A Mods Don at Ypres
I am a “Mods don”, or at least that’s one, rather old-fashioned way of describing me. What it means is that I’m a tutor at an Oxford college, Brasenose, who’s particularly concerned with preparing the Classics students for their first examinations, Honour Moderations (or Mods), in their second year.
That may all sound like the very definition of an ivory tower, and if so, on this occasion, good. Because this is the story of how deep into the charmed cloisters of academia the Great War penetrated, a story very relevant to the Mods don at Brasenose a hundred years later, but entirely unknown to me until ten days ago.
Mods dons at Brasenose, it’s heartening to learn, tend to have a good innings. My predecessor started here in 1957, his predecessor in 1922. Before him a man named Herbert Fox (remember that name) had held the job since 1889, having himself succeeded to Charles Heberden, who started in 1872. If I can only make it to 2022 I’m having a party, and you’re all invited, since it’ll then be a century since my predecessor-but-one took up his Fellowship, and 150 years since the arrival of my predecessor-but-three.
That much I knew, but it turns out I have another predecessor I was entirely unaware of. I owe this information to David Walsh, author (with Anthony Seldon) of Public Schools and the Great War, who has very generously written an article for the college magazine (which I edit) on the impact of the First World War on Brasenose College. An important theme, in the book and the article, is the disproportionate losses suffered by the privileged elite that attended public schools and Oxbridge in the early twentieth century, precisely because they were a privileged elite, and hence fed the junior officer ranks that found themselves most exposed to danger, and suffered predictably appalling casualties. The fatality rate for all British combatants was one in ten, Walsh and Seldon remind us, for products of public schools one in five.
Druce Robert (“Bob”) Brandt was one such product of a privileged education: Harrow (there’s an image of him at school here) and Balliol College, Oxford. He was a very talented Classicist and, something that seemed to count as much in Oxford in those days, a fine cricketer, too. After an operation for appendicitis almost killed him as he was about to sit Finals at Oxford in 1910, he took an aegrotat (a degree awarded when illness has prevented a candidate sitting the exams: Brandt features in a spoof of a Class List in Punch) and that was enough to secure a fellowship in Classics offered him by Brasenose. It’s slightly harder to get a fellowship here nowadays, but the whole game of academia was very different then. Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine acknowledges that “he would, perhaps, have never made a great contribution to written learning,” but argues that this isn’t the best way to evaluate an Oxford scholar, whose legacy lay, not in massive Germanic works of research, but in his influence on the students he taught: “That is the tradition of Oxford–her way with her biggest men: their work lives for posterity in their disciples: vitai lampada tradunt [‘They hand on the torch of life’, from Lucretius, cf. Sir Henry Newbolt].”
Why Brasenose felt it needed another Classicist in 1910 is quite hard to say. My guess is that it had something to do with the health of Herbert Fox, Fellow in Classics at Brasenose from 1889 to 1921. Fox was another cricketing Classicist, in fact his Wikipedia article gives half a sentence to his thirty years at Brasenose, and almost all the rest to cricket. But he seems to have suffered recurrent ill-health, and spent extended periods recuperating away from Oxford. Eventually in 1921 he took early retirement. I suspect Bob Brandt was brought in to support Fox, with a view, in the longer term, to taking over the role of Mods don fully.
If that was indeed the plan, it wasn’t to be. Brandt found the life of an Oxford academic too tame. “Under all,” he wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, “there lies the conviction that my proper place is not in the educational but in the industrial or political world–the feeling that I must be up and doing, not sitting and talking.” This was in his resignation letter, and in 1913 he left Oxford (though he remained a Fellow of Brasenose until the end of his life) and, according to his obituary, “plunged into social work in Bermondsey.” In other words, Brandt became involved in the Settlement Movement, an effort by university-based social reformers to break down the cultural barriers and massive economic discrepancies between social classes. Middle-class colonies like Toynbee Hall were established as centres for social work in the slums of Tower Hamlets and Bermondsey and elsewhere, desperately deprived areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then again, I’ve just been sitting in a meeting discussing how to reconnect Oxford and the inner city, so plus ça change. Maybe Teach First is the reincarnation of the Settlement Movement.
