Marching Songs


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Onward, into a disturbing account of one of the most wretched episodes in the wretched history of warfare. Chapter Four:

Summary

Months have passed at the front and Willie is upset that Gretta has not responded to his letters. He writes to her declaring his love, and retains the hope that she loves him too, but feels more and more angry and humiliated by her lack of reply. Before leaving Gretta, it transpires that Willie has asked her to marry him, and she refused. He once understood the reasons for her refusal, but longing for her without remittance, he writes short letters that veer between lumpen description of life in the trenches and blurted declarations of love. Writing in this way sharpens his self-consciousness and anxiety.

It is now spring and the Fusiliers decamp to a section of line near the village of St Julien. The men relax somewhat, skinny dipping in the river together and playing football. They find a joy in their momentary leisure together, though the noise and bustle of the front is near. Disarmed and naked, they talk frankly at the riverside; amidst the aimless chatter Captain Pasley speaks of his worries about the manning of his father’s farm at home.

Soon the men are back in the line. They first make it their business to tidy a trench once badly kept up by French soldiers. They settle into a time of distracted dull fear there, until the day when, as Captain Pasley censors his men’s letters home and the platoon are relaxing after a satisfying meal, Christy Moran sees a strange yellow cloud floating over no-mans land.

It is a German gas attack, but the men do not know this. It is an inexplicable sight as it advances towards them. At first the fusiliers fire into the yellow fog, but cease firing when there is no sign of an advancing enemy. The lieutenants consult their commanding officers, who are as nonplussed as their subordinates. The fog eventually reaches an Algerian trench to the platoon’s right. Screams of torment there prompt Pasley to the thought that the smoke is poisonous. The fog reaches the Dublin fusiliers’ trench and inspires panic as Irishmen, like the Algerians, begin to die. Christy Moran asks for permission for the company to retreat, but Pasley declares he has no orders to allow it. As the chlorine begins to fall into their section and men die in the trench, Pasley assents to withdrawal, but refuses to move from his post. Willie and the still-surviving men climb the parados and run for their lives amidst the general terrified scatter, every man for himself. Officers behind the line stand confused by the soldiers’ sudden, mysterious capitulation. Eventually, Willie finds himself in the air beyond the gas, and collapses.

He awakens to the aftermath of the attack. Blinded men move in lines. The countryside is poisoned. Eventually, later in the week, reserve battalions move up to replace the massacred soldiers. Willie is bereft. He makes his way back to the section of trench and amidst the now-grotesque bodies of his comrades discovers the corpse of Captain Pasley. He encounters Father Buckley, blessing the bodies of the dead. The two awkwardly console one another. Over five hundred men of their regiment are dead. Later, Willie (a protestant) politely refuses communion with the priest.

When Willie sees Christy Moran again, he is furious at his sergeant’s brutal assessment of Captain Pasley’s refusal to run. As more men are brought up to the line to replace his comrades, he also begins to have an inkling of the nature of the war.

The survivors see out the summer into the freezing winter of 1916, hearing of more Irish losses at Gallipoli. They are posted away from the front. Willie’s platoon traverse the countryside. His memories of building reviving within him, Willie admires the roads and particularly enjoys singing marching songs, especially the ubiquitous ‘Tipperary’. Willie’s singing voice is admired but has been weakened by his faulty lungs, damaged by the chlorine gas. He also notes the damage to himself. He mourns Clancy and Williams and feels haunted by the ghost of Captain Pasley. The grief of death has lodged within him, and he secretly rails against the world.

Questions

A shocking and moving read, this chapter, as it surely must be if well written.

The stalling of Willie and Gretta’s relationship while Willie fights abroad is perhaps unexpected, given the account of the relationship we read in the first chapter. She is, to use a phrase used in theory, an absent presence at this point in the story. What does the silence of Gretta suggest to you about this couple’s relationship? In what ways might her silence reflect a larger truth about the presence of women in literature of the First World War?

