jon-stallworthy-poet-and-012

Jon Stallworthy, poet and academic, who died in 2014. Read his obituary here.

 

Before we get started with reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, let me write one last post that may be useful to those who are trying to get to grips with Stallworthy’s anthology. A couple of years ago a student wrote to me, asking:

What could [you] say about the arrangement of the WW1 poems in the Oxford Book of War Poetry? I’ve read the introduction where Stallworthy said they were mainly chronological. I was wondering if you knew which were the exceptions and why? My teacher asked [me] to consider the arrangement in terms [of] the exam question, where I think I’m right in saying that one of the questions tends to ask about how a poem fits into the whole selection? Aside from being chronological are they arranged in any particular themes?

This question and the answer I gave to it has languished in a relatively unread section of the site. I think that as we shift focus for a while towards Barry’s novel it is good nonetheless to remind ourselves of Stallworthy’s impressive anthology and some ways we might approach how he organises the poems within.

As outlined by the AQA, there are 71 collected ‘poems’ in the First World War section of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ (poem 99) to Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’ (poem 169). That’s a big selection of poems, covering many aspects of the experience of the First World War. We might well wonder: are they arranged in any particular themes?

The answer I have to this question is ‘I don’t know’ and, as Professor Stallworthy died in 2014, I am unlikely to directly divine the intentions of the anthologiser. But let me briefly talk you through a rudimentary plan of attack I have used in teaching how to revise the anthology over the years.

Stallworthy’s Anthology is broadly chronologically organised, but we can trace an underlying logic within this order.

The first poems are early responses to the outbreak of war- Hardy, Brooke, Asquith, Grenfell and so on. Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ was published during the first week of the war- as early a response as you can get, really, from a great and elderly Victorian poet. Grenfell and Brooke’s poems are both romantic responses of young men to the war, and display attitudes to heroism and conflict that gradually become unavailable to the great war poets. McRae’s poem was written in May 1915 and so fits into the chronological pattern; but it also seems to evidence an early and relatively untroubled moral certainty about the conduct of the war.

Then we have the ‘transitional figure’ of Charles Sorely: a poet well versed in the classical poetic tradition who nonetheless seems a bridge between the naiveté of the earlier First World War poets and the later war experience, in which the deaths of millions become a reality.

There follow next two poems with very different moral and political positions regarding the British Professional soldier at the start of the First World War: the first a provocative contemporary musing by A.E. Housman, the second a relatively undistinguished but unashamedly political 1935 poem, in furious argument with the first.

A far more interesting and varied cluster of non-British poets follow, giving perspectives philosophical, aesthetic and political. Sandberg, Frost and Steven’s work evidence the objective and philosophical distance these writers have. Two striking French responses follow these, absurdist and surreal and stimulating; followed by five tumultuous poems by the great Irish poet, WB Yeats (Yeats will surely figure as a crucial poet in our upcoming reading of Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’).

The anthology then focuses on a cluster of collected works by the acknowledged greats of First World War poetry: Sassoon, Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg and Owen. This is the core of the selection, works of those soldier-poets who for better or worse have defined our understanding of the conflict ever since. Rosenberg and Gurney give us poems from a war experienced by preternaturally artistically talented Privates. Owen and Sassoon’s poems reproduce with skill the peculiar experience of sensitive, intelligent, well-read, traumatised Officers. Thomas’ poems bring an elegiac and mature contemplation of the inherent experience of loss that war inevitably involves.

The two great poet-memoirists of the war follow, Graves and Blunden; it is advisable to read these sections in tandem with their great works, ‘Goodbye to All That’ and ‘Undertones of War’.

Then we have what might best be called a rag-bag of notables writing about the conflict, from Aldington to Binyon. There are straightforward but satisfying lyric poems like ‘Winter Warfare’ and ‘Battlefield’, but formal innovation too- the ever popular (with my students at least) E.E. Cummings, and the ever unpopular David Jones, whose outstanding ‘In Parenthesis’ is read in extract form (and what, after all, do students know- that’s right, I mean you, dear reader) .

After this, Ezra Pound (Ezra’s a he, by the way) and TS Eliot stand together as the great Modernist shock troops of the large ‘looking back on the war’ section. Following them are two embittered (and great) late-Victorian poet-provocateurs, Rudyard Kipling and GK Chesterton. These two writers concisely give us the most precise evisceration of the politics of a generation that is found in the anthology. Then follow two female poets, M.W. Cannan and Elizabeth Daryush, thrown in almost as an afterthought (this near complete absence of female voices about the war is the gravest weakness of Stallworthy’s anthology- I have been waiting years for a bright young feminist to get their teeth into this peculiar matter). Finally there are three poems about the first world war written late Twentieth century poets who weren’t alive at the time of the conflict. These strike me as very much photographic ruminations on the First World War, and none of the poems are anywhere near to being the poet’s best; but they each evoke a particular mood of looking backwards from what has now become a grave and forbidding distance.

These compartments are my inventions, but they’ve always worked in the teaching. I hope they will help you get a handle on the anthology. I wonder, do any students or teachers want to add their thoughts on how they approach the anthology?

(Oh, and first prize for the student who can make sense of my title for this article.)

 

‘Dead Man’s Dump’

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

NOTES

A soldier going wiring— that is, setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land— takes limbers (carriages) full of wire across the battlefield. These carriages, pulled by mules, pass near the bodies of the dying and run over the bodies of the unburied dead.

