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Oblique refractions”: Simon Armitage’s poetics of commemoration in Still, A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield (2016)

Sarah Montin


Simon Armitage, perhaps in part owing to his formidable popularity as a plain-speaking poet, has been, throughout his recent poetic career, particularly sought after by memorial commissions. Before his appointment as Poet Laureate in 2019, his consecration as public poet came with the commission of Still in 2016, an intermedial collection commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. This Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield, encapsulates and highlights the tensions that can already be sensed under the everyday, effortless verse (Armitage, 2010) of his previous commemorative poems written in the 2000s. How to write history when one is not a primary witness, and what issues of authority and legitimacy inevitably arise from poetry commissioned for memorial purposes? Simon Armitage’s artistic solution to these questions is to veer away from his usual plain-speaking style and rely in Still on strategies of indirection and distanciation. Offering “manipulations”, in his own words, of Virgil’s Georgics rather than first-hand poems, his versions of the classical Latin text, rife with echoes of the First World War poets, allow Armitage to renegotiate his relationship with memorial poetry and reveal the ambiguities of his public voice.

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1Long before becoming poet laureate, Simon Armitage asserted his belief in the civic role and social responsibility of the poet. On being nominated to the Laureateship in May 2019, he expressed no trepidation at the public role he was to endorse: “I feel I’ve been writing the kind of public-facing, public-occasion poetry that this role will require for quite a long time now” (Flodd). Favoring accessibility over experimentation as many of his New Generation peers, Armitage has indeed long maintained that poetry must function as “communication device” (Coussens, 18) capable of interacting democratically with the general public. His efforts to bring poetry into “non-traditional, non-literary spaces” (Coussens, 27) such as rock concerts, radio, and live performances, his numerous TV collaborations (in particular his documentaries with Brian Hill) and modern adaptations of the Classics, his efforts to augment poetry with technology (such as the Poems in the Air mobile app) and high profile on internet, all participate in his campaign to draw the ever-elusive “common reader” or, as is often the case with his intermedial body of work, the “common viewer”, to poetry.

Official chronicler

2His reputation as an audience-friendly “people’s poet” explains why he has been so regularly sought out by memorial commissions, both public and private. Over the years, he has gradually become a federating British voice, an official chronicler and mourner guiding the nation through its rites of remembrance. In the era of the “memory boom” (Winter, 2007) where commemoration has gradually replaced living memory and taken an unprecedented importance in the public sphere, poetry seems to work as a powerful, and relatively non-divisive, vector of collective celebration and commemoration. “While historians squabble and commentators nitpick, poets have become the arbiters and experts of the war” (Gill, 146), concludes, quite aptly, the journalist and critic A.A. Gill.

  • 1 Commissioned by Channel 4, for Remembrance Day 2007, The Not Dead explores the testimonies of war-t (...)
  • 2 Commissioned by Channel 5, Out of the Blue celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of V.E. Day, the thi (...)
  • 3 “Sea Sketch”, “Remains”, “Considering the Poppy”, “Lazarus”, “In Avondale”, “The Thankful”,” Memori (...)

3Before becoming poet laureate in May 2019, Armitage was thus already an established public voice, writing and performing anniversary poems, such as Killing Time (1999), celebrating the new millennium, or the more recent “King’s Cross”, commemorating the July 2005 London bombings. Three of his longer works, all originally “film poems”, are the fruit of direct engagement with politics of memory: The Not Dead (2007)1, Out of the Blue (2008)2, and more recently, The Great War: An Elegy (2014). This film poem, commissioned by the BBC 2 for the centenary of WWI, is built around seven stories rounded off by elegies3, based on the lives of ordinary men and women who lived through the war. “Feel[ing] bound by duty to think about how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years” (Prior), Armitage’s primary intent is “to monumentalize the scattered lost” (“Memorial”) by renewing traditional commemorative practices and poetic sites of memory.

4“Commemorative poetry is grounded in a consensus of community values” (Whitley, 18) and supposes an act of shared remembrance, based on common reference and sentiment. Unsurprisingly in our anti-heroic age, Armitage’s subjects of commemoration are the ordinary and the unremarkable, “the scattered lost” that history has not celebrated. Seeking common ground in order to touch a (sometimes fractured) national audience, commemorative poetry often relies on traditional forms of composition permeated with orality, in order to appeal to the collective sensibility. The trademark Armitage voice, with its fascination for the common place (clichés, worn-out colloquialisms and idioms) and its emulation of the voice of the “common (wo)man” is an ideal vehicle for the expression of these communal (if, at times, consensual) values. Let us take as example the last stanza of the elegy “Considering the Poppy”, written for the televised commemoration of the centenary of WWI in 2014:

A crimson stain
that reminds
and reminds
when it flares and flames

So consider the poppy
pinned on a blouse or pinned on a coat,
or growing wild
among cane or corn.

