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The influence of Homer on First World War Poetry - by Emily Shead

Homer’s presentation of warfare has been recognised throughout time due to its realistic content and lyrical beauty and in many cases, his work demonstrates the pervading similarities that occur in war across time. Thus, in the case of the First World War, otherwise known as 'the Great War' the motifs and concepts established by Homer were carried forward into the literature as a way to help convey the timeless nature of warfare.

This is exemplified in the works of both Wilfred Owen and Patrick Shaw Stewart. They successfully create parallels between the mythical war of Homer’s Iliad and the mechanised combat occurring in trench warfare. Vandiver asserts that these Classical inclusions in their modern texts are what, in fact, makes them so successful as emotive texts. They portray the realities of The Great War without becoming distasteful and unpalatable.

Using Classical metaphors and drawing comparison to the Homeric text creates a degree of fantasy to the brutalities of life on the front lines. Particularly in the case of Shaw Stewart, these metaphors are incredibly effective because the texts are set in such geographically similar locations.

Furthermore, in many cases, the glorious tones of Homer are used to inspire a similar desire for honour and glory among modern men fighting. Hektor says ‘You will not stick your spear in my back as I run away from you’ (Il.22.283) which epitomises the glorious actions of the Homeric Hero, that they will sacrifice themselves to maintain their Kleos. Rupert Brooke, inspired by this conception of ancient heroism, describes the return of honour in his poem The Dead’. He writes ‘Honour has come back…And we have come into our heritage.’ In relating the restoration of honour to a concept of ‘heritage’ Brooke supposes that it is an ancient notion to possess such ‘honour’. Brooke, like, Shaw Stewart was heavily influenced by the Classical Education he had received and embodied that ‘public school ethos’ that inspired a ‘sacrificial obligation’ among the first young soldiers fighting in Kitchener’s Army.

Just as these public school graduates were among some of the most famous poets, of the First World War, their engagement with Homer can also be understood through the similarity between the fighting class. Homer presents ‘an aristocratic warrior class’ who are the warlords of the time because of their supreme fighting abilities, a concept which many of these officers could relate to due to their officer rankings in the army. Thus, to these modern poets, Shaw Stewart and Owen, Homer was not just an educational text used in school but a realistic and relatable presentation of the hardships of the battlefield. In transferring Homer to their own works they could demonstrate the unified suffering of all those fighting in large scale warfare as well as the notions which were continuously prized in a soldier like glory and honour.

The Eton Rifles : credit Pinterest

Homer never shies away from the gore of battle to the point where the Iliad has faced criticism for being too gruesome, particularly the disgusting extremities of Achilles’ actions. However, the gruesome realities that Homer portrays are what allow the text to transcend the barriers of fantasy texts into realistic presentations which make them so adaptable to modern war poetry. De Jong describes the ‘bloody realisms’ of the Iliad and how they are employed to keep the ancient audience engaged. These bloody realities are exemplified in the way Homer describes Peiros’ combat in Book 4,


… with a jagged boulder was smitten beside the ankle

in the right shin, and a lord of the Thracian warriors threw it,

Peiros, son of Imbrasos…

The pitiless stones smashed utterly the tendons on both sides…

…the stones thrower ran up beside him,

Peiros, and stabbed with his spear next the naval, and all his guts poured

out on the ground.’ (Il. 4. 518-526)

The detail that Homer supplies to both deaths in a matter of lines reflect the pace of the battlefield as well as the sheer quantity of casualties that are inevitable. He further emphasises this inevitability through the immediacy in a change of fate, as Peiros goes from having the beginnings of an aristeia into his own death in a matter of moments. Shaw Stewart also recognises the fragility of a man’s fate in I saw a man this morning as he discusses the tragic fate of a fellow soldier in the first stanza,

‘I saw a man this morning

Who did not wish to die’

Just as Homer presents men dying in their prime, Shaw Stewart’s opening lines, particularly the monosyllabic structure of the second, conveys the simple desire that men had to survive. However, where the Iliad often presents men justifying their death in exchange for the metaphysical rewards of honour and glory, this justification is far more scarce in modern poetry. Yet, this is not to say that it doesn’t exist. Vandiver highlights that many of the public school collectives believed that in order to be honourable they needed to carry out their duty to their country because of the romanticized notion of chivalry that was embellished by the public school ethos.

Whilst Wilfred Owen did not have the same public school education as his fellow officers like Shaw Stewart, Brooke and Sassoon, he was still classically educated at the Birkenhead Institute. This education allowed him to engage with the material of Homer and he, like Shaw Stewart, draws upon the similarities of conflict throughout the ages. The mechanisms of modern warfare like tanks and bombs seem incomparable to battlefields of Troy, where the fight was ‘man to man… in bitter combat’. Yet, Owen uses the ancient imagery to depict the battlefield in this archaic manner in his poem Strange Meeting. When depicting the battle he describes,

‘Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,

I would go up and wash them from sweet well,’

Owen’s intertextuality with the Iliad creates a metaphor that resonates with the Trojan battlefields and heightens the personal experience of man to man combat. He makes it clear that it was still occurring in this modernised warfare. Furthermore, it serves as a reminder that even whilst technological weapons were in play, ultimately, there was no hiding behind a tank. Using the metaphor of a chariot shows that there was still an expectation that the soldiers who were fighting on the frontline would kill their enemies at close proximity. The graphic, physical description of the ‘blood clogged chariot wheels’ compares to Homer’s description in Book 22 of the Iliad,

‘the chariot was all splashed with blood and the rails which encircled

the chariot, struck by the flying drops from the feet of the horses,

from the running rims of the wheels…’ (Il. 20. 500-503)

This metaphor has previously been taken to refer to biblical metaphors, however the similarity to this passage from the lliad, makes Owen’s reference very Homeric in the eyes of scholars such as Vandiver, ‘When much blood had clogged their chariot wheels refers directly to the last lines of Iliad 20’.

