War poetry brings history to life by telling us both the private and public thoughts of men and women who have experienced conflict between nations or indeed within nations. War poetry is among the most striking, touching and moving of all poetry. I have tried to choose my poems carefully to show both the glory and the horror of war along with its consequences, both direct and indirect. The war poem, which I am first going to explore, is ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ by Alfred Tennyson. The poem is based around the Crimean war 1854-6.
It focuses on the disastrous charge of the light brigade. This charge is the best-known example of the heroism and stupidity of war. Over 400 men died or were wounded because of a blunder in the ranks. However it is not the soldiers position to question their orders ” Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” A famous quote which perfectly sums up the soldiers position. Tennyson, in his poem stands back to offer general comment on an epic moment of war, and to honour and glorify the deceased soldiers; “Noble… Honour… glory… ”
The entire poem is onomatopoeic. This is especially evident in the four lines starting ” Cannon to the right of them” which has a beating, galloping rhythm imitating the galloping motions of the British soldiers on their horses charging toward the Russian guns. Tennyson uses an image “Into the jaws of death” to help us imagine both the landscape and the utter stupidity of the attack. In verses 1-3 the charge itself is being described and there are striking images of the outward curve of the attack and the movement of the horses ” Volleyed and thundered”
Verse four is especially interesting, as this is when the brigade reaches the Russian guns and attack with sabres against the massively powerful Russian weapons. It is here that Tennyson perfectly captures the glamour of war without the horror of bloodshed. ” Reeled from the sabre-stroke Shattered and sundered” Verse 6 is where Tennyson stands back from the event to offer comment on this epic battle.
He disagrees with a French general who watched the charge and described it as “folly” He emphasizes the bravery and honour of the men who fought and died in the charge by again using the words glory and noble: When can their glory fade… Honour the charge they made” I think that Tennyson’s attitude towards the dead men is one of pity towards them, but he also feels that what they did was heroic and should be remembered and honored. Walt Whitman’s ” Come up from the Fields Father” deals with the effects of a single war death on an Ohio farming family- their dead son Pete was fighting on the northern side in the American civil war. The poem is narrative and uses free verse, which proves to be effective.
Walt Whitman was a war enthusiast when the American civil war broke out in 1861, his first war poems reflect the general excitement about the conflict in the North American cities. However, as time moved on after he worked as a ‘wound dresser’ in hospitals and after his younger brother was wounded in the war he wrote of the suffering and pity of war in his later poems. Whitman changed his ideas on war since he wrote Beat! Beat! Drums! Now he contrasts peace and war- and sees the pathos and waste of the destruction of individuals in battle.
In “Come up from the fields father” a letter from the front tells an Ohio family of the bad news about their son Pete. In verses 1-5 Whitman uses vivid descriptive phrases, adjectives and verbs to describe the richness and fertility of the Ohio countryside around the family farm “Cool, fluttering, wondrous, beautiful, ripe, grapes, calm, vital, prospers, green” Whitman first writes about the beauties of the farm, the landscape and the sky to bitterly contrast this peaceful atmosphere with the suffering and terror brought on by war in the rest of the poem.
Verse five onwards describes the arrival of the letter and the sadness and terror it brings upon the household. Whitman focuses especially on the mother’s reaction to her son’s death. He uses words such as: “Black… fitful… waking… weeping… longing…. Silent … dead” To movingly show the effects of Pete’s death on his mother. He also chooses to use short sentences and a lot of punctuation here to create the effect of shock and nervousness in the mother. Whitman adds a bitter twist in that the letter said, ” Pete will soon be better” but: ” The only son is dead”.
Pete has died while the letter was making its way to the family. The news is, apart from obvious personal affections, so devastating on the family, especially the parents, because Pete is the only son and would have been expected to carry on the running of the farm after his parent’s retired/died. To conclude, Whitman shows the terror and horror of war in his poem as well as the effects of war and its consequences on the families of the brave soldiers who fought for their country often without much say in the matter and at a young age like Pete.
However, Tennyson chooses to show the glamour, honor, the obvious stupidity of war along with showing us how one mans blunder can cause so much suffering and also the inevitable chaos and bloodshed of war. In ways the two poems show us different faces of war and so are different but they are similar in that they both show the terror and suffering of war to us. Both poems, however, capture war along with its sufferings, consequences and splendor and show them to us in unique and special ways and so are both therefore valuable and interesting and most importantly of all enjoyable yet moving to read.