The Death of a Soldier – Wallace Stevens

‘The Death of a Soldier’

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

NOTES

This poem considers the death of a soldier not in terms of glory, but as an anonymous, uncelebrated event: as inevitable as the fall of leaves in Autumn.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four short, three line stanzas, each ending with a short line- as if cut off.

Wallace Stevens: An American modernist poet.

‘The Death of a Soldier’: this poem concentrates on the moment of the soldier’s death itself. Time is important in the poem: it is a poem that describes the fleeting nature of life, and moments during life.

“Life contracts…”: the poem itself seems to follow this rule of diminishment in the syllabic weighting of each line in all four stanzas.

“As in a season of Autumn.”: a key simile and natural image. The simile deliberately underplays human events, and is repeated in Stanza three. Here, the poem concentrates on time as ‘a season’. This poem is concerned, like many modernist texts, with the experience of time: to be interested in modernity was to be interested in the accelerating nature of a technological society, and the subjective experience of time within it. Here the slow ebbing away of life is compared to the slow change from Summer to Winter in Autumn.

“…a three-days personage… calling for pomp”: the soldier was clearly new to battle and the front: had less than three days to make his presence felt among his fellow soldiers. This is a more human perspective on time.

“Death is absolute and without memorial…”: the poem takes a philosophical turn— the end is the end, it seems to say, and that is that. Human attempts at memorial for the event are in vain: the point seems to be that death, as Wittgenstein said, is not an event in life. We can’t talk meaningfully about what is beyond life, because it is beyond our understanding.

“When the wind stops… and, over the heavens, / The clouds go nevertheless…”: The anonymous death of a soldier in war is like the quickly passing, windless moment. Stevens seems to be insisting on the insubstantiality of death that war brings to men. Meanwhile, the war, like the clouds moving overhead, moves on swiftly.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The third poem written by an American in the anthology, this poem is, like the two immediately before, primarily an intellectual or philosophical exercise: it has none of the gritty realism of Sassoon or Owen, for example.]

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Range Finding – Robert Frost

‘Range-Finding’

The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

NOTES

This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.

Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.

First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.

“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.

“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.

“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.

Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.

“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.

“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]

The Game of War

Long ago, when the mighty Brontosaurus still roamed the earth, I went to an infants school in a small satellite town in south west London. There, at lunchtimes, we used to play a game of war. This thrilling game began with two kids linking arms and skipping through the playground, chanting, ‘Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game’- and so on, and so on.  Kids would link arms with a boy (more rarely a girl) on either end, until finally a long, tenticular line waved its way across the playground. And that was it. Nobody actually ever played war. The tenticular arm would swing around until everyone got bored and went off to play football. We weren’t a very bellicose bunch, to be honest. So much for the imaginations of children.

Why am I mentioning this? Well, a better planned Game of War is in the news this week. It’s not the same game, of course. This war game dates back to 1890, when British school playgrounds really were school playgrounds, and a game of war probably meant boys setting up a maxim gun near the girl’s toilets.

‘The Game of War’ was a military strategy game, based on an original German model known as ‘Kriegspiel’. It was invented as a form of training for late Victorian army officers, and a version of it from around 1890 was on sale at Bonhams Auction House on Monday. As you can see, it’s quite a box, containing incredibly detailed maps and slate playing pieces for either army– and costing between £1500 and £2000 it’s a touch more expensive than a box of Monopoly. Using it, British officers perfected their military strategems and tactics in advance of war.

The Game of War, c. 1890

Or so they thought. In the event of war, the game was rather less useful than intended. As is well known, the First World War– on the Western Front, at least–  was for the greatest part of four years a long seige of trenches, utilising machine gun emplacements, gas attacks, tanks and massive artillery shelling on a scale never before seen. The much-expected “war of movement”– that is, the rapid offensive or defensive movement across territory by cavalry or infantry, as at the Battle of Gheluvelt— was only seen at the very beginning and end of war. The Game of War only had six machine gun units for its entire gameplay. The officers who played the game were preparing for a war that would never take place.

