Poems on… war

War. War never changes. – Fallout

War is as old as man. In the deep forests we slew one another with stone and spear. The Bible at times makes a celebration of war:

This is what the Lord Almighty says… “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” – Samuel 15:3

In The Iliad the descriptions of war are far more personal – as shown in this scene from Book V, which follows the rampage of Diomedes, son of Tydeus (from a translation by Samuel Butler – available on bidorbuy):

He killed Astynous, and shepherd of his people, the one with a thrust of his spear, which struck him above the nipple, the other with a sword- cut on the collar-bone, that severed his shoulder from his neck and back. He let both of them lie, and went in pursuit of Abas and Polyidus, sons of the old reader of dreams Eurydamas: they never came back for him to read them any more dreams, for mighty Diomed made an end of them. He then gave chase to Xanthus and Thoon, the two sons of Phaenops, both of them very dear to him, for he was now worn out with age, and begat no more sons to inherit his possessions. But Diomed took both their lives and left their father sorrowing bitterly, for he nevermore saw them come home from battle alive, and his kinsmen divided his wealth among themselves.

Poetry of the 19th century began to consider both the heroic and tragic faces of war. The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Alfred Tennyson is a good example of the former; it describes the suicidal charge of the British light cavalry against a heavily fortified Russian battery in the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The result was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, forever immortalised by Tennyson.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

The poem evokes the warrior spirit. Bravely the men march onwards to possible death and ruin. Tennyson also alludes to the stark violence of the battlefield:

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
   All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
   Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
   Not the six hundred.

And finally the everlasting glory of battle.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
   Noble six hundred!

You can find Tennyson’s works on bidorbuy.

This stands in contrast to the austerity of the poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfrid Owen. Owen produced numerous poems about the horrors of battle, based on his own combat experiences in the Great War. That struggle ended up claiming his life one short week before the Armistice was declared.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Owen is the most celebrated of all war poets. Many of his poems are masterpieces musing on the grim realities of war. Another poem – Dulce et decorum est – further undermines the romantic notion of war:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.

*The “old lie” refers to the famous line from Book 3 of Horace’s Odes; the English translation is:  It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.

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