The Thespians at Thermopylae
The honours that the people give always
Pass to those use-besotted gentlemen
Whose numskull courage is a kind of fear,
A fear of thought and of the oafish mothers
(‘Or with your shield or on it’) in their rear.
Spartans cannot retreat. Why, then, their praise
For going forward should be less than others.
But we, actors and critics of one play,
Of sober-witted judgment, who could see
So many roads, and chose the Spartan way,
What has the popular report to say
Of us, the Thespians at Thermopylae?
A poem finely balanced on a knife-edge of irony. The answer to the question in the last two lines seems to be ‘Not a lot!’, so I take Cameron’s meaning to be that a rational man should view the martial virtues with deep distrust; that sometimes, nonetheless, one must suspend one’s own judgment in a greater cause and follow the Spartan path, as Cameron did by serving in World War II; and that one should expect in return little recognition for this sacrifice of principle and life. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Keith Douglas’s ‘Aristocrats’, that great elegy for a ‘gentle/Obsolescent breed of heroes’.