As we mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela, our attention turns to inspirational figures of all stripe. Your boldest, bravest work, please
After our foray into villainy last month I thought it might be a good idea to round off the year on a more positive note with a celebration of heroes. While it is tempting to think that the baddies are always the more interesting characters in any story, this isn't always the case and poetry frequently celebrates those who are on the side of the light. This month, let's round off our dozen by singing the praises of the good eggs.
The original hero-figure in English poetry has to be Beowulf, with his almost supernatural ability to slay monsters and save the oppressed. Beowulf's great strengths are his fighting prowess and his adherence to the heroic code, the set of rules that defined what it meant to do the right thing when called into action. These strengths are also the cause of his downfall. Weakened by age and aware of his impending death, he is constrained by the code to take on one last fight. Deserted by all but one of his men, who take their social responsibilities less seriously than he does, he is victorious in death. It's a salutatory reminder of the dangers of heroism.
If Beowulf was a hero because of his adherence to the code that underpinned his social status, then Andreas Hofer was cut from a rather different cloth. An innkeeper turned politician and military leader, in 1809 Hofer led a series of Tyrolean revolts against Napoleon and his Bavarian allies. His exploits were marked in a poem by William Wordsworth, who was no fan of the French dictator. Despite a number of famous victories, Hofer was captured in 1810 and the order came from the Emperor to "give him a fair trial and then shoot him". Like Beowulf, Hofer found an early hero's grave.
Both Beowulf and Hofer conform to a kind of standard template of heroism. They each have a clearly defined enemy and go to face them in the full knowledge of the dangers they face and their reasons for deciding to face them. There are, however, other possible models of bravery. The protagonist of Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came exemplifies one such alternative kind of heroic behaviour. He does not know who his enemies are and his quest is indeterminate; not only is he uncertain of where the tower is, he seems to have no idea of what awaits him there. Yet he pursues his destiny in spite of everything, which includes a sense of his own inadequacy to the task in hand, whatever it may turn out to be.
Childe Roland's position may not fit with epic ideas of heroism, but it seems to me to be much closer to the reality of modern warfare. Soldiers like Jack in Siegfried Sassoon's The Hero tend to be more or less reluctant participants in events that are beyond their control and understanding, stumbling almost accidentally into the heroic role that society assigns to them to make itself feel less bad about their actual fate.
Another thing about heroism is that it can tend to be a touch subjective; one person's hero can be another's villain. Take, for instance, Oliver Cromwell, the great hero of British Republicanism who was praised in poems by John Milton and Andrew Marvell. In Ireland his reputation is somewhat different; Yeats sums it up neatly in the phrase "Cromwell's murderous crew" from his poem The Curse of Cromwell. Hero or villain; it all depends on where you're standing.
Last month we saw a number of political villains, but sometimes statesmen can be on the side of the good. One leader who inspired poetry was Abraham Lincoln, with Walt Whitman being chief amongst his bards. Lincoln tried his hand at verse himself, but it's probably just as well he didn't give up the day job.
Very often bravery has nothing to do with war or defeating dragons or changing the world. The greatest heroes can be those who defeat the monsters inside themselves, those who, as Emily Dickinson puts it, "grow accustomed to the Dark" and defeat it through a sheer effort of will. This kind of heroism is open to all of us.
So this month's Poster poems challenge is to write poems in praise of your hero or heroes. You might admire some great figure form history or myth, or it may be one of those unknown everyday heroes you want to celebrate. Whoever it is, share your poems with the rest of us here.