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.]

The First World War From Above

The moaning in my last entry was, it seems, premature. Last night the Beeb showed a new documentary on the First World War: ‘The First World War From Above’. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but it’s here on iPlayer, and is narrated by Fergal Keane, who is an excellent journalist. As a documentary it should be worth watching.

That sounds a little grudging, perhaps. OK, to come straight to the point: the big idea behind the documentary (why do all documentaries need a ‘big idea’ today? Why do all cookery programs need a ‘mission’?) annoys me a little. The documentary is about showing the war as it was seen from the skies– from Zeppelins, observation balloons and aircraft. This should indeed give us some interesting pictures of World War One– looking at things literally from a different angle, after all– but however novel the perspective, I wonder if the basic idea isn’t really quite trivial.

Let’s hope ‘The First World War From Above’ turns out to be a little more informative and useful than all those ‘Second World War in Colour’ docs. I’ll write my verdict in the Comments section– perhaps I’m just being an old misery! Give your verdict there too.

Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

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.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]

The Dead – Rupert Brooke

The Dead

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

NOTES

This sonnet is a tribute to those British soldiers who died serving their country in the First World War. Brooke declares that the dead men have made the deepest sacrifice possible; but in return they have ennobled themselves and brought honour back to Britain.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. This is a Plutarchan sonnet: note the ABBA CDDC pattern in the octet. Also note the difference in the sextet to Peace (p.162).

‘The Dead’: this poem expresses a sense of deep reverence for the sacrifice of those who have died in the war.

“Blow out, you bugles”: a bugle is a simple trumpet used in military funerals— in the British Empire, ‘The Last Post’ was played over the bodies of the dead. Note the assonance, here, that runs throughout the poem– perhaps here reminiscent of the bugles themselves.

“rich Dead!”: the highly valued dead are repeatedly referred to through metaphors of earned wealth. The opening line is a passionate call to memorialize the dead soldiers.

“None of these so lonely and poor… made us rarer gifts than gold”: Even the poorest man has, by dying for his country, given a gift more precious than gold. This paradox continues the metaphorical equation of death at war to the passing on of wealth— freely given to the people of Britain (note Brooke writes of “us”; he speaks for the nation). The line also recalls Shakespeare’s Henry V: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (Act IV, scene iii). The sacrifice of death gives nobility to the poorest.

“These laid the world away”: the world is willingly laid aside.

“poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth”: in death, youth is used up, like wine decanted from a glass.

“gave up the years to be…”: the dead men’s sacrifice is vividly drawn out by Brooke as he speculatively imagines their years of “work and joy” lost; as is their “serene” time, or peaceful time, of old age. He even conjectures that the men have given up their “immortality” by not having “sons”, whom also “they gave”.

“Blow, bugles, blow!”: the repetition at the beginning of the sextet emphasises the message of remembrance that the poem insists upon.

“They brought us…Holiness…Love and Pain…”: Brooke again insists that, to a place of “dearth”— ‘lack’ or famine— the soldiers bring back the personified characters of Holiness, Love and Pain. The soldiers in fact redeem the fallen world, like Christ.

“Honour has come back, as king, to earth”: the personification continues, here with Christ-like connotations: also a suggestion of the medieval myth of ‘the return of the king’— which brings restoration and new life to the land.

“…paid his subjects with a royal wage”: the metaphor of wealth given or paid to others continues. The soldier’s personal sacrifice and ‘gift’ has now become a greater gift to a nation, personified in the figure of the king, Honour, ruling over the land.

“Nobleness walks in our ways again”: The sextet, with its evocation of knightly chivalry, develops the Shakespearian notion of new-found nobility and a ‘gentled condition’ ruling over the land, after the willing sacrifice of men’s lives. If the Octet is concerned with the soldier’s loss, the sextet is concerned with what others have gained by their death.

“we have come into our heritage”: the people of Britain have inherited a different and ennobled country, full of virtue— thanks to the soldier’s sacrifice. This closing image collapses together the two metaphorical strands in the poem— of wealth and nobility— in the suggestion of children receiving their inheritance or land from their dead father.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This second of Brooke’s sonnets is his attempt at an exceedingly common type of war poem— the memorial poem, or poem of remembrance. It can be compared to Brooke’s other great poem of remembrance, ‘The Soldier’ (p.163); also, to the sentiments expressed in other poems like McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ (p.165), Thomas’ ‘In Memoriam’ (p.179) and Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

Peace – Rupert Brooke

Peace

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

NOTES

This sonnet celebrates what Brooke feels is his generation’s great fortune to be born to fight in the First World War. He argues that it is a joy to be young and fit and able to fight for good in a world full of corrupt, cowardly men. He declares that the war has given the young a sense of freedom, and that to die in battle is a blessing to the proud and patriotic.

