James Winn’s Top 5

James Winn’s article on the Five Best works of war poetry in honor of Memorial Day

As printed in the Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2008

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.

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Noblesse Oblige

The idea of chivalry has always been a fraud…

James Winn, author – The Poetry of War

…a system of polite and honorable ideals masking shameful and violent acts. Medieval poets played a crucial part in creating the myth of chivalry, and poets from many later periods were responsible for sustaining it. The persistence of chivalric myth is a sobering instance of poetry’s capacity to make fantasy seem real, and thus to efface the bloody truths of war.

Among the ideas sustained by chivalric poetry was noblesse oblige, the belief that the upper classes had a special obligation to lead the way in warfare. That sense of obligation applied to kings as late as 1743, when George II led his troops into battle at Dettingen, though he was the last English monarch to do so. It continued to apply to titled aristocrats for two more centuries.

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War Poet Wednesday

Women love a man in uniform, so they say. James Winn points out that even in 1714, some women saw through the supposed dignity that the red British military uniform brings. Some things never change; the dignity of the soldier is still being attacked and defended in America today, but in a different way. While Ann Finch derided the vanity of the young soldier, critics today blast the arrogance of the government sending them off to fight, while praising the bravery of those willing to serve.

All is Vanity

James Winn

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was one of the most talented woman poets of the eighteenth century. In a memorable section of a longer poem on vanity, published in 1714, Finch describes a young man who goes to war, seduced by the finery of an officer’s uniform. Splendid in his gold embroideries and feathered hat, the youth

Walks haughty in a Coat of Scarlet Die,
A Colour well contriv’d to cheat the Eye,

Where richer Blood, alas! May undistinguisht lye.

And oh! too near that wretched Fate attends;
Hear it ye Parents, all ye weeping Friends!
Thou fonder Maid! won by those gaudy Charms,
(The destin’d Prize of his Victorious Arms)
Now fainting Dye upon the mournful Sound,

That speaks his hasty Death, and paints the fatal Wound!

Trail all your Pikes, dispirit every Drum,
March in a slow Procession from afar,
Ye silent, ye dejected Men of War!
Be still the Hautboys, and the Flute be dumb!
Display no more, in vain, the lofty Banner;
For see! Where on the Bier before ye lies
The pale, the fall’n, th’ untimely Sacrifice

To your mistaken Shrine, to your false Idol Honour! (1)

The officer’s dashing uniform is a cheat, a gaudy charm that wins a foolish maid. Although his sweetheart is supposed to be the prize of his victorious arms, the soldier, slain by arms of steel, will never hold her in his arms of flesh. In Finch’s sad version of a military parade, pikes trail in the dust, banners flutter in vain, and honor is exposed as a false idol. She insists on the realities that many male poets of her era sought to banish from their poems: the hero’s death and the grief of his loved ones.

(1) Anne Finch, “All is Vanity,” in Miscellany Poems, On Several Occasions (1713), 9–10.

Who dies on their birthday?

It is one of those perfect Spring days. Remember it well, for soon everyone will complain (loudly) about the heat. It is more than this, however. Find a breezy cafe table and give a happy-hour toast to the 444th birthday of William Shakespeare.

UPDATE: Shakespeare, you rule-breaker, you. Read the Oregon Mail Tribune‘s take on Crystal’s latest.

by Sadhika Salariya

Cambridge University Press

Don’t be surprised when someone tries to quash your enthusiasm. The debate goes on about whether April 23 was indeed the day Shakespeare was born, or just the day his birth was assigned, discussed in Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography. The question is, does it matter? It’s unfortunately typical of the elusive, unresolvable—and often tedious and irrelevant—conflicts of Shakespearean biography. Just for today, take in a play, or read some poetry, and forgo, for a moment, the dust-up between Germaine Greer and Stephen Greenblatt over the provocative but unanswerable question: Did Shakespeare love his wife?

For decades, people have been studying and probing into Shakespeare’s personal life and times; David Crystal, author of Think on My Words, has a different take: the essence of Shakespeare’s work lies right there in the language itself; specifically in the way he “manipulated” language. Crystal suggests that a linguistic component should never be examined without asking “what does it do”. Does it help us understand the meaning of “what is said”? And how does it help us appreciate the dramatic or poetic effect of “what is said”?

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War Poet Wednesday

While war may rob and subvert language, simplifying the grandest of catastrophes, the political realm can rob poetry of its soul, hijacking poetic language for its own gains. James Winn, author of The Poetry of War shows us how poets strike back.