And recall.
And recall.

5The poet deliberately chooses here the token symbol of remembrance, the iconic poppy, as an object of historical consideration. The didactic appeal to “consider” and “recall”, the easy images and relaxed poeticity (near-rhymes, loose rhythm, marked alliterations and assonances) are an exercise in transparency and accessibility – “they are poems that wear their heart on their sleeve” recognizes Armitage in an interview with Radio Times (“Simon Armitage on the Poetry of WWI”). The poem is devised for the unambiguous identification of the reader to its message and, indeed, to make “memorable television” (Armitage, 2008, ix) to use the poet’s own terms.

6If Armitage’s earlier poetry is characterized by a certain dialogic complexity, his more recent commemorative poems, often destined primarily for television consumption, prioritize straightforwardness and simplicity. Armitage has himself made the distinction between his “regular poems” (“Out of the Blue: Order from Chaos”) and those written for television, “not necessarily [destined for] a book-buying audience, particularly not a poetry-reading public” (“Simon Armitage on the Poetry of WWI”). Asked about the writing process of The Great War: An Elegy, he has insisted on the necessity for a lack of abstraction and emotional transparency: “I don’t have a head for numbers […] It’s about human beings, […] the objects of everyday life are always more persuasive than big philosophical concepts, reams of information or mind‑numbing statistics” (Armitage, 2014). This avoidance of abstraction, which could be read as a form of anti-intellectualism, is consistent with Armitage’s “no-brow” (Flodd) positioning:

I’m not a sort of spooky or superstitious poet. I’m not describing a mystical or shady world when I write. I’m always describing a fairly commonplace world, a recognizable world, a place where we live. Some poets are more interested in the spiritual dimension of their own experience but it’s less interesting to me. (Jones)

7Avoiding (post)modern issues of dialogism, ambiguity and irony, his commemorative poetry is built on the twin claims of authenticity and truthfulness. This explains Armitage’s predilection for the documentary form and his frequent use of archival sources as poetic inspiration. Unable to compete with first-hand experience of conflict (“I am no soldier”. “Poems for the Lost”), Armitage chooses instead to ground his poetry in the testimony of private individuals (interviews, letters, journals). This is why, in an effort to come closest to the original experience and the original voice, he invites the living subjects of his poems, or their relatives, to recite his texts on film, as in The Not Dead or The Great War: An Elegy. As such, his commemorative poems take the form of dramatic monologues in which his own private cadences disappear behind the accounts of first-hand-witnesses, the voices of “real people with true stories to tell” (Armitage, 2008, 8). The commemorator-persona is muted and appears generally only at the end of a segment, collating and collectivizing individual experience into the voice of the community. In this manner, the final poem of Out of the Blue expresses shared anxieties on the impermanence of experience after the trauma of 9/11:

What peace can be said to be water-tight
What truth can be said to be bullet-proof
Can anything swear to be built to last
Can anything pledge to be hard and fast
What system can promise to stay in place,
What structure can promise to hold its shape
What future can promise to keep its faith?

8Through a gradation of seemingly rhetorical questions, Armitage comes back on the fracture of historical continuity created by conflict and the quasi metaphysical anxiety it engenders. The image of the potential gap, the play in a hermetic mechanism, object (“water-tight”, “bullet-proof”) or clichéd formula, which points to a generalized vulnerability of ideas and systems, is a leitmotiv of his commemorative poetry. Speaking the collective anxiety of modern times in simple language, his commemorative poetry functions as a form of bardic utterance aspiring to the expression of a common cultural consciousness (Whitley, 17) that is not here particularly British but universal in tone.

Telling it slant

  • 4 Along with the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
  • 5 For a view of the book and a selection of the photographs analysed in this article, see the publish (...)

9It is probably thanks to Armitage’s bardic voice, both idiosyncratic and protean in its capacity for expressing the collective, that he was commissioned in 2016, by the 14-18 NOW: WWI Centenary Art Commissions4, to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. His poems first appeared in the exhibition “The Fierce Light” (Norfolk and Norwich Festival, May 2016), alongside the work of other poets, and were subsequently published in Still5 (Enitharmon, 2016). Considering the powerful symbolic hold the Battle of the Somme has over British culture and memory, this commission can be seen as Armitage’s most significant yet in terms of public commemoration, along with his 2014 documentary on WWI.

10Still, an intermedial book combining text and image, constitutes however a definitive break in Armitage’s usual artistic process: contrary to his previous film poems which were “about human beings − people who lived and breathed just like we do” (Prior) and, as such, focused on narrativised clips of individuals filmed in close-ups, Still is built on a juxtaposition of 30 poems and 26 anonymous ordnance photographs of the Battle of the Somme. Once again using archival footage as support to poetic creation, Armitage chooses to focus here on a topographical object − the road from Albert to Bapaume around which most of the fighting took place in 1916. Contrary to his former commemorative poems, Still does not rely on direct experience relayed through an individual voice, and is thus not presented as a work of imaginative sympathy with a survivor or victim of conflict. Because there is here no human‑interest story and no subjective memory at play, any immediate emotive identification on the reader’s part is prevented.

