A Terrible Beauty

By Bari Walsh

“As ideas that once provided motivation for soldiers—honor, glory, and even liberty—lose their force, comradeship continues to be a very powerful motive for combat,” says James Winn, describing a theme he explores in his compelling 2008 study, The Poetry of War (Cambridge University Press). Poems that conjure the strong bonds between soldiers are among the most affecting types of war poetry, he says. Take this stanza, from a poem written by Robert Graves to his friend and fellow officer Siegfried Sassoon:

Show me the two so closely bound
As we, by the wet bond of blood,
By friendship blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found
Beauty in Death,
In dead men, breath

“By calling the force that binds the two men ‘the wet bond of blood,’” Winn says, “Graves acknowledges the softer aspects of his feelings for Sassoon. A friendship blossoming from mud suggests the conventional motif of the flower that springs from a grave, but it also allows the two males a metaphorical fertility.” But the poem makes clear that the true bonding force is death. “By staring Death in the face, the two men found beauty,” Winn says.

Over the millennia that separate Homer from Bruce Springsteen, Winn says, poets have found a powerful subject in war. Great poetry does more than comfort, mourn, or condemn, however; it acts as an antidote to “the mindless simplifications of war propaganda,” he says, making us wiser judges of present and future battles.

“War was an experience bringing together awe, terror, power, and reverence on a grand scale.”

“Poetry is an ideal form for expressing ambiguity,” Winn says, “and thus for describing the heroism of the vanquished, the intolerable cost of so-called victory, and above all, the complex and contradictory feelings of all those touched by war.” In chapters exploring themes of honor, shame, empire, chivalry, and liberty, in addition to comradeship, Winn looks closely at how poets have resolved, or not, the contradictions inherent in war’s nobility and brutality. By setting what Homer has to say about shame next to poems on shame from the Vietnam era, for example, the book illuminates poems from each epoch in new ways.

James Winn

James Winn

Poetry gives us a language to transcend war’s horror, Winn says; as in the Graves poem, it often evokes beauty from violence. “For poets in many periods, war was a prime instance of the sublime,” says Winn. “It was an experience bringing together awe, terror, power, and reverence on a grand scale. When Yeats writes of the ‘terrible beauty’ of the Easter Rising of 1916, he may be thinking of the way the English put down the revolution by indiscriminately shelling the center of Dublin, starting fires that burned much of the city.” By acknowledging the beauty inherent in fire and destruction, Yeats places himself in a tradition that stretches back to antiquity, Winn says.

“And 18th-century poets, convinced that ‘good wars’ could advance the inevitable progress of mankind toward freedom, democracy, and brotherhood, often connected the magnificence of warfare to the supposed nobility of its aims,” he says. “Their words helped create the idea of a ‘war to end all wars.’” The continuing power of liberty and democracy as a justification for war is due in good part to the power and eloquence of those poets, Winn says, making poetry about war as essential and relevant as ever.