Saturday, November 11, 2017

`What God Abandoned, These Defended'

Reading Tim Kendall’s thoughtfully edited and annotated Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology (Oxford University Press, 2013), one encounters ways of looking at the world that sometimes seem more alien than Homer’s. A generation of young men went to war romantically. Many were well educated and brought with them to the trenches literary and classical expectations.  

Take Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917). He was born in Wales, the son of a British general. He attended Eton and Oxford, and was judged an exceptionally fine classicist. Among his social acquaintances were Winston Churchill, Rupert Brooke and the Asquiths. He started his professional life as a managing director at Barings Bank, but in 1914, after the war started, he enlisted as an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was excited to be shipping to Gallipoli, and wrote: “It is the luckiest thing and most romantic. Think of fighting in the Chersonese [the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey] . . . 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.” Before arriving at the scene of the 1915-16 Dardanelles Campaign, Stewart wrote his only poem, “I saw a man this morning,” also known as “Achilles in the Trench.” The sixth of its seven stanzas reads:

“Was it so hard, Achilles,
     So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not—
     So much the happier I.”

Stewart led the firing party at the burial of Rupert Brooke on Skyros in April 1915. He survived the slaughter at Gallipoli and was attached to the French forces in Salonika. There he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre. He rejoined his old battalion in France in May 1917, with the rank of lieutenant commander, and was killed on Dec. 30, 1917. He is buried at Metz-en-Couture.

“I saw a man this morning” was found after his death written on the back flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Housman was fifty-five when the war started, and hardly soldier material, but in 1917 he wrote a poem, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” (Last Poems, 1922), that looks back on the early months of the war:

“These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

“Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.”

No comments: