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A Terrible Beauty: The Poetry of War

CAS prof James Winn examines war from Homer to Springsteen

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James Winn, a CAS professor of English, says poetry can help us make sense of war’s brutality and nobility. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Poets from Homer to Whitman to Bob Dylan have found a powerful subject in war. Poetry has comforted, condemned, praised, and mourned, articulating the contradictions of war’s brutality and nobility. And poets do more than help us make sense of past conflicts, as James Winn, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of English, argues in his new book, The Poetry of War (Cambridge University Press). Reading great poetry, he writes, can act as an antidote to “the mindless simplifications of war propaganda,” making us wiser judges of present battles. As violence rages today in Iraq, Sudan, and Gaza, poetry gives us a language to describe and transcend the horror. Winn, who was recently appointed the new director of the Boston University Humanities Foundation, spoke with BU Today about his book.

BU Today: What can poetry tell us about war that news accounts or history books cannot?
Winn: For journalists, and even for historians, war is a contest. One side wins, the other loses; the balance of power in some part of the world may change as a result. But poetry is an ideal form for expressing ambiguity, 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.

You organize your book thematically, with sections on honor, shame, empire, chivalry, comradeship, and liberty. How do those themes help us understand the poets’ experience of war?
Well, all of those themes recur in different cultures and languages, and at different times, and while I always want to respect the particularity of those circumstances, I’ve also learned a lot by setting what Homer says about shame next to poems of shame from the Vietnam era, or by thinking about the way 18th-century poets created the myth of liberty that politicians still invoke today, even though the politicians have no idea where the ideas they are using originated.

As their world recedes from our own, ancient poets are sometimes perceived as triumphalists or spinners of highly glossed adventure yarns. And yet, as you say, Homer tells some “terrible truths” about the horrors of the battlefield.
It would be a gross misreading to call Homer a triumphalist. His sympathy for the losers is strong and clear, and among the terrible truths he expresses is the emptiness of victory. As his original hearers knew, the victorious Greek general Agamemnon would come home to find his wife living with another man and would promptly be murdered by her. Virgil is a more complex case. He was writing at the request of the emperor Augustus, and his poem praises the Romans as a people destined to rule the world. At the same time, however, Virgil’s poem is deeply sensitive to the cost of empire, the loss of freedom that comes with conquest.

Talk about how wartime poets evoke beauty from violent and bloody scenes.
For poets in many periods, war was a prime instance of the sublime, 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. In acknowledging the beauty inherent in fire and destruction, Yeats participates in a long tradition stretching back to Homer. Eighteenth-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. Their words helped create the idea of a “war to end all wars.”

Soldiers returning for their second and third tours of duty in Iraq often say they owe it to their buddies to go back. What do poems have to say about the bonds that soldiers form?
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. Societies that are otherwise deeply homophobic, terrified of close relationships between men, treat the close bonds formed by combatants quite differently, not only tolerating but actually encouraging those bonds. Some of the most touching poems I found in the course of my research express those feelings. Let me quote just one 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,” Graves bravely 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. All of this rich imagery, however, is a prelude to the revelation of the true bonding force: Death. By staring Death in the face, Graves claims, the two men found beauty. From the dead men all around them, they drew breath.

What is your favorite poem in this genre, and why?
An unfair question, especially unfair to ask someone who read thousands of war poems in preparing to write this book. It also asks me to compare apples and oranges. The great ancient poems on war are huge, sweeping epics, with the power that comes from narrative. More recent poems are shorter, more intense. Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” perhaps the greatest poem to emerge from World War II, is only five lines long. I love it, and I love the Iliad, and I love “Born in the U.S.A.” But you’ll appreciate my reluctance to choose among works so different in size and scope.

As you immersed yourself in this poetry, did your own feelings about war change?

Of course. Like many people in my generation, my most immediate experience with war was the war in Vietnam. Although I was lucky enough not to go there, I did get drafted in 1968 and found my time in the Army pointless and frustrating. So it was instructive to read poems by soldiers who genuinely believed in the rightness of the wars they were fighting. I remain deeply skeptical of war as a means of bringing about change, but I respect the determination and heroism of soldier-poets from many eras, and I have tried, in my book, to honor their memory.

Click here to watch a video of James Winn discussing three war poems.

Bari Walsh can be reached at bawalsh@bu.edu.

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