Egypt in the modern world

Druid Time: Classics and Classicism in World War 1

I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Liz Pender as she discussed classicists at war.


Classicism and consolation

The First World War was a classical war. Several soldiers and poets were educated in the classical tradition. Classicism was a shared culture across armies and between the major belligerents.  

Classicism was used as a way to make sense of war and as a consolation for the loss and destruction experienced. Henry Tonks, who taught a generation of British war artists, worked in a surgery during the war. Sketching a casualty, he wrote how the man reminded him of a living Greek statue with his missing nose. Classicism was a distancing technique, a way to comprehend the war.

Classical motifs were used after the war in memorials like the Anzac memorial, the Suez memorial and the Digger’s memorials in Australia.

In Britain the Cenotaph has become the central focus of memorial services, its austerly classical form a suitable symbol of the incomprehensibility of  war. The poem To the Fallen “Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn” reflect the lines of Enobarus in Anthony and Cleopatra “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”. The poppy is a symbol of the fallen from Homer.

As full-blown poppies overcharged with rain
Decline the head, and drooping kiss the plain;
So sinks the youth: his beauteous head, depressed
Beneath his helmet, drops upon his breast.
Illiad, Book 8, 349-353 tr. Alexander Pope


The two cultures

There were two cultures in the war years- an avant garde modernist aesthetic and a traditionalist aesthetic. The role of classicism, Pender argues, is unclear. This division was not always on classicist lines. Virginia Woolf called Rupert Brooke and his followers neo-pagan in comparison to her fellow Bloomberries. The division continued into the war years where several Bloomberries became conscientious objectors. Rupert Brooke died in service in 1915. This does not mean that the division between these two groups is so clear or that they were the only groups at the time.

Later in the war there was a conflation between classicism and modernists. Picasso, Apollinaire and Stravinsky all explored classical themes in new modes of artistic expression. At the same time, Joyce used Ovid and Homer in his works from around this period.

In All Quiet on the Western Front Paul Baumer returns home from the front. He sees his old books, classics of German literature and looks at them with disdain. They are worlds away from the experiences and comradeship of war. The reality was perhaps, more complicated. Ernst Junger in Storm of Steel obviously luxuriated in literature and combat. In a break from war he stretches out and enjoys Tristram Shandy.  


Class and classicism

Is classicism an elite subject? To some degree it is. In England especially, the public school system meant that the upper classes had an intensely classical education heavily based on Latin and Greek grammar.

Suzanne Machand has argued that classicism was restricted to the elite. She has contrasted between an everyday historicist classicism which she calls bourgeois-liberal (a furniture of the mind)  and a non-historicist classicism.

Yet lower middle class and working class people would also be aware of classicism. The Elementary Education Act of 1880 which created mandatory schools meant that by 1914 Britain had a newly literate and educated population. Series like the Everyman Library, Oxford World Classics and the Home University Library meant that classical works were widely known. Perhaps we should add to this list the Loeb Classical Library which allowed people with a smattering of the Greek and Latin, the ability to follow texts in their original language.

Paul Fussell’s work The Great War and Modern Memory discusses the ways that highly literate soldiers engaged with literary culture throughout the war and after.

As Pender argued classical motifs in urban architecture would mean that even obscure figures of classical myth would be commonly known. For example, the Hackney Empire music hall was presided over by Thalia muse of comedy.

In a slightly later period the broadening of classical education was supported through Penguin Classics. The first book published in this format was Riev’s Homer, which was enjoyed a vogue at the end of the second War. Another figure who was central to this popularisation was Robert Graves. His translations, theoretical works and historical potboilers – including the brilliant I, Claudius introduced a new generation to the classics. The war was a defining experience for him and he felt in particular, not just its brutality but also its absurdity. Unlike many historical novels, his books do not celebrate war.


David Jones

Although not discussed, the poet who engaged most fully with classical allusions and history is David Jones. His poem In Parenthesis was published in 1937, nearly a decade after the War Books boom of the late twenties and in the shadow of another war.

In it he mixes myth, scholarship and language to create an allusive work which is at once both highly traditional and radically innovative.

Jones was a private in the Royal Welch which was the literary regiment containing Graves, Sassoon and Owen (albeit in a different brigade). In the next war, Anthony Powell was amongst their ranks. Graves writes in Farewell to all that how newly enlisted soldiers were taught the history and traditions of the regiment as part of their training.

In Jones this view of history takes a much larger perspective. A visionary passage describes the long Welsh history of combat. Similar to early medieval Welsh poets like Taliesin, Dai Greatcoat in his boast claims to have been in every major conflagration since creation:

I the fox-run fire
Consuming in the wheat-lands;
and in the standing wheat in Cantium made some attempt to
form – (between dun August oaks their pied bodies darting)
In Parenthesis, Pg 80

A lot is going on in this short passage, not least of which is a reference to Caesar’s invasion of Britain. War has been a continuous fact in human experience, but it is an ambiguous part of culture.  

It is hard to take passages from Jones which means he is never really anthologised and thus lacks the household fame of his other war poets. To place his own experiences in a wider historical and classical context acts as both a consolation and  encouragement and neither.

There is not room to discuss Jones here, but his work casts a shadow on any discussion of war and classicism.



In summary, there is a lot going on here. The war were years of classicism, but they must also be placed in wider context of what went before (Victorian classicism, Aesthetic movement’s Hellenophilia etc.) and what came after (Nazism, Hollywood classicism etc). I look forward to reading more of Pender’s work on this subject.  


Memorial at the Suez Canal


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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