At the end of the ninteenth century, military planners were looking backwards. They saw the comprehensive Prussian victory against France in 1870, where German troops finally occupied Paris, and imagined that the future promised the same. This retrospective attitude to war is reflected in some of the poetry at the beginning of the First World War: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith, for example, imagines a City clerk fantasizing about the picture book victories of Roman legionaries and medieval knights. Bored, he daydreams:

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.

Asquith’s clerk, of course, decides to volunteer and is killed– lying “content”, as the poet proclaims, “with that last high hour, in which he lived and died”. Asquith wants the lesson to be that no matter how contemptible your job– and there is a patronising stink to his picture of the suburban commuter class– you too can live the glittering dream of knightly chivalry and imperial conquest. The remarkable complacency of the kind of culture that produced Herbert Asquith– and it’s too, too relaxed attitude to death– finds a mirror in the strategic unreadiness of the armies of the First World War. It is unfair to use 20/20 hindsight to criticise those who could not see what the future was to bring, but it is hard not to judge harshly the backwards-looking, even nostalgic perspective of certain members of the officer class before the First World War.

Was anyone looking ahead, anticipating the dread forms that modern technological warfare would bring? Well, in literature, certainly. Way back in 1879 Jules Verne wrote a today neglected (because pretty dire) novel called The Begum’s Fortune in which the inhabitants of a German city, Stahlstadt, build a new weapon to fire at a Utopian French City, Frankville. It is a form of artillery shell containing carbon dioxide that, when fired in a spread, will suffocate and freeze all beneath the barrage. Verne had been paying attention to the successful use of German artillery during the Franco-Prussian war; but his anticipation of the use of gas in the Great War was cannily accurate.

The second writer to grasp the shape of things to come was Verne’s contemporary and close competitor for the title, ‘Father of Science Fiction’: H.G. Wells. Wells, in a visionary 1903 short story called The Land Ironclads, imagined an armoured vehicle that would later come to be called the tank. His great imaginative leap was to wonder if heavily plated battleships (‘Ironclads’) could be imagined fighting, somehow, on land: only the battle of Cambrai in 1917 would bring his fantasy into reality.

HG Wells playing ‘Little Wars’.

And it is Wells, with his playful and aggressive imagination, that brings us back to the Game of War. For it was Wells who was the first man to bring the world of Kriegspiel into the living room, with his 1913 game book, ‘Little Wars’. Wells famously loved games– visits to his house in Sandgate inevitably meant playing them, whether the visitors were adults or children. There’s a line to be drawn from Kriegspiel to the Game of War to ‘Little Wars’, all the way to today’s computer games, like ‘Call of Duty’. War games are some of the oldest games there are: and I suppose, on some deep level, there might be something frightening about having them in our living rooms. Yet war games are about playing imaginatively with the highest stakes possible, but without the terrible consequences that actual war brings. It is The Game of War as an officer training tool, however, that shows the tricky middle ground between imaginative play and war: where a lack of imagination has profound consequences in not little, but Great Wars.

Into Battle – Julian Grenfell

‘Into Battle’

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship-
The Dog-star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they-
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing.’

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind-

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

NOTES

This poem has a strong pastoral feel, as in so many of the poems of the First World War (remember, the poetry written immediately before the war was very concerned with the countryside and rural life). In this way, it follows some of the traditional and conservative forms of Edwardian poetry. This form of pastoral has been adapted, though, so that nature becomes a source of inspiration for the soldier. Grenfell’s soldier in this poem follows the classical ideal of the soldier, who looks to gain glory through battle.

STRUCTURE: Simple, classic rhyme scheme: 4 line verse (quatrain) of 8 syllables each, rhyming ABAB (a form known as ‘cross-rhyme’).

Julian Grenfell: Julian Grenfell was an aggressive character who gloried in going to war. He once famously wrote in a letter home, “I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy”. This poem is written in praise of battle and the soldier.

‘Into Battle’: The poem describes the inspiration that a soldier can take from nature in the quiet contemplative moments before battle. It was first published in The Times the day after Grenfell’s death, on 27th May 1915.

“The naked earth is warm with spring…”: sets the pastoral scene of the poem.

“…who dies fighting has increase”: perverse declaration that war is life: those who die in battle have lived life to its fullest.