Brandt was privileged but idealistic, then. It’s hard not to warm to this young man impatient to make a positive difference. He had also been in the Officers’ Training Corps at Oxford, which we should also consider a sign of idealism in its time, and in 1913 he joined the Special Reserve, something like the Territorial Army. When war broke out in August 1914, Special Reservists were mobilised immediately; Brandt was posted to the training depot at Sheerness, his deployment to France apparently delayed by a foot injury. For a while he was engaged in training up “Kitchener’s New Army”, men who had responded to the call for volunteers at the start of hostilities. Then, in May 1915, Brandt crossed to France with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. (The details of his service I owe to Christopher Stray and the Balliol College Register; and there is a moving letter to his young godson as he prepared to set out for France here.) Near Ypres on July 6th 1915, at 27 years old, and leading a company all of whose officers “had been knocked out the day before,” Lieutenant Brandt was killed.
The Great War memorial in Brasenose Chapel: 1914 and 1915 (photo: Andrew Sillett)
His commanding officer wrote to his parents:
“Your son fell, wounded in two places, about 6.30 a.m. … during the successful assault on a line of German trenches. The attack had been gallantly led by your son with his company on this section of the front assaulted, and he had reached the German parapet and was engaged in cheering on his men to renewed efforts when he fell, and, it seems, died almost immediately.”
This particular assault may have achieved its aims, but the Ypres Salient was a focus of conflict from the beginning to the end of the war (Alan Palmer’s The Salient is a very readable history), and they were still fighting over Pilckem and Boesinghe, the location of Brandt’s death, in 1918. Officially, by July 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres was over, but “local actions took place from time to time without any appreciable result,” although still at immense cost in casualties, and this was one such essentially pointless action.
The official history of the Rifle Brigade makes depressing reading here. The attack was originally planned as part of a larger action, but was undertaken on July 6th even though the wider plan had been shelved. (A letter to this effect was sent by the Divisional Commander General Wilson to his superiors, but “there seems to have been no reply.”) The impression is strong of a date in the diary that a bureaucratic command structure was determined to honour, no matter the human consequences. “Within five minutes of zero all the officers were out of action,” including “Lieutenant Brandt of ‘B’ Company” “shot through the heart on the German parapet.” The action gained “some seventy-five yards of ground on a frontage of three hundred yards.” The fact that Brandt’s name is inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres indicates that he has no known grave.
Obituaries in general, and I suppose especially obituaries written in war time, accentuate the positive. Bob Brandt’s obituary in the college magazine stands out nonetheless. He seems to embody for the writer (Herbert Fox, I presume, although it isn’t attributed) an ideal of Edwardian Oxford, and the epitome of the disaster visited upon Oxford by the Great War:
“All the gifts of the gods were his. It is given to but few to combine intellectual brilliance with sanity of judgement; both were his in pre-eminent degree. It is given to fewer still, whilst maintaining an exacting standard of self-criticism, to enjoy life to the full. No one tried himself by higher ideals than Brandt, yet the grace and charm which sprang from the joyousness of his inner life made him the most delightful of companions and the most lovable of friends… He always looked straight into the heart of a question, and it was a real help to others to know what he saw. But in spite of this very unusual maturity of judgement, he retained to the end the most wonderful, the most seductive, boyishness. It never left him… When with the insight of a master of language he hit upon the exact rendering for some difficult phrase, or detected some spark of hidden fire in an unpromising scholarship candidate, the same thrill of boyish expectancy ran through him as when, with the enthusiasm of a novice, he went in search of an Irish trout, or for the first time opened a Basque grammar, or started in the freshness of the early morning to raid the Oxfordshire fritillaries.”
