Anthony Coughlan reviews Elephants Against Rome by C Desmond Greaves, Léirmheas Publications, Dublin, £5 pbk
THIS HIGHLY original work consists of 150 pages of a novel in blank verse by the late C Desmond Greaves (1913-1988), biographer of James Connolly and Liam Mellows, political activist and editor of the Irish Democrat from 1948 to 1988.
It is the first four books of what was intended to be a comic epic, of classical twelve-book length, recounting the childhood, youth and young manhood of its modern hero, Hannibal Colqhoun.
Hannibal, like Greaves himself, comes to political consciousness in Britain in the early 1930s, against the background of the rise of fascism on the continent. The story ends as he sets out to make his way in London, having decided to take a stand against political reaction, thereby, like the Carthaginian general Hannibal after whom he is named, seeking to bring “elephants against Rome,” the archetype of all imperialisms.
Greaves wrote poetry all his life and had two volumes published. His genre was satire. He saw life as comedy rather than tragedy.
This poem is funny and tells an interesting story, with much material drawn form the author’s own life and experience. The blank verse in which it is written is perfectly easy to read.
Classical epic concerns itself with the doings of a noble, royal or divine hero who represents human possibilities ordinary mortals cannot aspire to. “Every man his own hero is the epic of modern life,” Greaves wrote in one of his workbooks for the poem.
Modern man can reach heroic stature if he comes to appropriate consciousness and succeeds, like Hannibal Colqhoun, in “Disembowelling the paradox of which the world is made,” and acting accordingly.
“You must adapt yourself to the universe before you can adapt to a political party,” notes the author. Another workbook entry says that the poem is “about” coming to terms with reality.
In the course of showing Hannibal undergoing the vicissitudes of truth-seeking the reader is given many original insights into a wide variety of topics -- philosophy, science, business, music, religion, medicine, politics and love.
It bears witness to Desmond Greaves’s extraordinary wide range of knowledge, and the fact that he possessed the quintessential poetic gift, the power to coin apt and original metaphors and images.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2003 Anthony Coughlan