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet— as are all the selections from Brooke’s work in Stallworthy’s collection. The sonnet is a 14 line poem that is traditionally written about love. It has two parts (sometimes divided into two stanzas): the octet (or first 8 lines) and sextet (the final 6 lines). The octet traditionally argues a position or describes a situation or setting. Then what is known as ‘the turn’ occurs: a change of argument, mood, position or perspective that makes us reconsider the subject. The rhyme structure of sonnets varies within the fourteen-line, octet / sextet model. Traditionally, the sonnet has two main rhyming variants: of the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (the Petrarchan Sonnet) or ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (the Shakespearian Sonnet). The organization of the sextet varies quite wildly in the Petrarchan Sonnet; the Shakespearian sonnet always ends in a rhyming couplet, rounding off the poem.

Rupert Brooke: Rupert Brooke was a young and handsome man from a highly privileged background who wrote a number of idealized and extremely popular sonnets about war. Going to Rugby public school and then to university at Cambridge, he had a great talent for sport, theatre and literature, and was considered by his peers to be a leading light of his generation, destined for great things. Brooke joined the army on the outbreak of war, but never actually saw action— he died in April 1915, developing sepsis on a journey across the Mediterranean towards Gallipoli in Southern Turkey.

‘Peace’: this poem, with its pleasure in soldiering and masculine militarism, could be as logically entitled War as Peace. Yet Brooke’s message is that war in the world has brought inner peace to the combatants, who now know their duty and purpose in life.

“Now, God be thanked…wakened us from sleeping”: This is a poem of thanks that Brooke lives at a time (“His hour”— ‘God’s hour’) when the young (the time has “caught our youth”) will be able to fight for right. The young have been awakened to the task they have in hand.

“With…sharpened power”: all qualities of the fit, youthful body, ready for war.

“as swimmers into cleanness leaping…”: A paradoxical image, comparing going to war as an act that cleanses the participants, like a dip in a pool or river. The metaphor of swimmers “leaping” also suggests playfulness— war is a pleasure as well as a rite of passage.

“Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”: the youthfulness of the participants is contrasted with the metaphorical description of the world as “old”: the old world is incapable of continuing, Brooke suggests— it is ready for death.

“Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move”: Those who do not do their duty to go and fight for their country have “sick hearts”. A key opposition in this poem is between youth and age; another is between healthy bodies and ill or unfit bodies. Those who do not fight are physically (“sick”) and morally (“hearts”) degenerate.

“And half-men…”: Brooke continues his disparaging rhetoric: those who do not fight are not men. There is an interesting connection here with the poetry of Pope (‘Who’s for the Game?’) and the public school ethic of muscular Christianity, which taught that those born to rule (at home and abroad) must be fit of heart and soul.

“…and their dirty songs…and all the little emptiness of love!”: Brooke’s world is a world of men and masculine pursuits. Sex and women are dangerous to this value system: they threaten the purity of men. Brooke was, ultimately a youthful and naïve ex-public schoolboy who had seen little of the world. He was still troubled by his break up with an important girlfriend at the time of writing this, which may explain the mean tone.

“Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,”: The beginning of the sextet turns from the grim corruption of the past to the “release” war brings. The tone is emphatic— “Oh!”

“Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending”: the paradox implicit in the title— in war we find peace— is developed here. Brooke suggests that in war nothing can happen that the peace of sleep cannot make better: no sickness or loss that is not compensated for.

“Naught broken save this body, lost but breath”: Brooke’s rhetoric diminishes the sense of personal loss felt in war. The safety of the self is a small thing next to the peace of mind brought by fighting.

“the laughing heart”: the soldier’s heart laughs and is happy— unlike the sick heart of the non-combatant. It finds “long peace” in war— it is here that the meaning of the ‘Peace’ of the title is made explicit.

“Only agony, and that has ending”: Brooke even shrugs of the idea that “agony” could disturb a soldier’s peace of heart, because it is ended by death. These are certainly questionable sentiments— could this poem have been written by someone who saw the horrors of action, the maiming and agony of the Western Front?

“And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.” Death (personified here: a common technique in religious and war poetry) is both friend and enemy to the soldier— death will end life, but it will also bring peaceful “release”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Brooke is a giant of the poetry of the First World War. Stallworthy chooses to use three of Brooke’s five famous sonnets in this selection, beginning with a poem that brilliantly expresses the fervour and excitement of a young man going off to war. The poem stands alongside other poems full of heady excitement at the prospect of battle: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith (p.163) and ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell (p.164). It also contrasts strongly with poems that recount the horrors of war on the Western Front, such as Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (p.188)]