  • 6 The book does however offer, as a contrast with these “obliques”, a number of photographs featuring (...)

11Still is dryly described by Armitage as “a dialogue between military documents of the day and the poetic responses they provoke one hundred years later” (Kennedy), a surprisingly abstract statement, emphasized by a subtitle which insists on indirectness: A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield. Instead of the habitual and expected elegy for the men who died at the Somme, the reader is offered an indeterminate response to photographs (rather than primary experience, the support is thus pre‑mediated) of the battlefield (rather than the battle itself). Thus, the work will not be a head‑on confrontation with the experience of battle or the historical moment, but something altogether more tangential, exhibiting a resistance to direct expression. This impression is furthered by Armitage’s choice of visual support; slanted aerial photographs appropriately called “obliques” (tilted at an angle of 45 degrees to the front line) which, far from offering the customary eye-level views of the trenches “with which we have become all too familiar6” (Armitage, 2016, 4), present distant, slightly distorted and disorientating views of the French countryside. The factual military photos, whose impersonality and abstraction are accentuated by their black and white symmetries, lack transparency – the battle of the Somme appears strikingly remote, unpeopled, intangible. The posed stillness of the photographs, which works against the usual representation of a battle associated with chaotic, uproarious movement, deliberately defamiliarises the viewer instead of fostering recognition.

12According to the poet, the exhibition “The Fierce Light” presented the poems “about an inch in front of the photographic surface so as to bring about a form of ‘oblique’ refraction, and, – in a certain light – to encourage the poems to throw their word-shadows onto the landscape below” (Armitage, 2016, 5). Rather than shedding light, the poems were thus designed to – quite literally – throw shadows on the photographs, in a contrived, allusive manner, altogether untypical of Armitage.

13The text itself appears no more illuminating, or at least at first glance, if we go by the prologue poem of Still:

What turns the corn to gold; under which star,
Old friend, should the plough set out, and when
To train the curling vine to the dwarf elm;
Sound advice for the stockman and shepherd;
How best to govern the industrious bees:
These are my themes, the songs I’ll sing. (Still, 7, fragment 1)

14Commissioned to write seven original poems for the exhibition, Armitage had originally intended to resort to his usual modus operandi and “make a short film accompanied by a poetic commentary” (Armitage, 2016, 4). He chose instead to repurpose unnumbered and untitled fragments of Virgil’s two-thousand-year-old Georgics, a versified treatise on agriculture, destined to the Italian farmer and “concerned with the cultivation of vine and trees, types of soil and crops, animal husbandry and beekeeping” (Armitage, 2016, 5). Though the association between contemporary wars and Virgil’s agricultural poem had already been made by Cecil Day Lewis in the epigraph to his translation of the Georgics during WWII (1940), the choice of the Georgics rather than the Aenid, remains surprising, but no less so than the cultural expectations placed, from the very first page, on the “common reader”. Is the proverbial “old friend” of the second line meant to immediately recognize Virgil or, more likely, to gradually infer the symbolic link between agriculture and war?

15Armitage evokes a “dialogue” between the Virgilian text and the WWI ordnance photographs, yet the montage at first offers only jarring tensions: the panoramic photos are dramatically juxtaposed to Virgil’s detailed descriptions, their stillness and neutrality opposed to his evocations of nature, perpetually and vibrantly in flux. The link between text and photograph is only gradually revealed through a pre-existing system of analogy, contained in Virgil’s own stanzas. Renowned for his mastery of the arta allusiva, the Roman poet offers indeed, under his didactic treatise, a commentary on the Great Roman Civil War (45-49 BC) which contributed to the fall of the Republic. His celebrated analogies between agricultural work and military strategy, the cultivation of vines and the Roman legion, or the workings of a beehive and Roman nationhood, colour his Georgics with political undertones. It is these classical analogies between nature and war-making that allow the two-thousand-year-old evocation of Roman civil wars to coincide with our modern memory of WWI. Classic and contemporary tropes collide, as Virgil describes a peasant finding bones in the fields of Pharsalus and Philippi, an image which still resonates in modern-day Flanders:

A time will certainly come in these rich vales
When a ploughman slicing open the soil
Will crunch through rustling spears or strike
A headless iron helmet with his spade
Or stare wordless, at the harvest of raw bones
He exhumes from the earth’s unmarked grave. (22, fragment 10)

16Rather than dealing with first-hand experience or direct evocation of conflict as in his previous collections, Armitage relies here on the links created between older wars and the collective, cultural memory of the First World War, the “war in the head” analysed by Samuel Hynes, to create recognition, rather than identification, in the reader. Reworking the old to comment on the new, Armitage establishes, through a complex, two-layered system of analogy, a common ground – literally, for the road of Bapaume was originally built by the Romans and forms a rich palimpsest of battles from Julius Caesar conquering Gaul, to the Napoleonic wars and WWI –, which allows the reader to reflect on the continuity of human experience enshrined by the title Still.

