War poems

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In this piece of coursework I will be focusing on poetry depicting the sufferings and repercussions of war. The poems I have chosen are based upon the Boer War (1899-1902), and the American Civil War (1861-65). They concentrate on victims of war, thousands o miles from the battlefield, and how the stupidity of the ordeal can draw in innocent casualties. The first poem which I feel portrays the off-field victims of war is ‘Come up from the Fields Father’ by Walt Whitman. After working in the Civil War as a ‘wound dresser’ Whitman soon lost his enthusiasm for the war.

Here he writes imaginatively about the effects of war on a farming family, who receive a letter from their son, whom will inherit the land one day. The first few stanzas illustrate the peaceful and picturesque Ohio countryside. Brimming with verbs and adjectives such as ‘cool’, ‘sweeten’ ‘vital’, ‘ripe’, ‘deeper green’, ‘yellower’ and ‘redder’. This lulls us into a false sense of tranquillity. ‘the farm prospers well’ and ‘down in the fields all prospers well’ this shows us that the farm is doing well, al ready for the son to take it over when he returns from the fighting.

But this letter arrives. Whitman uses use this word, ‘but’ to change from the tranquillity to panic and anxiety. With the mother ‘her steps trembling’ she is flooded with fear, and what the words in the letter may tell of. She opens the mail hastily; noticing at first it is not in her dear son’s handwriting, although his name is signed. ‘All swims before her eyes’ showing us she is reading the letter so quickly it blurs through her brain, only picking the main details- ‘flashes of black’ are taken in.

Only catching the main words ‘gunshot wound to breast’, taken to hospital’, ‘at present low but will soon be better. Whitman’s cruel twist, the brothers and sisters of late Pete thought he would be better, but his mother knew as they stood on the doorstep of their Ohio abode, their beloved son was dead, thousands of miles away. In actual fact, Pete ‘would’ be better. Anything would have been better then lying, bleeding to death on a war hospital bed, including death. Possibly the biggest effect of Pete’s death was not that there was no inheritant of the farm, but on their mother.

By day her meals untouch’d’, ‘at night fitfully sleeping’ and ‘withdraw unnoticed’. Alas, there may be only one cure to her insanity- ‘to follow, to seek, to be with her dead soon’. He is in the afterlife, and whether she is prepared to face it or not, it is the only way she can be with her son. The second poem which I feel shows suffering and stupidity of war is ‘Drummer Hodge’ by Thomas Hardy. Born near Dorchester, he made his locality famous with his poems. He wrote many a fine novel and short story, notably “Far From the Madding Crowd” published in 1974, his breakthrough writing.

In 1899 he watched troops bound for South Africa, and wrote a sequence of Bore War poems, outstanding for their insight and empathy. In his local Dorset newspaper, Hardy read of the death of a drummer boy born in a village near Dorchester. He decided to utilise the objective ‘Hodge’ (meaning a country bumpkin) to express in his poem the sadness of a boy, too young to understand war, buried thousands of miles from home on an alien landscape. The forceful words ‘throw in’, ‘uncoffined’ and even ‘they’ convey the coldness of the burial.

Too time-consuming to ceremonially lay to rest each corpse they are tossed in ‘just as found’. This emphasises the cruel treatment Hodge, who never understood the battle for ‘the broad Karoo’, the dry uplands of South Africa. By using the native words, also ‘Veldt’ and ‘Kopje-crest’ he assists the harsh realism of the poem, and the fact of the alien words being used. It also illustrates a clearer picture of what he is attempting to convey. Harvey finds Hodge’s death more strange than tragic, simply because he didn’t know what he was in for, whilst most military servers did.

By ‘his homely breast and brain Grow to some southern tree’ Hardy is telling us how the young boy, born in the young boy, born in the north of England, thousands of miles from the fighting is now feeding the roots of a Southern tree’. Another Boer War poem, also composed by Hardy is ‘A wife in London’. It describes a lonely woman waiting nervously for news of her husband fighting in South Africa, known in the poem as ‘the far southern land’. As the dulled, damp description of the woman suggests her thoughts are with her husband- thousands of miles away.

She hears at last the cracks of the messages knock. She skims the writings like that of the mother in ‘Come up From the fields Father. ‘Flashed news in her hand of meaning it dozes to understand’ and then comes the decisive line, ‘he-has-fallen-in the far southern land. Hardy amplifies the distance between the couple with the phrase ‘far south land’, meaning South Africa. The twist of fate posed in the story is that from the simple message, the wife believes that her husband is already dead, although he is very much alive, unable to escape from the hospital.

This shows how you can be a victim of war and it’s repercussion, thousands of miles form the fighting. War is an immensely effective event, whether it be at the time of the fighting or hundreds of years after. It is recorded across many media, from books to film, songs to poems, beautiful detailed pictures, and simple but genius cartoons. This selection proves to us not only that war effects people all over, but that it can be recorded just as accurately, if not more, in words than film and lines, almost as good as witnessing the horror with your own eyes.

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