Captain Pasley, who reads Willie’s letters to Gretchen, judges that Willie is one of those soldiers who “tried to write the inside of their heads” when writing home (p.43). What do you think is meant by this? Given the evidence of Willie’s letter to Gretta (p.38), is Pasley’s assessment accurate? How would you describe Barry’s presentation of Willie in this letter? What does it reveal about Willie?

The narration often uses free indirect speech: that is, the voices of the novel’s characters often merge with or are articulated through the voice of the narrator. This creates interesting ways of manipulating and moving between different characters’ perspectives, but inevitably in the story thus far, we have most often presented with the perspective of Willie Dunne. In this chapter, however, the omniscient narrator is used to voice the thoughts of Captain Pasley as he censors the men’s mail (see the paragraph that begins, “Captain Pasley was in his new dugout writing his forms…” (p.42)). Why might the author decide to give the reader access to the thoughts of this particular character at this particular moment in the novel, before the gas attack? In what way is Pasley’s reading relevant, in terms of storytelling, to the events that follow? How effective is this narratological shift of perspective?

Barry’s description of the gas attack is memorable and shocking. He cleverly selects surprising foci in his description of the attack that make it particularly strange and frightening. What does the narrative describe that emphasises the transformation of the familiar world into one completely unfamiliar and peculiarly terrifying?

“All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be.” Reading this sentence, and the whole of the gas attack sequence (p.43-8), how does Barry create tension within the text?

As Barry builds a sense of scene in this chapter, he returns again and again to the colour yellow— at first “yellow world” of the wild flowers and caterpillars that hang on them, then the “strange yellow-tinged cloud” itself, and finally the “yellow world” that Willie awakes to, with its men wearing bleached uniforms and yellow, greased faces. What could these different kinds of yellowness represent?

“If it were a battle proper, these men would never have turned tail. They would have fought to the last man in the trenches and put up with that and cursed their fate” (p.48). Besides this odd (and surely redundant) bit of moralising narration, Barry is, I think, both clever and subtle in reflecting on a broad sense of shame felt in the aftermath of the attack. Why could a gas attack be seen as particularly shameful in the theatre of war? In what ways does the use of poison gas differ to other more traditional forms of warfare? How do the characters focused on in the novel respond to the trauma of the gas attack?

The passage at the end of the chapter, where Willie finds pleasure in singing marching songs like ‘Tipperary’, seems significant to the narrative as a whole. The novel, after all, is called ‘A Long, Long Way’, a metalepsis of the fuller song title, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (see the entry ‘Opening Lines’ and comments beneath for an explanation of this term). Song, therefore, has meaning in this text (and indeed was ubiquitous in the trenches during the war: see these entries about the Ragtime Infantry and read these poems by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney.) At the end of this chapter, how does Willie’s singing, and song more generally, cause us to reflect on the gas attack on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers? How significant is it that now, “when Willie sang too mightily he felt a dire need to cough” (p.58)?

Some thoughts

The gas attack in this chapter was exceptionally well written. Before writing an appreciation, it’s best to make clear that I currently have questions about Barry’s presentation of the attack at St Julien. This is presumptuous to a degree— Barry has plainly read deeply around the subject— but I’m still trying marry up elements of the historical record with the movements of Willie’s company.

On first reading, I had assumed that the gas attack depicted in the book is the gas attack of the early evening of 22nd April 1915, the beginning of the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, itself the first battle of the murderous Second Battle of Ypres. I thought this because this was indeed the first German gas attack of the First World War, and the absolute incomprehension of the Irish troops in the face of the new weapon depicted in the book is more readily explicable than it would be in any depiction of the later gas attack of the 24th May, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were massacred. The April attack took place, as depicted in the novel, during the day-time: moreover, there was an Irish presence in the line during the attack of the 24th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers being positioned north of Wieltje, though not in a position that precisely reflects that described in the novel.