“An aerial detachment”

17The last text of Still is an extract from Book iv of the Georgics, concerned with the art of beekeeping. Printed on the back of a panoramic three-page spread (“Panorama from Courcelette to Gueudecourt, 5 October 1916”), it describes the generation of bees from the carcass of a freshly-killed ox or bugonia, a classic myth of the ancient world:

A bullock with two-year’s growth to his horns is singled out:
He trashes and bucks as they plug his nostrils and mouth
Then pound him with blunt blows
Till his organs are mush but the hide stays whole
[…] as the season builds, a sticky essence swelters and brews
In the sweet marrow of the beast’s bones.
Till suddenly an astonishment of bees bursts forth (66, fragment 30)

  • 7 Or, more prosaically, but fully in keeping with Armitage’s taste for popular reference, Lyle’s Gold (...)

18Fusing death with birth through the image of the carcass as a womb, this striking last fragment presents no immediate link with the photos it supposedly illustrates. How to interpret the choice of this extract for the final words of Still? Perhaps, as Virgil who ends Book iv on the evocation of Caesar (Octavian)’s military triumph, the extract is to be read in a hopeful light, as the promise of renewal after conflict. To the English reader, more familiar with the biblical (and heroic) tradition, it can be thus understood in the line of Samson’s riddle of the bees born from the dead lion, from which “out of the strong came something sweet” (Judges, 14:147). Thus the final image of Still is that of life burgeoning from death, the miraculous nature of regeneration rendered by Armitage’s coined collective noun “an astonishment of bees”. Nature and poetry are joined in the fertile dialectic of destruction and creation, a traditional image in poetry of conflict (memorably condensed by Yeats’s “A terrible beauty is born”) which Armitage seems here to be paying homage to.

  • 8 As a matter of fact, the final fragment of Still is not taken from last pages of Georgics but from (...)
  • 9 Most newspaper reviews, including the Guardian’s, mistakenly attribute the text solely to Armitage.

19However, Armitage offers no personal epilogue nor coda to Still8, contrary to Virgil’s final lines of the Georgics which, meta-poetically, show the author “lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home/ In studies of the arts of peace”(iv, 563-4) (Fallon). More often than not, commemorative poetry aims to deliver a final exhortation or consolatory message to the public. In Still, the absence of a clear authorial presence or public persona makes it difficult to bestow any definitive significance. Although Armitage’s name features prominently on the cover and first page of Still (which the foreword presents, slightly unscrupulously, as collection of “30 new Armitage poems9”), Virgil remains, unquestionably, the primary author and Armitage his translator/adaptor.

20Domesticating the formal, literary Latin by closely adhering to the rhythms of modern English, Armitage’s casual, idiomatic diction is reminiscent of Cecil Day Lewis’s “familiar, homey” (Thomas, 122) rendition of the Georgics. Still marks Armitage’s only foray into the Latin classics: all his previous (and subsequent) adaptations and translations have concerned the Greek classics (Homer’s Odyssey, 2007, The Last Days of Troy, 2014) as well as anonymous medieval Middle-English poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007), The Death of King Arthur (2012), Pearl (2017), and, more recently, The Owl and the Nightingale (2022). Armitage’s stance on translation, a practise which appears integral to his role as public poet, is that, much like poetry, it is essentially a “democratizing activity” (Armitage, 2021, 175). The programmatic prefaces of his works all insist on the task of adapting the texts to make them “relevant and relatable to the contemporary reader” (Armitage, 2022, ix), “the intention [being to] produce a living, inclusive and readable piece of work in its own right” (Armitage, 2007, 9). If these prefaces address biographical questions, tackle specific translation issues (literalism versus recreation, alliteration, etc.) and acknowledge academic sources and inspirations, his introduction to Still shows no such concern for the original Latin text or its linguistic and poetic characteristics, nor does it engage with its celebrated author and his translators. Its only fleeting mention of the translating process appears through the use of the word “versions” (Armitage, 2016, 5) or “manipulations” (Gifford, 151), a surprising vagueness from a poet avowedly “illiterate in first-century-BC Latin” (Armitage, 2021, 163). All in all, a certain distance with the original text is perceptible, perhaps because The Georgics are less relatable to Armitage, more attuned to “northern texts” (as the prefaces to his translations of Middle-English poems attest) and less comfortable translating from a language with which he is entirely unfamiliar. Armitage appears thus at a remove from the text, curator of the anonymous photos and distant adaptor of the Latin poem, a fact particularly emphasized by the overwhelming choice of fragments marked by the impersonality of the speaker’s voice, avoiding the first pronoun. Arranging the text through careful editing, modernizing and simplifying of the dense Virgilian verse, his “versions” are his only, albeit very indirect, commentary on the Battle of the Somme suggesting, like the exhibition which positioned the poems at a distance from the photos, “an aerial detachment and perspective” (Armitage, 2016, 5).

