The Gods Descending into Battle, Alfred John Church


This article appeared in the January 18, 1964 issue of Commonweal

I MUST apologize to the editors of this anthology* for using it as a clothes peg. At least, it is their virtues which make this possible. Their initial idea was so excellent that one cannot help wishing they had been able to carry it out: I say "able" because to carry it out properly would have taken them several years of concentrated work in peace-time, and it is extraordinary and gratifying enough that two men serving in the armed forces during a war should have had the will power to overcome the physical and psychological difficulties of military life and produced an anthology at all, let alone as interesting and provocative a one as they have.

     There are people who object to all anthologies on principle. I believe that they are mistaken and that, on the contrary, what is wrong with most anthologies is that their compilers have not taken their occupation seriously enough, or thought precisely enough about its basic principles. There are three possible principles of selection. The first and most obvious is esthetic value plus esthetic character (esthetic value alone is, practically, impossible thanks to the curse of Babel). The factors that determine esthetic character are language, literary genre and date of composition. None of them prevent the criterion of selection from being that of esthetic value, but the greater the part they play, the more the standard of value must be lowered, for it is clear that, for instance, the hundred best lyrics in English from the nineteenth century cannot be as good as the hundred best poems in all languages from all ages.

     The second possible principle of selection is caprice or chance, which is itself an esthetic category. Here the power of selection is transferred from the personal esthetic judgment of the anthologist to the principle itself, e.g., I can make an anthology of poems written by beekeepers, or of poems beginning with the letter Q. The point here is that the arbitrary limitation I chose shall be such that my anthology can be exhaustive and include all the poems written by beekeepers, etc., thus eliminating my personal judgment altogether.

     The third principle is subject matter. If this is not to be capricious also, it must be a real category of experience for the average human being; e.g., bee-keeping is a real category only for beekeepers; Love, War, Death are categories for all men. If subject matter is the decisive factor, so that the pieces are chosen in order to illuminate it, then esthetic value must play a smaller rôle than in the first type of anthology (though a greater than in the second) and esthetic character none at all, i.e., prose and verse, logical argument and lyric emotion should all be included, for each throws its unique and indispensable light on the subject under consideration.

     The trouble with "War and the Poet" is that its editors have tried to satisfy too many and contradictory demands at once. For example, as an anthology of the first type, it wavers between a wish to cover all history and a wish to show what contemporary poets are doing, so that out of a total of 209 pages, the first three thousand seven hundred years of literature get IO5, and the last forty-five years 104. It is inevitable that under such a disparate allocation, the literary standard of the second half should be lower than that of the first; on the other hand, with only half the space at their disposal, the modern poets are crowded for space, and a number of them, Graves and Blunden and Winters, for example, are omitted, not because their war poems are any worse or less significant than those of their colleagues, but because someone had to go.

In theory a poet only differs from others in having a certain kind of gift for language, and a personal interest in poets apart from their work is unseemly.

     I do not believe it is the reviewer's business to describe to the reader the contents of a book when, as in this case, he hopes they will buy it, but I will follow convention and do what I can. The first, and I think the best, section consists of translations from Greek, Latin, Chinese, Hebrew and Hindu literature, and great care has been taken to find as good translators as possible. Then a number of excellent translations by Richard Lattimore which are here printed for the first time. The second section runs from Anglo-Saxon times down to Kipling and Alexander Blok; the third section concerns World War I, and the fourth, World War II, which includes, of course, the Spanish Civil War. In this last it is nice to find British poets like Roy Fuller and Demetrios Capetanakis represented as they are hardly known in this country. Naturally, in what is really quite a small anthology, there are poems one misses--e.g., that wonderful baroque battle poem of Dryden's, "Annus Mirabilis"—but the selections are made with care and taste. I will only utter a wish that, since popular songs like "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” have been included, printable versions of later soldier songs from World War I could have been squeezed in too, to show that this tradition did not come to an end in the eighteenth century.

