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Classical Poetry and the Martial Ethos

by Andrew Benson Brown

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The Heroic Age

Towards the end of “Egil’s Saga,” one of the masterpieces of Icelandic literature, the eponymous hero composes a verse to eulogize a fallen friend:

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Their numbers are dwindling, the famous
warriors who met with weapons
and spread gifts like the gold of day.
Where will I find generous men,
who beyond the sea that, nailed with islands,
girds the earth, showered snows of silver
on to my hands where hawks perch,
in return for my words of praise?

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Egil is remembering the deeds of his loyal friend Arinbjorn, who had been killed in battle fighting a son of Egil’s mortal enemy, King Eric Blood-Axe of Norway. But more than a simple commemorative verse, Egil expands his theme to express nostalgia for the Viking lifestyle that was already beginning to pass into memory in his lifetime. Iceland’s peaceful transition to Christianity in the year 1000 ensured that the religion and customs of the Vikings would gradually vanish, rather than be violently suppressed as it was in other places. This diplomatic coexistence facilitated the island’s vibrant storytelling culture to give rise to a unique manuscript tradition, allowing us to glimpse the lost values of a people who have captured the imagination of all future generations.

Egil Skallagrimson, who happens to be medieval Iceland’s greatest poet, was also one of the great warriors of the Viking Age. While such a dual role might seem strange or incongruous today, this was not unusual in Scandinavian culture. On the contrary, the connection between poetry and the martial ethos was a vital one. The ecstatic composition of verse was seen as being akin to the manic state of the “berserker” in battle. This perception was reflected in worship of the god Odin, patron of both poets and warriors. The former’s inspiration served to complement and commemorate the frenzied deeds of the latter. Given that these roles could co-exist in the same person, as with Egil, this sometimes amounted to boasting of one’s own accomplishments, past or prospective. Other functions relevant to the moment might include sending vengeful messages to one’s political enemies, warning friends of treachery, or encouraging bravery. Egil himself apparently composed his first verses at a feast when he was only three years old (though as large and strong as a boy of six or seven), reciting a drinking song and a paean of gratitude for the host.

Skaldic verse as exemplified by the above stanza was popular in Scandinavian court culture of the 10th and 11th centuries, and poets held positions of authority comparable to the respect scientists are accorded in our own society. At the beginning of “Egil’s Saga,” we are given the following description of Harald Fairhair’s court, the father of Eric Blood-Axe and the first King of Norway: “Of all his followers, the king held his poets in highest regard, and let them sit on the bench opposite his high seat.” Included in this list of honorees are the colorfully named “Audun the Uninspired,” “Thorbjorn Raven,” “Olvir Hump,” and “Bard the White,” also known as “Bard the Strong.” The epithets alone tell us a great deal about a culture where a father would allot his son a predetermined destiny by naming him “Bard” and abandon him to live at court. These poets accompany King Harald on his expedition of Norwegian conquest, fighting alongside the berserkers. Those who live amass great wealth, and those who die achieve immortal glory.

After being introduced to these poets, we meet Egil. Stubborn, arrogant, and brooding, we follow his life story as his brutal but unbending sense of justice leads him to take revenge for personal sleights and perceived treachery. His intergenerational feud with the Norwegian royal family brings him fame and misfortune alike. Throughout the saga, eight-line stanzaic verses are integrated into the prose to express emotions, deepen characterization, and emphasize that the field of conflict is as much about verbal acrobatics as it is clashing swords. There are three longer poems as well. In one chapter when Egil is about to be executed by Eric Blood-Axe, he recites a twenty-stanza ode in praise of the king and is allowed to leave unmolested. The scene shows how Egil’s temperamental nature is the source of both his spontaneous poetic recitation and the violent behavior that gets him into so much trouble: the two vocations interpenetrate and inflate his greatness in each arena. Were he just a good poet or a good warrior he would not only be seen as a lesser practitioner in both categories, but would never have even survived to old age. In the end he retires to Iceland, unable to reconcile his obstinate ways and semi-outlaw status with a changing Norwegian society.

