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This review is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

WARS AND RUMOURS OF WARS The Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy (OUP) £9.50
Walter de La Mare, Behold, this Dreamer (Faber & Faber) £5.50 pb.

War poetry is one of the oldest, and may well be the coldest of literary genres: a nation without its epic can feel itself to be a very Johnny-come-lately kind of an entity, and if the genuine anonymous mysterious article is not there a Virgil, Milton, Tasso or Ossian will almost invariably take it upon himself to fill the shameful gap. Epic poetry - realcwar poetry one might say - is poetry that celebrates war, is written to give fame to warriors and the code by which they live, is in love with honour, single combat, hopeless battles against overwhelming odds, and its laments for dead heroes never question the necessity for the scheme of things that has led to the heroes' deaths, seeing it as ordained by Gods who themselves carry on War in Heaven: the trouble with such poetry (fragments of which must exist in almost every language, and huge unassailable blocks of which form the basis of a great many literatures we say we value) is that to your average bien pensant well-meaning post-1945 homme moyen libéral it is all faintly embarrassing. Achilles sulking in his tent looks a bit of a lout and exulting over Hector even more of a one; Beowulf seems to have got his ecological priorities all wrong; the way most epic heroes treat their womenfolk would be enough to make a saint - never mind a feminist - swear; and as for the insults epic tribes hurl about before they get ...


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