War Poetry Paper
‘Into the stuff of his thought and utterance, whether he be on active service or not, the poet-interpreter of war weaves these intentions, and cooperates with his fellows in building up a little higher and better, from time to time, that edifice of truth for whose completion can be spared no human experience, no human hope. ‘ – George Herbert Clarke War is rife with suffering, forcing everyone involved to endure the most extreme of conditions. Armed conflict itself unavoidably places all those involved in mortal danger. Some find this to be a honourable test of courage, others as a waste of precious young lives.
However, war has an effect on people outside of soldiers who fight. Numerous other, including relatives of soldiers who have fought, young and innocent children who are confused by the loud noises and the need for their precious father to go to arms and all those people whose houses have are destroyed or used as military fortifications. In some way, war has an effect on everyone. Naturally, war raises many questions, what is the purpose of war? Many have pondered why some of the most intelligent world leaders have had to retort to the most basic of reactions.
In light of the recent events in America, the purpose of war is even more relevant. Is a knee-jerk reaction always the right and moral thing to do? Many would say no. If it were merely a question of good versus bad, right versus wrong, then war would serve a straightforward moral purpose. However, it is not usually a case of good versus bad, and in reality the cause of many conflicts in difficult to comprehend. Why do many use religion as their reason to go to arms, when the bases of most religions are forgiveness and peace?
Everyone understands the physical torment and horrors of war; many hope never to observe sights like that. However, something draws young men to fight. The media plays a great role in attracting young men to fight, many project war to be something to achieve glory in, and some however act as a deterrent to fight. It is the same with this collection of poetry. There are two clear sections: glory and honour or gruesome and horror. Some poems however, lie in between these two margins and others create new sectors of their own.
It is important to discuss the contents of each poem so we can understand the poet’s own thoughts on war. The first poem to be discussed is To Lucasta, Going to the Wars by Richard Lovelace. It is important to understand the poet’s background to get a good reason why he had this particular view of war. Lovelace’s father died at arms and Richard himself served with the French army during the English civil war. However, his Royalist sympathies lost him his fortune and he died in poverty. Many would think that this would cause him to have a bad view of war but obviously not.
The poem is comparatively very simple to understand. The speaker loves the women he addresses, Lucasta. However, he also loves the honour that war brings. His lover is chaste and quiet, ‘ Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind’ he believes to be with her is to be in a nunnery. The speaker does not want Lucasta to believe that he is cruel in leaving her, ‘ tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,’ this opening line tells us of his impending announcement which must be something that she, as any common person would, disagrees with. He is deeply attracted to her, but he has a need for something rather more exciting.
Indeed, he goes to war and arms. It is obvious that he is greatly competitive and wishes to confront not only the enemy in general but he wants to be the person to confront, ‘The first foe in the field’. The use of alliteration captures the urgency with which he feels. This ‘first foe’ is described as his ‘new mistress’. She is described as being the new object of his devotion, which he ‘chases’, he is so eager to posses ‘her’ obsesses him. It is obvious by this point that his ‘new mistress’ is in fact honour. He believes in battle much more passionately than he believes in the gentleness of Lucasta.
He ’embraces’ with a ‘stronger faith’ the sword, horse and shield of war. It is almost as if he is making love to his ‘mistress’, quite different to the relationship he has had with his chaste lover. He is forced to explain his lack of fidelity. He believes that once he has achieved his honour he will become a better lover to Lucasta. His virility – his whole sense of being as a man- will be improved. In summate he believes that he will be a better lover when he achieves honour: ‘I could not live thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honour more. ‘
He may love honour more than Lucasta, but his prowess as a lover will increase in proportion to the amount of honour he wins. It is obvious that Lovelace believes that war is a good source of honour and this is what draws young men to arms. It is also clear to see that he believes war to be glorious and a route to honour, and in such this poem agrees with many others in the collection. The next poem to be discussed portrays war as being the complete opposite of honourable. The main point of After Blenheim is that war affects not just those who fight in them.