“The fighting man shall from the sun / Take warmth…”: this is a key stanza in the poem. It is a sextet and focuses on the ‘fighting man’ and his qualities, taken from nature.

‘Speed with the light-foot winds to run”: the soldier appears to be an idealized warrior-god. Physical exertion is also seen as liberating- all part of Grenfell’s classical, ‘muscular’ and masculine aesthetic.

“All the bright company of Heaven / Hold him in their high comradeship”: The noble and high nature of soldiery. The stars named after are associated with the hunt: Sirius (the Dog-Star) is Orion’s (the hunter’s) hunting hound.

Stanzas 5, 6, 7, 8: the landscape / trees and animals are the soldier’s inspiration and friends. He has their best qualities, follows their laws. The key line is “the horses show him nobler powers”– nature teaches the man in war, and he in turn becomes one with nature (horses are traditional symbols of wisdom; hence Blake’s ‘horses of instruction’ and Swift’s Houyhmhnms).

“And when the burning moment breaks…”: these next two stanzas are where the poem reaches an almost orgasmic climax, a pleasure in impulse and power during battle. “Joy of battle” is expresses a Classical kind of pleasure in war. This is a very masculine, aggressive idea of war and soldiering. The great soldier is a little like the ‘man-killer’ Achilles in spirit, impervious to the weapons of the other side: “Nor lead nor steel shall touch him”. The great warrior puts himself in the hands of fate, “the Destined Will”.

“…in the air Death moans and sings…”: incredible image where Death becomes the god of this world, the mind that rules over it. Grenfell almost seems to exult in this: perhaps only death brings true glory?

“But Day shall clasp him… Night…”: the poem ends on a note of reassuring restfulness, the ecstacy of battle done.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: At this point, the anthology moves from poems by those with a lack of knowledge of the front line (Brooke saw action, but never fought) to a more direct knowledge of what battle is like. Note that Grenfell still indulges in some of the Classical idealizations of the warrior that Brooke, Asquith and others also dealt in.]

96 Years On: the Battle of Gheluvelt

96 years after it ended, the Battle of Gheluvelt has hit the news on BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show, Today.

An army map of the Battle of Gheluvelt, October 1914. British army positions in red, German attacking battalions in green.

It is October 31st 1914 and the German advance across Belgium towards France presses on, reaching the village of Gheluvelt on the outskirts of the town of Ypres. There, soldiers of the Worcestershire regiment reinforce a small group of South Wales Borderers at the Gheluvelt Chateau. Their mission is to stop the German advance at all costs: they succeed, but lose many lives in the process.

The Battle of Gheluvelt is significant as the nearest that the German army would come to breaking through Allied lines at Ypres until 1918. At Gheluvelt, a well organised and brave counter-attack by the Worcesters pushed the attacking Germans back. The town of Ypres would become a bloody crater over the next four years of war; but it never again would be so near to being overran.

At Gheluvelt 354 men of the Worcestershire regiment charged the advancing German troops (more than three times their number) by running across open ground with bayonets fixed while under machine gun fire. A third of the Worcesters died in the counter-attack, but they managed to repel the German push.

Gheluvelt, October 31st, 1914.

You can read about this action at the very beginning of the First World War on Today‘s website. You can find a detailed account of the Battle of Gheluvelt on the Worcestershire Regimental Museum webpage; and how the battle is memorialised through the town of Worcester’s own Gheluvelt Park.

Phil Mackie, the article’s author, writes that the Battle of Gheluvelt is today largely forgotten. I’m not sure I buy that: the First Battle of Ypres, of which the Battle of Gheluvelt is a part, is not a neglected action, at least by those who are interested in the history of World War One.

Gheluvelt was however a dynamic and heroic counter-attack: and indeed Mackie reasons that this may be why most people have not heard of it, despite its strategic importance. The stories we tend to tell about World War One are trench-siege horrors, not dashing actions across open ground, he argues. True: but the brutal history of the four years to follow, and the millions of dead, will tend to push even the most heroic action into the footnotes of history.

Still, it’s nice to see this story of extraordinary bravery get a wider audience.