The Volunteer – Herbert Asquith

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

NOTES

This poem tells the story of an office worker who has died in battle on the front. Once he was a frustrated clerk living a boring life, living out his heroic fantasies through books. Dying for his country he finds true satisfaction, having lived out his heroic dreams. Asquith wrote this poem in 1912 when working as a lawyer in the City [many thanks to the excellent blog Great War Fiction for correcting my own previous error and therefore an erroneous reading].

STRUCTURE: Written in a rather rigid iambic pentameter— obviously attempting a high-flown, elevated style— this is comprised of two octet stanzas of the same rhyme scheme, ABBACDCD.

‘The Volunteer’: this poem praises the noble death of a volunteer who chose to go and fight for Britain.

Herbert Asquith: Herbert Asquith was the son of the liberal British Prime Minister of the same name who led Britain from 1910-16.

“Here lies a clerk”: the poem begins in the style of an epitaph for a clerk, or office worker.

“toiling at ledgers in a city grey”: the office worker’s life is boring and undemanding: as grey as the city.

“…no lance broken in life’s tournament…”: a picturesque metaphor for seeing action in war: medieval tournaments saw knights riding and fighting against one another for the approval of the king. A lance broken would mean defeat for the knight. The metaphor reflects the kind of romantic literature that the clerk obviously reads for amusement; the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, and so on.

“ever ‘twixt the books… The gleaming eagles of the legions came ”: the clerk’s imagination goes wild while reading the boring ledger books. Images of marching Roman legions distract him and so come ’twixt, or between the ledgers and his “bright eyes”.

“horsemen… went thundering past beneath the oriflamme”: the Oriflamme was the red battle standard (flag) of the French King’s army. This is another reference to the Romantic medieval fantasies of the clerk.

“And now those waiting dreams are satisfied…”: the second stanza is concerned with the fulfillment of the clerk’s heroic fantasies on the field of battle.

“twilight to the gleaming halls of dawn”: the half-lit spaces of the office are compared with the “gleaming halls” of the afterlife. The imagery of light and luxury expresses the contrast.

“His lance is broken: but he lies content…”: The imagery here is of a knight defeated in a tournament. A lance was a long, large spear that the knight would bear as he rode on his horse. The broken lance means defeat in the tournament (in a curiously phallic image): by this euphemistic metaphor, the clerk has died in battle, but is happy (“content”).

“Falling thus he wants no recompense”: dying in this pleasing way, he needs no other compensation for losing his life.

“Nor need he any hearse…Who goes to join the men of Agincourt”: No hearse (funeral car) is needed because the clerk lives on in name and glory. He is elevated to a place among the greatest historical heroes that have died in France for England: the men of Henry V, who though outnumbered defeated the French army on French soil at the Battle of Agincourt.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The naive style of this poem means that it can be usefully compared with the work of Pope. This poem can also be compared with the attitudes expressed in Kipling’s epitaph, ‘Ex-Clerk’ (p.214). As a mixture of patriotism, some little social snobbery and old-fashioned Romantic fantasy, it is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of some prior to the beginning of the war. The poem also references the great patriotic work of Shakespeare, Henry V: which retells the story of the victories of Henry V in France, which includes the Battle of Agincourt.]

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12 thoughts on “The Volunteer – Herbert Asquith”

  1. I think that the word “lies”might be a pun of words it could refer to the clerk just laying or it could suggest that the clerk is living a untruthful life.

    “…city Grey…” the color Grey to associate with boredom and dullness.

    Then the the poet uses the word “twixt” to show that he gives authority to the past. this suggests that he may have a conservative view and doesn’t like change.

    (sir cut out anything that may not make sense or if anythings wrong!)

  2. Yes, poor old Jessie Pope– lined up by A-level teachers like me for a critical kicking at the beginning of every WWI course. The brand of niave romanticism found in ‘The Volunteer’ may be, for the purposes of your examination, interesting to compare to Pope’s naive patriotism in poems like ‘The Call’.

    1. I’m not sure, to be honest, Shanice. I know that it featured in Asquith’s 1915 collection, ‘The Volunteer and Other Poems’.So I’d be grateful if anyone could enlighten me (or rather, us).

      [This has since been clarified. The poem was written in 1912. See the correspondence below.]

  3. What would be good comparisons in terms of how typical this poem is to the rest of the collection?

    Obviously Jessie Pope as wider reading, but I can’t think of many others.

    1. I would say that the Asquith poem is quite atypical of the AQA selection from Stallworthy’s anthology: nothing else quite matches its naivite and simple, romantic understanding of war. Other poems in the selection can be called ‘naive’, of course, but few others are quite so intoxicated by an essentially immature worldview. In fact, for me, this childish vision of death and glory is the poem’s strength, because in projecting them onto the clerk, it evokes quite well the moments of fantasy that some adolescents are partial to. Nonetheless, the condescension of an elite class for suburban workers reeks from this poem– the office clerk is better off dead than living his grey, featureless life. [It has been pointed out since I wrote this that Asquith was in fact himself a lawyer when this poem was written; which seems to me to explain the vivid sense of imaginative yearning in the poem.]

      So perhaps it would be better linking this poem to the more nuanced romantic poems of Rupert Brooke that we find within the anthology, or other poems that seem to draw from the past for military inspiration: Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, for instance.

      But remember that comparison also means you can go to poems that contrast strongly with Asquith’s poem. Horace’s Ode on p.13, which gives practical and philosophical advice to the Roman legionary, provides the title for Owen’s famous ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’: it might be interesting to compare Owen’s attitude to such classic texts and Asquith’s jollier engagement with tales of Roman derring-do.

  4. In the Oxford war anthology is does not say ‘from twilight to the gleaming halls of dawn he went’ simply ‘from twilight to the halls of dawn he went’. It does however, say gleaming eagles earlier.

  5. Can someone confirm that extracts from this poem are engraved in the Royal Chapel at RMC Sandhurst? It takes the form (if memory serves) “we lie content … who go to lie with men of Agincourt”.

    I found it very moving when I read it there a couple of years ago.

    Brian

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