War Poems Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 2 November 2016

War Poems

Wars pre-1914 were very different to WW1. Wars such as the Boer War and the Crimean War were fought by soldiers using mainly sabres and muskets. These wars had little in the way of powerful weaponry such as heavy weight machine guns. WW1 also saw the beginning of trench warfare, tanks, planes and gases.

Almost all of the poetry written during WW1 was written while the soldiers were on the front lines. Pre-1914 poetry however, was written by poets back in England. Education really developed during the Victorian times and poets were able to read about the wars going on in other countries. New newspapers and magazines were published, inspiring writers and poets to write about the battles. Even though this was a positive thing, the poets of pre-1914 never had the first hand experience that WW1 poets had.

The wars occurred because Britain wanted to build up its empire. The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were afraid of Russia’s power over the collapsing Turkish Empire. The allies landed in the Crimea and war broke out. A number of battles took place in various areas of South Africa against Boer settlers. The Boer War was mainly about the gold and diamond deposits. British troops claimed the land of the Orange Free State and Transvaal in 1900, but the Boers fought back. Britain won eventually, after burning farms and moving women and children into ‘concentration camps’.

The poem The Charge of the Light Brigade was written by Alfred Tennyson. He was Poet Laureate at the time of the Crimean War, which took place from 1854 to 1856, between the Allies and Russia. Tennyson based his poem on a newspaper article in The Times. The article briefly explained the events that occurred during the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Charge is a well known example of the bravery and foolishness of war. Tennyson presents war in a noble, devoted way.

The first lines of The Charge of the Light Brigade are written in dactylic dimeter. Tennyson uses this technique in the first two lines. “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward” It sounds like the galloping of horses. It is an effective way of portraying the image of the horsemen riding into battle, creating the relentlessness of the charge. The notion that the horsemen are in danger is quickly introduced by “valley of Death”. The word ‘Death’ is personified, giving the idea that death is a figure that looms over the valley. This phrase is repeated three times in the poem, showing that death is inevitable.

In verse two the rhetorical question is put forward by Tennyson “Was there a man dismayed?”. The next line reveals a mistake had been made “Some one had blundered”. In spite of this fact, the soldiers bravery is highlighted by the lines “Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die”, as all six hundred men courageously rode forward.

The first few lines in verse three “Cannon”, and “Volleyed and thundered” are examples of onomatopoeia. The words are imitating the cannon fire, when they pull back and then the ball explodes out. You can also visualize the horsemen being surrounded by the cannons, and how brave they are to ride into the “jaws of Death”. The personification of death makes it even more terrifying.

The cavalry is slightly glamorized as their sabres are said to have ‘flashed’, making you think they’re new and shining. Tennyson then goes on to explain the smoke, showing his possible naivety about the war, because if the air was smoky the sabres couldn’t possibly have ‘flashed’. This line is also very similar to “And the regiment blind with dust and smoke” from Vitai Lampada, There is a loose rhyming scheme throughout the poem. This creates a random effect which could be interpreted as the random stabbing of the sabres. At the end of verse four “Then they rode back but not, Not the six hundred” the repetition of ‘not’ emphasizes the loss of men.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is split into six verses, each verse ending with the words “six hundred”. The repetition of these words highlights how many people risked and lost their lives in the confrontation with the Russians.

The fifth is a repeat of verse three up to the line “While horse and hero fell.” This is a huge contrast to the alternative line “Boldly they rode and well” in verse three. The dissimilarity shows the turn of events and emotions. Tennyson focuses on the valour of the soldiers in the last verse, ending with “Noble six hundred”. This is a very patriotic ending, and is similar in that way to Vitai Lampada.

Drummer Hodge was written by Thomas Hardy, who wrote some of the best poems about the Boer War, including A Wife In London. Poetry was very prominent during the Boer War 1899-1902. It was published in the popular newspapers and magazines. Unlike The Charge of the Light Brigade, Drummer Hodge takes a very negative out look on war. It is about a young boy from the country who goes to war as the army drummer to motivate the troops.

Hardy based the poem on an article he read in his local newspaper. Thinking how sad it was; he based the poem upon this particular individual. The disrespect for the young boy is shown in the first line “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest”. We know they buried Drummer Hodge without a coffin “Uncoffined – just as found”. The idea that he is in the same state as he was when he died is appalling.

The unfamiliarity of the land Hodge is buried in is demonstrated by native words like “kopji” and “karoo”. These are South African words. Personification is used effectively in the line “strange-eyed constellations”. This alludes to the feeling that drummer Hodge is being taken care of by the stars. Hardy also expresses the unfamiliarity by referring to the ‘foreign’ stars at the end of each verse. Hardy is trying to emphasis the young boy’s isolation and by using phrases like “the broad Karoo” a karoo being a vast desert land, he achieves this.

Alternate rhyme is used in Drummer Hodge to create a pace and to help get the point across that we are moving forward in time. The same rhyme scheme is used in The Hyaenas, though it doesn’t have the same effect. The lines “Grow to some southern tree…reign His star eternally” suggest that Hodge will live on forever in some way or another. This gives a hopeful ending to a poem that is very negative.

