How has it performed this role through history?
Throughout the years war poetry has played a big part in English literature. Any British library will contain piles upon piles of books containing the stories of heroes and fiends of the British people dating right back to before the coming of Christ. But why? What is the reason for so much poetry to be focused on war? War poetry has been used for many reasons within history. It’s been used to tell others of the battle, to influence others for the future, to tell the poets ideal of truth. But these roles have differed and evolved through time, partly because of different decorum and because of new technology taking over poetries use in the modern world.
To proof this statement I will be analyzing 4 different war time poems from different parts of British history. To start with I’ll look at the 1st World War poem ‘My Boy Jack’ By Rudyard Kipling then work back towards one of the earliest forms of British war poetry, the Anglo-Saxons.
Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular writers in English literate, his life and works within the late 19th and early 20th century. When the great war came about he was already in his late 40’s and a very strong patriot, and using his influence as an acclaimed writer and journalist he put forward his ideals of nobility and honor to the British public. He also used his ‘contacts’ from high up in the government and army to get his son John into the Irish guards. John had very bad eyesight and had been refused from fighting times before, because he would be a liability to himself and others if he lost his glasses. Sadly John was one of the many to die in battle. After this devastating tragedy in his life, Kipling’s writing changed dramatically.
‘My Boy Jack’ was written in 1916, its about Kipling coming to terms with the death of his only son and the part he played in it, the guilt he felt.
My Boy Jack by Rudyard Kipling:
“HAVE you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind-
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
I feel that out of all the poems I’m going to look at, this one is the most personal, being used to express Kipling’s deep emotional feelings about the loss and pain war gives you. But even though Kipling’s has been through the loss of a child, he still is a patriot towards the war. I feel that part of kipling stayed a patriot because he wanted a reason for John’s death, he must have something to cling on to. ‘gave to that wind blowing and that tide!’ he still believes that it was a sacrifice that had to be made, for England. For a future of freedom. Using tides and the elements to show a time moving on adds the ideal of something growing or healing, something that’s eternal and immortal, which in turn changes the poem’s atmosphere, almost makes it nobler in the reader’s eyes.
The ideal of immortally is a big role in war poetry. The ideal of men fighting and dieing for the people back home and there country is a big motivation for soldiers. But the ideal of living forever as a hero to people is something that is not as easily achieved, but probably craved for more. It’s that glory and nobility factor that has been used and abused by many war leaders throughout history. Being still at war when the poem was written and facing two more years to fight with, I feel that Kipling will have wanted to give something to the public, to give some hope, some reassurance that there sons and husbands and brothers and fathers weren’t dieing for nothing, that they would live forever and be glorified in good peoples eyes. As his son was in his.
But it could also have an undercurrent to this meaning, Kipling was comforting the bereaved by pointing out the soldiers heroism, but by doing this he was persuading other men to go out and fight. To go and earn there share of the glory by getting themselves blown up for King and Country. ‘except he did not shame his kind’ his son did what he had to do, he did his duty to his country and has been immortalized for it, now what have you done? That’s what I feel Kipling is saying with this quote. He’s trying to persuade others to do the right thing. To be like jack, to be the perfect British hero.
It’s a very clever use of guilt. By saying that if you didn’t fight you were shaming not just yourself, not just Britain, but your kind. You would be lower than the enemy because you weren’t doing your duty, and duty in those days meant everything. Its one of the main factors of British war history, the way we lived. In any wartime situation duty became the main reason to be born; you were placed on this earth to do your duty. If you didn’t you were the lowest of the low. This sense of duty arises in all of the British poems I’m looking at.
Duty is in all of the poems I’m looking at, but each in different doses and ways, with different angles on duty. This is particularly noticeable in the next war poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Lord Alford Tennyson. The Charge of the Light Brigade was a terrible mistaken cavalry charge on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. A light brigade of 600 horse and men charged at a heavily armed enemy camp, around 100 men survived. When this news was relied to Britain, Lord Tennyson responded with composing this famous poem of the bravely of the men and the idiocy of the order.
