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“The instruments of Destiny”: Reception of Iliad in American Great War Poetry 

By Claire Davis
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site

One hundred years from the conclusion of the First World War, much of the classical reception in the war poetry of the early twentieth century remains unexamined. Most notably in this area, Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver’s recent book Stand in the Trench, Achilles challenges the persistent notion that all World War I poets refuted the tradition of their forefathers through her examination of classically-inspired poetry. Partially due to the late entry of the American forces in the First World War and partially because of the decline in classical education across the country, the small pool of American war poetry does not lend itself as easily to analysis, especially when the memory surrounding the First World War in America remains so vague.

Nevertheless, despite these inhibitors, a close reading of American war poetry before and during the First World War reveals that poets and their audience also found meaning and representation in the classical tradition in works such as the Iliad. However, the American classical tradition differentiates itself from its British counterparts by showcasing the nations’ disparate experiences in the war as well as their differing cultural values and self-images.

Liebermann Werner Jaeger 300Werner JaegerOne of the most striking ways that classical tradition impacted British culture was how it bred a type of soldier that viewed their status in society as the product of a legacy based on courtesy and discipline. Werner Jaeger argues in his book Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, that the most famous of classical authors, Homer, “presents the courtesy of his heroes as an absolute value; not as an unimportant background to their life, but as a real factor in their superiority . . . it gives them a special excellence, which they justify both by their grand and noble deeds, and by their blameless conduct in happiness and misery alike.”1 This justification of the elite in Greek culture and later British culture bred young men and women who were fully conscious of their ancestors’ superiority and inspired them to live up to their example. The British societal system perpetuated a widespread demand for knowledge of the classics and its virtues, and since most of the higher officers in the British army were public-school graduates or attendees,2 it was only natural that a major part of the British army be well versed in authors such as Plato or Homer and that a number may later refer to them to better explain their own war-time experiences.

While the classical tradition was not confined to a certain view or treatment, Vandiver finds a few major themes of sacrifice and idealism within British war poetry. She writes that the prevailing conception of the war as more than a struggle between nations put increased pressure on British civilians and soldiers, who were told that they were “defending civilization itself” through their service.3 Britain’s idealistic basis for entering the war elevated the status of the soldier and his combat to extraordinary heights in the contemporary mind to where any man could become a selfless hero and any skirmish the stuff of epic. Portraying the British soldier as an extension of the very culture that he defends is a way to claim and support the tradition to both contemporary and future audiences. Furthermore, the poet fulfills the function of epic poetry by honoring the soldiers for their bravery and thus committing their memory to eternity, which provides the soldier immortal glory, or kleos. By incorporating it into their work, British poets strengthened their nation’s ties to the classical tradition and acknowledged the platform of idealism that surrounded the British perceptions of the war.

While the classical roots of British education built the soldier as an epic hero, the prominent Christian intellectual tradition from which the British public-school system stemmed tempered the portrayal of such a hero. Instead of only praising the soldier’s heroic actions on the battlefield, which are heightened by his willingness to die committing them, the poet transforms the soldier’s death into a purely sacrificial act. Vandiver writes that the impulse to relate young soldiers’ deaths to that of Christ’s is common across all contemporary war poets, even those most pessimistic about the war and most embittered against it.4 As each poet grappled with the roles of the Christian and the classical tradition in their works, he or she acknowledged the foundational basis of each culture on their own modern society and reflected his or her view of the battlefield – as a testing ground for glory and a sacred altar for civilization’s survival.

