Week 35: The Thespians at Thermopylae, by Norman Cameron

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?

Norman Cameron

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’.


1 thought on “Week 35: The Thespians at Thermopylae, by Norman Cameron

  1. From Wikipedia: “Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. It has been reported that others also remained, including up to 900 helots and 400 Thebans. With the exception of the Thebans, most of whom reportedly surrendered, the Greeks fought to the death”.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s