If you haven’t caught it yet, read Winn’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. There’s a link on his site.

Politicians have often made unscrupulous use of poetry, filching the power of verse to make wasteful and greedy policies look noble. In a brilliant act of impersonation, e. e. cummings, a pacifist who had served as an ambulance driver in World War I, produced a vivid parody of a political orator piling up the standard clichés:

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every languagE. E.ven deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

Speaking as rapidly as he drinks, cummings’s blowhard orator does not bother to finish any of the scraps of patriotic verse he quotes. Fragmented and disjointed, the phrases from national hymns that he slaps together have no more meaning than the bywords that end the recitation: “by gorry / by jingo by gee by gosh by gum.” Although cummings has cunningly shaped the speaker’s regurgitated fragments into a perfectly rhymed Petrarchan sonnet, most of the rhyming words come in the middle of phrases. The formal order clashes with the urgent but pointless rhetorical order of the speech. By treating words as if they were only sounds, cummings expresses his contempt for conventional patriotism, his belief that its formulas are now empty of meaning.

But like a soldier scrawling “Kilroy was here,” he is still concerned to leave his mark on the poem. The poet always signed his name in lower-case letters (“e. e. cummings”), but in this poem, he capitalizes his initials as part of a typographical joke:

in every languagE. E.ven deafanddumb

There is a touching message in this odd-looking line. Politicians and orators may destroy the meaning of language, but poets, even as they record and mock that destruction of meaning, may still contrive to carve their initials into the otherwise meaningless surface. To do so is an assertion of freedom—not the grand, collective Liberty celebrated in empty and dishonest political speeches, but the simple, personal freedom to be, to speak, to make a mark.


e. e. cummings, “next to of course god america i” in Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 1994), 267.

War Poet Wednesday

poetry-of-war.jpgJames Winn shows us that language, too, is broken down during war. The words employed by soldiers are quick, acronym-heavy, and devoid of flowery, unnecessary syllables, but in some cases, language is “eroded” by those off the battlefield. Winn is the author of The Poetry of War; you’ll see him soon in The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education.


One form of “collateral damage” inflicted by war is the emptying and debasement of language. In a passage from a poem written at the height of the war in Vietnam, Denise Levertov takes that debasement as her subject.

Prologue: An Interim (excerpt)
‘“It became necessary
to destroy the town to save it,”
a United States major said today.
He was talking about the decision
by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town
regardless of civilian casualties,
to rout the Vietcong.’

O language, mother of thought,
are you rejecting us as we reject you?
Language, coral island
accrued from human comprehensions,
human dreams,

you are eroded as war erodes us.

As the double quotation marks show, Levertov begins by quoting an actual news bulletin, which in turn quotes an Army spokesman. But then her tone becomes elegiac. She addresses language as the “mother of thought” and laments its erosion by war. The danger Levertov fears is real. The disinformation, propaganda, and empty slogans of war can erode the coral island of language. Fortunately, her own poem, even as it sounds the alarm about the erosion of language, constitutes a stand against that erosion. Thanks to its capacity for irony, poetry is one of the most expressive media for showing how traditional symbols have lost their meaning while simultaneously lamenting that loss.

Poem Source:

Denise Levertov, “Prologue: An Interim,” in Poems, 1968-1972 (New York: New Directions, 1987), 130–31.

War Poet Wednesday

War poets bring an impossible beauty and entirely new perspective to the most awful of subjects. On Wednesdays, we’ll receive a new perspective on these writers. Yesterday’s New York Times ran a front-page story on the writings of American soldiers recently killed in Iraq.

James Winn

In the poems that have emerged from the conflict in Iraq, our soldiers are notably reticent about politics, and rarely invoke old myths of honor and glory. But they are eloquent about their feelings for their fellow-soldiers. In a poem to his fellow-officer and fellow-poet Siegfried Sassoon, written at the end of World War I, Robert Graves captured that special bond with striking honesty:

Two Fusiliers

And have we done with War at last?
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,
And there’s no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.

By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,
By Fricourt and by Festubert,
By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,
By Picard clay.

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.

The poem opens with a gesture of disbelief and rough rejoicing at having survived. The casualty rate for officers on the Western Front was appalling, so the mere fact that Graves and Sassoon survived makes their friendship more lovely, and constitutes a firmer bond than a pledge or oath. Continue reading