Strange Arts & Visual Delights
“History means thinking into other people’s minds,” according to N. T. Wright (Paul: A Biography, 8-9). This is one reason I value histories that use, as primary sources, poems and other literary works contemporaneous with the events being described, as well as diaries and letters. It’s true that the poet’s mind comes to us filtered by poetic technique and literary convention (this is also true of other forms of writing); but we always encounter the minds of historical figures in written works that necessarily reflect their culture’s intellectual and expressive conventions. We are no different: even the avant-garde has its own rhetorical conventions and toolkit of transgressive (unmannerly) manners.
In this little essay I’ll discuss briefly two works: (1) Paul Stephenson’s New Rome: The Empire in the East (Belknap Harvard, 2021), a book chosen by the Times of London as one of the best history books of 2022, and (2) Martin Gilbert’s The First World War: A Complete History (Holt, 1994), a book I first read when I was preparing to teach the literature of World War 1 at Southern Virginia University in 2016.
I have not yet begun to read Stephenson’s work—I received it for Christmas—but, wondering if he drew on the Greek Anthology as a source, I checked the index. The anthology is a rich collection of Greek poems, mostly epigrams, from the earliest poets through the Byzantine era. According to Wikipedia, “the Greek tradition of epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries – including statues of athletes – and on funerary monuments.” Often epigrams that were written only to be shared on paper made a pretense of being epigrams—poetic inscriptions—in the original sense. To my delight, Stephenson does make use of the anthology and other Greek poems.
Among the sources used by Stephenson are inscriptions to charioteers who raced in the hippodrome. The Greek Anthology has fifty-four such epigrams, “each copied down from a charioteer’s statue base in the hippodrome” (73). Poems are sometimes a key source for an emperor’s reign; in the case of Justin II, key sources are a long narrative poem by Corippus and a cycle of epigrams written by Agathias and included in the Greek Anthology. In some cases (for example, the reign of Theodosius), scant poetry remains, though the emperor’s court at the time was renowned for the outpouring of literary works.
Another poet that Stephenson mentions by name is Paul the Silentiary, a friend of Agathias. Silentiaries were “court officials of privileged backgrounds,” according to Wikipedia, “whose first duty was maintaining order and silence in the Great Palace of Constantinople.” I’ve always found this somewhat amusing, but I suppose we would describe the 30 silentiaries as Secret Service agents or security staff, distinctively less amusing. It was a prestigious post; the officers were assigned “important commissions, especially in church matters,” and belonged to the highest social rank in the empire. An indication of Paul’s importance was the speech he was invited to give at the rededication of the Hagia Sophia (215), a speech characterized by its “complex imagery” (350).
Stephenson cites lines from Paul’s description of an imperial villa: “The sea washes the abode of the earth, and the navigable expanse of the dry land blooms with marine groves. How skilled was he who mingled the deep with the land, the seaweed with gardens, the floods of the Nereids with the streams of the Naiads” (118).
This brief summary hardly exhausts Stephenson’s use of poetry to depict the events, monuments, rulers, and ideologies of Byzantium, but it indicates how poems can be used in historical works to conjure a sense of the past and to enter at least partway into the minds of those who lived then.
Perhaps a more accessible use of poems to enliven and instruct the study of history is Martin Gilbert’s one-volume history for the First World War. Gilbert's use of poems is not surprising. A bibliography compiled by Catherine Reilly lists "2,225 British writers who experienced the war and published poems about it” (The Winter of the World; see below). More than thirty anthologies were published in Great Britain during the war years, most of the poems by forgotten writers. But many are well known in Great Britain and elsewhere. A contemporary anthology that I highly recommend is The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War (Little, Brown, 2007), edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.
Gilbert places the poems in two contexts—the campaigns and battles that evoked them and the experiences of the poets who wrote them. The history and the poems illuminate each other. The poems have many styles and points of view, but the best known arguably belong to the late Romantic era and seem to speak directly to the common reader, however skillfully crafted they may be, however consciously embedded in the poetic tradition. For readers 2000 years from now, if there be any, the conventions will loom as artificial barriers between them and the experiences that animated the poets. Some readers already feel that way.
As in the Greek Anthology, a number of the poems are inscriptions on monuments, but most are standalone poems, sometimes the soldier’s only surviving poem. Gilbert’s account of the death of Wilfred Owen is perhaps representative of his approach:
“In the British assault on the Sambre Canal on November 4 [just a week before the Armistice], an attempt by engineers to throw a temporary bridge over the canal was prevented by heavy German artillery and machine-gun fire. Almost all the engineers were wounded, and the canal was unbridged. The poet Wilfred Owen was seen encouraging his men to try to get across on rafts. 'Well done!' and 'You are doing well, my boy,' an officer in his company recalled him saying. The rafts proved unsuccessful, however, so planks and duckboards were put together. At the water's edge, helping his men in this task, Owen was hit and killed. ... At the place where Owen was killed, near the village of Ors, the canal remained unbridged. His battalion eventually crossed on an existing bridge a few miles lower down. On his tombstone in the village of Ors are inscribed the words of one of his poems:
Shall life renew
Of a truth
All death will he annul.
In the original poem, the second sentence also ended with a question mark.” (492)
As to why Gilbert uses poetry so often, perhaps his concluding lines explain: “All wars end up being reduced to statistics, strategies, debates about their origins and results. These debates about war are important, but not more important than the human story of those who fought in them.” (Kindle edition, 543)
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.