AN ANTHOLOGY OF WAR POETRY

Interlude
 

INTRODUCTION

Two poems which make the transition from a more or less unquestioning acceptance of the necessity, and even the glory, of war to those poets who see it very differently. The late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes passes no comment on war itself, as he ponders the fate of the young men in a pre-war photograph: rather their fate makes him aware of his own mortality. And Robert Southey, from an earlier age, puts the judgement in the mouths of the children who ask their grandfather about the battle of Blenheim, and in their innocence ask the ultimate question as to its meaning and value.
 
 
 

Six Young Men
 

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well,
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride.
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer at the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, at the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin cans in no-man‘s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows that they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man‘s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, on to his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or fabulous beast more dead;
No thought more vivid than their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.
 

Ted Hughes
 
 

After Blenheim
 

It was a summer evening,
   Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
   Was sitting in the sun;
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
   Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
   In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found
That was so large and smooth and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy
   Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
   And with a natural sigh
‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,’ said he,
   Who fell in the great victory.

‘I find them in the garden,
   For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough
   The ploughshare turns them out.
For many thousand men,’ said he,
 ‘Were slain in that great victory.’

 ‘Now tell us what ‘twas all about,’
   Young Peterkin he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
   With wonder-waiting eyes;
 ‘Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.’

 ‘It was the English,’ Kaspar cried,
   ‘Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
   I could not well make out.
But everybody said,’ quoth he,
 ‘That ‘twas a famous victory.

 ‘My father lived at Blenheim then,
   Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
   And he was forced to fly:
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

 ‘With fire and sword the country round
   Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then
   And new-born baby died:
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

 ‘hey say it was a shocking sight
   After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
   Lay rotting in the sun:
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

 ‘Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won
   And our good Prince Eugene;’
 ‘Why, ‘twas a very wicked thing!’
   Said little Wilhelmine;
 ‘Nay - nay - my little girl,’ quoth he,
  ‘It was a famous victory.

 ‘And everybody praised the Duke
   Who this great fight did win.’
 ‘But what good came of it at last?’
   Quoth little Peterkin.
 ‘Why, that I cannot tell,’ said he,
 ‘But ‘twas a famous victory.’

Robert Southey



Back to the Introduction

Go to the first section (‘The Send Off’)

The second section ('When Can Their Glory Fade?')

The fourth section ('The Old Lie')

The final section ('Aftermath and Remembrance')

Chris Price's poem 'Remembrance'

The Poetry Index page

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