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.