“Egil’s Saga” is generally believed to have been written by Snorri Sturluson, Egil’s descendant and the father of Icelandic literature. Snorri was also a poet, and used many of his own compositions in writing the “Háttatal,” the final section of the Prose Edda that functions as a poetry textbook. As Iceland’s most famous lawspeaker, twice-elected to that nation’s highest political office, he approximated Shelley’s ideal of the Poet as Legislator of the World—and an acknowledged one, to boot—until being assassinated by his political enemies.

Many of the sagas of Icelanders feature poetry as integral to the story and characters. In addition to describing swaggering poet-warriors like Egil, four sagas feature love poets as their main protagonists. Lest one think that Hallfred the Troublesome Poet or Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue are tranquil troubadour-types, however, the plots of these sagas usually involve rival versifiers spitting metaphorical acid at one another while vying for the same woman. Even in Old Norse romantic poetry, the martial ethos prevailed.

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Versifying Valor

While the sagas of Icelanders reflect the particularities of Viking culture, they also embody the general mores of a brutal pre-industrial world where poetry and violence were often intermingled. The Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita both portray societies where ethics is governed by honor, although Krishna counsels Arjuna to uphold a sense of duty rooted in “selfless action” that Achilles (if not Hector) would have found baffling.

The ecstatic Viking poet-warrior, too, had his parallels in other times and places. The parallel Greek notion of the poet receiving divine inspiration from the muse comes to mind, and while actual poetic composition involves at least as much perspiration as inspiration, such perceptions are undeniably useful. Many of the greatest writers of ancient Greece and Rome eschewed the modern obligation to specialize. Sophocles was elected as a general based on the public esteem for his new play “Antigone,” and shortly afterwards he assisted Pericles in suppressing a rebellion on the island of Samos. Horace fought on the losing side at the Battle of Philippi, where (so he tells us in one of odes) he threw away his shield and ran, only to be veiled in mist by Mercury so that he could live to write poetic compositions. While there is no direct evidence for it, I find it hard to believe that the Spartan lyric poet Alcman was not raised in the manner Plutarch describes as the standard rigorous upbringing for a boy in that society. Aeschylus’s gravestone epitaph spoke only of his “noble prowess” in “the grove of Marathon,” and mentioned nothing of his verse dramas. His “Oresteia” trilogy, like “Egil’s Saga,” is also about a world transitioning to a legal system where honor-bound revenge-killings no longer have a place.

Fast-forward to Medieval Europe and we find another figure worthy of Egil: Taillefer, a minstrel at the Norman court of William the Conqueror. At the Battle of Hastings, Taillefer recited “The Song of Roland” on the front lines to boost morale and taunt the enemy. He then singlehandedly led a charge against the English army that supposedly turned the tide of the conflict. So if you ever encounter the test question, “Why is modern England the way it is?” you can answer: “Because of Taillefer.” The professor will probably give you failing marks, but you will not be wrong. I defer here to the German poet Ludwig Uhland’s description of the scene:

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So Taillefer rode on before the glittering Norman line
Upon his stately steed, and waved a sword of temper fine;
Above the embattled plain his song rang all the tumult o’er–
Of Roland’s knightly deeds he sang and many a hero more.

And as the noble song of old with tempest-might swelled out,
The banners waved and knights pressed on with war-cry and with shout;
And every heart among the host throbbed prouder still and higher,
And still through all sang Taillefer, and blew the battle-fire.

Then forward, lance in rest, against the waiting foe he dashed,
And at the shock an English knight from out the saddle crashed;
Anon he swung his sword and struck a grim and grisly blow,
And on the ground beneath his feet an English knight lay low.

The Norman host his prowess saw, and followed him full fain;
With joyful shouts and clang of shields the whole field rang again,
And shrill and fast the arrows sped, and swords made merry play—
Until at last King Harold fell, his stubborn carles gave way.

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According to most accounts the enemy troops overwhelmed Taillefer, who was apparently still singing the “Chanson de Roland” while killing at least five English soldiers. In Uhland’s ballad, though, he survives to drink a victory toast with William.