In contrast, the American experience with the classical tradition was one of distant appreciation and evocation. With the American political revolution against British control also came a complicated intellectual revolution, wherein founding politicians such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton married classical precedents with contemporary empiricism to justify their political theory while also condemning a feudal tradition. As a result of removing itself from the European chain of tradition, America’s adoration of the classics became more detached rather than wholly accepted. Elzbieta Foeller-Pituch goes so far as to say that “Americans see themselves as ‘immune’ to the deep experience of classical antiquity, as mere observers of the power of old myths, for better or worse unable to participate fully in it. Their grappling with the classical myths constitutes an element in their self-identity, partly a rejection of the power of the Old World, partly a fascination with a tradition alive to them only in marble and in books.”5

carl richard photo1Carl RichardCarl J. Richard concurs but qualifies the reason for American “immunity,” as he thinks that the American motivation stems not from a traditional, nebulous sense of glory but rather a material manifestation of it, often in the form of property: “From the beginning, Americans had been a pragmatic and commercial people, but one who had simultaneously harbored a reverence for tradition, both Christian and classical, and who had seen in these theistic and humanistic traditions a crucial means of moderating their own penchant for utilitarianism and materialism.”6 The distancing of the American tradition from the classical tradition means that any classical references within American intellectual and literary pursuits become referential to its own values and morals rather than reinforce claims of ancient valor and lineage.

Due to the empirical beginnings of its intellectual tradition, America’s appreciation of the classics stems mostly from its founders’ adoration of the Roman Republic, which reveals itself in constitutions, political treatises, and publications from its inception. The writers of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers all used prominent Roman senators as pen-names to evoke their authority in common newspapers. As the nation encountered civil law cases without direct precedent, the courts and judges often referred to Roman civil law as a suitable basis until more definite laws could be written.7 Nevertheless, the Greek origins of democracy did not escape notice; Richard notes that just before the American Civil War, when “the Western World became enthralled by the Greek quest for independence from the Ottoman Empire, American educators placed a new emphasis on the ancient Greek language and culture, studies that had traditionally taken a back seat to Latin in the schools.”8 In addition to the Greek Revolution, Richard also attributes America’s sudden interest in ancient Greek culture to the influence of German Hellenism, which inspired colleges to teach Greek drama, Greek history, and the Greek language for the first time in the nation’s history.9 From its prevalence in politics and education, it seems apparent that the combined influence of the egalitarian principles of Athens and the cool rationality of Rome remained a constant ideal for American leaders and citizens alike.

Like in Britain, the cultural literacy of classics in America stems from the prominence of classical texts in the school system. American elite and working-class fathers alike judged a classical education worthy of time and money for its moral and political value and urged their sons to attend colleges for the best opportunities.10 The driving impetus behind the persistence of classical studies in American schools can be found succinctly in the famous Yale Report. Published in 1828 and written by the current president in response to a push for more technical training in schools, the essay argues for a classical education’s moral value. President Day writes that the goal of his institution is to cultivate proper duties and obligations beyond the realm of material property and that “the active, enterprising character of our population renders it highly important that this bustle and energy should be directed by sound intelligence, the result of deep thought and early discipline.”11 The “sound intelligence” in question comes best from the tried-and-true methods of classical teaching, and Day goes so far as to declare that “the models of ancient literature, which are put into the hands of the young student, can hardly fail to imbue [the student’s] mind with the principles of liberty, to inspire the liveliest patriotism, and to excite to noble and generous action, and are therefore peculiarly adapted to the American youth.”12 As seen in this statement from a leading, contemporary college of the time, the conception of America as the idealistic inheritor of the classical tradition above any other nation remained unshakeable in the minds of the upper echelons of society.

Nevertheless, in an ironic twist of history, America’s self-image as the moral and intellectual extension of the classical tradition met its end in the Roman Republic’s fashion – through civil war. The interruption of the Confederacy’s secession and the resulting war drew scholars from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to the battlefield, and though the Land-Grant College Act of 1862 allowed for many more schools to open during and after the Southern surrender, the law granted federal money for the founding of colleges “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”13 Instead of continuing the classical tradition and authority of the moral lessons of the past, American higher education began to look towards the future by setting aside funding for research and inventing specialized schools for certain occupations. America’s virtue of rationality, which originally stemmed from its classical education, was to be the tradition’s doom – Arthur M. Cohen remarks that at the close of the nineteenth century, “rationality was the mark of a modern university. An emphasis on religion, reliance on authority, and study of the classics were in full retreat.”14 The abandonment of the classics for modern knowledge in the years before the Great War increased the “observational” attitude of Americans towards the classical tradition, but, ultimately, the decades of adoration of the classics ensured that the stories and texts were a major part of America’s cultural legacy to its sons.

