World Poetry Project Archilochus

Archilochus and War Poetry

Archilochus, ca. 600 BCE, was a Greek poet from Paros who changed, or at least he was the one given the credit for changing, Greek poetry in the classical age by introducing the first-person lyric. In Archilochus's work, the speaker is the subject. He was also, reputedly, such a gifted and venemous satirist that his verses caused the suicide of his enemy, Lycambes, and Lycambes's daughters. Now, that is effective verse!

What is given as Archilochus's life is drawn primarily from that poetry of his which survives, and there is little of it. He was a mercenary soldier, who famously (because he memorialized the event in a poem) fled battle against a Thracian tribe called the Saians, and ended his life slain in battle against the Naxians by a man named 'Crow' (Calondas or Corax).

The hoplite, main battle force of ancient Greece
The hoplite, main battle force of ancient Greece

Archilochus's poem "Mercenary" in which he excuses his cowardice is included in World Poetry as translated by Guy Davenport.

I don't give a damn if some Thracian ape strut

Proud of that first-rate shield the bushes got.

Leaving it was hell, but in a tricky spot

I kept my hide intact. Good shields can be bought.

A poem not included in the anthology, but speaking of bravery in war, also translated by Guy Davenport, seems on point:

Let him go ahead.

Ares is a democrat.

There are no privileged people

on a battlefield.

Archilochus provides us, then, with a soldier's view of battle in ancient Greece. The Greek military relied on a heavy infantry made up of hoplites , men in bronze armor, carrying a spear and a sword, protected by a haplon , a shield 3-3.5 ft. in diameter, running from chin to knee, and weighing between 17 and 33 pounds. In phalanx formation, each hoplite relied on the man to his right, for they were lined up so that each soldier's right was protected by the left portion of his neighbor's shield. Fleeing battle, and leaving his shield behind, then did not only mean that Archilochus saved his own skin, but also that he left another man unprotected. Unless, of course, he was running as part of a route, in which case he had also lost protection and must look to his own life.

There is no praise of unthinking courage in these poems, but a pragmatic approach to risk and warfare. Archilochus lives to fight (and get paid) another day, while those who continue to battle when the day is lost do not. As he wrote in a fragment on a pre-Trojan war battle between the Achaeans and Telephus, King of Mysia: "there exists a proper time for flight", when the gods or the tides of battle have determined there is no victory to be won.

A Spartan mother
A Spartan mother

Archilochus's willingness to abandon his shield, relying on another day of battle to come, may be taken as a direct response to the Spartan ideal of the warrior. The Spartans thought themselves the best warriors of ancient Greece. It was said that Spartan mothers sent their sons to war, admonishing them to return with their shields (alive and victorious) or on them (dead and defeated). Certainly, no Spartan mother would have felt pride in a son such as Archilochus, who would not only abandon his shield to spare his life, but let another have pride of place in the battle line.

Reading this made me think of other war poems I am familiar with, and with the way in which the address of war by poets has changed. For a long time, the soldier was eclipsed by the commander or king, and commanders and kings tended to convey their attitude towards war in poetry, created to please them, in terms of glory, a Spartan ideal. This ideal remained the guiding principle of war poetry for most of the world's history, as witnessed in Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade", a memorial of unbearable stupidity in command.

Kipling's Widow at Windsor
Kipling's Widow at Windsor


The man to most directly reinstate the soldier as the speaker of war poetry in my view was Rudyard Kipling, his reputation today somewhat stained by his associations with imperialism, although he still repays close reading and attention. His view of the Empire, and its Queen, is more nuanced in his work than is assumed, and perhaps more than he intended. Kipling provided the English-speaking and reading world with a soldier who cursed, fought, drank, knew greed and desire, and, most of all, complained. Kipling's soldiers, because they are the free inventions of a poet, and not real soldiers within the bureaucracy and administrative bounds of a military, are free to make public their claims on society. Perhaps his most famous plea for the soldier in the face of social disdain and hostility is in "Tommy":

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

Kipling's soldiers are not perfect beings, nor are they all heroes, but they are men, not caricatures of men, and this is an important advance on the war poetry typical before his time.