Dead Man’s Dump: Bernard Bergonzi, in ‘Heroes Twilight’, recounts the inspiration for ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in this way: “Rosenberg described the genesis of this poem in a letter to Edward Marsh, dated 8 May 1917: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it Ill make it fine…’”. (sic) (p.113)

“The plunging limbers over the shattered track / Racketed”: In his novel ‘Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four!’ RH Mottram writes of “a string of square boxes on wheels, known as limbers… being drawn with a springless rattle”. In the events described in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the limbers are pulled by mules led by the soldier. Here the limbers similarly rattle noisily (note the onomatopoeia of the word “racketed”) as they bump along, “plunging” on the broken track that runs through the battlefield. Rosenberg begins this poem with a detailed, descriptive realism.

“rusty freight”: the limbers contain long spools or coils of rusty barbed wire, for use in defence against German attack.

“Stuck out like many crowns of thorns”: The barbed wire overspills the top of the limbers, their coils resembling the crown placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion. The simile recalls this torment, and with a conventional symbolism suggests the suffering inflicted on the common soldier in battle.

“the rusty stakes like sceptres old”: The limbers also carry the metal stakes which are rammed or, corkscrew-like, twisted into the ground to support the barbed wire: these, perhaps, have nub-like heads that remind the poet of “sceptres” (ceremonial staffs held by royalty as a symbol of authority). The contrast implied by the comparing a rusty metal pole with such a prestigious object ironically attributes to the fence-stakes a magical power or authority on the front line, demonstrating their power over men.

“To stay the flood of brutish men / Upon our brothers dear.”: To “stay” here means to stop. Bergonzi interestingly suggests that the image of an old sceptre holding back a flood recalls the “fruitless” actions of the legendary British King Canute (who tried to command the tides of the sea)— suggesting the wire may similarly also fail to hold the tide ( or “flood”) of the dehumanised enemy (“brutish men”) back.

“The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not,”: The wheels of the limbers roll over the insensible bodies of the dead in No-Man’s Land. This horrible task, described by Rosenberg unflinchingly (“their bones crunched”), is the horrifying inspiration for the poem.

“They lie there huddled, friend and foeman…”: There is an equality or “kinship” (brotherhood) in death on the battlefield for all these “men born of women”.

“Shells go crying over them / From night till night and now.”: The shrieking sound of the shells that go “crying” over the dead men ironically recall the terrible cries of those who will mourn the dead. The repetition of “night” draws out and slows the following line: the unburied bodies continue to be exposed to the violence of battle.

“Earth has waited for them…”: Earth is personified here as a kind of monstrous goddess, famished and anxious (“fretting”) for the death of the men, “all the time of their growth”. This is a bleak vision of life as a brief time of vigour before inevitable death and decay— before being reclaimed by the dust.

“Now she has them at last!”: the earth has caught the fighting men at the height of their youth and strength (“in the strength of their strength”). Her power is greater than theirs, however, and they are “stopped and held”. Rosenberg also perhaps here suggests the frozen pose of men’s bodies half caught on the wire where they died— “suspended”.

“What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?”: Another typical Rosenberg question, much like the poet’s question to the rat—“What do you see in our eyes?”— in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. The phrasing of this question is difficult: It seems to speculate on Earth’s nightmarish obsession with reclaiming or consuming the dead men’s now “dark souls”.

“Earth! Have they gone into you?”: With urgency, the poet addresses Earth herself, desperate to know where the men’s souls have gone.

“…flung on your hard back / Is their soul’s sack”: the men’s bodies are compared to sacks lying on the “hard back” of the ground, “emptied of God-ancestralled essences”. This metaphor suggests that the men’s souls— their “God-ancestralled”, or God-created essences— have left the cheap and heavy material of their bodies.

“Who hurled them out? Who hurled?”: Rosenberg voices the essential horror of this casting out (“hurled”) of the precious soul from the body in the moment of death. Again, Rosenberg is not afraid of reminding us of the terrible lack of meaning that seems to be presented to man by the horror and death of the Western front.

“None saw their spirits’ shadows shake the grass…”: There is almost a sense of wonder at the easy passing of the insubstantial soul, and an easing of the hysteria of the previous lines. Note the softening sibilance of these lines.

When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth”: The pastoral imagery here— of a bee drinking honey— suggests the draining of blood from young men by the “swift iron” of bullets. To compare a bullet to a bee works aurally: both ‘buzz’ or ‘zip’ as they fly. The alliteration found in the phrase “burning bee” might also be intended to recall, at some distance, the sound of guns firing.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre…”: The poem turns its attention to the survivors who, bemused and guilty, continue living. A pyre is a pile of wood, burnt during ritual cremations, or as in ancient Celtic ceremonies, to sacrifice the living: here Rosenberg seem to be subverting the notion of sacrifice, transforming its transcendental Christian connotations into horrific images of the burning the living (continuing the metaphor of “burning” from the prior stanza).

Our lucky limbs on ichor fed, / Immortal seeming ever?”: Ichor was the golden blood of the ancient Greek gods (compare the earlier image of “wild honey” running through the veins of the youthful soldiers). This classical reference recalls Homer and verse composed in praise of heroes; though the questioning and irony here— that the surviving soldiers are far from immortal— conveys a sense of bemusement at the men’s survival.

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us, / A fear may choke in our veins…”: The poet anticipates the burning of the survivors in the conflagration of battle, and this causing death through sheer fear.

