1929 was a watershed year for the war memoir and the war novel. Graves’ Good-bye to All That, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front all appeared that year, as did Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero. Although it is little read now, Aldington’s novel sold more than 10,000 copies in its first three months in print. It mirrors the better-known texts in its strongly autobiographical plot and its outspoken anger at the waste of war. At the same time, Death of a Hero resembles Aldington’s earlier poetry in its insistent references to classical literature. This paper examines one key theme in Death of a Hero and Aldington’s poetry of the 1920s: the refiguring of Orestes’ pursuit by the Eumenides to describe the experience of the Great War’s survivors.
Given his importance for the development of twentieth-century poetry, Richard Aldington has fallen into surprising obscurity. Together with Ezra Pound and H.D. (to whom he was married), Aldington was a founder of Imagism. His poems were the first to be published over the term “Imagist” in Poetry Magazine and his “Preface” to Amy Lowell’s 1915 collection Some Imagist Poets laid out the basic tenets of the movement. Service on the western front made him a war poet. One constant in his work, from his earliest Imagist poems onward, is the prevalence of classical images, tropes, and references.
Aldington’s early Imagist work frequently laments the distance between the ancient and the modern world. In his war poems classical learning and literature become one object for which the soldier fights; “Vicarious Atonement” (1917) claims: “If this our tortured life / Save from destruction’s nails / Gold words of a Greek long dead; / Then we can endure.” After the War, Aldington struggled to come to terms with his own survival and his overmastering sense that his truest “self” had died in the War. His poem “Eumenides” (1923) invokes Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies as an emblem for the survivor’s tortured sense of guilt. The narrator compares the war memories that haunt him at night to the Eumenides and casts himself as both Orestes and Orestes’ victim. The poem culminates by combining slayer, slain, and Eumenides into one: “It is my own murdered self ... / Violently slain, which rises up like a ghost ... / It is myself that is the Eumenides ... / What answer shall I give my murdered self?”
Aldington returned to Orestes as an emblem of the war survivor in Death of a Hero. The Prologue foregrounds the idea: “The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides. Somehow we must atone, somehow we must free ourselves from the curse—the blood-guiltiness. We must find—where? how?—the greater Pallas who will absolve us on some Acropolis of Justice” (DH [London, 1929], 28-9). Adrian Barlow has suggested that Death of a Hero itself provides the “atonement demanded in ‘Eumenides’,” but this seems too optimistic an assessment. The division of the novel’s “hero” George Winterbourne, who dies probably as a suicide, from the haunted, blood-guilty narrator, reflects Aldington’s deeply fractured self. Although the narrator describes his recounting of George Winterbourne’s life as “an atonement, a desperate effort to wipe off the blood-guiltiness,” his reiteration of an “Orestes-like feeling of some inexpiated guilt” complicates any assumption that this atonement succeeds (DH 29, 197). The novel ends with a poem, “Epilogue,” spoken by a veteran of the Trojan War eleven years later, who evokes the graves around Troy and “how useless it all was”; the book’s last words are “I too walked away / In an agony of helpless grief and pity” (DH 397-8). The “greater Pallas” and the expiation for which the novel’s narrator hopes remain implacably absent.