Palimpsests of the Somme

21Why such evasiveness and ambiguity on Armitage’s part? We only can assume the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme raised more issues of legitimacy and authenticity than his previous commissions: how, indeed, to substitute himself, or give a new voice, to what has already been so memorably written by first-hand witnesses of the Battle of the Somme, namely the WWI war poets? Rather than usurp his role as commemorator, Armitage chooses to use Virgil as a conduit, adapting him in modern English, penetrated with the familiar echoes of well-known war poems. Using WWI poetry as a common frame of reference, or lingua franca, allows Armitage to operate a transfer of responsibilities from himself to more legitimate, institutional, first-hand witnesses of the Great War. Armitage has numerous times expressed a form of anxiety of influence when it comes to the war poets: “they will always be there in the background” (“Poems for the Lost”) he says of his poems in The Great War ‑ An Elegy, just as he places himself in their continuity in his preface to The Not Dead. And indeed, the ghosts of WWI poems, in particular Wilfred Owen’s, are constantly conjured up in Still, by intertextual echoes and visual allusions. In a chronological twist, it is the Virgilian text which is haunted by the memory of the First World War. Let us consider, as an example, this adapted fragment from Book i of the Georgics in relation to the first stanza of Owen’s sonnet “1914”:

When war stalks the world wearing its many masks
[…] the fields
Run to seed. Now the sickle’s descent
Is recast as a sword whose yield is death.
The East is armoured and armed, Germany marches in;
Neighbouring cities have shredded their treaties of peace;
Nation meets nation in all-out attack;
The whole planet hurtles into catastrophe. (Still, 24, fragment 11 (adapt. Georgics, i, 505-514))

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled. (Wilfred Owen “1914”)

  • 10 Still, 66 (Georgics, iv, 313).
  • 11 The image reminds us here of Isaac Rosenberg’s simile uniting bees and bullets in “Dead Man’s Dump” (...)
  • 12 Still, 58 (Georgics, iv, 74).

22A few embellishments and displacements in the adaptation from the Latin suffice to create flashes of recognition (“déjà-lu”) in the contemporary reader. By transposing the dactylic hexameter into a more flexible iambic four to six-beat line, carefully editing the (much longer) Latin phrase to include the allusion to Germany, re-localizing “Euphrates” into “East” or echoing Owen’s emphatic repetitions (“now”) and alliterations ([w] in the first line in particular), Armitage effectively doubles the text, simultaneously evoking Virgil and Wilfred Owen, 45 BC and 1916, in the same, palimpsestic stanza. Sometimes, the spectral effect is produced by simple linguistic anachronism, modernized and compressed into one elliptic image: “arrows pushed by bows10” (“sagittae nervo pulsante”) becomes “bulleting past11” in the adaptation, just as “honing their bee-stings12” (“Spiculaque exacuunt”) is rendered by “venomous bayonets fixed”. Armitage does not hesitate to add to, or veer from, the Latin text in order to tap into the reader’s cultural memory of WWI. Virgil’s ethnological portrait of Scyth shepherds taking refuge from the rigours of winter is transformed, in Armitage’s adaptation, into an eerily familiar evocation of soldiers trying to keep warm in the trenches, complete with board games and grog. The choice of “rations of grog” relocalizes and domesticates the Latin’s “acid fermentation” (“fermento acidis”), just as the mention of “uniforms” is an expansion of Virgil’s neutral “vestes[que]” (“clothes”). The addition of “decks of cards” (absent from the original) completes the picture:

  • 13 “Æraque dissiliunt vulgo, vestesque rigescunt […] / Ipsi in defossis secubus secura sub alta / Otia (...)

Goblets shatter, uniforms stiffen with frost
[…] Men burrow deeper into the earth,
Kindle what they can, what precious light.
In that meagre season they hunker down with board games
And decks of cards, cupping rations of grog…13 (49, fragment 26)

23One is reminded here of Wilfred Owen’s “Exposure” which describes soldiers sheltering from the bitter wind in the trenches:

Our brains ache in the merciless iced east winds that knive us
[…] We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams…

24At other times, Armitage enhances military metaphors in the evocation of natural manifestations (storms, draughts), charging the representation of nature with echoes of war, a classical trope often used by the WWI poets themselves to subvert the pastoral mode and confront it to its own contradictions. Virgil’s epic evocation of an autumn storm takes on the unmistakable shades of fighting in no man’s land:

Then the wind stirs, its battalions muster and charge,
Uprooting, laying waste to entire swathes and tracts,
Gusts out of the storm’s black heart
Flinging weightless stalks into the air.
Then dark rain-columns come piling in
Drawn by legions of dark clouds charged with menace.
Culverts and trenches flood, local streams
Rouse from their beds and come snaking over the heath,
[…] Spooked creatures flee, every human soul the world over
Reels from the barrage, crouches in fear. (18, fragment 6)

25The perspective is once again doubled, through the conservation of Virgil’s military metaphors (“battalions”, “columns, “legions”,) and the addition of polysemic terms like “trenches” and “barrage” which convey both the working of the land and a 20th century warscape. The literal “weightless stalks flung into the air” evoke bodies blown by shell explosions, a frequent image in war poetry where soldiers flung heavenward are compared to reeds, stalks or leaves carried by the wind.

26The same, simultaneous double-reading is made possible in Armitage’s adaptation of an extract from Book iii (258-263) of the Georgics, devoted to animal husbandry. Under Virgil’s description of the “ardent fury” (“furias ignemque”) of ruinous love, appears Armitage’s own vision/version of a young soldier dying in the trenches:

  • 14 “Quid juvenis, magnum cui versat in ossibus ignem / Durus amor ? Nempe, abruptis turbata procellis (...)

Imagine a young man, love’s ache in his marrow
Imagine him swimming in pitch blackness through narrows
Rocked by waves, strafed by storms, caught
In the sky’s cross-hairs, under heaven’s ordnance
Sunk to their knee the two parents beg and plead
As if life could be given back. (48, fragment 2514)

27The manipulation is effected quite simply by a change in subject from the Latin to the English: in Virgil’s text it is the narrows that are “rocked” and “strafed” (abrupta turbata procellis […] freta), in Armitage’s version, syntactic ambiguity plays on the suggestion that it is the young man caught in war’s fury, causing the shattering grief of his parents. This mental image is reinforced by the military connotations of “strafe”, “cross-hairs”, or “ordnance”, all of which are absent from the original lines in Latin.

  • 15 As other translators have done. Peter Fallon, for example, in his 2004 translation of the Georgics (...)

28Many of the fragments in Still are edited in such a way, and contextualized by the photos, so as to add a layer of interpretation which the Latin text does not contain. Often it is through a process of humanisation (as we saw in our previous example) in the adaptation that the effect is created. This is what occurs in another extract from Book iii, in which Virgil offers advice on how to put ill horses to death. The didactic description in Latin, fit for a veterinary manual, is written in the plural and lists a number of medical symptoms that work as subject-nouns of the lengthy Virgilian phrase (“spiritus, sanguis, aspera lingua”). Rather than faithfully render the clinical description through impersonal forms15, Armitage chooses to translate with the singular pronoun “he”. In doing so, he shows us a man where the original describes horses, generating echoes with Owen’s most well-known poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

  • 16 “Hæc ante exitium primis dant signa diebus. / Sin in processu cœpit crudescere morbus, / Tum vero a (...)

With raw red eyes he fights to draw breath,
He gurgles with pain, his body convulses
Head to toe as he sobs. With bloody mucus
Oozing from both his nostrils, his swelling tongue
Clogs his throat till he chokes. (Still, 52, fragment 27, (adapt. Georgics, iii, 503‑50816))

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Wilfred Owen: “Dulce et Decorum Est” [my emphasis])

  • 17 The excerpt also recalls Herbert Read’s ironic rewriting of Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Wa (...)

29Rather than a dying horse, the reader envisions here a soldier choking and drowning on gas fumes, an impression reinforced by the photo of “zero hour” (men going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme) on the page opposite. The striking use of the present tense, the careful attention to the details of the struggling mouth and face17, the suggestion of an anti‑heroism rich with pathos (“he gurgles”, “he sobs”), even the predominance of consonantal patterns in the aural texture of the stanza, are all reminiscent of Owen’s famously anti‑heroic denunciation of war.

Remains of the Somme

30These are but a few examples of the manner in which Armitage sows his adaptation of Virgil’s Georgics with intertextual echoes of the war poets. Contrary to his previous commemorative efforts that aim for an unequivocal message accessible to a large public, the text of Still favours an openness of meaning and reading, just as the ordnance photographs are to be seen, according to Armitage, as “pages and canvases open to interpretation and collaboration” (Armitage, 2016, 4). The possibility of a simultaneous double‑reading of Still goes against the fixed, monologic quality of more traditional memorial and anniversary poems. Armitage has thus created an enriched, palimpsestic form of commemoration and in doing so, has succeeded in remembering both WWI and the poetry that emerged from it, while renewing our reading of Virgil’s Georgics.