The air is loud with death, / The dark air spurts with fire…”: the verse becomes regular at the start of this stanza, using iambic trimeter (“the AIR / is LOUD / with DEATH”). Rosenberg depicts an immediate, apocalyptic scene with an insistent, strident rhythm aided by strong alliteration and assonance: it is the relentlessness of the war that he seeks to convey.

Timelessly now, some minutes past, / These dead strode time with vigorous life…”: the stanza now changes rhythm, the lines lengthening. Time also becomes problematic here: the near past, only “minutes past”, when the men marched ‘in time’, is now gone forever, ended by the shrapnel of shells.

“Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home…”: almost a stab at sentimentality here– the dying men dream of distant home.

“A man’s brains splattered on / a stretcher bearer’s face…”: the open affection of the previous line (“dear things”) is immediately undercut by the grisly realism of a stretcher bearer, his face smeared with gore, attempting to lift the body of a dying man from the battlefield.

“His shook shoulders slipped their load,”: the revulsion the stretcher bearer feels as he realises that the man’s brains are on his face leads to an instinctive, horrified shrug– so that the injured soldier’s body slips from his grasp. The clever sibilance in this line seems to suggest both the bearer’s difficulty with the slick body (which falls from his grasp), and the dying man’s loose hold on life.

“The drowning soul was sunk too deep / For human tenderness”: the man dies. What remains becomes a lifeless thing, pitiful but inert. Note that Rosenberg uses images of drowning in this poem to suggest the moment of death.

“They left this dead with the older dead, / Stretched at the cross roads.”: the stretcher bearers leave the man with a pile of older corpses. The image of leaving the body “at the cross roads” here is haunting, recalling myth— the crossroads are a place for travellers on a journey, and here that journey marks the movement of the men’s spirits to another world. The act of leaving sacrifices at crossroads is especially associated with ancient and pagan myth; Hecate, a powerful Greek goddess of magic, death and rebirth, received dedications there. Rosenberg therefore uses what is known as a ‘liminal’ image, suggesting here an uncertain road from one state to another. In a sense this poem seeks to show that No-Man’s Land is a terrifying ‘liminal’ place, a strip of land where the living and the dead meet: a crossroads between life and death.

“Burnt black by strange decay, / Their sinister faces lie;”: in this hellish image the decomposing bodies— “burnt black” with their “sinister faces”— seem to threaten the living, though they remain inert and motionless, “joined to the great sunken silences” of the non-living.

“Here is one not long dead;”: the soldier’s roving eye alights on a body fresher than the rest. He imagines or recounts the dead man’s last living moments as he hears the “far wheels” of the limber-truck moving towards him. These moments are defined by a grasping confusion as the man clings to life, which Rosenberg suggests by using contradictory, paradoxical phrases and images that subtly undermine their own claim to meaning. So, for example, there is the dying man’s “dark hearing”, which uses colour to describe an aural process of diminishing hearing; a “choked soul”, describing the soul in terms of a strangulated body, reaching out; the wheels of the limber-truck speak “living words”; the dying man’s intelligence is “blood-dazed”; and so on. Cutting through this confusion is the pitiful terror of the man as he waits to be found, “crying through the suspense of the far-torturing wheels”.

“Swift for the end to break, / Or the wheels to break,”: the phrasing here continues to suggest confusion and a desperation to live (what will ultimately “break”? – “the end” or “the wheels”? If “the end” breaks, does that uncertain phrasing mean he shall live or die? Similarly, if “the wheels” break, does that mean an end to the torture of waiting, alone, for death?). This uncertainty is ended by quickly advancing death itself. Rosenberg describes this through an image of drowning beneath a tsunami-like diluvian flood, “the tide of the world”: it is this which finally ‘breaks’ “over his sight”.

“Will they come? Will they ever come?”: the desperation of the dying man reaches its greatest height as he waits for a fellow human being to find him.

“Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules…”: the poem moves towards its grim conclusion; the mules pulling the limber trucks draw close by. The visual perspective of the dying man, lying on the ground looking upwards, “with his tortured upturned sight”, is emphasised in these lines; he sees the mule’s hooves and their twitching (“quivering”) bellies, and the “rushing wheels” of the limbers. The repetition of the words “mixed… mules… mules… mixed” seems significant too, perhaps intended by Rosenberg to suggest the sound of the turning (perhaps squeaking) wheels that greet the soldier as they ride over the ground.

“So we crashed around the bend”: the sense of perspective suddenly shifts back again to the soldier who is out wiring. The adjective “crashed” suggests a clumsiness to the wiring team that is quite removed from the quietly tortured personal drama related just prior.

“We heard his weak scream, / We heard his very last sound…”: the anaphora (that is, the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line) of “We heard his… We heard his…” seems to relate something of the mechanical response of the wiring soldiers to the horror around them as they work, their necessary desensitisation to the carts’ “wheels” grazing a “dead face”. The reader feels immediately the terrible pathos and irony of the moment, Rosenberg having effectively organised the narrative of the poem so that a response of horror or shame is unavoidable. On the other hand, it also seems that it is only by reconstructing and then reflecting on such a grim battlefield scene that the dehumanised battlefield can be made human once more. ’Dead Man’s Dump’ attempts to reclaim the thousands of anonymous deaths that took place in No-Man’s Land back to the world of memory and the living– reclaiming them from the insensible wheels of war that turn throughout the poem.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This long poem is one of the highest regarded of the war. It is also, plainly, one of the most detailed, explicit and therefore brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War. It is so because the reader is taken on tour of the battlefield, fresh with corpses and the cries of dying men, and is told of the necessary numbness of those forced to soldier on. Sassoon’s ‘The Rear-Guard’ (p.177) is another such a poem that uses realism to evoke the sometimes hellish nature of war on the Western Front; Owen’s poetry can work in a similar way, especially ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Insensibility’ (pp.188-92). While this poem is, I think, unlikely to some up in Section 1b, it does have many useful points of comparison to other poems that describe man’s inhumanity to man.]

‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

NOTES

At dawn a sentry standing on duty pulls a poppy from the top of the trench he guards. A rat jumps over his hand. At first amused, the soldier reflects on the animal’s presence on the front line.

Break of Day in the Trenches: Dawn in the trenches was an important part of the soldier’s day: before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, when soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack. The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn, however, and in a thoughtful or whimsical frame of mind. Rosenberg himself described the poem in a letter to his friend Eddie Marsh as “a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk” (Stallworthy, p.165).

“The darkness crumbles away.”: As the poem begins, the night is ending, and, like the earth at the top of the trench, “crumbles away”. This is a poem that constantly reminds the reader of the presence of earth and dust: from the perspective of the rat who scurries close to the earth among the corpses, to the soldiers who are in constant close proximity to the dirt of the front— in life as in death.

“It is the same old druid Time as ever,”: the druids were the priesthood of the ancient British pagan religion. In his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Stallworthy writes that here “we can see the figure of Old Father Time personified as a druid (standing perhaps before a druidic sacrificial altar)” (p.166). Dawn, Stallworthy explains, was the customary time for druidic sacrifice— which, of course, was also often human sacrifice. Yet all this is conveyed with what seems like a light, popular allusion— a reference to the familiar image of Father Time, sickle in hand.

“Only a live thing leaps my hand, / A queer sardonic rat”: A rat appears and runs over the soldier’s hand. The rat is described whimsically: the soldier’s sense of surprise is followed by clear amusement at the animal’s peculiar (“queer”) expression, which suggests a mocking or scornful (“sardonic”) look. The rat is the first of two symbols that Rosenberg uses to subvert the pastoral mode in this poem. In the pastoral nature is idealized and opposed to the corruption of the world of men: a typical example might be Shelley’s ‘To a Syklark’. In ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, on the other hand, it is the much-loathed rat who seems to be contemplating men— as Paul Fussell notes, “perfectly aware of the irony in the… [swapping] of human and animal roles”.

“As I pull the parapet’s poppy / To stick behind my ear”: The second focus of contemplation in the poem is a flower— a poppy growing out of the parapet (that is, the top of the trench wall). The soldier pulls the poppy from the earth and places it behind his ear. The poppy, of course, is a familiar symbol of war: its redness, above all, being associated with the blood of dead soldiers (see my notes for ‘In Flanders Fields’, below). There seems something romantic, amused, even devil-may-care about the soldier’s unsoldierly gesture: more suitable perhaps to the actions of a young boy, or a lover. Note the alliteration here, whose ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ may suggest the sound of far-off gunfire.

“Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies”: The rat seems oddly amused (“droll’). Here the voice of the poem becomes directed towards the rat, addressing him wryly. The rat has more freedom than the soldier who is subject to military laws that forbid fraternisation with the enemy. If the soldier shared the same “cosmopolitan sympathies” as the rat— to be ‘cosmopolitan’ means to be careless of nationality or affiliation when approaching others— then he would be shot.

“Now you have touched this English hand…”: The rat is free to roam, and the soldier seems to take pleasure in its carelessness about Nationality. Remember that Rosenberg hated the war and the army with a particular passion, fighting only for money to help his family. Rosenberg, a working-class, Jewish poet-artist, was doubtless used to being an outsider, due to his class, race and creative inclination. His ironic identification with the hated trench-rat is very much a source of the poem’s power: it allows a kind of grim objectivity regarding human affairs to be expressed in an almost playful, leavened tone.

“Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”: Blake’s Songs are once again referenced here by Rosenberg, as in ‘On Receiving News of the War’. Here the reference to “the sleeping green between” recalls Blake’s poem ‘The Ecchoing Green’ (Blake’s spelling).  Note the easy colloquial tone of the writing here, with its affirmative asides: “…soon, no doubt, if…”.

“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass / Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes”: the rat seems aware of the irony that he, normally the subject to man’s dominion, now wanders freely amongst the bodies of the dead. These are the same idealised, classical bodies that Brooke seems to evoke in ‘Peace’: well-sculpted men of “sharpened power”, now broken in death. Their bodies here, lying in the dirt, seem to figure the end of one ideal of heroic manhood: but perhaps also the collapse of Western civilization.

“Bonds to the whims of murder”: the dead men were tied (“bonds”) to the seemingly  arbitrary commands of those who directed them to ‘murder’— a strong word, this, in connection with soldiering.

“Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.”: the soldier’s corpses are metaphorically described as lying within the earth’s guts; a metaphor that seems extended by the image of France’s ‘torn’ fields, and the sense that the country has been violently eviscerated by the war.