George Edward Woodberry 300George Edward WoodberryThe American concern over moral education influenced the way that the nation thought about the First World War. The preface to Book of Verse of the Great War, a poetry anthology collected and published by W. Reginald Wheeler in 1917, presents the war as unlike any other because of its general nature. He writes that unlike prior wars, the Great War offers no chance for a hero to rise from the trenches and, like his contemporary Englishmen, believes that “the thought is not so intent on the glory of the smashing blow as on the sacrificial consecration of the spirit.”15 However, he goes on to write that “the enthusiasm that inspires [these poems] is for the most part not merely martial, not merely patriotic, but moral.”16 This moral conception of the First World War is apparent elsewhere in poems like George Edward Woodbury’s “Sonnet VII” and Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen in France,” which concern not the division of power or the messy web of alliances involved in the conflict but the moral implications of the war’s outcome.

The American concern over the First World War, then, in the minds of its contemporary writers, focuses on the ideals being promoted by each side of the conflict rather than the survival of civilization, in contrast to the British mindset.

American poets may have tempered classical virtues such as bravery and courtesy with their own cultural values, but they did echo the classical tradition through their conception of the morality of aesthetics, which Jaeger explores in detail. Jaeger writes that “the Greeks always felt that a poet was in the broadest and deepest sense the educator of his people.”17 Nevertheless, Jaeger qualifies that this can only be done well “when it expresses all the aesthetic and moral potentialities of mankind.”18 The Homeric epics are classic examples of instructive poetry – through their close examination of character and the situational ethics of major conflict, the audience learns proper ethical responses to minor problems in their own lives. Since both the Iliad and the Odyssey display two different moral codes in two different contexts, they cover a range of experiences available to the ancient listener. The two epics, to him, represent the lasting need for didacticism in art and the importance of courtesy in heroic figures. Without the superior example of discipline found in epic, virtue cannot be as easily taught to its younger generations, a belief that many American poets seemed to ascribe to through their constant moralizing of the war effort in verse.

Jonathan ShayJonathan ShayAmerican concern for defending its ethics does not only apply to its work abroad – a sense of morality is also necessary among the troops to ensure cooperation. Dr. Jonathan Shay writes about the importance of just martial ethics in his book Achilles in Vietnam and asserts that an army, as a microcosm with its own mythos and traditions, forms a legitimate moral world governed by “themis,” or a culture’s definition of right and wrong.19 The themis of an army comes utterly from its co-dependence, as Shay argues that “our virtues and our dignity arise from our mortality, our humanity.”20 For the American soldier, a large part of themis is fairness, both in distribution of risk and accrual of goods, which Shay found as he examined the betrayal of justice through his experience as a therapist for Vietnam veterans.21 Shay’s research applies to the First World War as well, as seen in the focus of community within its war poetry. Countless poems, such as Alan Seeger’s “The Hosts,” Herbert Kaufman’s “The Song of the Many,” and Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Bouquet,” refer to the army or the dead as the collective, and while this may be more of a comment on the staggering death rate, the effect only furthers the conception of the army’s tight, family-like connection.

