Thermopylae

The story, as now we see, was over-written
By Herodotus, bless his warm Hellenic heart!
Emotion swayed him – the drama of his theme,
The cosmic battle-canvas, East and West,
Darkness and light, Barbarian versus Greek,
Free men conjoined to hurl the tyrant back
And rescue civilisation! Who can blame
The artist’s eye for kindling on such matter?
A case, what’s more, if not beyond dispute
At least compelling, when you contemplate
That surge of genius startling and sublime
That, like a spring from some unfathomed sea,
Rose in the wake of Persia’s routed horde.

And so he drew it larger than the life
In black and white, abjuring shades of grey,
Dwelt hard on Xerxes’ barbarous fits of rage,
His impious, dark, un-Greek activities,
Nor scrupled, where it helped his picture out,
To rearrange the date of an eclipse,
Or (patriot wish being father to the thought)
To multiply by ten the Persian forces
Deployed against the Greek so-splendid few
Whose valour needed no extravagance.

Therefore he stands convicted in his tracks,
Father of History, by conclusive tests
Found wanting, biased, partial, and involved,
By zeal misled and quick credulity.
This we concede, and honour justly those
Who sift the fact with fierce integrity.
We have come a journey, can no more return
Where lofty Truth may override what’s true,
Great faith excuse small falsehood. Here we stand
Exiles for ever from that treacherous ground.

But can we come again to that great heart
And that large spirit capable of fire?
We who live habitually in the Hot Gates
Between the precipitous mountains and the sea
Dulled with the din of conflict, shall we find
A Spartan wholeness in our world’s most need?
How shall we grasp how momently we are choosing
Ourselves to be that vast obsequious army
Hurried on the ebb and flow of tyrant tides,
Or those three hundred named and nameless men
Who died in the pass, and will not die again?

Poems of War