housman said in his "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries":
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)


Roger Allen said...

"Achilles in the Trench" was written in Shaw-Stewart's copy of A Shropshire Lad. One of Housman's brothers was a "mercenary" who died in the earlier Boer War.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Thanks for that information -- really fascinating. I didn't know that about his brother.