31Deepening this palimpsestic furrow, another text could be seen to rise spectrally from Still, namely Ted Hugues’ Remains of Elmet (1979, expanded in Elmet, 1994) which Armitage deems his “single most important publication, a kind of concordance to the whole of his work” (Armitage, 2013, 9). The organisation of Remains of Elmet is similar to Still, juxtaposing Hughes’ poems and Fay Godwin’s 63 black and white, high contrast, and often unpeopled, photographs of the Calder Valley. Underlying the portrayal of the elemental struggles between man and his environment, Remains of Elmet also offers a memorialization of the Battle of the Somme through a tapestry of historical (and later, biographical, in Elmet) references, linking the 19th century industrialization of the Calder Valley to the deaths in WWI. Haunted by his father and his uncle’s memories of the Somme, Hughes chose to inscribe the enduring trauma of WWI in his native Yorkshire landscape, feeling he could not “escape the impression that the whole region [was] in mourning for the First World War” (Simpson, 111). However, Still avoids Hughes’ final bleak emphasis on the loss of man’s mastery over nature, this loss of culture forgoing any possibility of consolation as Ian Twiddy justly analyses: “there is no redemption for the dead […], just as there is no redemption for the suicide of a continent during WWI” (Twiddy, 58). The Georgics, and Still through them, though they show nature as “the site of war, between man and man, between nature and man, with victory on each side deeply problematic” (Thomas, 124), also showcase, through the Georgic process, nature as a site of continued instruction and possible consolation.

32Thus, though Still represents a break in Armitage’s artistic process, its objective is similar to his earlier commemorative poems : whereas they encouraged the reader to make links between a soldier in Basra, Malaya and Bosnia (The Not Dead) or between the victims of 9/11, the Kmer Rouge and the Blitz (Out of the Blue), here Armitage superimposes the Great Roman Civil wars and WWI, to suggest the continuity of all human experience, an idea he regularly expresses through his encounters with the Classics, as in his 2014 adaptation of the Iliad:

At the time when the play will be premiered, many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with its images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. […] Nothing has changed. (Armitage, 2014, 8)

33The aim of commemorative poetry is, first and foremost, to preserve the past in order to ensure the future. Like Virgil, haunted by the dialectic of continuity and ineluctable change, Armitage is particularly interested in issues of transmission and tradition. His “regular poems” reveal indeed an increasing consciousness of the “gap in time” which is, according to Hannah Arendt, the condition of modern man. In response, his body of commemorative poetry (as well as his translations) tries to counteract this intuition, performing continuity by drawing a verbal link between different texts, places and eras, and, by giving them their meaning, offering a poetic testament to future generations. Beyond the commemoration of a battle, Still can thus be read as a reflection on historical and poetic continuity, grounded in the complex yet enduring relation between man and nature.

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Armitage, Simon. Homer’s Odyssey. London: Faber, 2007.

---. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Faber, 2007.

---. The Not Dead. Hebden Bridge: Ponoma Books, 2008.

---. Out of the Blue. London: Enitharmon, 2008.

---. The Death of King Arthur. London: Faber, 2012.

---. The Last Days of Troy. London: Faber, 2014.

---. Still, A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield. London: Enitharmon, 2016.

---. Pearl. London: Faber, 2017.

---. Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. London: Faber, 2019.

---. A Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures. London: Faber, 2021.

---. The Owl and the Nightingale. London: Faber, 2022.

---. “The Ascent of Ted Hugues: Conquering the Calder Valley” in Wormald. M., Roberts, N. Gifford, T. (eds.), Ted Hugues: From Cambridge to Collected Poems. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

---. “Poems for the Lost: Simon Armitage Remembers WW1”. BBC website, 5 November 2014, Accessed 20 April 2020.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: The Viking Press, 1961.

Coussens, Catherine. “British National Identity, Topicality and Tradition in Simon Armitage’s Poetry”. Journal of Arts and Sciences: 9 (2008), 17-38.

Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. London: Routledge, 2020.

Gill, A.A. The Best of A.A. Gill. London: Orion Publishing, 2018.

Flodd, Alison. “Simon Armitage Named UK’s poet laureate”. Guardian, 10 May 2019, Accessed 4 April 2020.

Hynes, Samuel. On War and Writing. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2018.

“Out of the Blue: Order from Chaos”, from Boston University Youtube website, 9 April 2010, Accessed 20 April 2020.

Jones, Simon. “Interview with Simon Armitage”. High Profile, 21 September 2005, Accessed 12 April 2020.

Kennedy, Maev. “Aerial photos of the Somme inspire poet Simon Armitage”. Guardian, 1 May 2016, Accessed 6 March 2020.

Owen, Wilfred. War Poems. London: Chatto&Windus, 1975 [1973].

“Simon Armitage on the Poetry of World War One”. Radio Times, 8 November 2014, Accessed 12 April 2020.

Prior, David. “Simon Armitage Pens World War One Poems for Culture Show Special”. Prolific North, 23 October 2014, Accessed 20 April 2020.