Nevertheless, the moral system of an army is not guaranteed. Shay writes that an army, like any other community, needs constant reinforcement of its themis through the actions of its leaders.22 He himself draws upon the classical tradition as he relates the emotions of his patients with those found in the Iliad: “when they perceived that distribution of risk was unjust, they became filled with indignant rage, just as Achilles was filled with menis, indignant rage.”23 With the breakdown of themis through repeated injustices comes the breakdown of trust within the ranks, and, ultimately, the breakdown of the individual’s sense of morality, which creates an isolated and unstable person, not unlike Achilles in his berserker state following Patroclus’ death.24 The slight in question does not have to affect the individual personally to contribute to moral breakdown; rather, Shay asserts that “the moral strength of an army is impaired by every injustice, whether it personally touches an individual soldier or not.”25 It is all the more important to the American soldier in the trenches of World War I that he is fighting a moral war – he himself knows the cost of losing through his own experience with injustice, however slight, within his own social code.

Because of the moral aspects of the war, the American conception of the First World War also centered around the missional nature of the army’s service. Like the British collection, many American war poems revolve around the theme of sacrifice, but instead of portraying death as a salvation for the nation, the American soldier’s death is likened to that of a salvation of the world. Joyce Kilmer’s “Memorial Day,” which opens with the epigraph of Horace’s line “dulce et decorum est,” proclaims the fallen soldiers to have “plunged for Freedom and the Right.”26 As seen through the lack of specifics about the First World War and the general terms surrounding the memorial service, the soldiers eulogized in the poem bring universal, ideal Freedom to the world, rather than the freedom of part of Europe or America itself. Furthermore, he advocates for such behavior from all citizens by alluding to Horace’s famous line, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” or “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” However, in this case, the soldiers did not die as citizens of America but as citizens of the world, spreading the mission of American freedom beyond its physical boundaries.

All of these elements found in American and British collections of First World War poetry are also can be encapsulated in each culture’s response to and use of Homer’s Iliad in their own contexts. Vandiver spends an entire chapter on the compelling allusions to the Trojan War in British works of poetry, wherein she writes that “the main function served by the Trojan War for poets describing the Great War was to reinforce the belief in the nobility and essential validity of the modern soldiers’ struggles, especially at Gallipoli but on the Western Front as well.”27 The legend served a similar function to its American audience but, like the British, incorporated its themes and characters to fit alongside contemporary American values.

death of sarpedon 500The death of Sarpedon One of the primary ways that American poets drew on the Iliad was to display their own soldiers on a quest for kleos. Homer assumes that every person strives for some lasting presence on their culture, and due to the mortal nature of each soldier, that influence must come not from physical immortality but the immortality of their actions through song and verse. Sarpedon’s inspirational speech to Glaucon as the Trojan army begins the push to the Argive ships gives an excellent description of the thought process behind the quest for kleos:

Ah, my friend, if you and I could escape this fray
and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,
I would never fight on the front lines again
or command you to the field where men win fame.
But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,
thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive
can flee them or escape – so in we go for attack!
Give our enemy glory or win it for ourselves!28

Sarpedon’s qualification at the beginning indicates an important caveat – no one prefers the dangerous and deadly fray to a life of immortal peace. In fact, part of what makes the Homeric gods worthy of worship is their inability to die, which gains them eternal fame and glory. However, since physical immortality is unavailable to the common man, the warriors’ only chance at eternal glory comes through their heroic, death-defying acts on the battlefield. To gain glory and fame in the Iliad is to risk everything precious to the individual for the chance to be remembered.

Herbert C. Kaufman 300Herbert C. KaufmanLikewise, American poets also wrote about the goal of glory for their soldiers but cast it in a less gain-seeking light. Herbert Kaufman in his poem “Hell-Gate of Soissons” relates the courageous and death-defying acts of twelve Allied soldiers in their attempts to damage a bridge across the Aisne at Soissons. The speaker of the poem, an invented French veteran named Darino, plays the same role as the unnamed narrator in the Iliad as the narrator of a tale of valor, which contributes honor to the fallen. Kaufman’s pointed emphasis on the dangerous conditions and the quick deaths of the soldiers recall the same themes in the Iliad as Achilles contemplates the point of glory in Book 9:

No, what lasting thanks in the long run
for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end?
One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death.29

While Achilles is safe in his camp during his rumination, Darino the poet is in the midst of fighting as he remarks that “it was madness to dare the dense murder that spewed from those ghastly machines” and states casually that “ten there were – and ten are no more!”30 He could not participate in the mission to detonate the bridge – he mentions earlier that he lost his leg at this particular battle31 - but regardless of the dark equality of his imminent death and those of the heroic privates, he praises them for their service by committing their brave acts to tale and verse, commenting that “these English are soldiers – they know how to try; / (He fumbles the place where his jaw was) – they show, too, how heroes can die.”32 Since the poem was published in 1917, the year prior to direct American involvement, Kaufman’s poem is more likely to inspire Americans to similar feats of valor rather than examine the nature of American bravery in situations where it had not been tested yet.

A dissenting voice among the canon, though, recasts glory in less than flattering terms. Alan Seeger’s poem “The Hosts” characterizes the fallen soldiers as “men that have taken the vows” and “moved by the powers that force / the sea for ever to ebb and rise,” which recalls the same fate-bound situation of the Homeric heroes. Nevertheless, Seeger’s troops lack the agency found in the Iliad.33 He proclaims that “they seem / to follow the goddess with outspread wings / That points towards Glory, the soldier’s dream,” but instead of choosing to fight for eternal fame, they “sought exultation and craved excess: / To sound the wildest debauch in life.”34 The speaker goes further to say, “Let idlers argue the right and wrong / And weight what merit our causes had.”35 For Seeger’s speaker, at least, glory is a by-product of a fatal hedonism unconcerned with ethics or fame, which stands in direct opposition to the classical Greek ethos.

Alan Seeger 300Alan SeegerThis opinion naturally contradicts the mainstream conception of the American involvement in the war as a moral statement, and such cynicism may stem from the difference in depicting wounds and death between the Iliad and American First World War poetry. Vandiver comments on this in British poetry and writes that “the most significant differences between the modern war and the ancient one lie both in the type of combat and, perhaps most importantly, in the depictions of wounds and death.”36 Shay concurs in his research with Vietnam veterans and distinguishes between death and suffering in war: “Homer denies the suffering of the wounded by declaring them dead within moments of being cut, stabbed, or crushed. In reality, to die of war wounds is usually to die in lingering agony and madness.”37 The disconnect between traditional, heroic depictions of death and the actual, horrific scenes of death engineered by the industrialization of weapons during the First World War contributes to the jarring shock that soldiers and civilians felt alike, which caused them to return to their literary backgrounds to cope.

The depictions of death in the Iliad reflect a clear understanding of the physical world in absolutes. As Vandiver and Shay already acknowledged, the warriors’ deaths in the epic are quick and relatively painless. In the first extended fighting sequence in book IV, Diomedes kills the Trojan archer Pandarus, and the poet relates that the Argive’s spear

split the archer’s nose between the eyes –
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin
. . .
and his life and power slipped away on the wind.38

The graphic imagery of Pandarus’ death does not fully compensate for the fact that his death, while brutal, takes place in seconds and with relatively little pain, as seen in the literal path the spear takes, cutting the brain stem, and the figurative language of his breath having “slipped away on the wind.”39 Even Hector and Patroclus, who get extended last words as their conqueror jeers over them, merely prophesy doom before “Death cut him short.”40 Soldiers do not linger in epic – instead, the moment of their death is itself a stark boundary between the vitality that imbues these men and the absolute loss that comes with death.