The attack of the 24th May 1915 is the more likely source of the massacre described in the novel: 666 men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ were in the line that day, and of that number, 645 men died. This chimes with Willie’s observation that there were “five hundred men and more of Willie’s regiment dead” (p.53). Crucially however this gas attack took place at night, at 2.30 in the morning, quite unlike the attack described in the book. The question that presents itself, then, is what Irish battalion Willie is part of? Willie’s first letter home in the book gives as his address the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers… Fermoy” (p.16) yet even with joining up in August 1914, and training in Fermoy in December of that year, I can’t see how Willie would have seen action at all near St. Julien in May (as far as I can discover, the second battalion of the RDF was moved from Harrow to Bolougne in August of 1914).

I’m assuming that I’m missing something important here, and I’d appreciate any pointers from military historians as to how to make sense of Barry’s timeline in the novel. Of course, some might say that I’m making a category error here in bothering about this stuff. It’s fiction, you know? I think these things do matter in understanding a novel, however. If Barry has decided to conflate these two attacks, then he has done so with a purpose. That purpose would be well worth speculating on, especially as the presentation of the gas attack is so effective, so moving, so shocking. If however, I’m simply short of information, then that of course is well worth knowing too.

I don’t want to speculate on what is probably a matter of my own ignorance. The gas attack depicted in the novel may be historically accurate and it may not be. Indeed, the virtues of historical accuracy can weigh against the virtues of drama or plot or authorial intention, and art is one of the only pursuits in which we can say without blushing that sometimes by making things up we can get closer to the truth of things. Yet interesting ethical and aesthetic questions are opened up here regarding the lengths of literary invention desirable or permissible in writing a historical novel (as alluded to in my earlier post on the novel form).

Especially, I want to say, when reading something as convincing as Barry’s gas attack. What a piece of writing it is.

The great risk in writing about a First World War gas attack is to fall into cliché and simply retread where others have gone before. Two British works of art overhang any depiction of gas warfare during the first world war; Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, of course, and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’. Both are referenced in Barry’s account of the St. Julien attack: in his description of “faces [that] were contorted like devils’ in a book of admonition” and the “long lines of men going back along the road, with weird faces, their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front”. A-level Literature students should as a matter of course read Owen’s and Barry’s texts together here, exploring their commonalities and differences.

Yet it seems to me that Barry’s creation stands well clear of the shadow of these more famous texts, and, by mark of its invention, to signal towards texts both more marginal and imaginative. In terms of the A-level exam, I would also want to explore the narrative strategy found in Robert Frost’s ‘Range Finding’ to explore how Barry uses the presentation of the natural world to momentarily decentre the human experience of war. Nature, it seems plain, is both a consolation and a source of grief in Barry’s novel, as it was for many of the poet-soldiers of the First World War. Its fecund life and beauty is a counterpoint to the ugly, wilful and mechanical destruction of man. The horror of the foaming caterpillars, fizzing grass, dying trees and silenced birds in the path of the chorine gas speak quite as loudly of the directionless violence of man’s death-dealing as does Barry’s horrifying description of the massacre of the fusiliers.

Another text I felt at the edge of Barry’s reference, peculiar though it may seem to some, is HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898). Peculiar because Wells’ story of an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars might seem, at first blush, an irrelevance to Barry’s staunchly realist text. Yet Wells’ novel was one of the first to imagine such devastating gas attacks: Wells’ invading Tripod machines drop asphyxiating ‘black smoke’ over the cities and towns of Southern England in their march on London. Now, Jules Verne imagined a freezing gas used in artillery shells by dastardly Germans in his 1879 novel ‘The Begum’s Fortune’: but it is the message regarding imperialism that is made explicit at the start of Wells’ novel that I feel makes it peculiarly relevant to Barry’s novel. The narrator, who has lived through the Martian invasion, takes to task those who complain of the inhumanity of the invaders:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

It strikes me that the political roots of warfare are understated in the novel thus far, as the author focuses on the personal experience and horror of war. Yet in this description of the supposed inhumanity of the alien invaders and their deadly technology, Wells performs a similar trick to Barry. Colonialism and Imperial Wars—human pursuits, of which the First World War is a prime example— are refigured as assaults from beyond earthly nature, beyond humanity. Both writers manage to make the precarious empire of man both utterly strange and frightening. Indeed, I want to say that the gas cloud in chapter four is one of Barry’s most memorable characters yet: a “dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along”, the disowned monster of the terrible and grasping intellect of man.