     As an anthology of the third type, it does not make up its mind whether its subject is war in the usual sense, war in a wider, more metaphysical sense, or the attitude toward war of poets as distinct from other classes of people. If it were to be the first, then Blake's "Jerusalem" and the Emily Dickinson poems have no business to be in; if it were to be the second, then there should be a great many more poems about "le combat spirituel" which is "aussi brutal que la bataille d'hommes," extracts from "The Faerie Queene" and "Paradise Lost," to take only two of the most obvious examples from English poetry; if it were to be the third, then it should not be an anthology of poems at all but of biographies and autobiographies. (Talking of biographies, this reviewer has a personal peeve about the short note on himself at the end of this volume. It contains two errors of fact, and he is loath to believe he is quite such a ninny as it makes him appear.)

     Actually is there any sense in which the poet has a special attitude towards war, so that war poems are partial and disregard emotions felt by the majority of mankind who are not poets? In theory, no. In theory a poet only differs from others in having a certain kind of gift for language, and a personal interest in poets apart from their work is unseemly.

     In the recent case of Ezra Pound, it is distressing, I think, to find how many people fall into one of two errors: one party, admiring, and quite rightly, his work, seem to think his political conduct should be excused; the other party, abhorring, and, if he is guilty quite rightly, his political conduct, seem to think his work should be barred, a wicked folly which is poisoning the whole cultural life of Europe at this time. The editors and publisher of "War and the Poet" are to be congratulated on having the decency and good sense to resist such nonsense and include examples of Pound's work.

     In practice, however, the nature of mechanized warfare does mean that the poet, who is not a mechanic, is likely to miss certain experiences of modern war. If he serves, say, in the army, the chances are that it will be as a comparatively unimportant unit in the infantry, like Wilfred Owen, and highly unlikely that it will be as a general. The real novel experience of this war was aerial combat and, so far as I know, no really gifted poet had direct experience of this, even if, as in the case of Randall Jarrell, second hand was very close hand. This would suggest that an anthology intended to show the full nature of modern war must include other kinds of writing. Even so, I think the editors might have been more catholic in their choice of poets than they have: to represent Kipling by a single poem, and not a real war poem at that, and to omit Rupert Brooke altogether, is to invite the criticism that they are less concerned with showing the attitudes of poets towards war, than with showing what attitudes they approve of. I think the criticism would be unjust, but the intention of giving an all-round view which their title and preface profess makes them vulnerable.

     Personally, I wish they had taken really seriously one of their ideas, to give a picture in all its aspects of the kind of thinking and behavior of which war in its narrow sense is the ultimate expression. The kind of anthology I have in mind, and which I hope they or others will some day compile, would resemble De la Mare's fascinating compendia on Childhood, Dreams, Love, and Desert Islands. It would include every kind of literary material woven into a whole by a connective tissue of critical comment. Its basis would be the following definition: whenever man attempts to solve any kind of problem dialectically he is in a state of peace; whenever he attempts to solve it eristically he is in a state of war. A dialectical relation between two opponents means that each emphasizes one aspect of a truth or belief which both hold in common and that the aim of both is to arrive at an agreement. An eristic relation means that each is aiming not at the conversion but at the annihilation of the other. In politics, for example (to use an illustration of the late R. G. Collingwood), a conservative party whose principle is "No one should be admitted to the ruling class who is not qualified" is dialectically related to a liberal party whose principle is "No one who is qualified should be excluded from the ruling class," because their principles are not contradictory but are both complementary to a third principle: "The ruling class should be as good as possible." The relation, on the other hand, between a party which believes that only red-haired men should govern, and one which believes that only blondes should govern, would be eristic because these beliefs are contradictory. In psychology, repression is eristic, sublimation dialectical; in theology, the orthodox relation of faith to works is dialectical but becomes eristic if the emphasis on either is pushed to the point where it excludes the other as in the rival heresies of Jansenism and Pelagianism; in biology the same is true for the relation of Heredity to Environment, and so on.

     On such a basis it seems to me one could compile an anthology which might really illuminate the history of civilization, its crises, and breakdowns. The invention of the atomic bomb has increased men's fears of war, but the evidence of history does not support the hope that the greater their fear, the less likely war is to occur. On the contrary, is not fear and defiance, i.e., fear of being afraid, that very "hateful Ares" who seduces Aphrodite and destroys the children of men?

* War and the Poet. A comprehensive anthology of the world's great war poetry. 1800 B.C.-1945 A.D. Richard Eberhart and Selden Rodman. Devin Adair. $3.00.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973) was a British poet and writer. 

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