As I stated before, a lot of war poetry is about duty, especially British war poetry and ‘the charge of the light brigade’ is no exception. This is shown best in the second stanza:
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone 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.
There duty was to ‘do and die’ as Tennyson puts it. The charge was a great mistake of British war history, and a terminal one for a lot of men. And Tennyson portrays them as true British lions. They didn’t question the order, they didn’t complain or argues. They did what they were told, they did there duty and in writing of this perilous act Tennyson has also immortalized these brave men. He has turned them into heroes, ‘Boldly they rode and well’ these men weren’t just the victims of somebody’s mistake; they were true soldiers to Tennyson! They had the courage to face such a terror, and they were also good at what they did, well trained if not well guided.
This attitude of Tennyson is also an indicator of the Victorians own attitude to war. When the Crimean War was fighting, Queen Victoria was in her final years on the throne. As I mentioned before, Britain’s have a unique demeanor and resilience’s to war, you must do your duty and play your part and get on with things. Follow the crown and the nation in defending our blessed isles, so though Tennyson gives us a rather bad picture of the order itself, which it was in no doubt a fatal and terrible mistake, he portrays the soldiers as heroes, as the true British citizen. This is also a main role in the poem ‘My Boy Jack’. One of the main role’s in war poetry it seems.
But Tennyson’s poem also immortalizes the men who died for they’re country and this is also a main role in most war poetry. As over 450 men died in the charge, and not making a lot of difference in the situation on the war, there sacrifice seems minuscule when we look back on it today. Of course when they joined the army and the war they would have done it and planned to make a difference, to help defend and fight for Britain. But sadly they didn’t achieve this at all with this one attack, there charge of the light brigade was more of a sacrifice then an assault on enemy forces. So if Tennyson had not written this poem, then the charge of the light brigade would probably just be a little mishap in British warfare.
The authorities might have tried to covered it up, seeing as it is a shameful and unclean portray of the British army commands. But Tennyson changed all this by noting down his thoughts and view for the future to behold, he set down the truth as he saw it of this event and by doing this he made history, he immortalized the men and they’re courage and death’s in the poem, into the literary world he made them almost divine with there bravely and fearlessness. This is something a lot of war poetry does, and has done for years. It is a main role in war poetry to immortalize the poet’s heroes and there’ deeds. And the Charge of the light brigade also shows Tennysons own view on the truth, he hears of this mistake from the caverle and finds it repusive that so many brave men died for nothing, this role is evedent wihtin Tennyson’s poem through the laugage he use. “Honour the light brigade, Nobel 600!”.
The next poem, however, is rather different to the others. Its a retelling of the Battle of Agincourt 1415, but written nearly 200 years after the event itself by the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare, in his adaptation on King Henry V life. The ‘poem’ is really a speech made by Henry just before the English battle against the French. At the time the soldiers are fighting to get home from battling and capturing many north-French cities but are blocked by an overwhelming army of fit and strong French soldiers, while Henry’s men are depleted in numbers and exhausted. The speech is all about fighting for your country and for the brother next to you; it’s used really to boost the means morale as they turn to face what seems as an impenetrable force.
To do this Henry speaks of pride and honor bestowed upon them as gifts for there bravery and, for a lot of them, there lives.
‘But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.’
He makes it sound as if they will be honored and given an almost divine status if they fight with him, whether they die or survive. So already the roles of war poetry has changed in different priority, it isn’t so much our duty to do this, you may not have been born for this but you will be honored for it, you will be rewarded for giving your life to the King. This change may well be an indicator of the different attitude and decorum in that time (but being a fictional retelling it reflects upon the Elizabethan view) when Britain were at war with the catholic country of Spain and the had a very hostile attitude from France as France is and are a catholic country. Elizabeth’s foreign policy then was aggressive and defending, so at this time when an Elizabethan went to see a play they wanted to see victorious Englishmen and Kings against the evil Catholics, Spain and France in particular. And so Shakespeare’s writing reflects this need and creates for us this perfect scene of they low and despicable French soldiers against the powerful and noble English in a victorious and awe-inspiring battle for Britain and Home.