“He loved life, but he gave it,” the obituary concludes. “For many of us the simple old Greek line has gained a new meaning and a new beauty: Ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἀποθνήσκει νέος [‘Whom the gods love dies young’].”
Bob Brandt was missed. In 1926, W. T. S. Stallybrass, the future Principal of Brasenose, had an obituary to write for the college magazine of Herbert Fox, his colleague in Classics. Stallybrass reminisces about his early years as a Law Fellow (he joined Brasenose in 1911) in company with his closest friends Fox and Brandt: “Those were halcyon days, for Bob Brandt was still with us,” and he quotes from a letter Fox had sent him when his poor health forced him to retire: “The jolliest time I had at B.N.C. was when you and Bob and I were together.” Fox had taken the death of his colleague especially hard, even amid the tide of Brasenose casualties that faced him in the newspaper every morning: “I have just heard about Bob. It is the worst of all,” and later: “Bob’s death becomes more awful every day.” To men like Fox, it seemed the war would leave nothing left of Oxford. Harold Macmillan, wounded at the Somme, never completed his Oxford degree after the war: “I could not face going back to Oxford. Whenever I went there, it seemed to be “a city of ghosts.””
Others outside Oxford mourned Brandt, of course. I’ve spent a bit of time in the census and the Times Archive trying to fill out a picture of him, but he really died too young to leave much of a record. What I did find in The Times was a notice which appeared for many years in the In Memoriam section on the anniversary of his death, July 6. The details vary slightly from year to year, sometimes giving more detail of Brandt’s rank or affiliation (“LIEUT. DRUCE ROBERT BRANDT, The Rifle Brigade, 6th Batt. (attached 1st Batt.)”) or specifying the location of his death (“Pilckem, near Ypres”). A few early notices identify him as “our son” or “our dear son”. There’s a pattern if you look hard enough: notices for a few years immediately after his death in 1915, then a pause until 1925, but then until 1947 a notice every single year, on the 5th or the 7th if July 6th was a Sunday. After that, it becomes more unpredictable again.
I went to death records to shed some light, and reminded myself how evocative of real lives, and intensely moving, the dry facts of deaths and census records can be. It transpired that Brandt’s father died early in 1925, and his mother, Florence, in 1949: it was clearly a mother’s devotion that had ensured his name appeared in the newspaper every year without fail from 1925 to 1947, after which time, I fear, Florence (who died in February ’49) was too frail to make the arrangements. Thereafter the notices appear more fitfully, but it’s clear that Brandt’s surviving siblings, Edmund (d. 1965) and Florence Winifred (d. 1971) continued to honour their mother’s determination to commemorate Bob’s death, albeit less punctiliously with the passing of time.
Bob Brandt, as we’ve seen, was one of “The Missing”, men whose bodies were never found, or never identified, a fact which tempers rather the solicitous words of his commanding officer to his parents. The huge number of missing in this war was a trauma which exercised the post-war world greatly, and called forth some remarkable responses from creative minds: tombs of the Unknown Warrior, like the one in Westminster Abbey; Kipling’s exquisite formulation for their tombstones, “A soldier of the Great War, known unto God” (Kipling’s own son was among the missing); Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall, and his architectural masterpiece at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme composed of interlocking arches in such a way as to create the wall space for 73,357 names. One grieving father mentioned by Seldon and Walsh bought some land on the Somme battlefield where his son, Lt. Val Braithwaite, had died, and erected a cross inscribed, “God buried him and no man knoweth his sepulchre.” The urge to commemorate is all the stronger when the dead have no known grave. It feels intrusive even to speculate, but that Florence Brandt’s son had no known place of burial makes her act of commemoration in print all the more explicable, and all the more poignant. (16.06.2014: in Ralph Furse’s introduction to D. R. Brandt: Some of his Letters, published in 1920, I have subsequently found the following: “The surge of heavy fighting swept back and forward over the spot where he fell, and an unknown grave adds to the grief of some who loved him best.”)