It’s St. David’s Day!

So indulge me please as I dedicate a posting to Wales and the Welsh in poetry and prose from the First World War. You should expect nothing less from a Griffiths on March 1st.

A quick story. My wife is American and over a decade ago, before we married, I took her back to visit the Welsh town where I’m from. It’s a place called Llanelli. That weekend the national rugby team were playing at Llanelli’s famous rugby ground, Stradey Park. A marching band were in attendance and the crowd, jammed into the little stadium, were singing traditional Welsh songs with gusto: Sospan Fach, Calon Lan, Cwm Rhondda. It was a great warm up to the big game. The marching band began to come down to our end of the field. My wife, a little disconcerted, points to the band.

‘What is that?’

I say, ‘It’s a marching band, clever.’

‘No, no,’ she says, laughing. ‘What is that?’

She points to the front of the band. There is a goat being led on a rope by a soldier in a red coat and white hat. People are cheering.

‘Oh, that’s the regimental goat,’ I say.

‘The regimental what?’ she says, laughing.

‘The goat,’ I say again. ‘The regimental goat. A goat that belongs to the army regiment. It’s at all the Welsh games. I think it’s called Shenkin.’

At this, the American erupts into laughter. “I love it,’ she laughed. ‘A goat. At every game. Great!’ There followed a number of comments about how small the ground was, how great the goat and the singing was. She even enjoyed watching the rugby. Reader, I married her.

Shenkin the Goat.

So why on earth was there a goat at the game?

Shenkin was the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Army regiments across the world often have peculiar traditions and rituals; a culture all of their own that their soldiers preserve. The story of the goat goes back to Victorian times and the Crimean War, when the goats were actually eaten by the soldiers. One night, after a sentry fell asleep on duty, a goat woke up the regiment as the Russian enemy started to attack, saving the men present from massacre. The Royal Welch have had a goat for a mascot ever since. Since the regimental system has always been tied to particular areas, the Royal Welch– and its goat– have represented Wales and Welsh pride for many years. And in terms of reading about the First World War in poetry and memoirs, Welshmen, the Royal Welch– and other Welsh regiments– are better represented than many others.

Why? Two great literary names, to start with: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Neither were Welshmen but both were officers with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and their brilliant accounts of the First World War, ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’, memorialise the actions of the Royal Welsh at infamous battles like that of Mametz Wood. These aren’t patriotic accounts: as Graves noted “Patriotism, in the trenches, was to too remote a sentiment, and at once rejected as fit only for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism would soon be told to cut it out” (p.157, ‘Goodbye to All That’, Penguin 1960). But they do give intense pictures of what Welsh soldiers were like in the First World War.

Graves also spent time with the Welsh regiment (Note the difference in spellings!). The Welsh Regiment was a “rough and tough” regiment, less professional than the Royal Welch. Non-conformists and North Walian hill farmers– stolid, highly independent people– were among their ranks. Here’s an atmospheric account of the Welsh– and Graves– going to the trenches for the first time, under bombardment.

Collecting the draft of forty men we had with us, we followed… through the unlit suburbs of the town– all intensely excited by the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. None of the draft had been out before, except the sergeant in charge. They began singing. Instead of the usual music-hall songs they sung Welsh hymns, each man taking a part. The Welsh always sang when pretending not to be scared; it kept them steady. And they never sang out of tune.