Ordinary civilian also suffer. Southey uses certain words with an increasing irony throughout the poem. The poem revolves mainly around three voices, on old and the other two are very young. None of them really understands the ‘great’ and ‘famous’. The poem starts in a rather tranquil manner. The imagery of an old man surrounded by his grandchildren, resting on a summer’s evening after his day’s work is done is a very peaceful thought. So far, the poet has introduced us to a peaceful poem and it is obvious that the mood is not going to change.
The children’s innocent play is interrupted when Peterkin discovers an object which apparent to be a dead soldier’s skull. Old Kaspar says he often discovers the skulls of men who fought at Blenheim: ‘And often when I go to plough The ploughshare turns then out. For many thousand men,’ said he Were slain in that great victory. ‘ Naturally, the children ask what was the purpose of the fighting however Kaspar is unable to provide a valid answer. The little he does know is that the battle was between the British and the French.
He also adds the important fact that many civilians suffered also: With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide, And many a childing mother then, And newborn baby died’ Kaspar also mentions that his father lost his house and was forced to become a refugee. The destruction and slaughter were widespread and indiscriminate. Nursing mothers died with their young, innocent babies. Numerous dead corpses were left to rot on the battlefield. The most important part of the poem is how Southey uses the words ‘great’ and ‘famous’ to continuously change meaning. The words are used with increasing irony.
Great means ‘large’ so we assume that a ‘great victory’ implies that it had remarkable importance and that it had considerable moral validity. Similar to this is the word ‘famous’ which basically means know to many people, but again used in this context one must assume that it means ‘admirable’ or ‘ well known for its positive contribution to civilisation’. It is obvious that Southey has purposely stripped the words of their positive meanings, ‘the words ‘great’ and ‘famous’ contradicting with the overwhelming impression of a battle which resulted in much unnecessary suffering, huge losses of human life, and wanton destruction of property.
The poet introduces even more irony in the tenth stanza where he has ‘little Willhelmine’ stating what the reader has been thinking for much of the poem: ‘Why, ’twas a very wicked thing! ‘ The irony introduced by Southey here shows us that a little child can be very good in observing the truth of the matter; it is clear to little Willhelmine that this was not a ‘great’ victory at all, however, wisdom of Kaspar’s old mind finds it impossible to summon such thought. It is made clear by the further irony used in the last paragraph what Southey’s views on war are.
He states ironically that the duke of Marlborough’s received great praise (amongst other large rewards) however, it is still unclear to Peterkin why so much carnage had to be caused, and surely there was a purpose to all this suffering. In the penultimate sentence Kaspar confirms everybody’s thoughts and admits that he does not even know the purpose of the war, however he knows that it was a ‘great’ victory. It is obvious by the language and irony used by Southey that After Blenheim strongly contrasts with those which link war with honour and glory.
Therefore, in our groups in the collection this makes up the second major group, where war is thought of as a purposeless and evil thing; just a waste of young lives. The Charge of the Light Brigade vastly contradicts Southey’s view of war however, it also agrees with it on some levels. On first reading the poem the reader instantly notices the rhythm, this helps us somewhat to imagine the pace and urgency of the riders. The French general Pierre Bosquet famously said of this event: ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. ‘ By this he meant ‘it is magnificent, but it is not war. ‘ this sentiment is very much expressed by Tennyson.
The main point of the poem is the celebration of the soldier’s unquestioning obedience to orders, despite the fact that it was obvious to everyone involved that failure was inevitable. The command, ‘Forward, the Light Brigade! ‘ is followed by the comment, ‘ Was there a man dismayed? ‘ the answer to this obviously being no. Tennyson goes on to add with some irony about the role of a soldier: ‘Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die. ‘ Tennyson comments on how soldiers a merely pawns at the command of their general’s whim. He also comments on the widespread knowledge that few of them would survive.
The poem continues with the rhythms and images of the poem captured by the sound of the horses hooves thundering into the ‘Valley of Death’. The words that Tennyson uses for this line refer to the bible, Psalm 23 in particular. This is important as the religious link obviously refers to the great sacrifice made by Jesus. The next stanza is full of cinematic imagery: ‘Cannon to right o them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered;’ We vividly see the men, the horses, the artillery, the smoke and the deaths of so many innocent men and horses.