“What do you see in our eyes…?”: the poem now becomes interrogative. This passage particularly recalls William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. ‘The Tyger’ interrogates how it can be that such a deadly creature as the tiger could be created by a ‘good’ God. The questioning here and the elemental imagery describing battle (“shrieking iron and flame / Hurled through still heavens”) echoes much in Blake’s poem, but most clearly perhaps the apocalyptic fifth verse after the creation of the tiger: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears, / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The rat is an emblem of death, like the tiger; but the heavier condemnation for both creature’s existence seems to fall on those agents in both poems that allow them to be or flourish— God in Blake’s poem, man’s violence in Rosenberg’s.

“What quaver— what heart aghast?”: Again, Blakean syntax here (that is, the line is constructed in such a way that it recalls William Blake’s writing). Does the rat see fear (a “quaver”) in men’s eyes? Or perhaps the rat sees terror (“heart aghast”) within?

“Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping;”: the poem concludes with a clever return to the flower which the soldier picked from the parapet at the poem’s beginning. The reference to poppies “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is a return to the old notion that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers. Like the poppy that the soldier in the poem picked (thus killing it), these poppies continually “drop”: like the dead soldiers who nourish them.

“But mine in my ear is safe— just a little white with the dust.”: for a little while, the poppy behind the soldier’s ear is safe, declares the soldier. There is an irony to this, however: the poppy plucked from the earth is now dying. The whitening of the dust seems to signify the beginning of this journey towards death. The soldier’s observation seems aware of the irony:  that man’s actions mean that safety is unlikely— that the “dropping” of another poppy is at best delayed for the short while this dawn scene lasts.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is one of the most richly associative in the whole anthology: Jon Stallworthy has himself written that this is one of his favourite First World War poems. It straddles many areas of interest for students: it plays with the pastoral mode; it subverts symbols conventionally associated with the war (rats and poppies); it does so in a realistic way, giving a strong flavour of everyday life for soldiers in the trenches; it contains its own implied critique of the classical, ‘heroic’, muscular values prevalent before the war; and it has strong mythic overtones. It is indeed one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, and expresses the momentary pleasures and everyday horror of the war without sentimentality. I always feel that ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a key poem in Stallworthy’s anthology; it is a poem that can be linked to many of the other poems in the collection, both good and bad.]

‘August 1914’

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

NOTES

This poem reflects on the beginning of the First World War, questioning the consequences of its destruction: Rosenberg declares that a hard and cold age of fire, iron and death has been ushered in by the war.

August 1914: Though the title refers to the first month of the war, this poem was actually written in 1916, as Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.

STRUCTURE: This is, typically for Rosenberg, a poem of precise images that are also symbols that invite broader interpretation. ‘August 1914’ offers these images and symbols in fragmentary style.

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”: The opening stanza begins with questions— anxious wonder about the consequences of the war. Rosenberg does not shy away from questioning in his poetry, and declaring a lack of knowledge, a limited insight. “This”, of course, is the war: Rosenberg wonders what is being destroyed by its “fire”. The word has hellish or sacrificial connotations, but also literally describes the firing of bullets, mortars and shells.

“The heart’s dear granary?”: the metaphor here, comparing the heart to a granary, seems to emphasise the emotional cost of war. A granary is where grain is stored for winter; if the heart has a granary, we might suppose it is where gathered affections are stored for sustenance— but have now been consumed, by the fire of war.

“The much we shall miss?”: An image of great (“much”) personal loss. Note the alliteration here and the stress placed on these two words that signify plenty and its loss.

“Three lives hath one life—”: A cryptic statement that I must admit I find difficult, This line perhaps imagines one life having three elements— those subsequently named. Note another typical Rosenberg archaism (hath for has).

“Iron, honey, gold.”: Another example of Rosenberg favouring the common noun over adjectives. Here the things named have a number of different associations that the reader may apply to them: Iron’s hard and cold nature, the sweetness and preserving power of honey, the preciousness of gold. Any number of valid interpretations can be made as to why these three substances are peculiarly inherent to a human life.

“The gold, the honey gone— / Left is the hard and cold.”: The references to gold and honey here are to me suggestive of a narrative common in human religion and myth— the story of man’s degeneration from an original paradisal state of absolute happiness, a “golden” age. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, described these Ages of Man as beginning with the Golden Age, moving then through the Silver, Bronze, Heroic then Iron Age. Each stage (besides the Heroic) traces a gradual fall from a higher state, until in the Iron Age man has become unjust, dishonest and tyrannical. “Gold” here might refer to that paradisal state, while “honey” seems to have more Biblical associations of plenitude, health and preciousness (Canaan is the “land of milk and honey”). August 1914, Rosenberg may be suggesting, is ushering the “hard and cold” Age of Iron, defined by callousness and cruelty.

“Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth.”: The critic Bernard Bergonzi, writing about Rosenberg, refers to the “multiple associations of his images” which “can be construed both literally and figuratively” (p.109). Here is an example of this. Figuratively—which means a transformation of the world in language— “Iron are our lives” suggests the “hard and cold” nature of the struggle for life alluded to in the previous stanza. This metaphorical element of iron is then transformed, as we read on, into “molten” iron, or heat. This heated iron suggests the misplaced passion of the young men fighting, but also a fluid spirit of Iron within the young, in an Age of Iron. We can also read these words literally, however: because molten iron literally is flying right through the bodies of young men on the battlefield, as burning fragments of shrapnel pierce their skin.