We marched towards the flashes, and could soon see the flare lights curving across the distant trenches. The noise of the guns grew louder and louder. Presently we were among the batteries. from about two hundred yards behind us, on the left of the road, a salvo of four shells whizzed suddenly over our heads. This broke up ‘Aberystwyth’ in the middle of a verse, and sent us off balance for a few seconds; the columns of fours tangled up. The shell went hissing away eastward… (p.81)

Graves is given a lecture about managing the soldiers in the Welsh regiment on his arrival at front by Captain Dunn:

These Welshmen are peculiar. They won’t stand being shouted at. They’ll do anything if you explain the reason for it– do and die, but they have to know the reason why… They are good workmen, too. But officers must work with them, not only direct the work… (p.86)

Welsh singing is a source of constant admiration in poetry written about Welsh soldiers in the First World War. In the anthology, of course, we have Sassoon’s great poem ‘Everyone Sang’, about the celebrations at the Armistice, which you feel must have been influenced by serving in regiments of singing Welshmen:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Another great poem that doesn’t feature in the anthology is Ivor Gurney’s ‘First Time In’. Ivor Gurney is one of the most underrated war poets of the First World War: a talented composer but mentally brittle, he went mad after the war’s end. He leaves us this poem about going, like Graves, up to the front for the first time– and encountering, to his surprise and wonder, a Welsh regiment.

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

I realise that I haven’t even mentioned Wilfred Owen, an English son of the border country, with a great love and longing for Wales. Neither have I dwelt on the remarkable Welshman David Jones, a private in the Royal Welch, whose work I shall be returning to very soon: but time, I’m afraid, doesn’t permit.

Let me then end somewhere near I started, at Stradey Park, listening, with my wife-to-be, to the crowd sing ‘Sospan Fach’. ‘Sospan Fach’ is one of Wales greatest folk songs, a shaggy-dog story about a Welsh housewife having a bad day. I once told an Irish friend what the nonsense-lyrics meant, and he was tremendously disappointed. “I thought it was about God or angels, or something of that kind”, he laughed.

Well, the song clearly made an impression on Robert Graves too. He produced his own poem entitled Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan), which obviously re-imagines some of the episodes from ‘Goodbye to All That’ I’ve printed above. With it I’ll end this tribute to Wales and the Welsh in the First World War on St. David’s Day:

Four collier lads from Ebbw Vale
Took shelter from a shower of hail,
And there beneath a spreading tree
Attuned their mouths to harmony.

With smiling joy on every face
Two warbled tenor, two sang bass,
And while the leaves above them hissed with
Rough hail, they started ‘Aberystwyth.’

Old Parry’s hymn, triumphant, rich,
They changed through with even pitch,
Till at the end of their grand noise
I called: ‘Give us the ‘Sospan’ boys!’

Who knows a tune so soft, so strong,
So pitiful as that ‘Saucepan’ song
For exiled hope, despaired desire
Of lost souls for their cottage fire?

Then low at first with gathering sound
Rose their four voices, smooth and round,
Till back went Time: once more I stood
With Fusiliers in Mametz Wood.

Fierce burned the sun, yet cheeks were pale,
For ice hail they had leaden hail;
In that fine forest, green and big,
There stayed unbroken not one twig.

They sang, they swore, they plunged in haste,
Stumbling and shouting through the waste;
The little ‘Saucepan’ flamed on high,
Emblem of hope and ease gone by.

Rough pit-boys from the coaly South,
They sang, even in the cannon’s mouth;
Like Sunday’s chapel, Monday’s inn,
The death-trap sounded with their din.

***

The storm blows over, Sun comes out,
The choir breaks up with jest and shout,
With what relief I watch them part–
Another note would break my heart!

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath,
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour your gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.
All the music of their going,
Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

NOTES

This poem describes a group of soldiers who are marching off to battle, singing as they do so. They are watched— or perhaps more appropriately for this poem, heard— by the speaker as they move away.

STRUCTURE: ‘All the hills and vales along’ has a complex and intricately developed structure. Written in rhyming couplets, it comprises four stanzas each of which adds two lines to the first so that there are progressively eight lines, ten, twelve and finally fourteen. This, along with the repetition which is a feature of the poem, brings a cumulative effect whereby the ending has power and ‘weight’. The lengthening of the verse also mimics an interminable march where each set distance travelled seems longer and longer. Nonetheless, the poem is written in a jaunty, ‘tripping’, trochaic rhythm; a rhythm which contrasts ironically with the grim journey of the soldiers.