The shouting of orders in the first two stanzas increases the whole drama of the situation. The above quote gives us the impression of a caged animal, unable to escape. Repetition of certain words also plays a large part too, in particular the number ‘600’, reminding us of just how many lives were out in jeopardy by the incompetence of those in command. The heroism of the men is highlighted once again: ‘Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly the rode and well,’ Despite the fact that they are being shot at, they continue to fight on. This sort of heroism contrast greatly with the foolery of the commanders.
The poem highlights the incompetence of those in command, ‘Some one had blundered;’ Tennyson emphasises the breath taking failure of judgement on part of the commanders by using a word of such strength. In line thirty-one, ‘All the world wondered’ shows the shock of the nation on how not only such mistake may have been made but also the unconditional obedience of the men. Tennyson continues to highlight the fortitude that the Light Brigade fought with: ‘Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke; Cossack and Russian reeled from the sabre-stroke’
Even though the Light Brigade had inferior equipment and inferior number of troops the courage led them to break through the Russian line. In the fifth stanza Tennyson begins by repeating the well known phrase, however this time with ‘Cannon behind them’ showing us that the Light Brigade are now fleeing the Valley, however Tennyson somehow manages to convey a sense of courage in this act. The last stanza shows that the glory achieved by the Light Brigade will never be forgotten, ‘When can their glory fade? The last three lines really show Tennyson’s feelings, ‘Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred! ‘ He commands us to remember and honour the courageous Light Brigade. The Charge of the Light Brigade really sits on the fence; it is most certainly a poem of glory and heroism however, it also asks important questions. It accepts the fact that not every soldier can be involved in the making of decisions and so unflinching obedience can be expected. However, they must atleast have confidence that those order are rational. There is no room for blunders. The valour with which the Light Brigade fought has led to nothing. Ode, Written in the Beginning of the Year 1746 is a rather abstract poem.
The poem writes about dead soldiers, however there are no wounds. They physical realities of death in battle are disguised by abstractions. The euphemism of death in the first line describes it as ‘sleep’ again a very vague and abstract sense of death. The word sleep also brings a sense of peace and one instantly assumes the person is now at peace. The corpses are transformed into ‘the brave’. The second line gives us the impression that all their country blessed them before they died. Personification plays a large role in this poem; ‘Honour’ and ‘Freedom’ are given capital letters and personified as a pilgrim and as a hermit respectively.
Collins adds Spring and Fancy as people saying that she shall decorate a better mound of earth than has ever been trod upon. Fairies make an appearance too, ringing their funeral knell. This poem romanticises the view of the dead. The language is very frivolous and the thoughts pious and patriotic. This shows a very narrow-minded view of war and shows that the poet has very little idea of the physical realities of war, the horror, the pain and the suffering. This poem is very hymn like in its structure. The language is very varied and descriptive in an abstract manner, and warrants closer examination.
The use of imagery is quite superb: There Honour comes, a pilgrim grey, To bless the turf that wraps their clay,’ The spring fingers the corpses, sprinkling them with dew. This idea clearly contrasts strongly with a darker view of corpses such as shown in The Hyaenas, discussed later. The next poem, On the Idle Hill, is my personal favourite poem out of the collection. The stark contrast Houseman creates between the calm, peaceful, tranquillity of sitting upon a hill in the country and the vision of soldiers marching off to war and inevitably some to death is very thought provoking. There are other strong contrasts too, the men are, ‘Dear to friends’ and ‘food for powder’.
The gunpowder is personified, its unquenchable appetite implied. The image of young, fit men is contrasted with graphic images of their corpses. The men have been violently treated and stripped of identity: ‘Bleach the bones of comrades slain, Lovely lads and dead and rotten; None that go return again. ‘ These images are fixed in the speaker’s and the reader’s mind, and therefore there is an expectation that the speaker in the poem will resist becoming a solider himself at all costs. However, the final stanza shows a new skin becoming darker and more unexpected. The bugles, drums, and fifes seem to be calling to him.
