In the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Pulwama district on February 14, which killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel, war seems to be on the collective mind of the nation with some baying for blood and others cautioning restraint.
Few words in the English language evoke such powerful emotions: patriotism and glory, love and hate, fear and anger, hope and despair. For centuries, poets have borne witness to the strife that humans have inflicted upon themselves since the birth of civilisation. Just as the technology of warfare has evolved from spears to drones, the tenor of war poems has changed too.
The Iliad , one of the oldest war poems, glorifies heroes. It begins, not with the abduction of Helen that sparked the battle of Troy, but with the wrath of Achilles. It ends, not with the rape of Troy, but the death of another hero, Hector. In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ Alfred Tennyson flogs the motif of heroism in the 1854 Battle of Balaclava: as the cavalry rides into the valley of Death knowing that someone had blundered, theirs was not to reason why, “theirs but to do and die”.
World War I poetry began on a patriotic note too, but soldier-poets — half buried in the trenches and witness to the slaughter that their generals had sent them to — began to revolt. Wilfred Owen upended the Roman poet Horace’s view of patriotism: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori [It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country]”.
Even for the triumphant, the battlefield is a place that births nightmares. In the poem, ‘The King Speaks to the Scribe,’ by Keki N. Daruwalla, Emperor Ashoka contemplates the cost of his victory at Kalinga: “The battlefield stank so that heaven/had to hold a cloth to its nose. I trod/this plain, dark and glutinous with gore,/my chariot-wheels squelching in the bloody mire.”
By World War II, the instruments used in battle had changed. Planes and submarines provided distance from the violence, drowning out the agony of the dying. Today, drones have dehumanised war into video games. The heroism and horror in war poetry has given way to cynicism, satire, and alienation.
One emotion, however, remains unchanged: loss. Achilles mourned the death of his best friend. The World War I poets mourned the loss of innocence. Sarojini Naidu, in her 1915 poem, ‘The Gift of India’, gives voice to the motherland who grieves for the soldiers that have been torn from her breast to the “drum-beats of duty sabres.” Hatred may fuel a war, but what remains is loss and grief. Our failure to acknowledge this by allowing the narrative to be taken over by an army of trolls is a disservice to the nation. As Mr. Daruwalla writes in ‘At War’: “...haven’t we enough on our plate/without having to think of war/and blood-stained jehad?”
The writer is with The Hindu’s Bengaluru bureau