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literature

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War Literature  
 
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A century later, the young Byron published a sensuous translation of the Nisus-Euryalus episode, and a prose-poem, "The Death of Calmar and Orla" in Hours of Idleness. Byron clearly found on the battlefield a convenient setting for Virgilian homoeroticism: "No maid was the sigh of [Calmar's] soul: his thoughts were given to friendship--to dark-haired Orla, destroyer of heroes."

The text ends with the slain Orla still clasping the hand of Calmar, who lies across his bosom: "Theirs is one stream of blood." Calmar asks to be buried with his friend rather than to live on in grief.

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The War Elegy

By no means are all homoerotically charged war poems elegies, but in the poem on the death of a comrade the poet is usually most free to express passion and sensuality.

Walt Whitman

Drum Taps (1865), Walt Whitman's sequence of poems on the Civil War that reflects his experience as a hospital volunteer, includes several poems that appreciate soldiers in more or less homoerotic terms (for example, "First O Songs for a Prelude" and "O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy").

But it is elegies such as "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," "Reconciliation," and "As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado" that allow Whitman to express himself unrestrainedly.

In "Reconciliation," the speaker's tenderness for the fallen soldier overpowers the enmity between armies, in terms that anticipate Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting": "my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."

But Whitman's war poems lack the bitterness that suffuses the poetry of World War I. Even when Whitman has an occasion to mention official deceit, as in "Come Up from the Fields Father," he does not suggest that every death is a waste and the war a mere sham.

World War I

A sudden eruption of homoeroticism, sometimes explicitly thematized as "sexual inversion," is one of the most remarkable features of the literature of World War I, and the literature is vast.

The crumbling of Europe's dream of the steady march of civilization and the disillusionment brought on by the interminable horror of trench warfare represented an inversion of the old world that made it possible to explore sexual inversion and seek tolerance: If the old era's complacencies could be torn away, why not its shibboleths too?

Most of the war poets were of the officer class (David Jones being an exception) and had acquired a classical education at a school for boys; a large number of their poems express a tenderness for the enlisted soldier that is at once sensuous and paternalistic.

It is not simply that the dead youth is lamented, but his beauty is praised and his camaraderie prized above every other attachment, dividing the society of the trenches from the home front.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, often considered the finest poet of the Great War, made "the pity of war" his theme (he himself was killed only a week before the armistice), but the term pity conveys a rich meaning here, involving not only compassion but outrage, committing the poet to an unflinching realism and an appreciation for beauty in depicting the nightmare:

"'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood, / Till, slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud. / And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned; / Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned; / And the Gas hissed" ("The Last Laugh").

Owen's poems suggest that the sense of detachment from civilians of either sex, and intimacy only with other soldiers of the front--whether allies or enemies--is not Owen's alone but expresses a philosophy common to all in the trenches. (See "Smile, Smile, Smile"; "Arms and the Boy"; "Anthem for Doomed Youth"; "A Terre.")

Other World War I Poets

And indeed, soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon ("To His Dead Body"), Ivor Gurney ("To His Love"), Edmund Blunden ("1916 Seen from 1921"), Herbert Read ("My Company"), Robert Graves ("Not Dead"), Jones, and Isaac Rosenberg, each in his own way convey the same sense that the unspeakable horrors of trench warfare can enter poetry only when tempered by love for and among the men.

The poems of Robert Nichols are less imaginative and original than Owen's, but in them the homoerotic element is particularly pronounced; see "The Burial in Flanders (H. S. G., Ypres, 1916)" and "Plaint of Friendship by Death Broken."

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