Self-portrait

Self-portrait

10 November 2012

MODERN MYTH AND MEMORY

Beautiful as the horses of Hippolytus
Carven on some antique frieze.
Frederic Manning, ‘Transport’, 1917


My Blog this weekend is a film by Kathleen with her accompanying introduction, appropriate to Remembrance Sunday. EP


A Trojan four-horse chariot, eastern frieze, Siphnian Treasury, Delphi

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’.

But first, to put the words and images in context …

The 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

The 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:

They say Achilles in the darkness stirred
And Priam and his fifty sons
Wake all amazed, and hear the guns
And shake for Troy again.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart
Image: Balliol College, Oxford
Sailing on 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 …’. 

For most of 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.

In 1955, inspired by his reading of Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths 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 two campaigns.


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:

Their 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.

In spite of their classical sources, however, Nolan’s soldiers are not larger-than-life beings, but, instead, ordinary, anonymous figurines buffeted by the forces of destiny.


Note: The 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!


Postscript
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.

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