“A burnt space through ripe fields,”: at harvest time in France in August 1914 there will have been many burnt fields, but this line can also, of course, be read figuratively. The  destroyed crops allude, of course, to the loss of young men’s lives, razing their “ripe” potential; yet the ripe fields also seem to recall the “heart’s granary” of the first stanza, and the emotional devastation that war has brought with it.

“A fair mouth’s broken tooth.”: the disturbing image of violence done to beauty closes the poem. Again this line can be read figuratively (a fine civilization is being thoughtlessly destroyed) or literally (the faces of handsome young men are being smashed in). Note the fragmentary nature of the sentences in this last stanza, its difficult syntax: and the striking nature of this fragmentation.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘August 1914’ begs to be compared to other poems that also consider the beginning of the war and its transformative effects. Within the anthology, all those poems welcoming the war at the start of the selection stand in contrast to this poem— Brooke’s sonnets, for example, or Asquith’s The Volunteer. Other poems which reflect on the change that the war brings, such as Larkin’s MCMXIV are relevant, as are poems like Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, which purport to offer a longer view. And, of course, in its unflinching condemnation of the effects of the war, ‘August 1914’ can be compared (or contrasted) to the protest poems which Sassoon wrote.]

‘On Receiving News of the War’

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

NOTES

This poem describes Rosenberg’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War, conveying the poet’s sense of anxious foreboding of the horrors ahead through a series of symbols of life, death and rebirth.

Isaac Rosenberg: Born in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was a working class Jew who grew up in East London, the son of Russian émigrés. A talented artist, Rosenberg was nonetheless forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of his parents’ poverty (such an early end to education was typical, even encouraged for working class children at this time). He was indentured to a Fleet Street engraver and attended evening classes at Birkbeck College until some wealthy patrons clubbed together to enable him to attend Slade School of Fine Art. He completed his studies there in 1914, but moved in June to Cape Town, South Africa, due to illness. He was here when the Great War began. Rosenberg moved back to London in 1915 and joined up, primarily to provide money for his family. He was in France by early 1916 as a private soldier; like David Jones and Ivor Gurney (and in contrast to many of the most famous soldier poets) Rosenberg experienced the war not as an officer but in the ranks. Posted in France with the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment, Rosenberg was eventually sent to the Somme, where he was shot by a sniper at dawn on the 1st of April, 1918.

On Receiving News of the War: At the beginning of the First World War— and until he returned to England in March 1915— Isaac Rosenberg was living in South Africa. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in early 1914, he was told by his doctor to move to warmer climes. He relocated to Cape Town, where his sister lived. It was from here that he heard of war breaking out in Europe.

STRUCTURE: A precise and very regularly constructed poem, comprising five quatrains of simple, alternating rhyme (ABAB). Iambic trimeter (the six syllable lines, A, of three feet— hence trimeter) is followed by Iambic dimeter (the four syllable lines, B, of two feet— dimeter). This pared down, simple verse recalls the kind of verse structure that William Blake favoured in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’: see ‘The Fly’ for an example of Iambic dimeter at work.

“Snow is a strange white word;”: As war is declared it is high summer in Europe, but it is winter in Cape Town, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. This is obviously a striking thing for a European like Rosenberg: snow remains alien to those in South Africa. The perplexing absence of the signs of winter chime with the poet’s alienation in Cape Town from events in Europe. Note in this first line we find the alliteration that is a strong feature of this poem.

“No ice or frost / Have asked of bud or bird / For Winter’s cost.”: in a European winter flowering plants die and birds migrate southwards. No such “cost” occurs in South Africa. This is a literal reading, of course: but underlying Rosenberg’s first verse is a metaphorical comparison of ‘Winter’ in Europe and Cape Town. Winter, of course, heralds death, just as war does. Winter is come in Cape Town, and metaphorically so in Europe: with inevitability death is on its way; yet in neither land is the cost of war yet felt. The assonance here— the repetition of long ‘O’ sounds, which persists throughout the poem— give this opening a soft and later, cumulatively, a mournful tone.

“Yet ice and frost and snow / From earth to sky / This Summer land doth know,”: The simple language typical of the poem is especially in evidence in this second verse. Common nouns are favoured instead of ‘poetic’ description. Rosenberg describes the arrival of the news of war as the arrival of “ice”, “frost” and “snow”. In choosing to describe the arrival of news of the war like this, Rosenberg lets mysterious things stand in for and symbolise events, rather describe the situation at length. The deliberately simple description gives the poem a feeling of being stripped down to essential images, a feature of Rosenberg’s writing. The “Summer land” is South Africa: its Winter is a summer to Rosenberg.

“No man knows why.”: the essential mystery behind the news— why has war erupted so strangely, even in this foreign land— is insisted on in this line. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the momentous news is impossible to know.

“In all men’s hearts it is.”: The poet begins to contemplate human motivation and the nature of the human soul. What is ‘it’ that is in all men’s hearts? Evil? Sin? What is it that causes the recurrent wars and murder in human history?

“Some spirit old / Hath turned with malign kiss / Our lives to mould.”: despite the fact that Rosenberg was Jewish, the suggestion that there is an ancient spirit of evil in man is to a European readership a particularly Christian (specifically Augustinian) one. The doctrine of Original Sin posits the idea that all humans after Adam are ‘fallen’ and, born sinful, require the redemption of Christ. The notion of a malign (or ‘evil’) kiss is also recognizably Christian: Judas of course betrayed Jesus to the Romans with a kiss. For Jewish people the personification of evil is not as pointed as in Christianity— it is not Satan who is responsible for evil but the errors of man: this too could be called a “spirit old”. The fungal (“mould”) nature of this spirit of malignity emphasises a sense slow decay rather than active evil, a spirit of entropy and death. Note another archaism here (earlier Rosenberg uses the old word “doth”)— an echo of Blake, perhaps.

