MODERN MYTH AND MEMORY
Beautiful as the horses of Hippolytus
Carven on some antique frieze.
with her accompanying introduction, appropriate to Remembrance Sunday. EP
In January this year I gave a talk at the
Sydney Latin Summer School on the First World War Poets and their use of
classical mythology. To accompany this I put together a short slideshow of
images taken from Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli series. Edward very kindly provided
the voice-over, a beautiful, spellbinding reading of Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s
poem ‘I saw a man this morning’. The poem was written on a blank page in Shaw-Stewart’s copy
of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and
discovered after his death. To
mark Remembrance Sunday, we thought we’d give the film a wider ‘screening’.
disastrous Gallipoli campaign took place between 25 April 1915 and 9 January
1916; its aim had been to seize control of the Dardanelles straits from the
Ottoman Empire, to capture Constantinople, and open a Black Sea supply route to
Russia. An exact figure for the casualties at Gallipoli does not exist, but, to
give you some idea of their scale: of the Australian troops, more than 8,700
were killed and more than twice that number wounded, at a time when Australia’s
population was fewer than five million. New Zealand, with a population just
over a million, lost 2,721 troops.
|Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians landed upon
the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis
location of the Gallipoli peninsula just across the Hellespont from the
traditional site of Troy, the site excavated by Heinrich Schliemann only forty
years earlier, carried such obvious, inescapable resonance with Homer; the
British and ANZAC troops were literally walking in the footsteps of Hector and
Achilles. With this tangible link with ancient tradition embedded in the very
topography of the new fighting front, it was impossible not to think of the Iliad. En route to Gallipoli, Rupert
Brooke promised to recite Sappho and Homer through the Cyclades and ‘the winds
of history will follow us all the way.’ On 23 April 1915, two days before the
fateful landing at Cape Helles and Ari Burnu, he died of sepsis from an
infected mosquito bite, in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the
island of Skyros. Among the scribbled fragments found in a notebook he kept on
that last voyage were these lines:
in the darkness stirred
and hear the guns
Image: Balliol College, Oxford
the same ship as Brooke was Patrick Shaw-Stewart, a brilliant classical scholar from Eton and Balliol. Three months into the campaign, he composed a
very different poem in contemplation and anticipation of his Homeric inheritance,
which began ‘I saw a man this morning/Who did not wish
to die …’.
the poem, he aligns himself with the figure of Achilles and the hero’s rather
bleak dilemma – the exchange of long life for posthumous glory. In the final
stanza, however, it is as Achilles’ slain and unprotected comrade Patroclus
that Shaw-Stewart imagines himself. The Achilles whom he now calls upon is the
vengeful, flame-encircled epiphany standing between the Achaean wall and ditch,
dreadful in his divinity and his grief, thrice issuing a piercing brazen cry
and putting the Trojans to rout. This final stanza highlights the uncloseable
distance between Ilion and Gallipoli; the flame-capped epiphany is the stuff of
myth, an unattainable fiction which only emphasizes the immediacy and solitude
of the modern soldier’s reality and his reflections upon that reality.
Shaw-Stewart survived Gallipoli only to be killed in
action in France at the end of 1917. He was twenty-nine.
and Homer’s Iliad, Australian artist Sidney Nolan began to work on a
Trojan War series. It was the novelist George Johnston who gave him the idea of
looking instead at the Anzacs as a modern reworking of the classical story. The
Nolans would spend a few months staying with the Johnstons on the Greek island
of Hydra in 1956. On the nearby island of Spetsae, another Australian, Alan
Moorehead (now buried in West Hampstead Cemetery), was completing what would
become his best-selling book on the Gallipoli campaign. At Johnston’s urging,
Nolan had read Moorehead’s New Yorker article which discussed the
geographical proximity of Gallipoli and Troy and the similarities between the
|Sidney Nolan, ‘Gallipoli Riders’|
|Sidney Nolan, ‘Gallipoli Man’|
Nolan’s own research led him to the archaeological museum in Athens,
where he became absorbed by classical sculpture and the depiction of ancient
Greek warriors on vases. Around this time he also paid a brief visit to
Gallipoli and the site of ancient Troy. His reading of classical Greek
literature inspired his depiction of Australian soldiers as ‘reincarnations of
the ancient Trojan heroes of mythical times.’ His paintings and drawings of the
Australians on Gallipoli recall the vase images of Greek heroes fighting naked
and without their armour. They also recall novelist Compton Mackenzie’s famous
description of the Anzacs’ classical beauty:
beauty, for it really was heroic, should have been celebrated in hexameters not
headlines. As a child I used to pore for hours over those illustrations of
Flaxman for Homer and Virgil which simulated the effect of ancient pottery.
There was not one of those glorious young men I saw that day who might not
himself have been Ajax or Diomed, Hector or Achilles. Their almost complete
nudity, their tallness, and majestic simplicity of line, their rose-brown flesh
burnt by the sun and purged of all grossness by the ordeal through which they
were passing, all these united to create something as near to absolute beauty
as I shall hope ever to see in this world.
larger-than-life beings, but, instead, ordinary, anonymous figurines buffeted
by the forces of destiny.
title of our film, ‘Arma virumque cano’ is taken from the very first line of
Virgil’s Aeneid (‘Of arms and the man I sing’). It was a Latin tag used
by War Poets such as Wilfred Owen to expose jingoism for what it was and to
reveal the disquieting ambivalence intrinsic to poems such as the Iliad and
the Aeneid. Bernard Shaw used the phrase too of course!
Be sure to check Edward’s News blog for the latest news, including an exciting announcement about a soon-to-be-released audio edition of Slim Chances.