You are here

The Great War and Modernism’s Siren Songs

Leah Culligan Flack

At the end of the Great War, Ezra Pound lamented, “There died a myriad, / And, of the best, among them / … for two gross of broken statues, / for a few thousand battered books” (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, V).  Responding to the War’s senseless devastation and to a post-war culture in ruins became a central, defining task of Pound’s art and that of his modernist contemporaries.  Literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin later noted that the cultural legacy of the Great War was one of widespread silencing—the horrors soldiers experienced in the trenches could never be fully communicated.  As a result, Benjamin worried that the tradition of storytelling that began in the ancient world was reaching its end in the twentieth century.  To resist the traumatizing silence caused by the Great War, modernist writers working across Europe turned to Homer.

This paper analyzes three modernist receptions of Homer’s Sirens that emerged in the years surrounding the Great War in the writings of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.  As figures of alluring, yet damaging, claims to comprehensive knowledge, the Sirens were especially appealing for modernists responding to the War as an unprecedented human and cultural catastrophe.  In different ways, these writers used Homer’s Sirens to interrogate a cultural tradition implicated in nurturing the conditions for war in the modern imagination.  In so doing, they justified and defended their formally experimental writing as a revision of this tradition.

My attention to modernist adaptations of the Sirens builds upon a rich tradition of scholarship that has recognized the importance of Homer in twentieth-century writing.  W. B. Stanford’s seminal study, The Ulysses Theme, maintains that the modernist era was the most productive moment in the history of the reception of the figure of Ulysses, and Piero Boitani concludes that the Ulysses figure is “alive and well” in the twentieth century.  More recently, Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey (2008); Homer in the Twentieth Century, edited by Barbara Graziosi and Emily Greenwood (2007); and Elizabeth Vandiver’s Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (2010) have explored the special significance of the Homeric tradition in the practice and canonization of twentieth-century literature.  These studies, however, have not dedicated sustained attention to modernist writing.

At the end of the War, Joyce wrote the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses, which both thematically and stylistically adapts Homer’s Sirens to scrutinize the cultural logic of nationalism as an essential cause of the War in Europe and violence in Ireland.  In his early drafts of The Waste Land, Eliot used the Sirens to capture the horror of the modern mind confronting the overwhelming and agonizing experience of war.  Eliot translated Homer to conceptualize his poem as a response to a war from which there could be no possibility of homecoming.  In response to both Joyce and Eliot, Pound adapted the Sirens in three different poems written between 1917 and 1927 that show his deepening post-War skepticism about the literary tradition as an ahistorical embodiment of aesthetic beauty.  Pound used the Sirens to deconstruct this sense of the Homeric tradition, to analyze the ideals of martial heroism and masculine self-sacrifice inherent to the Western imagination, and to propose an alternative tradition grounded in ideals of uncertainty and historical engagement.

Together, these three writers foreground the ways in which intensive engagements with Homer helped modernist writers define and clarify their innovative art in response to the Great War.

Session/Panel Title

Refracting the Great War

Session/Paper Number

53.2

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy