Friday, April 24, 2015

Second-guessing the war with Achilles

One-hundred years ago, in April of 1915, Patrick Shaw-Stewart sailed with Rupert Brooke for Gallipoli.  After Brooke's death from blood poisoning, Shaw-Stewart was one of the fellow officers who buried Brooke on the island of Skyros, taking charge of the graveside gun salute (Elizabeth Vandiver in  A Companion to Classical Receptions, 456). 

Before Brooke's death, anticipating the fight at Gallipoli, Shaw-Stewart wrote, "It is the luckiest thing and the most romantic. Think of fighting in the Chersonese [the classical name for Gallipoli]... or alternatively, if it's the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book."  
Patrick Shaw-Stewart also took with him a small book of poems, AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad, and on a blank page of that book, he wrote this poem: 

I Met a Man This Morning (by Patrick Shaw-Stewart)

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

The poem is prompted by the sight of a fellow soldier "Who did not wish to die."  Written while on leave that was abruptly ended when his company was called back into action, Shaw-Stewart's poem circles around one central question: am I ready and willing to die in battle? 

From UK Huffington Post, April 14, 2015
Throughout the poem, we can almost feel the visceral tension pulling this man between two imaginary wars: the noble heroism of ancient battle it appears in the Greek myth The Iliad -- and the anticipated test of the looming fight at Gallipoli.  Neither is fully real to this soldier.  He has read the ancient stories, and he can anticipate his own headlong rush into battle, but neither are fully real.   What is real is what he knows he must leave behind:  a peaceful morning overlooking the Dardenelles, the narrow body of water that joins the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  Although he is soon to return to the war, the speaker pauses to notice the soft breezes and the "cold sea shells" of early dawn near the lapping waves of the shore.    

Yet even the sight of the sea shells draws his mind inexorably to what awaits him in just a few days' time:  "Shrapnel and high explosives,/Shells and hell for me."  The present moment is touched by both the promise of glorious war and the threat of blood and death. 

Like the Greek epic and tragic story it references, the poem and its speaker seem obsessed with a lack of control: fated to follow the "Fatal second Helen," the men approaching battle feel as if they, too, have no real choice in the matter.  The country expects it of them, their friends are all joining up, it would be cowardly not to enlist – the reasons for fighting seem to change very little from the wars of ancient Greece to modern conflicts. 

In many ways, this is a poem of second guessing – was it right to enlist?  Am I ready to die?  Looking around him at the other young men who have signed up and are attempting to appear brave, gallant, and soldierly, the speaker of the poem most likely knows that answers won't be found within the ranks, and so instead, he turns to the ultimate warrior of his school studies, the Marvel super hero of the day – the ancient Greek warrior Achilles, who is driven by his thirst for glory. 

And what does he ask?  "Was it so hard, Achilles,/ So very hard to die?"  The soldier wants to be sure that he will have the strength not to fight – but to die.  He needs to know that he can endure any anguish that the looming conflict might bring.  The poem lays bare the heart of a soldier who is soul-searching, examining himself to see if he is strong enough to relinquish not only his life, but all his future hopes and dreams, leaving them on the desolate shore of the Turkish coast. 

The question is asked, but no answer is given.  Achilles remains silent, but asking the question allows this soldier to move forward and to go back to the war, with a last request:  "Stand in the trench, Achilles,/Flame-capped, and shout for me."  As he prepares to face the enemy and looks ahead to his own hour of testing, he asks that Achilles stand in the trench with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, as a comrade-in-arms, crowned in flames as when the mighty warrior showed himself to the enemy troops, protesting the death of his friend Patroclus in Book 18 of The Iliad.  

Hell, shells, shrapnel, and death:  all can be borne with the spirit of Achilles as a companion, a spirit that cannot help but inspire other soldiers like Achilles to "stand in the trench" and protest each man's death. 

Shaw-Stewart's poem reassures fighting men with the knowledge that they are not numbers, but known to one another.  The poem cries out to the ancient Greek warrior, and in doing so, to every man who stands on the fire step ready to go over the top.  The protest is not against war, but against death and against the senseless loss of each man who meant something to someone, who was dear, who was loved, and who is lost. 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart
Although he survived the battle of Gallipoli, Shaw-Stewart was killed by an artillery shell on December 30, 1917 in fighting on the Western Front near Cambrai.  Writing of his death, an artillery officer reported, "It was early morning, about dawn; he was going round his line; the Germans put up a barrage….He was hit by shrapnel, the lobe of his ear was cut off and his face spattered so that the blood ran down from his forehead and blinded him for a bit.  The gunner tried to make him go back to Battalion H.Q. to be dressed, but he refused, and insisted on completing his round.  Very soon afterwards, a shell burst on the parapet, and a fragment hit him upwards through the mouth and killed him instantaneously." 

One can imagine the flame-capped Achilles' sorrow at the death of yet another soldier and the shouts echoing in the trench as Shaw-Stewart fell.  


  1. I have often wondered when reading poems like this what it must have been like to go off to war with a head full of Homer. Did it prove a defense at first? If so, did that lead to greater disillusionment, as Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est" suggests it did for him? And this poem of Shaw-Stewart, asking Achilles a question he does not answer, makes me think of the words of Achilles in "The Odyssey", where his ghost says that he would rather be the slave of the lowest man on earth than king of all the dead.

    In "Surprised by Joy" Lewis wrote:

    'One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from
    me that it "whined" like a journalist's or a peacetime poet's bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like
    fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, "This is War. This is what Homer wrote about."'

    It's the 'quavering' that the whole moment turns upon, as between fear and indifference it all becomes real to him.

  2. "Head full of Homer" -- surely there's a book in that? :) Thanks very much for your comment, Tom and for sharing the excerpt from "Surprised by Joy." Lewis's account of the "one imaginative moment" is particularly powerful. And I'm so glad you called my attention to the word 'quavering' - yes yes yes. "The whole moment turns upon" -- a lovely way to read and think deeply about the impact of the war on the imagination and the man.

  3. Thanks, Connie. I suppose the place to start would be with the book I just discovered by Elizabeth Vandiver, "Stand in the Trench, Achilles," which is of course perfectly apropos.

    1. I've heard her speak and she's wonderful -- you're in for a treat!