Charles Sorley: Charles Sorley was a talented and athletic student who gained a scholarship to study at one of Britain’s top public schools, Marlborough College. In 1913, at the age of 18, he moved to Germany for a year to study at the University of Jena before going up to Oxford University. War broke out in 1914, however, and Sorley was briefly interned by the German government before he was allowed to sail home to England. He promptly joined up and was made a captain in the Suffolk regiment. He arrived in France in May 1915— but was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in October 1915, at only twenty years of age.

All the Hills and Vales along: Sorley did not title his poems; they were found rough-written in his backpack after he died at Loos. Poetic convention is to take the first line as title.

“All the hills and vales along / Earth is bursting into song”: The trochaic rhythm is evident: “ALL the HILLS and VALES aLONG / EARTH is BURSTing INto SONG”. This provides a tripping, upbeat rhythm that seems appropriate to the seemingly happy, pastoral description of the opening lines (compare Blake’s opening lines to Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Piping down the valleys wild / piping gentle songs of glee…”). The living “Earth” is a motif throughout the poem; there is an almost paganistic symbolism to this fertile imagery. The “bursting” of these opening lines speaks of spring, but also foreshadows the shells of the front that may kill the marching men.

“And the singers are the chaps / Who are going to die perhaps.”: the tone of the first two lines is immediately undercut by the fierce irony of these following. The colloquial tone of the third line seems to suggest a kind of Georgian jollity— but the almost offhand conclusion, that the soldiers may be about to die, makes us bleakly reconsider the seemingly romantic scene Sorely has described.

“O sing, marching men”: the form of Sorley’s poem, with verse and chorus, reflects and replies to the soldier’s marching song in a darker, more self-conscious tone.

“Give your gladness to earth’s keeping / So be glad when you are sleeping”: The listener seems to enjoy the men’s song, a moment of happiness in the short time of optimism and expectation given to them.

“Cast away regret and rue / Think what you are marching to.”: The beginning of the second stanza seems to exult in or at least enjoy the men’s happy fearlessness, as they march to war and possible heroism. Note the alliteration (r) that orders the beginning of the stanza.

Little live, great pass. / Jesus Christ and Barabbas / Were found the same day.”: The reference is to the story of Christ and Barabbas. Arrested as Sorley speculates here on “the same day”, the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate condemned both men to die as Jewish rebels. He gave the Jews of Jerusalem the chance, however, to release one from crucifixion: they chose to free Barabbas. Hence the “little” man lived, but the “great” man passed: “This died, that went his way”. Using this Christian imagery, Sorley seems to be suggesting that the greater man will lay down his life for his friends and country. It was a common metaphor to compare the sacrifice of soldiers to the sacrifice of Christ.

“So sing… you are going to death”: it is reiterated that death can be welcome— but this is nonetheless unsettling.

Teeming earth will gladly store / All the gladness you can pour”: The earth ‘teems’— it is ‘full of life’. There seems to be a metaphorical equation here between life and gladness: understood abstractly, the lines seem to suggest a kind and infinitely comforting earth. If we literalise the metaphor, however— which means to make those abstract terms more realistic— the life that pours into the earth is blood: the blood of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. This couplet is typical of the poem as a whole: superficially simple, even epigrammatic, but in fact deliberately ambiguous and ironic. 

Earth that…”: This phrase begins each line and is repeated rhetorically, in a technique known as anaphora. Anaphoraic rhetoric builds intensity with the accumulation of the same insistent phrase. Earth here becomes personified as a curiously unfeeling and amoral creature.

…bore with joyful ease / Hemlock for Socrates…”: a classical allusion after the religious. Socrates (469-399 BC) is one of the most important Greek philosophers. He was forced by the state of Athens to take poison (the plant, hemlock) because his ideas supposedly corrupted the city’s youth, and were thus dangerous to the status quo. In this image, then, Earth seems to be boasting of producing the poison that killed one of Western culture’s great thinkers and original radicals.