Simpson, Louis. Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Thomas, Richard F. “The ‘Georgics’ of Resistance: From Virgil to Heaney”. Vergilius (1959), 2001, Vol. 47, The Vergilian Century (2001), 117-147.

Twiddy, Iain. Pastoral Elegy in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Virgil. The Georgics of Virgil (trans. Peter Fallon). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Virgil. The Georgics. Project Gutenberg, April 3 2008, Accessed 13 June 2022.

Whitley, Edward. American Bards: Walt Whitman and Other Unlikely Candidates for National Poet, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 18.

Winter, Jay. “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies”, Archives and Social Studies: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, vol. 1, n°0 (2007), 363-397.

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1 Commissioned by Channel 4, for Remembrance Day 2007, The Not Dead explores the testimonies of war-traumatized veterans of Bosnia, Malaya and Basra.

2 Commissioned by Channel 5, Out of the Blue celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of V.E. Day, the thirtieth anniversary of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

3 “Sea Sketch”, “Remains”, “Considering the Poppy”, “Lazarus”, “In Avondale”, “The Thankful”,” Memorial”, published in Considering the Poppy (alongside wood engravings by Chris Daunt, Fine Press Poetry, 2014) and republished in Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic (Faber, 2019).

4 Along with the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

5 For a view of the book and a selection of the photographs analysed in this article, see the publisher’s website: Accessed 20 April 2020.

6 The book does however offer, as a contrast with these “obliques”, a number of photographs featuring well-known landmarks of the battle (the leaning Virgin of Notre-Dame de Brebières, p. 41 for example), as well as traditional group photos of soldiers and a ground-level views of the trenches.

7 Or, more prosaically, but fully in keeping with Armitage’s taste for popular reference, Lyle’s Golden Syrup logo: “out of the strong came forth the sweetness” (thanks to Samuel Trainor and Rowland Cotterill for this suggestion).

8 As a matter of fact, the final fragment of Still is not taken from last pages of Georgics but from the middle of Book iv (295-316), a surprising choice as the image of the miraculous bugonia is also present in the final stanzas of the Georgics. Presumably the allusion to Octavian was unwelcome for Armitage.

9 Most newspaper reviews, including the Guardian’s, mistakenly attribute the text solely to Armitage.

10 Still, 66 (Georgics, iv, 313).

11 The image reminds us here of Isaac Rosenberg’s simile uniting bees and bullets in “Dead Man’s Dump”: “When the swift iron burning bee/ Drained the wild honey of their youth”.

12 Still, 58 (Georgics, iv, 74).

13 “Æraque dissiliunt vulgo, vestesque rigescunt […] / Ipsi in defossis secubus secura sub alta / Otia agunt terra, congestaque robora totasque / Advolvere focis ulmos, ignique dedere. / Hic novtem ludo ducunt, et pocula læti/ Fermento atque acidis imitantur vitea sorbis” (Georgics, iii, 363, 376-380). All quotations from the Latin are taken from Virgil’s original Georgicon, available at Project Gutenberg (see bibliography).

14 “Quid juvenis, magnum cui versat in ossibus ignem / Durus amor ? Nempe, abruptis turbata procellis / Nocte natat cæca serus freta ; quem super ingens / Porta tonat cæli², et scopulis illisa reclamant / Æquora ; nec miseri possunt revocare parentes” (Georgics, iii, 258-263).

15 As other translators have done. Peter Fallon, for example, in his 2004 translation of the Georgics (OUP), uses impersonal pronouns and nouns in order to avoid humanizing the beast (“it”, “disease”, “the eyes”, etc.) : “Such are the signs in the early days of being at death’s door— but if disease proceeds to tighten its grip, / then, yes, the eyes begin to flicker, laboured breath / is interspersed with moans and groans, a rattle / shudders from the groin, blackened blood oozes from the nostrils, / clogged passages close in around an arid tongue”.

16 “Hæc ante exitium primis dant signa diebus. / Sin in processu cœpit crudescere morbus, / Tum vero ardentes oculi, atque attractus ab alto / Spiritus, interdum gemitu gravis, imaque longo / Ilia singultu tendunt ; it naribus ater / Sanguis, et obsessas fauces premit aspera lingua” (Georgics, iii, 503-508).

17 The excerpt also recalls Herbert Read’s ironic rewriting of Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Warrior”, “The Happy Warrior”: “His wild heart beats with painful sobs, / His strain'd hands clench an ice-cold rifle, / His aching jaws grip a hot parch'd tongue, / His wide eyes search unconsciously. / He cannot shriek. / Bloody saliva / Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.”

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Electronic reference

Sarah Montin, Oblique refractions”: Simon Armitage’s poetics of commemoration in Still, A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield (2016)Miranda [Online], 26 | 2022, Online since 20 October 2022, connection on 08 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sarah Montin

Maîtresse de Conférences
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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