fighting over body of patroclus friend of achilles during trojan warFighting over body of Patroclus during the Trojan WarIn another absolute, each death in the Iliad is final without mention of a meaningful afterlife or continuation of the soul. Often, warriors’ deaths are accompanied by the phrase, “the dark came swirling thick across his eyes,” as is the case with Democoon’s death at the hands of Odysseus early in the epic.41 The all-encompassing dark, as well as the fall of the body into the dust and the blood, are most often the last descriptors of a warrior fallen in battle. Patroclus and Hector earn mention of their souls “winging down to the House of Death,” but their spark of life does not live out its days in an underworld of any kind.42 Even Patroclus’ ghost is no continuation of life, however meager - Achilles remarks after his visitation in Book XXIII that “in Death’s strong house there is something left, / a ghost, a phantom – true, but no real breath of life.”43 For the early Greek hero, life is finite and firmly bounded by the soul’s existence on earth, which raises the stakes immensely as warriors must weigh their lives against their chance at immortality through fame.

Nevertheless, death in the Iliad is not absolute when considering the supernatural forces of the poem. There is a major element of Fate tied into the deaths of the Argives and Trojans, as seen through the evocative image of Zeus’ scales in determining the battle between Achilles and Hector.44 Zeus’ impartiality in weighing their lives shows that Fate is a force separate from the Olympians. Even Fate is not absolute, however – Achilles mentions that “two fates bear me on to the day of death,” which further delineates his unique status in the epic but also proves that Fate is not omnipotent nor fixed.45 Additionally, the Olympian gods have some control over the fate of men, as seen in Zeus’ agony over his son Sarpedon’s imminent death in Book XVI and his similar anxieties over Hector in Book XXII, for which Athena scolds him:

. . .
what are you saying? A man, a mere mortal,
his doom sealed long ago? You’d set him free
from all the pains of death?
Do as you please –
but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you.46

Her response reveals that fate can easily be subverted through divine action but is held in check by the mutual respect of the other gods, who all require sacrifice and praise as representation of their immortal glory. Hera corroborates her claim with further detail books prior, at the scene of Sarpedon’s death: “if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware! / Then surely some other god will want to sweep / his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.”47 Through their arguments, it is clear that while the gods have the power to shift individual fates to suit their needs, a promise keeps them from drastically affecting the course that Fate follows, which makes Fate ultimately the arbiter of death as the gods remain complicit. This complicated system sees death at its most ambiguous in the epic, but it remains utterly unknown to the human players, who continue to see death as absolute.

In contrast, one of the only absolutes found in the war poetry of the First World War is that death is predetermined for every soldier. Already mentioned in this paper, Alan Seeger’s poem “The Hosts” attributes the agency of Fate to the cycles of Nature, which confers divinity upon the earth rather than acknowledge a higher, spiritual power:

For us, we battled and burned and killed
Because evolving Nature willed,
And it was our pride and boast to be
The instruments of Destiny. 48

More often, though, the fate controlling soldiers’ death comes at the hands of the Christian God. Wilder’s “Ode in a German Cemetery” reflects a Christian concern with “man's continuing legacy of ill” and exhorts the audience toFlorence Earle Coates 300Florence Earle Coates

Muse on these mute inscriptions, each of which
Stands for a life past divination rich
⁠In poignant exploitations
⁠And eager explorations
Of its allotted freehold in the Day;49

Wilder’s later consolation in the redemption of God enforces the subtle theme of his omnipotence and, by extension, the assuredness of each person’s fate. Regardless of the origins of Fate’s power, though, its invocation can be found in poems like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Cassandra,” Hermann Hagedorn’s “The Pyres,” Florence Earle Coates’ “Better to Die,” and Herbert Kaufman’s “The Living Dead,” all of which assume its unshakable power over humans’ fates.

