Poetry and War

War is always with us and so are poets who are trying in their various ways to make sense of it. Here are some examples over the centuries:

In the famed Trojan War the Greek leader Achilles is awakened at the sound of battle in Homer’s Iliad translated by Christopher Logue :

Achilles suddenly saw his armour in that instant,

And its ominous radiance flooded his heart.

His shield as round and rich as moons in spring;

His sword’s half parked between sheaves of gray obsidian,

From which a lucid blade stood out, leaf-shaped, adorned

With running spirals, 

And for his head a welded cortex; yes,

Though it is noon, the helmet screams against the light;

Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen

Across three thousand years.

War is a pleasure for ninth century Arabic poet Al-Mutanabbi:

Tastier than old wine, 

Sweeter than the passing of winecups

Is the play of swords and lances,

The clash of armies at my command.

To face death in Battle is my life

For life is what fulfills the soul.

New England poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is next to a monument to the American revolutionaries who won their freedom fromBritain:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,

To die, and leave their children free

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats says an Irish airman foresees his death in the first World War:

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate;

Those that I guatd I do not love;

My country is Kilkartan  Cross,

My countrymen Kilkartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or make them happier than before.

No law nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men nor cheering crowds.

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to the tumult in the clouds.

I balanced all, brought all to mind.

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

American poet Wallace Stevens tells of another doomed flyer in World War Two:

This man escaped the dirty fates,

Knowing that he did nobly as he died.

Darkness, nothingness of after- death,

Receive and keep him in the deepnesses of space-

Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which

We believe without belief, beyond belief.

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