1961 saw Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry; Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War was first staged in 1963, while in 1964 the BBC broadcast its Great War TV series. The First World War was returning to the public consciousness in the early Sixties. The very last notice I could find in The Times, coincidentally or not, appeared on July 6, 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Brandt’s death.
The Triumph of Chaos
This post is inspired by a Very Important Classicist saying something quite shocking. “I can’t stand Lucretius,” s/he admitted to me.
Actually, and to be fair, that’s not such an outlandish opinion. Lucretius is a Marmite poet, with passionate detractors and equally passionate devotees, and maybe that’s inevitable given what his six-book epic poem, the De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”), sets out to do. Lucretius was an Epicurean, a follower of a philosophical school established by Epicurus in Athens in the fourth century BC, and the De Rerum Natura aims to convert his readers to Epicureanism by explaining his theories of the nature of the physical world, which in turn underpinned Epicurus’ radical ideas as to how humans should live their lives. In other words, the DRN is essentially a pretty austere exercise in philosophical doctrine, albeit one managed by a genius (at least as far as his fans are concerned) who managed to locate the common ground between meticulous philosophy and exquisite poetry.
Well, the best way that I know to learn to appreciate Lucretius (and this happens to be the way an inspirational teacher at school switched me onto him) is a little book by the late, great Latinist David West. Another way is to read Emma Woolerton’s excellent series of articles on Lucretius in the Guardian. I can’t hold a candle to either of those Lucretius experts, but what I can do is try to explain my own enthusiasm for his poetry. I’ll do so with special reference to a short passage very early in the poem (DRN 1.62-79) that celebrates the achievements of Lucretius’ great mentor Epicurus. But what this passage also does, I think, is illustrate what an astonishingly radical and exciting project Lucretius considered his poem to be.
More precisely, this passage celebrates what Epicurus did to traditional religious beliefs. The Epicureans were not atheists, strictly speaking, but their view of the gods was still at dramatic variance with the god-fearing consensus of antiquity. They thought that while gods existed, they did not interfere in human existence, and instead lived a blissful, carefree life in the intermundia, the space between worlds (“playing ping pong on the other side of the Universe,” as Charlotte Easton put it to me). In fact the main use of the gods, as far as Lucretius is concerned, is as a model of the happiness humans can achieve if they can only free themselves from their irrational fears and superstitions.
We might pause here to imagine how well this philosophy was likely to go down among the Romans, a people convinced that the only explanation of their precipitous rise to power was that they were chosen people and the gods had made it so.
Here is Lucretius’ account of Epicurus v. Religion, in the translation of Ronald Melville (with notes by Don and Peta Fowler, another excellent introduction to the poem):
When human life lay foul for all to see
Upon the earth, crushed by the burden of religion,
Religion which from heaven’s firmament
Displayed its face, its ghastly countenance,
Lowering above mankind, the first who dared
Raise mortal eyes against it, first to take
His stand against it, was a man of Greece.
He was not cowed by fables of the gods
Or thunderbolt or heaven’s threatening roar,
But they the more spurred on his ardent soul
Yearning to be the first to break apart
The bolts of nature’s gates and throw them open.
Therefore his lively intellect prevailed
And forth he marched, advancing onwards far
Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world,
And voyaged in mind throughout infinity,
Whence he victorious back in triumph brings
Report of what can be and what cannot
And in what manner each thing has a power
That’s limited, and deep-set boundary stone.
Wherefore religion in its turn is cast
Beneath the feet of men and trampled down,
And us his victory has made peers of heaven.
Powerful stuff, and there’s lots to say about it. But Lucretius’ essential idea here is to imagine Epicurus’ debunking of religious belief as his scaling of Mt Olympus, the traditional home of the gods, from where he drags religio (“religion” or “superstition”) down to be trampled underfoot by humanity. Humanity, meanwhile, with Epicurus’ help, captures the high ground for itself, assumes the condition of gods, in other words.
