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.