Several later poets in the English tradition combined their roles with that of soldier. Chaucer fought in the Hundred Years’ War, and was captured and ransomed. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who helped Thomas Wyatt introduce the sonnet into English literature, was another warrior whose quarrelsome temper got him into trouble. Despite advice to seek “the quiet mind; / The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;” and other such peaceable exhortations in one of his most famous poems, Surrey had a hard time keeping boon companions. Unlike Egil’s brush with Eric Blood-Axe, his versifying talents did not save him from being beheaded by Henry VIII. Another great sonneteer of the Tudor period, Sir Philip Sidney, was shot in the thigh while fighting the Spanish and died of gangrene a month later. Lord Byron famously joined the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottomans, but was laid low by fever while leading a campaign.

In general then, it would seem that personally embodying the martial ethos does not bode well for bards. Egil was a lucky case. More often, poets of the modern age wrote about war rather than practicing it themselves. As late as the 19th century, Victorian poets still celebrated the heroic spirit that had led them to become masters of the world. Tennyson, the representative poet of the age, frequently addressed questions of empire in his poems. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is one of the great commemorative poems in British history. It paid tribute to a shocking military disaster during the Crimean War, and its immortal lines, “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die,” have long outlasted any public memory of the event itself. Equally famous are the closing lines of “Ulysses,” which have been seen as encapsulating the entire Victorian worldview:

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We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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Queen Victoria so admired Tennyson’s work that in 1884 she named him Baron Tennyson. It was the first time someone has been raised into the nobility on the basis of literary merit alone.

The other best-known example of our theme from this period is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s collection, Lays of Ancient Rome—one of the last successful poetic expressions of pure martial valor and nobility. Better remembered today as a historian, Macaulay’s ballads about the early Roman republic were hugely popular upon their initial publication and became mandatory reading in public schools for over a century. Winston Churchill won a student prize for memorizing them as a teenager. Surprisingly, there are still a few places where this cultural practice lives on. Highlands Latin, a private Christian school in Louisville, Kentucky, has something called The Horatius Society. Each year its 6th graders, along with homeschoolers participating in its online academy, can gain admission to this exclusive club by reciting from memory all 560 lines of “Horatius at the Bridge,” which contains the once-famous stanza:

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Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.”

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One can even watch a list of charming YouTube videos that record these children’s recitations (which, depending on speed of delivery, take 15 to 20 minutes). Some are quite theatrical, full of dramatic gesticulations. One orator was only nine years old at the time of participating. Budding bards who complete this impressive feat are awarded a certificate in a public ceremony and receive an engraved bronze medal featuring an armor-clad Horatius standing guard in front of the Sublician bridge. Highlands Latin School is proof that children can still obtain a real education today if their parents know where to look. Churchill would be proud of these young Virgilians.

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An Age of Wimps

Aside from occasional traditionalists who homeschool their children or send them to private religious academies, such educational programs are long a thing of the past. Poetry stopped celebrating martial valor at the outbreak of the First World War. It is notable that, unlike in the idealizing Victorian Age, the best poets of this period were all soldiers thoroughly disillusioned with their drafted vocation. Wilfred Owen’s innovations in jarring pararhyme and jerky iambic meter created a haunting verisimilitude to being gassed or meeting dead soldiers in the underworld. Given the horrors of mechanized warfare it is understandable that he would focus on the existential meaninglessness of it all, especially when his own personal tragedy is weighed in the balance. One might speak of Owen’s final year of life as his annus horribilis: writing all of his poems while recuperating in a hospital, then returning to the front to be killed a week before the Armistice.

The last notable poem on our subject (in English at least) is probably Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:

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From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

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The image of the gunner “hunched upside-down in his little sphere…like the fetus in the womb,” as Jarrell wrote in an explanatory note to the poem, is a powerful one, and I must confess that this is my favorite free-verse poem. Nevertheless, its negative view of institutionalized violence has served as the swan song for martial poetry. Since Jarrell, no successful poet has written about war.

And yet the popularity of shows like HBO’s “Band of Brothers” or the recent film “The Outpost,” about the Medal of Honor recipients at the Battle of Kamdesh, proves that war’s horror is not unmixed with its glory. Even though the former experience may predominate today (and always did, really), there are still those who occasionally bask in the latter. “The Outpost” managed to convey both qualities well in a way that is not ironic or negative like the best films about Vietnam or Iraq.