Lucretius is actually playing here with a very well-established mythical model, the Battle of the Giants or Gigantomachy. This myth told how rebellious forces, the giants, revolted against the gods on Olympus, and tried unsuccessfully to overthrow them. It embodied ideas of order and chaos and political authority, and hence we find it represented in the great frieze that ran around the base of the Pergamon Altar, now the centrepiece of the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin: the giants are the figures with the snaky tails. This building was constructed by a Greek king of Pergamon (in modern Turkey) known as Eumenes II, and the frieze expressed in symbolic form the protection against forces of disorder that Eumenes claimed to provide to his subjects.
The gods’ defeat of the giants was a myth of civilization, then, but alongside statements of political legitimacy like Eumenes’ altar, the myth of Gigantomachy also became associated with the form of poetry with the most public, political character: epic poetry. Of all ancient genres of poetry, epic was the one with the greatest interest in issues of order and authority, and celebrating the achievements of political leaders, and hence it came about that the myth of Gigantomachy became effectively synonymous with the epic poetry written by such figures as Virgil, his great predecessor Ennius, and in his idiosyncratic way also Lucretius.
Let me illustrate how interchangeable epic poetry and Gigantomachy were to ancient minds with a very different kind of poet, Ovid. At the start of his second book of love poems, the Amores, Ovid pokes fun at this idea of epic-as-Gigantomachy in his typically irreverent way. He was planning to write a respectable epic poem, he claims, but then his girlfriend shut him out and the only poetry of any use to him in that situation was (his usual) love poetry. But that’s not quite how Ovid puts it. In fact he says that he was staging a Gigantomachy (an epic) when his girlfriend forced him in the role of an excluded lover: the locked-out lover is the quintessential scenario of Roman love poetry just as Gigantomachy is of epic. Here is Ovid (Am. 2.1.11-28), as translated by Peter Green:
One time, I recall, I got started on an inflated epic
About War in Heaven, with all
Those hundred-handed monsters, and Earth’s fell vengeance, and towering
Ossa piled on Olympus (plus Pelion too).
But while I was setting up Jove–stormclouds and thunderbolts gathered
Ready to hand, a superb defensive barrage–
My mistress staged a lock-out. I dropped Jove and his lightnings
That instant, didn’t give him another thought.
Forgive me, good Lord, if I found your armoury useless–
Her shut door ran to larger bolts
Than any you wielded. I went back to verse and compliments,
My natural weapons. Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.
Doors are no match for such spellbinding, the toughest
Locks can be open-sesamed by its charms.
Normality is restored to Ovid’s poetry, the epic is aborted, and the Romans get another book of love poetry from their favourite poet.
Ovid is notoriously self-aware, trading happily in stereotypes of his own and other genres to witty effect. But a more conventional poet like Virgil in the Aeneid is also acutely aware of the subtext of Gigantomachy that underlies his epic poem, even when its plot, Aeneas’ quest to found Rome, bears little obvious resemblance to that myth. The myth of Gigantomachy surfaces periodically in the Aeneid, for example in the fight between the hero Hercules and the monster Cacus which Evander, king of early Rome, recounts to Aeneas in Book 8. This is a moment where an Olympian figure (Hercules) wrestles and overcomes a giant-like force for disorder (Cacus); it’s also a passage which functions as some kind of (rather elusive) key to the story that fills the remainder of Virgil’s poem, the struggle of Aeneas and Turnus for the hand of the princess Lavinia and control of Latium.