“Red fangs have torn His face. / God’s blood is shed.”: ‘He’ is God. The image is an incredibly powerful, even shocking one. God, here, is very far from the one of mainstream Christian theology— omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), a spiritual rather than physical entity. Here, God has been attacked: and he sheds blood. The implication here is perhaps that God’s blood is that of those who will die in the war; but the image is uncompromising, and emphasises the power of evil, and the vulnerability of God. The use of a short end-stopped statement emphasises this (end-stopping is when a line of verse ends in a full stop).

“He mourns from His lone place / His children dead.”: Again, an image of God that is far away from the speculations of mainstream Christian theology. The image of God here is of a deity distraught, alone and removed, who mourns the death of “his children”. The unorthodox Jewish Kaballah may have provided a source for this image of God in the concept of tzimtzum, in which God by an act of will in creation contracts and withdraws from the world so that it may exist. The nature of this speculation, which explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God, is highly unsettling.

“O! Ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume.”: the interjection, “O!” emphasises the emotional weight of Rosenberg’s final (desperate) appeal. Is this a cry of pain, or horror? The language here— an “Ancient crimson curse”— clearly recalls William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (particularly ‘The Sick Rose’, which also perhaps influenced Rosenberg’s ‘A Worm Fed On the Heart of Corinth’). The “crimson curse” seems here to be that same “spirit old”; so that here Rosenberg seems to imagine the coming conflict as a kind of spiritual purging of evil that will act like water (“corrode”) or fire (“consume”) on man’s evil. Note the harsh insistence of the alliteration.

“Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom.”: The poem ends with a cosmic- spiritual perspective on human events; the coming suffering of men is placed at the very heart of the universe. The poet prays for a world renewed and returned to its original state, like to a spotless (pristine) flower. The image again recalls Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (beginning, “O Rose, thou art sick!”), but also that poem’s companion in the Songs, ‘The Blossom’, which uses a flower bloom as a symbol of joy and regeneration. There is some consolation, even in the bleak vision of the world falling once again to war at the end of this poem. Rosenberg began his poem with a wintry word, “snow”: yet with this word “bloom”, he ends with a suggestion of spring— and possible renewal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem can be nicely compared to many of the poems written at the beginning of the war which actively seem to have welcomed the fighting. As we have seen, Rosenberg both abhors the beginning of war, and hopes dimly for some sense of renewal that will come from it. Brooke’s enthusiastic ‘Peace’ provides a powerful contrast of tone. Stylistically, I think Edward Thomas’ simple yet profound poems ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ are interesting to compare with Rosenberg’s symbolic style with their ideas of loss and renewal, though Thomas is precise and realist where Rosenberg is more mythical and deliberately ambiguous.]

‘The Silent One’

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.
NOTES

In this poem a soldier takes cover while facing a barrier of uncut barbed wire in No-Man’s land. Two men lie dead on the wire, one of whom the soldier knows. A commanding officer points a possible way through the wire, one that would mean certain death to the soldier; the soldier refuses to take it.

The Silent One: The title refers first to the man dead lying on the wires— his silence obviously indicating his death. This is an example of metonymy— where one word is substituted for another that it suggests. It is perhaps unsurprising that Gurney, a composer, associates silence with death. Without wanting to see Gurney and his poetry simply through his other career as a musician, ‘The Silent One’ is very aware of what can (or can’t) be heard: of sounds, of speaking, and of silence.

STRUCTURE: The structure of ‘The Silent One’ is only partly organized according to rhyme: it begins with two rhyming couplets, but the end-rhyme thereafter is deliberately imperfect and sporadic. “Unbroken” and “unshaken” near-rhyme. ‘Seen’ weakly rhymes with the second unaccented syllable of “whizzing”, but does rhyme with ‘screen’ in the last line. In the midst of these half-rhymes “clothes” and “oaths”, either rhyme or half-rhyme, depending on how you read the poem.

The reason for the weakness of the end-rhyming in ‘The Silent One’ is, I think, because so much is going on within the lines themselves: you can find words and phrases repeated throughout the poem in quite a complicated way. We find “wires” and “unbroken wires” (twice), “chatter” and “chattered”; “accent”, “darkness”, “line”, “no”, “retreated” and “again” repeated likewise. Why does Gurney do this?  Perhaps because this poem is written in a colloquial style and, in the manner of everyday speech, parenthetical. What I mean by ‘parenthetical’ is to say that the poem contains lots of little asides, just as everyday speech has: and the extensive use of punctuation within the line (dashes, colons, semi-colons and brackets) designates the speaker’s leaps to other thoughts or linked observations. This creates a confidential and intimate air to the poem— which contains, suitably enough, a startling and frank admission— an informality perhaps at odds with a strong use of end-rhyme.

“Who died on the wires…”: The poem begins, unusually, as if running on from the title. The wire, of course, is barbed wire, used massively across Europe during the Great War as a defence on the Western Front (for illustration, see the thickets of barbed wire which I use as the banner for this site). The use of barbed wire is representative of the fact that for much of the First World War, armies were defending territory in a static manner. Barbed wire impeded the approach of attackers; many of the soldiers of both sides died collapsed and died on the wires (read more about the use of barbed wire in the Great War, here).