Due in part to the Christian tradition that pervades American culture as well, death increasingly takes on a redemptive quality in contemporary war poetry. Wilder’s conclusion to “Ode in a German Cemetery” contains explicit hope for the salvation of the world through the deaths of soldiers. He calls on those “who in this world-old process caught” to rid the world of its “sin” through their innocence and ideals, concluding that in this way, “Redemption lifts its mighty cross again!”50 While Wilder’s redemption covers the entire world’s population, Alan Seeger’s “Resurgam” is a short poem that focuses on the redemption and resurrection of the individual. Its subject, a soldier speculating on the fate of his soul at his death, decides that it would neither dissipate into the wind nor wing its way to the House of Death but instead “return to its dear residence, / And through a thousand stars find out the road / Back into earthly flesh that was its loved abode.”51 The return to “earthly flesh” and the title’s reference, which stems from the vulgate version of the gospel of Matthew wherein Jesus states that “After three days I will rise again living,” places the soldier in the stead of Christ himself, which also indicates a perception in the redemptive power of the soldier’s death, though in this case only for his own gain.

Kilmer 1908 300Joyce KilmerFinally, the soldier’s death is not final in American war poetry as it is in ancient Greek epic. Also due to the impact of Christianity on American culture, many poems contain some idea of an afterlife available to the dead men, either literally, as in “Resurgam,” or spiritually, as in “Sing, Ye Trenches!”. Often death is referred to as only a “sleep,” as is the case in Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Bouquet” when he postulates on the fate of the group of men who died in a bombshell:

And perhaps their brave young spirits hear
The bugle sing:
‘Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!
Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Danger’s past;
Now at last,
Go to sleep!52

In contrast, the only instance where sleep is referred to as a euphemism for death is once for the death of a Trojan, Iphidamas, who “slept the sleep of bronze” at the hands of Agamemnon during his aristeia.53 Even at Sarpedon’s death, which is the only other death where the concept of sleep is mentioned at all, Sleep is personified as a god and accompanies his brother, Death, in carrying the soul to his homeland of Lycia.54 This difference can be explained through Greek culture’s different goals in warfare. For Greek warriors, the conception of death as a mere sleep cheapens the sacrifice that they honored as the prerequisite for gaining kleos. For the culturally Christian American soldier, death is only a sleep before gaining a reward in salvation, which they themselves can gain by emulating their savior. Through the development of a cultural basis for an afterlife, the glory in dying became less focused on the loss incurred in sacrifice and more focused on the apparent spiritual gain involved in it.

Interestingly, though, the concept of kleos as immortality through cultural memory of virtuous heroes still bears some relationship to the fate of First World War veterans and the literature about them. Almost a century after the armistice of the First World War, the American memory of “The War to End All Wars” consists mostly of the general horrors of war, as typified by contrasting the original intention of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in 1921, and its current status as a general symbol encompassing all wars.

Jennifer KeeneJennifer KeeneJennifer D. Keene, an American historian of the First World War, believes that public memory of the war grew hazy as literature from the Lost Generation were increasingly read “less as indictments of the First World War and more as universal statements on the shock of confronting the reality of war.”55 She attributes this mass amnesia to the lack of “American exceptionalism” and clear villains and heroes in the conflict, which “serve as mirrors that allow Americans to see their values, their strengths, and their flaws more clearly.”56 Other authors, such as Steven Trout, argue that the forgetting of the First World War stems from the lack of one, cohesive narrative and argues that “Americans remembered the war in too many diverse ways.”57 As a result, the plethora of war poems concerning the First World War were whittled down to a very small and unified canon that represented the beginnings of Modernism and a distaste for tradition, which stifles the memory of valor that does exist through verse. If glory and immortality stems from public veneration of heroism through stories, then the fates of the dozens of thousands of Americans slain in the fields of France hang in tenuous balance.

Though at a farther remove from the classical tradition than its ally in the British Isles, American war poets found inspiration and solace in the classics. Through invoking the names of classical gods and themes, poets like Kilmer, Seeger, and Wilder responded to the shocking devastation of the First World War through a thick lens of American individuality and exceptionalism. Like the composer of the Iliad three millennia ago, these poets sought to find meaning in the deaths of young nations and placed their soldiers in an idealistic light to enforce cultural values for generations to come. However, in an ironic twist, while the distant inspiration remains studied in colleges and universities across the nation, much of First World War poetry stands neglected only a century after composition, which prompts readers to ask whether the fault lies in the poetry’s values, its artistry, or in modern audiences cynical of much of its optimism.