But not only is Henry seen as a noble and brave man in such circumstance but also as a powerful fighter, a strong figure for the Elizabethan people to latch onto and idolize in the dreary circumstance at that moment in time. Henry is a man how would rather run than fight, telling them to go if they see themselves so low to do so, he is the hero in the story and he also pressures and persuades the men to fight by demanding all the cowards to run now, just like Kipling did in ‘My Boy Jack’. “He that hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart” using the phrase ‘stomach to fight’ really emphasizes how cowardly those few would be if they ran. He’s playing really with the men’s own manhood and pride. Which was also a ploy used in Kipling’s ‘My Boy Jack’ and in a lot of war poetry on the whole.
The last poem I’ll be looking at is from on of the earliest forms of Poems itself. ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is the only war poem I’ve looked at that was a genuine account of a battle, this is because the poet was actually writing the poem while the battle was raging. This is how the Angelo-Saxons would relay news, like our newspapers and news night we have today. It was also used for warrior’s, who would hire poets to come and write about their deeds (and in some cause’s there heroic death) so that there brave doings and courageous death could be retold again and again by others, thus making the warrior immortal in history.
This has been a main role for all of the other poems, so the idea of immortalizing soldiers and fighters who die in war has been used since before Christ. Evidence for this in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is when the poet is writing about the King, Byrhtnoth.
‘Can you hear seamen, what we say on our side?
Indeed we’ve something to send you – spears
deadly darts and durable swords,’
Byrhtnoth’s speech (of which the quote above comes from) is defiant, mighty and has a strong sense of ‘for our people and country’ for example, ‘Keep this country safe’ Describing their action as defensive and not attacking shows a noble view of Byrhtnoth, the reader gains this from the single word ‘safe’, the king and his army are protecting the helpless. The poets meaning for this is to show Byrhtnoth as this Nobel but Fair King, he is not the one attacking, he never asked or provoked the invaders to attack there peaceful home. He’s only fighting for the people and for his own honor. Such a heroic display of a model and powerful king is just what is found in Henry V’s grand speech.
In both instances the reason behind the gallant folly of words is to raise moral, and as both poems are used to entertain (as war poems in Angelo-Saxon time were used as entertainment and Henry V is a play) they would also have been used to raise the heart and souls of others who read, saw or hear them too, making these historic facts and people into unfading immortals within the realms of human literature. This is one of the reasons for war poetry and has had a main role to play in all of the poems I’ve looked at.
Another role of war poetry is to flaunt the poet’s country as being truly amazing, with strong moral duty and brave men. (This role changes slightly in Tennyson’s poem, he does show British men as brave and noble, but doesn’t support the actual government, or higher archly that ‘controls’ the solders) this particular role is a main feature within ‘The Battle of Maldon’ perceiving the Angelo-Saxons as mighty and strong Warriors protecting the innocent against the ‘evil and foul’ Viking invaders. The reader can perceive this from the descriptive language used for the enemy.
For example the Vikings speech includes lots of ‘s’ sounds ‘send quickly sliver for safety’ this prolonged sound in the line provides an image of a slippery and slimy tongue – an ‘s’ sound is also the sound associated with snakes, which adds to the characters slimy voice. This contrast in language between the invaders or enemy and the fighters or ‘protectors’ shows the poets proud feelings for their people and king. Even though the Angelo-Saxons lost to the ‘ruthless’ Vikings they came over as the true heroes in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ against “Blood-wolves” (a kenning used to describe the invaders) making it seem that the Angelo-Saxons fought bravely against ruthless savages. A role that has been replayed and retold in many different types of war poetry- that the poet’s country is really the best whether they won or lost.
So the role of war poetry has been an ever-changing and constant thing, it’s been used for countless reason’s from every nation in the world since before Christ. Having looked into the meanings of the poetry above and what roles they played I was surprised by how the poets pen can be so powerful to people. How they have played there part in history to tell us the truth, or the facts or simply what they saw.