Now Virgil is far too subtle and thoughtful a poet to play the Gigantomachy theme absolutely straight: in Book 10, for example, when Aeneas goes berserk after the death of his comrade Pallas (for me, as I said in my last blog, by far the most disturbing and challenging section of the Aeneid), Virgil describes his hero raging like Aegaeon, a monster with a hundred hands and fifty fire-belching mouths, who wielded fifty swords against Jupiter’s lightning–which is to say, Aeneas in his grief and anger has become like a giant, sworn enemy of the Olympian gods, a force of chaos and destruction. But what makes this moment so arresting, of course, is that Virgil is making his hero precisely the opposite of the Olympian, civilized figure we want him to be. Some thoughts on this, again, in my last blog.
The key point for understanding Lucretius is the intimate relation that held between Gigantomachy, with its message of providential order, and the poetic genre of epic. When we find Lucretius representing the achievements of his hero Epicurus, the guiding spirit of his poem, in the guise of the myth of Gigantomachy, one implication is obvious enough: Lucretius’ poem, despite its very unconventional contents, was indeed, as its length and metrical form suggested, an epic, a poem aspiring to the same central role in Roman culture as Ennius’ Annals had enjoyed in the past, and Virgil’s Aeneid would achieve in the following generation.
But there’s more to it than that, because the really radical thing about Lucretius’ version of the Gigantomachy is that here the force of Good takes the role not of the Olympian gods, but the giants: uncowed by Jupiter’s thunderbolts, Epicurus presses on and conquers the realm of religion. To a reader familiar with the conventions of Greco-Roman poetry, this passage, which sits early enough in the poem to carry a strong programmatic force for the whole work, implies not only that the De Rerum Natura is an epic, but that it is the strangest, most revolutionary epic you’ve ever seen, because in this epic the forces of disorder, the giants, will prevail.
I started off by acknowledging that a poem explaining in quite precise detail the scientific theories of a Greek philosopher might not add up to a very enticing recipe. But for me, what adds spice to it all is that the whole enterprise is just a tiny bit unhinged. Lucretius was aiming to convert Romans to a way of life, Epicureanism, which could hardly be less compatible with their traditional practices. To that end he was hijacking Rome’s cultural forms, epic poetry first and foremost, and using them to blazon a belief system which, if properly implemented, would mean in effect the end of anything recognizably Roman. All of that, I think, is embodied in Lucretius’ radical and brilliant twist on the epic myth of Gigantomachy: what you are about to read is an epic, but an epic the burden of which is the complete overthrow of established notions of civilization.
I think another detail of Lucretius’ Gigantomachy reinforces this impression of an epic poem with a revolutionary agenda. When Lucretius describes Epicurus “breaking apart the bolts of nature’s gates” he is suggesting the originality of Epicurus’ thought, and the boldness of his cosmological theories, but he also seems to be reminding us of a moment in the Annals of his great predecessor Ennius. In Book 7 of the Annals, Ennius’ epic of Roman history (now a very melancholy bundle of fragments), we encounter the hellish Fury Discordia, who “shattered the iron-clad gates and doorposts of War” (fr. 225-6 Skutsch). Discordia is the great-grannie of Virgil’s ghastly hell-hound Allecto, like Allecto a demon who makes it her task to disrupt the orderly plans of Providence. Here in Ennius’s poem Discordia is apparently reigniting conflict between Rome and Carthage after the treaty that had ended the First Punic War, before (again like Allecto) she disappears back into the Underworld where she belongs.
If there is indeed a hint of Discordia taetra, “ghastly Discordia”, in Lucretius’ Epicurus, well, that’s as stunning a move as his topsy-turvy Gigantomachy: once again, though in even more arresting fashion, the founder of Lucretius’ philosophical school is equated to chaotic, anti-Olympian forces. But Discordia, like the giants, communicates a key message about the De Rerum Natura, and an accurate perception on Lucretius’ part: the philosophical system of the Epicureans, properly realized, was a truly revolutionary creed, one that might, if the Epicureans were right, create individual happiness and a better world, but would certainly dismantle society and culture as the Romans knew it. The conquest of heaven is a bold metaphor, but what else could capture the enormity of Lucretius’ project?