Another poem that has a particularly negative outlook on war is A Wife In London, also written by Thomas Hardy. This poem depicts the story of a typical war time wife in London, focusing on the human cost of war. We know this immediately from the title. ‘A’ implies that there were more stories of a similar nature that could be told. Hardy describes a desolate wife awaiting news of her husband, fighting in the Boer War. The poem is ironic and shows how war can so harshly affect someone so far from the fighting. A Wife In London is split into two main sections. The first explains the tragedy that took place, the second section is the irony of the story. Much like Drummer Hodge, A Wife In London can also be split into different time frames.

The “tawny vapor” mentioned in the first line, can be compared to the fog and smoke experienced on the battlefield. This implies that though she is far from her husband they are still connected. It could also symbolise the isolating, physical effects that a dense fog would have on you. Pathetic fallacy is used throughout the poem to portray the emotions felt by the wife. Thick fog often has a confusing affect on people and the atmosphere it creates is felt by the reader.

In the line “The street lamp glimmers cold” the lamp going cold could represent the death of her husband and possibly her fading hopes for his return. The use of harsh sounds like ‘cold’ and ‘crack‘ can be compared to the sound of a gun shot. The next verse begins with the use of hard onomatopoeia “knock cracks”. The harsh sounds are in contrast to the soporific language of the first verse. The telegram tells her that her husband has died in South Africa “He – has fallen – in the far South Land”. The dashes could show how she read the telegram.

The story then moves on in time “‘Tis the morrow”, the second section showing the next day. The thick fog that is mentioned, gives the idea that she is confused and isolated from the world around her. The line “His hand, whom the worm now knows” leaves the distressing image of her husband’s body decaying in the ground with the worms. This is in stark contrast to the next line “Fresh-firm-penned in highest feather” when he was still alive. The last three lines have a different tone to the rest of the poem. The country setting is in contrast to the initial London scene; the summer weather is in contrast to the tawny fog and the “new love that they would learn”, shows a feeling of togetherness and hopefulness for the future, which ironically will never be.

Unlike A Wife In London, Vitai Lampada is a very nationalistic poem. It was written by Henry Newbolt, the most patriotic poet of his time. The poem was written in 1892, at the end of Queen Victoria’s rein. It is based on the story of a group of public school boys who are initially playing cricket. Time moves on and the same group of boys are fighting to defend the Empire. The title Vitai Lampada meaning the torch of life, reflects the patriotic message the poem gives.

The first line of the poem has a calmative effect on the reader with the use of the words “breathless hush”. The words are referring to the anticipation felt before a cricket match. It could also give a ‘calm before the storm’ effect. The storm being not only the impending cricket match, but also the war. Newbolt uses the cricket match as a synonym for war. He equates valour with sportsmanship with the idea wars could follow game rules.

“An hour to play and the last man in.” tells us that it’s their last chance for victory. The boys are presented as unselfish and patriotic “And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat”. The encouraging line “Play up! play up! and play the game!” is repeated at the end of each verse. This is a way of showing the willingness of the boys to participate, at the start of the poem in a cricket match and later in battle.

Vitai Lampada highlights the fine line between being a teenager happily playing cricket on your school team and then finding yourself on a bloody battlefield defending Queen and Country. None of these boys would have been fully aware of the horrors that they would face, “The river of death has brimmed his banks” is an example of the hundreds of men that lost their lives in the war. Newbolt uses colour to portray the strong emotion felt by those fighting. ‘Red’ expresses the anger and passion of war in general. Another use of the word red, “The sand of the desert is sodden red” illustrates the amount of bloodshed caused by war.

In the third verse the school is seen as a place of solidity. A place that continues to teach the same moral values throughout time, “This is the word that year by year, While in her place the school is set.” The line, “And none that hears it dare forget” could be referring to the many other boys that will go through the school and eventually leave long after the war is over. The boys won’t forget the men that fought and lost their lives in battle.

Repetition is used as a way of showing comradeship between the men “Play up! play up! and play the game!” is the school moto which will see them though life. In Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the use of the repetitious line “Rode the six hundred” at the end of each verse, also gives a feel of pride and comradeship.

The poem that had the most impact on me was A Wife In London. One of the main reasons for this was the fact that it’s from a woman’s perspective. I can identify more closely to a woman who isn’t taking part in the fighting, as opposed to a man who is fighting in battle. The language used in A Wife In London has a mournful effect on the reader. Although the other poems are strident in their parlance, A Wife In London still manages to be powerful in its over all calming use of language. I particularly like the use of rhyme as I feel it helps the poem flow. Thomas Hardy has structured the poem in a very clever way, using sections to symbolize different times. I thought the metering used throughout the poem complimented the rhyming scheme.

The other poems I analysed, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Vitai Lampada were, if I’m being honest, much more difficult for me to empathise with. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind the words, I found that ‘flashing sabres’ and ‘sodden red’ dessert sands were ‘not really my cup of tea’. This didn’t make it more difficult for me to anaylse, but it did affect my over all enjoyment. I preferred the more subtle choice of language in the two poems by Thomas Hardy.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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  • Date: 2 November 2016

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