So, given the fair number of decent war films, one might expect to see a comparable revival in poetry that, if not glorifying war, at least highlights its nobility in equal measure with its familiar nightmarish traits. But one has not seen this. Why?

The answer is partly due to aesthetic, and partly cultural, reasons. Free verse is not particularly suited to telling a story. When bent to the narrative mode the result is rambling and tedious, as Tim Miller’s civil war epic, “To the House of the Sun,” demonstrates. Nor does one ever seem to encounter free verse poems that praise a subject or treat a theme in a positive way—unless that subject is the writer. Irony, emotional negativity, and narcissism predominate.

If free verse seems the wrong direction to look towards in launching an aesthetic counter-revolution, the free verse poet is even more of a dead end. A wimp, a nerd, a “victim” whining over imaginary oppressions, the free verse poet is the Anti-Egil: more of a partial human than a martial one. In place of a coherent ethos, one encounters the bathos of identity politics, with its never-ending redefinitions of categories. From the sublime heights of classical poetry we have lapsed into the trivial and unintentionally ridiculous. In place of genuine passion and excitement, we are treated to confessions of mental illness and childish exhortations to just “be nice.” Where Egil endured the Ragnarok-like environment of remote Iceland, Instapoet Rupi Kaur barely survives a blip in her Internet service.

As long as the diversity bureaucracy is ascendant, with its domination of publishing venues, prize boards, and educational institutions, it will promote proletarian literature that is “safe,” “accepting”—and sterilized of anything real. In such a climate of infantile vocabularies and socialist agendas, high quality formal poetry has little chance of becoming popular, whatever the subject or theme. To circumvent mainstream degeneracy, alternative routes of cultural transmission must continue to be paved. While this may seem like an unrealistic goal, it is more a question of maintaining a momentum that has already begun. As legacy media continues to discredit itself by making a bedfellow of radicalism, younger outlets like The Daily Wire and The Epoch Times are slowly gaining traction.

Attitude is everything. It is naïve to think that the struggle against Western decline is anything less than a war. We cannot, like the Viking poet-warriors of old, “go to the dueling-place” and swing our swords like “a serpent inflicting wounds,” “silence troublemakers with iron” to “feed eagle flesh,” be “makers of blood-waves for ravens,” or “wet our stout branches” with “the war-goddess’s wound-sea.” In the age of law and officialdom, we must remain nonviolent. But this does not mean we should cultivate a posture of passive conciliation and compromise. There seems to be no longer enough common ground for mutual understanding, and the opposition grows more aggressive with every new concession made. As Egil warned, “No cuckoo will alight knowing / that the squawking eagle prowls.” For our purposes, one might choose to interpret this as: “be wary of attending poetry workshops where you are invited to ‘have a conversation.’” Stand up to the bullies and liars tearing down America. And where possible, couch any violent threats in the enigmatic diction of Old Norse kennings to maintain plausible deniability.

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Notes

1. Bernard Scudder’s 2005 translation of Egil’s eulogy for Arinbjorn, included above, does not preserve the six-syllable structure, use of regular alliteration, or mix of full rhymes with half-rhymes that is typical of the eight-line “dróttkvætt” (or “court meter”) stanza. By way of comparison, here is W.C. Green’s 1893 translation that, while archaic, gives more of a sense of what it would have been like in Old Norse. Note the alternation of two alliterative sounds in odd lines with one sound at the beginning of even lines:

Mead-givers, glorious men,
Gold-spending warrior wights
Are spent and gone. Where seek
Such lavish donors now?
Erewhile, beyond the sea,
Earth’s islet-studded belt,
Such on my high hawk-perch
Hailed down the silver shower.

2. The passage from Ludwig Uhland’s ballad “Taillefer” was translated by A.I. du Pont Coleman. It is the only English translation I am aware of.

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Andrew Benson Brown has had poems and reviews published in a few journals. His epic-in-progress, Legends of Liberty, will chronicle the major events of the American Revolution if he lives to complete it. Though he writes history articles for American Essence magazine, he lists his primary occupation on official forms as ‘poet.’ He is, in other words, a vagabond.