The last line is of the utmost importance: ‘Woman bore me, I will rise. ‘ He is human, similar to Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth he is born of a woman, so he will rise from his idle hill to join the ‘files of scarlet’. The speaker acknowledges the grim reality of war, but he is unable to resist its call. He fulfils his basic human instinct of fighting for the survival of his fellow man. There is no way to opt out. The idea of comradeship is very important in this poem. This poem talks about the irresistibility of war. The last poem to be discussed is possibly the most important to be discussed.
The Hyaenas talks about how humans are worse than animals. The hyenas use the dead men only for meat, ‘To take account of our dead’. They are interested in the dear corpses of the soldiers only as food, ‘How he died and why he died Troubles them not a whit. ‘ They pull them out of their shallow graves on the battlefield and eat them. This is horrible to imagine however, they are doing only what comes naturally to them, their basic instinct is to survive. Kipling continues on to state how hyenas are better than humans are once again: ‘They are only resolute they shall eat, That they and their mates may thrive. ‘
Hyenas are ‘soulless’ and, therefore, innocent of any malice. They are only scavengers: they did not kill the men in the first place. This surely makes them better than humans. In the first stanza the kites are described as ‘baffled’. It seams illogical that the humans should kill each other like this, and for what purpose. The hyenas are described as ‘wise’, since it is easier to dig up fresh meat that trying to kill prey for themselves. The reader gets the impression that the hyenas are much wiser than the foolish humans who have done such dreadful things to each other. They eat to survive, not in excess, and not out of gluttony.
The dead soldiers ‘a poor dead soldier of the king’ with ‘pitiful face’ are past suffering now. They are not affected by the hyenas’ feeding. What the hyenas do is very private, ‘ But it is not discovered to living men’. There are no human beings around to see. Only God sees this along with the ‘soulless’ and therefore, innocent hyenas. The language used by Kipling is very thought provoking. In particular the final two lines. Through out the poem the poet has criticised mankind for the behaviour to each other. He says that the hyenas do not disrepect the dead men’s name, this is upto the humans: Nor do they defile the dead man’s name That is reserved for his kind. ‘
There is neither honour nor glory in this poem, merely pity, sadness and anger at the cruelty that mankind can be so shameless. The poets discussed are not merely individual poems they make up the collection of pre 1914 war poetry. There are many trends that can be seen in the collection, the simpleton might say that it’s a matter of glory and pointlessness. However, this is not the case. Yes there are poems which are like this but the majority are not clear cut. Some fit into the category of war being death and mutilation.
Others fit into war being a route to glory and others being war brings dishonour to those who wage it. The irresistibly of war is also stated and the fact that war brings suffering non-combatants too. The majority of the collection fits into many of these categories and many more. I have discovered a variety of responses in this collections many of them are difficult to categorise. The poems that describe war as a waste of young lives and as a source of death and mutilation are: Drummer Hodge, Come up From the Fields Father, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Drums and A Christmas Ghost story.
However, other poems refer to war being a route to glory: To Lucasta, Going to Wars, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Ode, Written in the Beginning Of The Year 1746. Many people would say that war is necessary; one must fight for what they want; however, I disagree. I personally take Kipling’s point of view on war, war is useless and all those who wage it are dishonourable. However, I also agree that soldiers are merely pawns doing a job. Surely, it is not their fault if their commanders choose to wage wars, there is not always a correct and responsible way to resolve problems and inevitably problems will occur.
In summate it would be a different essay if I wished to talk about my own view point on war, however, it must be mentioned to show the impact of war. My own view point is that war is not necessary all the time, however, sometimes it is needed. Referring to the quote included at the beginning of my essay. Poets must write about war, all write from their own perspective, the poem would be negligible if it did not show the poets thoughts. However, if I had to write a poem on war it would not be about glory or honour, nor would it be about shame and death. My poem would be about truth and hope.