Earth that blossomed and was glad / ‘Neath the cross that Christ had,”: Earth again appears pitiless in this image. ‘Gladness’ might again here equate to blood— the blood that fell from Christ’s side after he was pierced by the centurion’s spear. The imagery of spring and blossoming recalls the Easter story, of Christ’s sacrifice for man on the cross.

Earth… shall rejoice and blossom too / When the bullet reaches you”: an unconsoling thought, given the examples given prior.

Wherefore, men marching… sing!”: there is a note of defiance in this exhortation. Note the continued alliteration, the rhythm of which is suitable for “men marching”.

So be merry, so be dead.”: the pithy rhetorical tone continues with the use of anaphora; while this line also uses another common rhetorical / poetic device, antithesis, that is the opposition or contrast of ideas in parallel or balance within a sentence. This becomes a refrain that will end the poem.

From the hills and valleys earth  / Shouts back the sounds of mirth,”: the countryside echoes to the sound of the soldier’s happiness. Another classical reference may be contained here: the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the water-nymph forever condemned to only repeat the last words of her lover. The Earth here seems to reply to the soldiers who will soon be lying down with it, pouring gladness “on earth’s head”, a consummation that results in a bloody baptism or rebirth. Tragedy qualifies this happy image, especially as we are already aware of the ambiguous, ‘other’ nature of Earth’s relationship with men.

All the music of their going”: another ironic statement: ‘their going’ speaks of the beginning of the soldier’s march, but also of their coming deaths.

Earth will echo still, when foot / Lies numb and voice mute.”: the end of the last ‘verse’ in this stanza ends with silence (mute) and ultimate death— the singing is done.

…on / to the gates of death with song”: the destination is stated clearly now. There is a classical clarity to the warrior’s journey at the end of the poem, but there remains a disturbing taint to the juxtaposition of death and life.

Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping”: harvest imagery that promises a new spring. The poem’s vision of sacrifice is disturbing because it refuses a kind of moral transcendence; the men will die, and a new world will come of this, but only the fecund and ultimately silent earth is the recipient of their gift.

Strew your gladness on earth’s bed, / So be merry, so be dead.” A final image of pagan fertility, where the ‘gladness’ that was blood now becomes definitively seminal. The final refrain captures the deeper antithesis running throughout the poem: that the living can celebrate death, and death inspire the living. Such a perspective is necessarily ironic.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Sorley’s poem is neatly placed in the Anthology. Positioned just after poems which depict the feelings of exultation that accompanied the outbreak of war, it both reflects this celebratory tone and subtly subverts it. In many ways it is a similar poem to Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’, in that it presents the happiness of soldiers as they march off to fight: but like that poem the poet seems to take a more objective position than the earnestness shown by the soldiers. ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ is a deliberately ambiguous and ironic poem in contrast to, say, Brooke’s sonnets, which are more romantic and straightforwardly patriotic. Sorley seems to take in the perspectives of both the early, enthused participants in the war, and the later, warier critique of poets like Owen and Sassoon. This poem also bears comparison to other WWI poems that describe singing or marching men: such as ‘The Men Who March Away’, Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’, and Ivor Gurney’s ‘Strange Hells’. It also bears interesting comparison to poems that dwell on Nature and man’s relationship to nature, especially WWI poems that depict nature as pitiless or inhumanly other in some way. Sandburg’s ‘Grass’ (p.168), Steven’s ‘Death of a Soldier’ (p.169) and Owen’s ‘Futility’ (p.193) have some of this objective and alienated vision of Nature. Instead of finding comfort or pastoral beauty in nature, these poems suspect that man has been born into a world hostile to man and morality. These poems take the perspectives of paganism and inspect them in the light of modernity, and find consolation about the horrors of war hard to find as a consequence.]

