Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
In “Why the Classics,” Herbert impresses on the reader the importance of modern military leaders to learn accountability and honor from historical military leaders. Thucydides was a general and historian who initially participated in the lengthy war between Athens and Sparta and who later wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War. In the fourth book on the war, Thucydides relates stories of the battles and sieges in which he fought, and he also tells of his own efforts to survive the plague, a disease that decimated the Athenian population. According to Herbert, in his history, Thucydides includes the speeches that were made before battles, and he also relates the diplomatic side of the war, the spying and intrigue that are rarely included in histories written about great warfare. Herbert mentions these details because they establish the thoroughness of Thucydides’s work. Then Herbert moves to the important point that he wishes to make about the great historian. In his history, Thucydides also included the details about his failures, even though the “episode is like a pin / in a forest.” According to Herbert, Thucydides’s failures, though small when taken in context of his great accomplishments, are important to remember because of their final cost to the great historian and leader.
The history that Herbert references in this section is important to know because it is a significant element to understanding why Herbert admires Thucydides. In 424 b.c. , Thucydides, who had seven Athenian ships under his control, failed to arrive in time to save his own home city of Amphipolis from an invasion by the Spartan general, Brasidas. This failure resulted in the loss of several nearby towns, whose inhabitants grew afraid that they would also not be rescued. Because of the fall of Amphipolis, Athens was forced to sign an armistice with Sparta that called for a truce of one year. The truce did not last, of course, and eventually the war resumed and Athens was defeated. With time, Brasidas came to be regarded as the founder of Amphipolis. Thucydides took responsibility, although it is unclear whether he was at fault for the fall of Amphipolis. He was exiled as punishment, and when he wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, he included the details of his own failure to save his city. Herbert briefly summarizes these events in lines 9 through 11. Next, Herbert explains that Thucydides paid the debt he owed to his city “with lifelong exile.” Thus when Herbert uses Thucydides, he argues that even though acknowledging a failure will result in extreme punishments, such as banishment, an honorable leader will do so because it is the honorable action to take.
In the final two lines of the first section Herbert reveals his own pain as an exile. His own city of Lwow was a victory prize for the Soviets at the end of World War II. As a Pole, he can no longer claim his own birth city, and while his actions did not result in the loss of Lwow to Poland—only the Soviets can claim responsibility for this loss—Herbert does feel pain that he could not save his town. His own culture has been destroyed, wiped clean by an invading army that has no respect for the history of the city or country. Herbert especially feels anguish since his own attempts at resistance were not successful. In 1944 when the Soviets reclaimed Lwow from the Nazis, Herbert became active with the anti-Soviet resistance and joined the underground Polish Home Army. Herbert makes the connection between the classical and the modern in his poem, just as Thucydides was unable to save his city, Herbert was unable to save his own city. Like the Athenian historian, Herbert lived out his life as an exile. As he states in line 15, Herbert knows the price of exile.
In the second section of “Why the Classics,” Herbert moves to a comparison between Thucydides and those generals and leaders who fight modern wars. Herbert is deliberately vague in this section. Since he never specifies name, nationality, or period, his comments about modern leaders might be applied to all leaders who blunder ahead, causing loss of life and honor, and who fail to acknowledge their mistakes or take responsibility for their losses. In lines 16 and 17, Herbert imagines the generals of “recent wars,” who if they suffered a loss such as the loss suffered by Thucydides, would instead “whine on their knees,” while they also extol “their heroism and innocence.” Today’s generals would lament their losses, claim they had done their best, and then accuse others for their failures. Lines 20 through 22 explain Herbert’s opinion that the generals of the “most recent wars” (line 16) blame either their subordinates or their colleagues, who are supposedly “envious.” They even blame fate, those “unfavourable winds” that the ancient Greeks thought could shape one’s destiny.
Thucydides, however, did not blame the winds of fate or those other generals who might have offered assistance but who did not, or his men, who perhaps slowed his arrival. Herbert reminds his readers that Thucydides offered only facts and no excuses: “he had seven ships / it was winter / and he sailed quickly.” And still he was too late. Herbert offers only the facts, which are not mitigated by excuses or blame. Unlike those generals of recent wars, Thucydides accepts his responsibilities as a leader. Amphipolis was his home, and he could not save it. He resisted the opportunity to rewrite this history and mitigate his blame. Thucydides was a writer of history, and as such, he might certainly have downplayed his own blame but Thucydides did not choose to do so. Herbert admires this honesty, which while so important to an Athenian general who lived nearly 2500 years ago, is absent, Herbert feels, in modern generals.
In the third section Herbert expands on his comparison by calling upon the poet, who like those modern generals, also fails to show restraint and who fails to engage in poetic honesty. The third section of Herbert’s poem appears to suddenly change topic, but in fact, the topic remains the same, although the example used to examine it has shifted. Herbert moves from generals to poets. According to Herbert, poetic verbosity has replaced talent, and self-pity has become art. The greatness of the poet has been reduced to “a small broken soul / with a great self-pity.” Herbert suggests that the poet of today has ceased to focus on strength, and the reader is now subjected to weeping lovers in dirty hotel rooms. These final lines point to an important element of Herbert’s poetry—the poet has a responsibility to illuminate injustice and create change. Rather than leaving a great legacy, Herbert states that all modern poets are leaving behind are images of dirty wallpaper and unhappy love affairs. The ancient Greek poets wrote of great battles and wars. Thucydides is perhaps better known as a historian than as a general. His History of the Peloponnesian Wars is a legacy that outlived the loss of his city, his supposed failures in battle, and his exile from his beloved native town. But today’s poets will leave no such legacy according to Herbert’s poem. Rather than great generals and poets, who in times past sought to inspire, the modern world offers weak generals and poets suffused with superficiality. It is worth noting that Herbert was often criticized for his inclusion of classical ideals in his poems, this poem shows one way that he chose to refute this criticism.
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