The hawks have the best epic poetry

Any day now a new poet laureate will be appointed, so naturally the air is buzzing with contrasting views on the extent to which poets should be up with the news. On the whole, contemporary poetry is a private concern, tending to reflect on and celebrate an individual sensibility, and this does seem something of a narcissistic decline since the days when poets saw fit to narrate The Charge of the Light Brigade, say, or the blood-stained trenches of the Great War. But the finest modern poets - Derek Walcott and Tony Harrison, for instance - remain loyal to the classical position of the poet as bard: the narrator of dire events in memorable verse. Ever since Homer sung the wrath of Achilles, the human love of war has inspired literary masterpieces - the Old Testament and Malory, Tennyson and Tolstoy. Poets thrive when they ride, as it were, into the valley of death. It is, after all, the lair of the tragic muse.

Verse is usually a symptom of war, not its cause. But the present calamitous conflict in the Balkans has had poetry in its blood from the start. The papers have been full of references to the epic poems inspired by the original 14th-century Battle of Kosovo, usually to show that the present turmoil is the continuation of an ancient feud. It is never very convincing: it would stretch the credulity of most West European readers to imagine that Serbian soldiers in Kosovo recite bolts of medieval verse en route to the villages they are cleansing. But the epic narratives inspired by that first battle do tell a remarkable story.

The battle took place on June 15, 1389. The Serbian Prince Lazar was routed and beheaded by the Turkish Sultan Murad, leader of the "infidel horde" that would, half a century later, sack Constantinople. It was a battle of great symbolic importance, a religious showdown fought by an army with Christian crosses on its banners. The Serbian church honoured Lazar as a saint and holy martyr; and Serbia's poets turned him into a national legend. But the rest of Europe - the rest of Christendom - forgot all about him.

In the poems, everything is destined. Prince Lazar receives a message from Murad calling him to meet his doom in terms which have an ugly resonance now: "Oh Lazar, thou head of the Serbians. There was and never can be one land in the hands of two masters - Come straight to meet me at Kosovo! The sword will decide." As the battle approaches, Lazar consults a holy oracle, which gives him a choice between victory or eternal life. He chooses the latter. "The earthly kingdom is short-lived," he declares. "But the heavenly one is forever." His army is crushed, but after the battle a young woman in white robes - the Angel of Kosovo - moves among the fallen, offering sacramental wine and bread to the dying heroes.

The poems form a national epic that is more or less Shakespeare, Milton, Hastings, Trafalgar and Dunkirk rolled into one. We recall our dead with red poppies from Flanders fields; the Serbs remember theirs with the peonies that grow at Kosovo. On June 15 1989, over a million people went to a requiem for the Kosovo dead in Belgrade.

It is in the nature of epic poetry that it sings in generalities. The incredible detail of armour, lineage and bloodshed in the Iliad is not matched by an equivalent attention to military strategy: it was not even clear, until German archaelogists went to work, exactly where Troy was. Similarly, the sagas of Kosovo are rhapsodic and idealised versions of the event itself. Poetic licence, while it fanned the flames of grievance and revenge, obscured the precise nature of the event in question.

It says something about western culture that it regards epic poetry as one of the highest expressions of civilisation. Epic considerations are Olympian. They seem, in the way they picture men and women as playthings of the gods, to present a lofty and superior vision of life, more penetrating than pedestrian accounts of everyday affairs. Yet in the process they thoroughly ennoble cruelty and sanctify bloodshed.

If we wanted fresh evidence that great literature is not necessarily morally improving, we need look no further than at the Balkan epics. Serbia's sacred texts and holy days (mere holidays, in modern times) celebrate ancestors who marched, in silken hats and splendid sashes, but with Christ- like humility in their hearts, to their death. What this says about our military strategy is another question - one for all the acronym-loving "defence analysts" currently filling our television screens. But it is at least the kind of thing worth knowing about the people we are bombing. Their ancient literature is showing signs of dangerous new life. Perhaps our new poet laureate should resist all calls to arms and stick to routine romantic dejections or royal births.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week