Pro Patria Mori? A Case Study of Classical Reception in the War and War-Adjacent Poetry of Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, Michael Longley, and Seamus Heaney
The mechanized nature of combat inaugurated during World War I disrupted traditional narratives of heroism and warfare, particularly those derived from ancient epics of war like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. This case study examines classical reception in poems by major British and Northern Irish poets who address major combat events in their works: World War I, World War II, the Northern Irish “Troubles,” and the rise of global terrorism. Wilfred Owen’s poetry of war forges a new type of heroism in the face of an anonymous enemy, W. H. Auden repudiates the certainty and simplistic morality of the classical epic, Michael Longley captures intimate moments of sectarian violence within close translations of Homeric scenes, and Seamus Heaney transforms Virgil’s epic of warfare and imperialism into the possibility for hope and reconciliation in a post-ceasefire Northern Ireland. Although these four poets are rarely compared as a group, their combined works articulate a redemptive trajectory in which the epic of war becomes a tool for potential future peace.