How a variety of Pre-1914 poets treat the theme of war
In this essay, I will focus upon the attitudes people held towards war in the pre 1914 era by studying the language and cultural context used over a number of poems. The poems I will be examining are: The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna by Charles Wolfe, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night, by Walt Whitman, Before Agincourt, by William Shakespeare, and Henry V at the Siege of Harfleur, also by William Shakespeare. There are a number of conflicting views represented in this essay.
War around the time of 1914 was looked upon as a number of things, e. g. a sport, noble and honourable, and war itself was generally very glorified, meaning most people around this time felt very patriotic to the idea of war. This theme is represented in a number of the poems that will be examined in this essay, and each poem will each be looked at in turn. The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna is written using a basic A B A B rhyming scheme. The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna shows these views, of glory, and heroism.
The poem is about Sir John Moore, a fallen soldier, being buried after a battle. We get the impression straight away he is of some nobility by his title of ‘sir’, and that he has had a poem written about him. You also see the view of him being a hero, as at the end of the poem, it says that they ‘left him alone with his glory’ showing him in a glorified way. It also says in start of the poem: ‘our hero we buried’, showing that he was a hero; further portraying the view held that war was very noble.
The poem also says where Sir John died was ‘the field of his fame’ showing that dying in a war made you a hero, further showing the portrayal of heroicness. The poem itself is about the British having to retreat to the port of Corunna, but the poem does not mention anything of retreating, or of how John Moore was the soldier’s captain, as this would probably lose the image of Britain winning this war against Napoleon. From this we learn that Britain was very patriotic around this time, as it does not want to show the image of Britain ‘losing’ a war.
This poem also features the death of a fellow solider, meaning Wolfe may not feel too warmly towards war. He also represents this feeling of distaste to the war, as even during the funeral of a friend they are said to have ‘bitterly thought of the morrow’ meaning they are already thinking about the next day when they shall carry on fighting, even though their captain has fallen, when normally this would call for some sort of grievance, but the enemy is awaiting further battle ‘the foe was sullenly firing’.
You also get the impression that war in this time was regarded as something which made you a hero, as John Moore has died during the war, and has had a poem written about him. Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night is about the death of the narrators son. We can assume the narrator is a soldier on the battlefield himself, as he uses the term ‘my comrade’ meaning he was also in the battle, and we can assume that the deceased is the narrators son, as he uses terms such as ‘boy’ and ‘son’.
This poem shows war in a ‘bad’ light; it does this by showing how a battle can tear apart the extremely strong relationship between father and son. The poem also shows war as a bad thing by characterizing the war with darkness, e. g. ‘the battlefield dim’ and also saying the boys face could only been seen in the light of the stars (‘your face in the starlight’). This poem shows Whitman has distaste toward War, which is represented by comparing the war with darkness, and showing how it can tear apart people so close (the father and son).
However, the poem also shows the father gaining in hope, and finally letting go, as he ‘buried him where he fell’. This shows how that hope can overcome such bloodshed and loss. It does this by showing how the battle progresses, as the sun rises – ‘the dawn appeared’ – and the father overcomes his son’s death with acceptance, saying ‘I think we shall surely meet again’. The poem also represents the bravery of soldiers, as is common of this era, as it depicts a father fighting on in a battle despite feeling the urge to rush to his fallen son’s side.
The extract Before Agincourt by William Shakespeare mainly depicts King Henry rallying his troops as they are about to proceed into war, outnumbered, it is estimated, by roughly one Englishman to as many as four or five Frenchman. Here we see Shakespeare’s attitude held toward the war. He writes through the character of King Henry, and shows the usual opinion shown to war in this time: a view full of patriotism, which speaks of extreme bravery, and a large amount of honour.
Shakespeare shows his view of extreme patriotism, as he writes Henry as saying ‘If we are mark’d to die, we are enow to do our country loss’, meaning if they are meant to die, they should indeed die for their country. Shakespeare also speaks of war as being full of honour, saying ‘the fewer men, the greater share of honour’ meaning the men remaining alive will have a greater amount of honour, also showing that participating in a war will gain you honour, a very typical view held by most before 1914. Also, Henry is written by Shakespeare to say ‘if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive’.
This shows that most people around this time would be fighting for honour, showing how war was regarded around this time. He also says fighting for his country is an honour – ‘I would not lose so great an honour’ – again showing patriotism. He also says that those who survive will remember this day, and be proud, showing the view held by people of this era towards the theme of war. Henry also says that people will be jealous of them for fighting at Agincourt after the battle, saying men at home, when the subject of Agincourt arises will ‘hold their manhood’s cheap’.
He also shows the view of war being a thing of brotherhood and honour, by saying ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ as this shows they are happy to fight alongside each other for their country. This poem shows the willingness of people to go to war at this and fight for honour and their country. Shakespeare however, may not actually have held this view, and may have merely been writing it from the point of view of Henry V, as a sort of homage to the current monarchs.
Henry V at the Siege of Harfleur shows the narrator – presumably Henry V – encouraging forces before the attack on Harfleur. Shakespeare here in this extract again glorifies war through poetry, and through Henry V, by using patriotism to stir up his men for the battle, which would have appealed to these people at the time, as they held these patriotic views. Henry calls them ‘Noblest English,’, and addressed them as ‘yeomen, whose limbs were made in England,’ to make them feel more patriotic to their own countries, and says ‘show us here… hat you are worth your breeding’ showing that the English were held in very high esteem, showing strong patriotism, and this would have certainly appealed to the Englishmen fighting.
Henry also reminds the English of their great ancestors ‘fathers like so many Alexanders’ saying their ancestors were great, meaning the English would want to live up to this high stature. He also tells them they are better than the French: ‘men of grosser blood’. He also tells them ‘dishonour not your mothers’ meaning they are fighting for their honour, further showing the theme of honour many held towards war in this era before 1914.
The extract also says ‘the games afoot’ meaning the war is almost upon them, and referring to such a thing as War as a game shows how some may have regarded war as a sort of sport. At the end of the extract also the soldiers are said to be ‘like greyhounds waiting in the slips, straining upon the start’ meaning they are very eager to go, showing their attitude toward war. Shakespeare here writes Henry calling on the men’s animal instincts to get into a sort of frenzy saying ‘imitate the action of the tiger’.
In this extract however Henry is shown to say that peace is better than war in some instances: ‘In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility’, showing that Shakespeare may not just be aiming to glorify war, and portray it as a sport. Shakespeare here also may not be showing his opinion at all, but merely writing this for the current monarch of this time. This poem uses a lot of powerful imagery, such as plosives, using a lot of B’s and P’s to create an image. The Charge of the Light Brigade is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Cavalry Charge during the Crimean War in the Battle if Balaclava.
The charge consisted of some 671 cavalry, though in the poem they are deemed simply ‘the six hundred’. The ‘six hundred’ charged into what was known as the ‘Valley of Death’ comprising of around 50 artillery belonging to the Russians, with the artillery facing in toward the valley in three straight rows from three separate sides. This meant any enemy who ventured into the valley faced almost certain death, as is shown in the poem. The poem shows the extreme courage and bravery of the six hundred, who essentially were riding to their death’s.
The poem shows bravery and courage as in the first stanza there is someone – supposedly a general – shouting ‘Charge for the guns! ‘ this shows they are extremely brave to be charging into near certain death. The charge was based upon a blunder in orders and in the poem says ‘Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. ‘ The poem also goes on to say ‘Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’ This shows how soldiers followed orders no matter what, even though someone may have known there was a problem in what they were doing: ‘Was there a man dismayed? but they were too courageous and possibly too set on winning glory, as was usual for this era, to say that something was wrong. The poem also shows bravery as they are riding into a place known as the Valley of Death, so they must know they will most likely not make it back. Tennyson uses verbs at the beginnings of lines to show how much action is taking place during this battle, showing a lot is going on. He also uses alliteration ‘saber stroke, shattered and sundered’ and ‘stormed at with shot and shell’ which further creates a high sense of drama during the charge.
Exclamation marks here also inject drama. Tennyson uses continuous repetition to create a kind of military drum roll as it is a military poem. Tennyson also uses false rhyme of blundered, hundred, thundered and sundered here, most likely to represent the blunder made that caused the charge. This shows that Tennyson has a negative feeling towards this battle. He later however deems the six hundred as ‘noble’ showing they are brave. Tennyson also uses the rhetorical question ‘when can their glory fade? showing they gained glory from this battle, showing that war was regarded in this time to bestow the participators of the war with glory. It also says in the last stanza to honour the six hundred, further showing the view that war was a thing of honour. From these poems examined, you learn that War was treated in most eras before the change that came with 1914 as something of a sport, that was full of honour, and glory, and filled with bravery and courageous acts, and to a large extent, a lot of patriotism, with a large number of people willing to die for their country.