Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. In the Museum of Classical Archaeology, we have more visitors than is usual for a Saturday. Most have come to see the current exhibition, The Labours of Hercules, which explores New Zealand identities through the re-imaginations of Hercules (and I can only repeat Anna’s plug for the exhibition, because it really is fantastic).
The idea of Greece in New Zealand has a particular resonance as the world commemorates Gallipoli. Because of its strategic importance, the Gallipoli peninsula had often been a battleground in ancient times. Here, at the mouth of the Aegospotami (‘goat waters’) river in 405 BCE, the Spartans under Lysander destroyed the Athenian fleet, effectively ensuring the end of the Peloponnesian War (although the Athenians held on for a few more months before surrendering).
Ancient Greek battles assumed a new resonance for certain 20th century Australian poets in the light of Gallipoli.
The contemporary Australian poet S.K. Kellen wrote a poem entitled ‘The Peloponnesian War’ in his 1993 collection Dingo Sky. The poem consists of two stanzas of unequal length, the first recalling (not without some irony) the romantic legends of Greek mythology, with a shout out to Bellerophon.
In those days wars were sane
dodging a stray javelin
riding on flying horses
The second stanza contrast this with the arrival of new military technology and the concurrent end of innocence:
The triremes will arrive soon.
Foot soldiers and archers
break logs over each other’s heads.
Although Kellen makes no specific reference to Galipolli the First World War, the theme of lost innocence recalls other poems dealing with the War, such as Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’, and the experience of finding schoolboy stories about past wars replaced by the grim unromantic reality of modern warfare.
A.D. Hope was another modern Australian poet whose reflections on war led him to revisit ancient Greek wars, although this time the Persian rather than the Peloponnesian.* In his poem ‘Inscription for a War’, Hope explicitly draws on the epitaph of Simonides at Thermopylae, to reflect on the war dead:
Stranger, go tell the Spartans/ we died obedient to their commands
Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;
Go back to those who sent us here.
We are the young they drafted out
To wars their folly brought about.
Go tell those old men, safe in bed,
We took their orders and are dead.
Hope’s poem can be seen as part of a tradition of poetry, mostly written in the aftermath of the First World War, inspired by the Thermopylae epitaph. Prominent in this tradition are two short epitaphs, both written in 1919. The first, by the classicist H.W. Garrod for the dead at Neuve Chapelle:
Tell them at home, there’s nothing here to hide:
We took our orders, asked no questions, died.
Better known, although less explicitly indebted to Simonides, is Kipling’s ‘Common Form’ from his ‘Epitaphs for the War:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Hope keeps the two line epigram form, expanding it to three grouped epigrams. In form and sentiment, he is very similar to both Garrod and Kipling. Yet Hope was writing not in 1919, as Garrod and Kipling were, but in 1981. The war freshest in Australian memory was not the Great War, but the war in Viet Nam, and Hope’s poem seems to have captured something of the zeitgeist. In 1983, the Australian folk group Redgum released their song ‘I was only 19’, which topped the Australian charts for two weeks. In it, the singer contrasts the reality of fighting in Viet Nam with what he’d imagined about war as a boy:
And the Anzac legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears
And the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real
This sense that of unreality the boy felt about the sanitized ‘Anzac legends’ contrasts with Hope’s vivid and decidedly unromantic reframing of the dead at Thermopylae. Sometimes, it seems, only the distant past is near enough modern tragedies to feel real.
* I must confess that until I wrote this piece, I only knew Hope as the author of Imperial Adam, where his combination of lyrical grace and sardonic misanthropy appealed to me as a teenager.