James Winn’s article on the Five Best works of war poetry in honor of Memorial Day
1. The Iliad Translated by Robert Fagles. Viking, 1990.
For sheer, unblinking realism, no war poem can surpass Homer’s “Iliad.” When a man is “skewered . . . straight through the mouth,” Homer unsparingly describes “teeth shattered out . . . both nostrils spurting, / mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood.” Homer’s brutal honesty about warfare is apparent not only in these physical details but also in his treatment of the elaborate code of conduct that ancient Greek culture built upon the power of shame. “The Iliad” reveals the rules of that system and exposes its limitations. As Homer shows, the fear of being ridiculed or dishonored lurks beneath our clichés about glory and honor. Princeton classics professor Robert Fagles, who died on March 26, gave us an “Iliad” that comes close to capturing the speed, intensity and stark horror of the Greek original.
2. The Complete Barrack-Room Ballads By Rudyard Kipling. Methuen, 1973
Rudyard Kipling’s poems on warfare, once widely memorized, are easy to dismiss as imperialist but remain valuable for capturing the actual experience of the enlisted man. His soldier-narrators, despite their racist vocabulary, often express respect and affection for their foes. In “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” for example, the narrator calls his Sudanese opponent a “big black boundin’ beggar” but salutes him as “a first-class fightin’ man.” In “Gunga Din,” the similar narrator admits that a native water-carrier is “a better man than I am.” The ballads, first published in 1892 and 1896, appear in this edition with a selection of Kipling’s chastened, bitter “Epitaphs” on World War I, in which he lost his only son.
3. John Brown’s Body By Stephen Vincent Benét. Doubleday, Doran, 1928
Although sprawling and uneven, this 15,000-line narrative poem on the Civil War has moments of lyric beauty and effective irony. In my favorite passage, a teenage sentry remembers ancient poems while guarding the tent of Robert E. Lee: “The aide-de-camp knew certain lines of Greek / And other such unnecessary things / As birds and music, that are good for peace / But are not deemed so serviceable for war.” Through the ironic use of the word “deemed,” the speaker labels the belief that poetry is unnecessary for war as received opinion, not his own. With his “inquisitive mind” and his “failing for romance,” the sentry is a fantasy version of the short-sighted poet, who repeatedly tried to enlist during World War I and once almost succeeded by memorizing the eye chart. It took just three days for the Army to detect his handicap and send him home.
4. The Complete Poems and Fragments By Wilfred Owen Edited by Jon Stallworthy. Norton, 1984.
As he captures the unprecedented scale of the slaughter during World War I, the loss of countless thousands “who die as cattle,” Wilfred Owen never forgets that the dead are also individuals, with “bugles calling for them from sad shires.” His poetry celebrates the intense feelings shared by soldiers drawn close by combat, who are “wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong; / Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips; / Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.” Read chronologically as the war unfolds, Owen’s poetry shows rapid development and gathering power. His pointless death — he was killed in action just days before the armistice — deprived the 20th century of a major poet.
5. The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry Edited by Richard Marius. Columbia, 1994.
In addition to reprinting wartime poems by Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and many others, “The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry” includes later poems that allude to the conflict. William Vaughan Moody’s “An Ode in Time of Hesitation” (1898 ) denounces the grasping American invasion of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War as an insult to the nobility of the Civil War dead: “Those baffled and dislaureled ghosts / Will curse us from the lamentable coasts.” Robert Lowell, in “For the Union Dead” (1963), wryly notices how a “commercial photograph” of Hiroshima has replaced the statues that once commemorated heroes. Beautifully selected, printed and edited, this collection demonstrates the continuing presence, in the American imagination, of our bloodiest war.
Mr. Winn, an English professor at Boston University, is the author of The Poetry of War (Cambridge, 2008).