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Of War and Literature

May 14, 1993|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH

Strange though it may seem to find poets at West Point, the free companionship between war, warriors and the literary arts, down the eons, cannot be denied.

Name a national epic, from the Greek Iliad to the Indian Mahabharata, and there's more than a fair chance it was penned about martial matters.

As for poets soldiering along, consider Geoffrey Chaucer, creator of "The Canterbury Tales," who cooled his Middle English heels as a POW of the French after capture at the siege of Reims in 1359.

John Donne, of "No man is an island" fame, joined a troupe of gentlemen-adventurers who battled the Spaniards in a 16th-Century expedition against Cadiz. In roughly the same era, Yi Sun Shin was distinguishing himself as both a great general and poet in Korea.

In this century, the two great wars certainly had profound influence on poet-soldiers such as--to name a few--Richard Aldington, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Alan Seeger and Siegfried Sassoon (in World War I); and John Ciardi, James Dickey, Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro (in World War II).

West Point has produced at least one notably poor cadet but great American poet: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe found the environment so stifling at the military academy that he began skipping all classes and drill. He ended up on the wrong end of a court-martial and was sent away. Free to think and be as he pleased, he went on to write "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

While Poe's case may be exceptional on several counts, it raises a question for today: Just how well do West Point and Annapolis serve young Americans and their muses?

The contemporary novelist James Salter made it through to his West Point graduation, but over the phone from his house in Aspen, Colo., he lapsed into a long, thoughtful silence when asked what a military-academy education might have had to do with his development as a writer.

"On one hand, I read only a few books at West Point, among them, as it happened, two or three by Ivy Compton-Burnett, urged on me by a rare literate classmate, later shot down and killed in Korea, so there was a tremendous cultural void," he said at length. "On the other hand, I became a man, and entered a Homeric world of voyages and deeds--which perhaps, in the end, hardly made up for the other."

James Webb, the author of four well-received novels and a secretary of the Navy under former President Ronald Reagan, was only slightly more enthusiastic about his four years of schooling at Annapolis. Midshipmen in Webb's day--he is a member of the class of 1968--had no alternative but to major in engineering.

"For me, it was just torture," Webb recalled. "I'm glad to have been able to study the literature courses that I did, but I would have gotten a much more thorough formal education had I gone somewhere else."

Appointed the civilian head of the Navy in 1987, Webb, who by then had two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Navy Cross on his resume, felt no shyness in pressing for the establishment of an English major in the Annapolis curriculum.

Today, Webb makes his living as a Washington lawyer, screenwriter and film producer.

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