Claire Davis mugClaire DavisClaire Davis is a graduate student at the University of Arizona, where she is pursuing her PhD in English literature. Long intrigued by classical reception and Modernism, she conducted research in the Iliad and World War I poetry at her alma mater, Samford University, with Dr. Randy Todd. She has presented this research at the 2019 Classical Association of the Midwest and South conference, and at the Howard Scholars Undergraduate Research fair at Samford.




1 Ibid. 21.

2 Ibid. 33.

3 Ibid. 165.

4 Ibid. 202.

5 Foeller-Pituch, Elzbieta. “Ambiguous Heritage: Classical Myths in the Works of Nineteenth-American Writers.” International Journal of Classical Tradition, 1, no. 3 (March 1995) 108.

6 Richard, Carl J. The Golden Age of the Classics in America. New York: Harvard Press, 2009. 104.

7 Ibid. 21-2.

8 Ibid. 11.

9 Ibid. 14.

10 Ibid. 30.

11 Day, Jeremiah. Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College; by a Committee of the Corporation, and the Academical Faculty. 1828. 28.

12 Ibid. 51.

13 Morrill Act of 1862.

14 Ibid. 106.

15 Wheeler, W. Reginald. Book of Verse of the Great War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917. Xix-xx.

16 Ibid. xx.

17 Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. 35.

18 Ibid. 36.

19 Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 6.

20 Ibid. 86.

21 Ibid. 12.

22 Shay, Achilles in Vietnam. 6.

23 Ibid. 12.

24 Ibid. 21.

25 Ibid. 27.

26 Kilmer, Joyce. “Memorial Day.” Wikisource.com. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Trees_and_Other_Poems/Memorial_Day. (Accessed 25 July 2018). Ln. 12.

27 Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, 228.

28 Homer, Iliad. XII 374-81

29 Homer, Iliad. IX. 383-7.

30 Kaufman, Herbert. “Hell-Gate of Soissons.” From Poems of the Great War, ed. J. W. Cunliffe. New York: Macmillian Company, 1917. Ln. 17, 33.

31 Ibid. ln. 5.

32 Ibid. ln. 31-2.

33 Seeger, Alan. “The Hosts.” Wikisource.com. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Poems_(Seeger)/Last_Poems/The_Hosts. (accessed 26 July 2018). ln. 7,13.

34 Ibid. ln. 20-2.

35 Ibid. 34-5, 37-8.

36 Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, 230.

37 Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, 127.

38 Homer, Iliad, V.322-9.

39 Ibid. V.329.

40 Ibid. XVI. 1001, XXII.425.

41 Ibid. IV. 581-2.

42 Ibid. XXII.427.

43 Ibid. XXIII.122-3.

44 Ibid. XXII.249-254.

45 Ibid. IX.499.

46 Ibid. XVI.517-534, XXII.211-7.

47 Ibid. XVI.529-31.

48 Seeger, Alan. “The Hosts,” ln. 41-4.

49 Wilder, Amos. “Ode in a German Cemetery.” Ln. 24-8.

50 Ibid. ln. 124, 133, 139.

51 Seeger, Alan. “Resurgam.” Wikisource. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Poems_(Seeger)/Last_Poems/Resurgam. (accessed 25 July 2018). Ln. 4-6

52 Kilmer, Joyce. “Rouge Bouquet.” From The Second Book of Modern Verse. Ed. Jessie B. Rittenhouse. 1922. Ln. 18-27.

53 Homer, Iliad, XI.279.

54 Ibid. XVI. 539, 785, 797.

55 Keene, Jennifer D. “Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’: American Historiography on World War I.” Historian 78, no. 3 (Fall2016 2016): 439-468. (accessed July 24, 2018). 440.

56 Ibid. 441.

57 Ibid. 442.


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