Owen’s use of parallelism creates two effects within the poetry. He conveys the realities of man to man combat by using this Homeric imagery while depicting a mythical distance between the truth behind the war and the literary beauty of the text. Owen, in turn, creates an antithesis between the continuous reality of destruction on the battlefield throughout time with shockingly gruesome, which seem so barbaric they can only be fathomed as archaic and as the narrative of a mythical text. Owen’s depiction, thus correlates with the mystical nature of Strange Meeting which possesses a supernatural dimension, hence making it more palatable to the contemporary post-war readers. The haunting, supernatural nature of the poem is heightened by the setting,

‘And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell’.

It is suggested that this description is also inspired by the katabasis of Book 11, of Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus descends into Hades and encounters the spirits of his dead ancestors. Through transgressing the poem beyond the natural spheres being experienced by the combatants on the Western Front, Owen is able to develop an ambiguous tone within the poem, allowing him to discuss his personal experiences on the Western Front in an indirect and - to contemporary readers of the text - more palatable poem.

Trench Warfare: CC: British Library

Whilst the poetry of Shaw Stewart and Owen seems to possess a greater degree of negativity than that of Homer’s transcendent presentation of the Trojan War, Homer’s perception of heroism is still used positively in the poetry of the First World War. Even in I saw a man this morning Achilles is presented as being the hero who every soldier aspires to be,

‘Stand in the trench, Achilles,

Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Achilles’ bravery is not just portrayed through his abilities as a fighter in the Iliad but also through his eventual perseverance to overcome personal hardship. Homer’s language changes from the emotional Achilles presented in the first half of the epic to the ‘new Achilles’ who is shown to be the ultimate warrior hero. Moreover, Achilles’ heroism is defined through his position as a protector of the Achaeans. This is clearly conveyed in an iconic point of the Iliad in Book 18 which frames Shaw Stewart’s poem,

‘But the Trojans, when they heard the brazen voice of Aiakides,

the heart was shaken in all, and the very floating-maned horses

turned their chariots about since their hearts saw the coming afflictions.’ (Il.18. 221-224).

The imagery of the heart shaking in contrast to the ‘brazen’ tone of Achilles’ voice conveys that much of his heroism is gained through his courageous nature. It is this unshakeable bravery and Achilles’ status as the ultimate war hero that would indeed inspire generations of men. Moreover, the heroism of Achilles has been transferred onto the soldiers of the First World War and their actions have been considered by scholars as an explicit parallel to Homeric Glory (kleos).

Although the nature of war has changed from the Ancient to the Modern World, with conflicts arising from different causes and weapons developing throughout time, many of the attitudes of men remain the same. The way that Shaw Stewart and Owen are able to take inspiration from Homer’s Iliad conveys how the basic principles of warfare are constant. Moreover, the realism that Homer channels throughout the Iliad allows the meaning behind his metaphors to transgress the appreciation of Archaic Greece into the Modern World. Both Shaw Stewart and Owen use the gore of Homer’s text to convey the brutality of the First World War without giving explicit examples of the tragedies occurring in the trenches. Moreover, their presentations possess a degree of fantasy which appeals to the imagination of the reader and allows them to add a degree of surrealism to works that would otherwise, perhaps, become too intense and graphic.

Thus, Homer serves as a medium between the reality of trench warfare and the romanticised chivalric conceptions of the ancient world. In this way, they allow for the soldiers of modern war to be inspired by the same conceptions of glory and honour that once inspired the ancient heroes. Vandiver's opinion is that ‘classics provided a rich vein to mine for … expressing ideals of duty, honour and glory’ and these ideas are transposed into the poetry of the First World War to inspire men to fight for their country. As Shaw Stewart called for Achilles to stand in the trenches, he recognises the potential for heroes among the soldiers of the modern world fighting in the First World War.


Primary Sources

The Iliad of Homer - the translation here comes from Lattimore

The Odyssey of Homer

I saw a man this morning - Patrick Shaw Stewart

The Dead - Rupert Brooke

Strange Meeting - Wilfred Owen

Secondary Sources

De Jong, Irene J.F. "Convention Versus Realism In The Homeric Epics." Mnemosyne 58.1 (2005): 1-22.

Staten, Henry. “The Circulation of Bodies in the Iliad.” New Literary History, vol. 24, no. 2, (1993). pp. 339–361.

Stratford, John. "The Voice Of Achilles: Communication, Self And Spectacle In Homer's Iliad." Ph.D. University of Melbourne, (2010).

Vandiver, Elizabeth, “Stand in the Trench Achilles” Oxford University Press: Oxford, (2010).

Vandiver, Elizabeth. "“Millions Of The Mouthless Dead”: Charles Hamilton Sorley And Wilfred Owen In Homer’s Hades." International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5.3 (1999).


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