To Die is Life

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was one of Britain’s Great War poets. He was killed in action one week before the armistice that ended World War I. Here is his “Arms and the Boy” (1918).


Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.


Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.


For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.


Owen’s personifying of arms here is of a piece with Vergil’s approach in the epic poem to which his title refers — for which, by the way, Arms and the Man appears to have functioned as alternate title in antiquity.


As it happens, the cornerstone of my current research on the Aeneid is the poet’s heretofore largely unrecognized and unexplored reliance on this age-old practice of ascribing human qualities to arms. To animate the inanimate. Here’s the content of a footnote from my most recent essay, which may clarify what I’m getting at.


D. A. Miller, The Epic Hero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000): “When one reaches for the icon and symbol of the Indo-European Second Function warrior-hero, the sword is central, dominant — and even alive. The brilliant translator of the Nibelungenlied, A. T. Hatto, included the sword Balmung in his glossary of the characters’ names — because, he says plainly, ‘in heroic poetry swords are persons.’ … A magical sentience is equally found in one of the Irish Celtic sources: the swords of the Ulstermen will, it is said, turn against their own masters if these warriors should lie … The idea is translated into historical, artifactual terms if we recall that weapons actually deposited in Bronze Age or Iron Age warrior graves may be first ‘killed’ by being bent or broken.”


I find it fascinating that a young, comparatively inexperienced poet, himself a warrior of the first rank, happened upon a motif that this other, greater poet, to whose magnum opus the young man alludes with his title “Arms and the Boy,” selected as a dominant thread for the text(ile) of his work.


Another modern poet, this one American, does something similar in his nod to Virgil. Here is part of Robert Lowell’s (1917-1977) poem “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid“:


I hold
The sword that Dido used. It tries to speak,
A bird with Dido’s sworded breast. Its beak
Clangs and ejaculates the Punic word
I hear the bird-priest chirping like a bird.
I groan a little. “Who am I, and why?”
It asks, a boy’s face, though its arrow-eye
Is working from its socket. “Brother, try,
O Child of Aphrodite, try to die:
To die is life.”


I would try your patience were I to unravel all this. Suffice it to say that the narrator is an old man who dreams that he is the hero Aeneas at the funeral of Pallas, described in Aeneid 11. The old man imagines that as Aeneas, he holds the sword he once gave to his Carthaginian lover Dido, the one that she later used to commit suicide when he abandoned her and sailed for Italy. This sword that Aeneas holds tries to speak, but wait, the sword is now Dido, or rather a bird with her “sworded” breast, or instead a bird-priest (augur). Next the corpse of Pallas addresses Aeneas/the old man who is the narrator.


Here, too, in the phantasmagoria of a dream, a weapon takes on human qualities. Both Owen and Lowell pick up on something that we critics struggle to perceive, despite its being encoded in those justly famous words, “arms and the man.” Namely, that a person with any poetic sensibility at all can hear what a sword or spear is saying. What it says is its truth, “to die is life.” Our truth, though, is the unheroic “to live is life.” These poets, all three, ask us to consider whether that is the greater one.


2 thoughts on “To Die is Life

  1. I love this post. Food for thought. And do you know Simone Weil’s The Iliad: A Poem of Force? Haven’t reread that in a long time but plan to for some work I’m doing on Weil and Edith Stein and FOC. . .

    1. Oh, that project sounds very interesting. You’ll enjoy rereading the essay. Quite perceptive and so well written. What she obscures is the crucial importance of the fact that Homer’s Achilles, the ur-warrior, has a double destiny. As everyone knows, he learns from his mother that he may indeed lay down the sword and live a long, inglorious life back in Greece. No surprise: he chooses war, death, and everlasting glory. Far from making that choice appear horrifying, Homer ennobles it. That is, he does not leave Achilles in his transformed state (his soul turned to stone, as Weil puts it): godlike (e.g., 19.493, 21.315), like a force of nature (e.g., 19.375-80, 20.490-92, 22.26-31), like a warrior “entirely of bronze” (παγχάλκεος, 20.102), with a heart of iron in his chest (22.357), who neither eats, nor drinks (19.209-10), nor pities, nor accepts any wound (e.g., 20.264-68, 21.590-94, 22.289-91). Instead, the immortal Book 24 of the Iliad returns Achilles to our world of men and women (N.B. Bernard Knox’s essay on the Iliad is good on this, the one that serves as introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation). So moving is Priam’s encounter with Achilles that we accept the warrior into our hearts. And so I would say that for all its “frigidity, bombast, and bad taste” (Weil’s words), Virgil’s Aeneid reveals more fully and more honestly the true nature of force. He does not offer us a bloody-handed man for whom, despite all, we feel respect, pity, a kind of awe, and even some affection. For his part, the Roman poet offers us a beleaguered, pathetic, curiously modern man who, having selflessly done his duty like a good fellow, is transformed into a cog for the vast machinery of empire. So, sure, it may be bad taste to point out that the great Homer wants to have his cake and eat it, too. But I admire Vergil for having done it.

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