“Who… had chattered through / infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:”: the speaker, a soldier, knows the dead man facing him on the wires. The intimacy of his observation— referring to the man’s “hours of life” and “infinite lovely chatter”— contrasts powerfully with the directness of Gurney’s description of his comrade’s fate. Note the reference to the man’s Buckinghamshire accent as a kind of symbol of his humanity: there is again a strong contrast to be made here between the musicality of his voice and his silence in death.

“Yet faced unbroken wires;”: Before an attack, a major purpose of shelling was to break up the barbed wire defences of the enemy, and so clear the way for an assault. Teams of men would also be sent into No-Man’s Land to clear the wire. These attempts were often unsuccessful and to be entangled in or slowed by barbed wire in No-Man’s land was to be a sitting duck for enemy gunfire. The use of colons and semi-colons here draw the poem back to this fateful moment for the dead officer: leaping backward in time within a sentence like this is called analepsis.

“stepped over, and went  / A noble fool, faithful to his stripes— ”: continuing his description of the man’s journey into no-man’s land, we find that he is an officer (“his stripes” refers to the number of chevrons on his uniform, showing his rank). He was, the speaker says, a “noble fool” for following the order to attack, which meant his death: the odds were clearly against his survival.

“and ended.”: The conclusion of this sentence, Bernard Bergonzi writes, “matches anything in Sassoon and Owen in its terrible directness”. The terseness of this ending is indeed shocking— though it is the rather indirect nature of the sentence that leads up to the conclusion (encompassing observations about the man’s dead body, a reference to his “lovely chatter” and accent, and his part in the action before his death) that disarms the reader before this “direct” conclusion.

“But I weak, hungry and willing only for the chance of line— to fight in the line,”: the exhaustion of the speaker is admitted. This documentary honesty is a feature of the poem. The soldier is “willing”, despite his exhaustion, only because of the chance to fight. Again, the punctuation here is subtle: the dash seems to precede a necessary clarification or explanation that the soldier did indeed want to fight.

“But I… lay down under unbroken / Wires, and saw flashes and kept unshaken”: the soldier lies down before the wire, out of enemy gunfire. Here we find another mention of the wires, and the fact that they are unbroken— this fact, and the different responses of soldiers to this fact, dominates the poem. The soldier manages to keep control of himself as the bombs explode nearby.

“Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:”: this voice— the soldier’s commanding officer’s voice— contrasts strongly with that of the ‘silent one’. The officer is detached, particular, and his accent is overly refined (“finicking”) where the Bucks man’s was expressive of his humanity.

“‘Do you think you might crawl through there— there’s a hole.’”: the phrasing of the officer’s observation— a direction offered in the form of a question— betrays hesitation. Nonetheless disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer could result in imprisonment.

“Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied— ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’”: the soldier’s refusal to follow the officer’s direction here is the dramatic heart of the poem. While this describes a grim scene, it is also possible to detect some of Gurney’s ironic humour here: as soon as the officer points a way through, the crack of a rifle in the dark is heard. This irony is clearly felt by the soldier (“I smiled”) who answers the officer in the same polite manner with which he was directed. There is something heroic about the soldier’s rational anti-heroism: indeed, ‘The Silent One’ is one of the few great poems of the First World War that courts the same grim, fatalistic humour that is found in many of the common soldiers’ songs (like ‘The Old Barbed Wire’: “If you want to find the old battalion / They’re hanging on the old barbed wire”).

“There was no hole… after tearing of clothes…”: the soldier’s observation regarding the impossibility of attacking through the ‘hole’ that the officer points to can be read here in a number of ways. Earnestly, as if in self-justification? With muted anger? Wearily, in disbelief at the uselessness of the order? With wry amusement as the situation is recalled? It is a mark of the clever balance of the poem that all these complex responses are plausible. In a sense, the soldier is responding to what would be, outside of war, an insane situation; to be directed towards what could almost certainly be a useless death. Gurney here humanely dramatises the fine line between the noble and foolish gesture.

“Kept flat, and watched the darkness…”: Gurney describes the soldier’s consequent actions in defiantly non-heroic terms: he lies prone, out of the line of fire.

“hearing bullets whizzing— / And thought of music— ”: the soldier listens in the darkness. This acuteness of hearing, and the ability to listen to others and judge accurately what precisely is being suggested or said, is important in the poem. The reference to thoughts of music imply that this is a poem composed by Gurney from personal experience.

“swore deep heart’s deep oaths / (Polite to God)”: the confidential yet frank tone of the poem comes through strongly here. The little aside here, in parenthesis, reads here like a joke after a heartfelt confession of fear (I didn’t blaspheme as I swore, he bluffly reassures the reader).

“…retreated and came on again, / Again retreated— and a second time faced the screen.”: the vacillation here— the quite open use of the word ‘retreated’ here, and the return again and again to the wire— effectively describes the actions of a man facing an insurmountable object (“the screen” of wire). On this inconclusive and definitely non-heroic note— the wire halting forward movement— the poem appropriately ends.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Silent One’ can be compared to any other poem that depicts or lauds heroism (or indeed condemns or describes cowardice) as it usefully injects a powerful and documentary sense of realism to the momentary dilemmas of the front line.]

‘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.

 

NOTES

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).]