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6 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Truly, this is a brilliant, inspired essay that should be read by all readers and poets on SCP and far beyond. There is so much in it that I love! First, I confess to being no where near as knowledgeable about Icelandic/Nordic literature as ABB, but heroic values are heroic values and they speak to us at all times – hence, to the dismay of the literati, the popularity of, say, Lord of the Rings (which modernists disdain). But I love the anecdote of Egil … about to be executed by Eric Blood-Axe and being reprieved because he recites poetry! How awesome is that – what a great spirit must have been Eric B-A to have allowed it. I am reminded of Gaius Mucius who, by putting his hand in the fire and allowing it to be burned off to show his bravery, earned the respect of Lars Porsena, who then rescinded his death sentence. These stories are just so sublime. Second, I totally agree with the analysis of the failure of heroism in C20th verse; but let’s not forget Yeats – the image of Cuchulain gone mad and fighting with the ‘invulnerable tide’; and another who could write some serious war poems (this time from WW2) was, a personal favourite of mine, Keith Douglas. Finally, yes, let’s fight against this corruption, this decay, this self-obsession at the heart of free verse; this nihilism, actually. Great piece Andrew – your work seems to me to go from strength to strength, and not everyone who is a fine poet can write trenchant prose – you have that double gift.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks as always James for your appreciative words. I looked up the Cuchulain poem by Yeats and greatly enjoyed it. Will have to check out Keith Douglas as well. So yes there are a few holdouts in the 20 C and our own times as well. Gotta fight against the tide.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    Excellent essay, Andrew, considering both the work and the character of the poet. Even those who do not fight could take up the challenge to write with sympathy for the martial ethos. As well as lacking good narratives, we seem not to have shorter descriptive works (that is, battle poetry regarding incidents of heroism or decisive conflict) or even memorial odes acknowledging valor as admirable.

    As part of your history, I would like to add chivalric poetry, even in its later manifestations. I have translated a late medieval lyric sequence which considers the character and profession of the warrior, most especially as love is his principal motive. This seems rather theoretical and separated from the realities of violent war–but three of the four poets who composed the work later went on crusade to the east. Two were killed in battle, and one who was ransomed died on the way home as a result of ill treatment he had experienced as a prisoner of war. They lived in an heroic age when love, loyalty, lordship, friendship, military training, and religious devotion held important places. And they invited responses to their literary work, even specifying a required lyric form!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Am planning to write a piece somewhere down the line about the great Renaissance epics of Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser, and the chivalric ideals they put forth. Also can’t forget about Chretien de Troyes. Their work is all incredibly elegant in the way they combine fighting with love and romance. Am very interested in reading your warrior lyric sequence when it appears, if a selection is not already somewhere on the site. Amazing to think there were once people whose job it was to travel around swearing oaths to save maidens…at least in the stories, anyway. But then there were real knights like William Marshal who did seem to (mostly) live up to the ideal. So not that much of a fantasy after all, maybe.

      Reply
  3. The Society

    Thank you for a brilliant essay, Andrew. I am reminded also of the samurai of traditional Japan who formed the highest class in Japanese society for centuries. They were expected to be poets, scholars, administrators, and officials in addition to being ready to cut a foe in two at any time. This is one of my favorite excerpts from the samurai code, the Bushido:

    Now then, when it comes to the study of poetry, in accord with Japanese custom there have been famous generals and valiant knights throughout history who have mastered the art of composing poetry. So even if you are a warrior in minor rank, it is desirable to take an interest in poetry and even be able to compose the occasional verse.

    Even so, if you cast everything else aside to concentrate solely on poetry, before you know it your heart and your face soften, and you get to look like an aristocratic samurai, losing the manner of a warrior. In particular, if you become too fond of this modern fashion of haikai, then even in the assemblies of reserved colleagues you may tend to come forth with puns, bon mots, and clever lines. It may be amusing at the time, but it is something to be avoided by someone who is a warrior. (Translation by Thomas Cleary)

    Evan
    SCP Editor

    Reply
    • ABB

      This is a great passage from the Bushido. Interesting that cultivation in the arts is common to honor-based warrior cultures across far-flung times and places. A human universal of sorts, perhaps. I imagine Castiglione’s ideal courtier would also probably agree with not being too over-cultivated in one direction at the expense of prowess. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply

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