‘Ballad of the Three Spectres’
As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee,
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.
The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
That walks the dark unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
And laughing for a nice Blighty.’
The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
Then look his last on Picardie.’
Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
Then live one hour of agony.’
Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one – two – three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.
This poem tells the story of a soldier who one night meets three ghosts while on duty in the trenches. They each prophesy a different fate for the man, and the soldier is forced to contemplate how the war will end for him.
STRUCTURE NOTE: The poem has a traditional ballad or song structure. It consists of an alternating rhyme scheme ABAB in quatrain form, simple and to the purpose of telling a supernatural tale, a common subject for ballads.
Ballad of the Three Spectres: While superficially lighter in tone than ‘To His Lover’, this is a poem that confronts the typical soldier’s anxiety about his unseen future and his fear of death. Gurney adapts traditional figures from literature and myth in his ballad, presenting three ghosts who prophesy or determine a man’s future. In Greek myth the Moirae, or Fates, were three terrifying goddesses who spun, measured and cut the threads of every mortal’s life— determining their fate. The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are similarly fatal prophesiers: as, ultimately, are the warning spirits in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“As I went up by Ovilliers / In mud and water cold to the knee” : the poem begins with a realistic scene in France, as a soldier tramps through the flooded British trenches. The realism of the scene ‘grounds’ the fantastical element, making it more believable.
“three jeering, fleering spectres”: three laughing, mocking ghosts.
“That walked abreast”: The spectres march three in a line- they are the ghosts of soldiers. This martial discipline adds to the strange drama of the encounter.
“Here’s a right brave soldier”: the first ghost speaks sarcastically and insultingly about the speaker’s bravery.
“he’ll come back on a fine stretcher, / Laughing for a nice Blighty”: the ghost suggests that the soldier will manage to get a ‘Blighty wound’— a minor wound that will nonetheless have him sent him home to Britain (‘Blighty’ in slang) for the rest of the war. He is insinuating that soldier is a clever coward.
“No kind of lucky chance I see…he’ll freeze into mud to the marrow”: another note of grim realism. The ghost suggests that the soldier will end up dying of hypothermia— possibly stuck in one of the pond-sized craters in no-man’s-land, unable to scramble up the loose earth out of the freezing water.
“Picardie”: a French town.
“Curses the third spat venomously”: the last of the spectres is the most malevolent, and curses the soldier.
“He’ll stay untouched…then live one hour of agony”: this ghost predicts a soldier’s common and dreaded fear: that he will be forced to live through the hell of the war in its entirety, only to be killed in “agony” at its very end.
“at sloping arms by one- two- three”: the soldier is drilling. “Sloping arms” was one way of ‘presenting arms’ or holding his rifle. “By one- two- three” describes the action of moving the rifle during drill.
“Waiting the time…Whether the third spoke verity”: ‘Verity’ here means ‘truthfully’. The fate of the soldier is to wait until the last day of the war to see whether the third spectre’s prophesy will come true or not. All three options are unpleasant to some degree, but the first two spectre’s predictions have been proved false. The third prophesy is chilling, and sums up the uncertainty and anxiety the soldier must live with in war. The soldier must be resigned to his fate.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: An encounter with ghosts of the dead is a recurrent scene in war poetry— see Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’, and in this anthology, ‘When you see Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley (p.167), or ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen (p.193).]