As an example of the more nuanced view of imperial society held by Kipling, one can peruse his poems, especially those of the soldiery and of war. One of his most compelling is "The Widow at Windsor":

Walk wide o' the Widow at Windsor,
For 'alf o' Creation she owns:
We 'ave bought 'er the same with the sword an' the flame,
An' we've salted it down with our bones.
(Poor beggars! -- it's blue with our bones!)
Hands off o' the sons o' the Widow,
Hands off o' the goods in 'er shop,
For the Kings must come down an' the Emperors frown
When the Widow at Windsor says "Stop"!
(Poor beggars! -- we're sent to say "Stop"!)
Then 'ere's to the Lodge o' the Widow,
From the Pole to the Tropics it runs --
To the Lodge that we tile with the rank an' the file,
An' open in form with the guns.
(Poor beggars! -- it's always they guns!)

Soldiers are sacrificed for the power of the Queen, and through her of the nation. As such, the nation has a responsibility to and for them, not to waste their lives needlessly and not to neglect them when they are not engaged in that fight. Following this line of reasoning, it is arguable that the British Empire fails not only its colonies, but its soldiers and its people, creating an unlivable, repugnant society for which it still expected blood sacrifices and joy.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon


Contemporaneous with an older Kipling, for he lived to lose a son in World War I, are the World War I poets themselves, primarily young men who died in the war, forming the true 'lost generation' of that time. Educated young men went to war, bearing with them their classical allusions and their poetic forms, and a romanticism that was not able to survive the realities of mass war and the trenches. Most of them did not survive the war: Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke probably number among the most well known of the fallen. Siegfried Sassoon did survive the war, but I do not think he survived it whole.

The World War I soldier-poets do not often speak of glory, and when they do it is the horrific glory of the machine of war with themselves as the object mangled by that machine. Some continue to hold to aesthetics as salvation, dwelling on fragile beauty in a nightmare landscape, but many are, as Siegfried Sassoon was, conflicted souls, bound to war by a sense of responsibility to their comrades within it. In "A Terre" Wilfred Owen writes: "One dies of war like any old disease", and his "Dulce et decorum est" is an indictment of war itself and the patriotic defense given for it.

Siegfried Sassoon exhibits a passion for war, as well as a horror of it; he is compelled to be in the machine where so many young men are. In his "A Mystic as Soldier", he writes:

Now God is in the strife,

And I must seek Him there,

Where death outnumbers life,

And fury smites the air.

Despite the horrors of war, the World War I poets of the trenches appear to have discovered, or to have clung to the conception at least, that the reality of the war transcended every other experience in life. To be away from the battle was to be less real, less united to the universe at that moment. With Kurtz they could say "The horror" and yet not be willing to leave the darkness.

German author of some very good novels set in World War II, including Night of the General, made into a movie starring Peter O'Toole
German author of some very good novels set in World War II, including Night of the General, made into a movie starring Peter O'Toole


World War I was the war that killed glory. After that, there was only slaughter, and one hoped to be among the survivors. The poetry of war turned away from explanations of the soldier's reality towards indictments of those who sent the soldiers to die, sometimes worked through with images utilizing a soldier's experience. This was not wholly new, but had been done by Dylan Thomas in "The Hand that Signed the Paper" in 1936:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

Increasingly, the story of war, and the many stories of soldiers, shifted away from the poets to the novelists--Erich M. Remarque after World War I, Faulkner's not very good Soldier's Pay, Norman Mailer, Hans Hellmut Kirst, etc. War, as it lost glory, also lost simplicity, it lost the easy way in that allowed it to be distilled into poetry. Poetry may evoke complex images and associations, but a poem the base idea of which is overburdened with qualifications and reservations will usually fail, especially in an age in which the favored type of poetry is not the epic, the very length of which allows for multiple threads to be brought in, working in and out of one another in the course of the work.

With novelists telling the stories of war, it was left to the poet's to comment on the nature of war: what is it? And poets found very little in war to praise. War is monstrous, and monster-creating. It is an exercise in human barbarity. There is little to commend it, beyond sickening necessity, and even then, well, it is not worthy of praise.

There appears to be a renewed interest in soldier's voices as we exit Iraq and still remain in Afghanistan. At least one soldier, Brian Turner, has published a book of poetry drawing on his experiences in Iraq, and perhaps more will follow. I cannot say anything about this young man's work, however, as I have not yet read it. Has anyone? What do you think of it?

This is not an exhaustive discussion of war poetry in English, still less of war poetry as a historical element of the world's literature. It is merely the thread of my thoughts in response to a few lines of Archilochus who abandoned his shield.

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