Men who march away

(Song of the Soldiers)

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
To hazards whence no tears can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye
Who watch us stepping by,
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We see well what we are doing,
Though some may not see —
Dalliers as they be —
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

Thomas Hardy, 5 September 1914

NOTES

In this poem we hear the voices of soldiers addressing onlookers as they march away to war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Written in five seven-lines stanzas, this poem has an unusual structure, ABBBAAB. The same words are repeated in lines one and six, and the same rhymes at the end of lines two and seven. This makes this a very structured poem and slightly repetitive, both being appropriate to a marching song. There is a variety in the line length- lines two, three, four and seven are shorter and snappier than the longer other lines, and this has the effect of bringing a strong rhythm to the poem— again appropriate to a marching song.

Thomas Hardy: Hardy was a famous Victorian novelist who at the end of his life took successfully to writing poetry. Hardy was interested in the lives of country folk, and had a deeply pessimistic and fatalistic view of life. He was a writer who loved the plain-speaking English of the common people and uses ‘simple’ Anglo-Saxon words to reflect this.

Men Who March Away (Song of the Soldiers): Marching songs allow soldiers to raise their spirits and keep time as they march. The title reflects two perspectives here. The first is that of the onlookers, who watch the marching men; the second, that of the soldiers themselves. This poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement on the 9th of September, 1914: just a month after the beginning of the war.

“What of the faith and fire within us / Men who march away…”: The poem begins with a rhetorical question, asking ‘What is it that gives us men who march away faith and courage?’. The poem seeks to answer this question by examining the men’s feelings and motivation on going to war. Note the alliteration that echoes the rhythm of marching: this runs throughout the poem.

“Is it a purblind prank…”: a blind joke.

“O think you, / Friend with the musing eye…”: A thoughtful (musing) onlooker watches the men march away.

“With doubt and dolorous sigh?”: the watching man who watches the soldiers “stepping by” is sad (dolorous) and doubtful: perhaps about their purpose, or the fate that awaits them.

“Can much pondering so hoodwink you!”: The men are confident, both of the rightness and victory of their cause. They accuse the man of “pondering”— thinking, or deciding slowly— too long, until he is hoodwinked (meaning ‘tricked’) by his own intellectual way of thinking. Some think that the man watching is in fact Hardy himself, expressing his own thoughtful doubts as to the war; others that this is a patriotic criticism of over-cautiousness. The meaning is ambiguous.

“Nay. We well see what we are doing…”: A confident one-word rebuttal of the onlookers doubt and worry by the soldiers.

“some may not see— Dalliers as they be—”: those who question the war are uncommitted, slow and lazy, or “dalliers” . The men’s voice is patriotic, in tune with the times: they declare, “England’s need are we”.

“Her distress… ruing”: A common emotive personification of England; she is pictured as a woman under needing rescue by ‘her’ men. See Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, Pope’s ‘The Call’. The men will be sorry (“ruing”) if they do not fight for England.

“In our heart of hearts believing / Victory crowns the just…”: The men emphatically believe they will win the war because their cause is right. “Victory” is personified here, giving this a rhetorical and rather false air— right doesn’t always win. The reader must decide: does Hardy really believe this? If so, this is patriotic poetry, much like the majority produced at the beginning of the war. Or is he attributing false confidence to his excited soldiers? This then becomes a portrait of the atmosphere in September 1914.

“braggarts must / Surely bite the dust…”: Colloquial and clichéd language (“bite the dust”, meaning to be defeated), appropriate to the voices of soldier. A “braggart” is an arrogant boaster— the Germans were often depicted as overconfident military upstarts, intent on ruling the world.

“Press we to the field ungrieving”: we march to battle without grief or mourning.

Hence the faith and fire within us…”: The opening question is considered answered, demonstrated by the change from the “What of…” in the line of the first verse to “Hence…” (“That is why…”). The final verse simply repeats the first verse, in a confident tone of justification.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Published just a month after the beginning of the war, Stallworthy begins his anthology chronologically, with reactions to the outbreak of war— contrast ‘Peace’ by Brooke and ‘The Volunteer’ by Asquith, at the beginning of this First World War selection. It is interesting it is Hardy’s voice he uses to open this section; Hardy is the older voice of a previous generation, bringing a mature perspective to the outbreak of war.]