A dictionary definition of War is “a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties”. Whilst this definition is clear enough it does not come close to exploring the true meaning of war in terms of emotions and the effects of war on humanity as detailed throughout history by the poets. Wars prior to 1914 have inspired poets to record for posterity the grime hard facts of conflict and the impact on lives – “While ravens and kites peck at human entrails” (Li Po or Li Bai’s “Nefarious War”). Other poets have used war to stimulate their audience, maybe to take up arms “When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made” (Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), while others have used poetry to record glorious acts to maintain the memory and perhaps justify a past war – “So on they fought like a swirl of living fire” (Homer’s “The Iliad”) which remained only as a verbal record for centuries before it was written down.
The poems studied have explored the different aspects of war. From Homer’s “The Iliad” and his glorious description of Menelaus’ Finest Hour through to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s homage to courage and honour in his celebrated “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to Li Po’s “Nefarious War” this essay will explore how poets have considered the impact of war on humanity. This essay will touch on the simple rhythm of Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and narrative provided in another Walt Whitman’s elegy “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night I kept one night”. This essay will contrast the glory of a cavalry charge with Whitman’s crushing description of the degeneration of a bereaved mother in “Come up from the Fields Father”. This essay will consider how these poems compare across the range of emotion all of which humanity has experienced when war is declared, fought or concluded. This essay will also make reference on John Scott’s “The Drum”, comparing to the distaste for the different sounds of war.
Homer’s “The Iliad” is an epic poem telling the story of the Trojan War. It is set in a time where people considered the Gods to be all powerful and present in life influencing every aspect of human existence. The war referred to in “The Iliad” was the Trojan War fought between the Greeks and the Trojans in what is now mainland Turkey. The war took place in the 8th or 9th century BC. The epic poem concerned the famous story of the abduction of Helen of Troy by Paris and her husband, the Greek King Menelaus’ war to gain her back and destroy the city of Troy. The Greeks landed close to Troy and besieged the city for ten years. During these years a number of battles were fought and “The Iliad” provided a narrative of these engagements. One such episode describes the fight over the body Patroclus, a friend of Achilles, who had been killed by Hector, the Trojan hero. In describing the fight for Patroclus’ body Homer recalls the gods Ares, Athena and finally Zeus and compares the warriors efforts to those of the Gods “Not even Ares  , lasher of armies, not even Athena  Watching the battle here could scorn its fury” Homer demonstrates the supreme effort made to recover the body of a dead comrade. The use of anaphora here helps to highlight the colossal effort demonstrated during the conflict that not even the acts of Gods could compare. This comparison by Homer may have been a useful device in the context of the times in which the poem was retold – usually by travelling actors bringing stories to distant Greek villages, the comparison of effort to that of the Gods implies superhuman strength designed, no doubt, to inspire awe from the villagers. Therefore the “Iliad” can also be compared to a type of propaganda, not only to entertain the masses, but also to remind them that the men at arms in the service of the King were to be not only admired but feared; in this way showing an effect on humanity.
Homer sets a scene that is full of men grappling, fighting and straining. This titan like struggle contrasts with Whitman’s elegy “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night I kept on the field one night” where the author’s reflections on the after battle scene describe a quiet lonely place “Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night, But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed..” His use of long drawn sigh and repetition of “long” suggest time and space for reflection as opposed to the crowded feel of the combat in the Iliad. Further, Homer’s description of the environment “Fought on at their ease beneath a clear blue sky, Sharp brilliance of sunlight glittering round them, not a cloud in sight to shadow the earth and mountains. Men who fought at a distance worked with frequent breaks” suggest a sun scorched, hot sweating place where grit and dust mix with blood to create a fearsome scene. The imagery created would have been familiar to listeners who will have recognised such a hot eastern Mediterranean climate. Homer’s efforts to ensure his listeners recognition go some way to allowing empathy with the heroes in the poem. This narrative style contrasts with the short clipped verse in “The Drum”by John Scott which has an absence of any description of the environment in which the conflicts referred to take place.
In “The Iliad”, Homer sets the scene providing a background for the listener to connect with whereas Whitman’s poem has no intention or need for such description as his intention is dramatically different. In”The Drum”the environment has no relevance above the message that the pounding of the drum is the messenger of doom. Similarly, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman is being described by a tentative soldier; the soldier illustrates the hatred he obtains for this drum that is beating for the announcing of war breaking out. John Scott uses a very common poetic device in “The Drum”; he utilizes poetic meter to create the rhythm thus creating an echo of the drums. He uses iambic tetrameter as shown in the following quotation; “I hate that drums discordant sound/ parading round, and round, and round”. The pattern of the stressed and unstressed syllables (-/-/-/-/) conveys how the drum in the poem is being played. For Scott, the sound is hateful as it calls young men “to fight and fall in foreign lands”. In Whitman’s poem he writes using free verse, however, the heavy stresses on the syllables on the opening line also demonstrates the sound of the drum. This suggests the destructive nature of war on humanity. The use of onomatopoeia in “Beat! Beat! Drums!” also helps suggest this.
In Homer’s “The Iliad”, I feel as though Homer’s exploration on the effect of war on humanity is very clear. He shows the physically grueling experience of being on the battle field, with the gods as passive spectators. “The Iliad” includes a lot of references to the young men involved with battle; “Grim and grueling, relentless drenching labour, non stop”. Homer is making it clear through the use of alliteration, a list and negative words that these men are working very hard. This can be compared to the elegy “Come Up From The Fields Father”, as Whitman also shows the effect war has on young men. However, the two different poets have different ideas to put across to the reader. Homer wanted to show the benefits of the young fighting because of the enthusiastic approach revealed by them. Whitman wanted to show the negative effect of war on the young soldiers and their families. In the poem the family of the young soldier receives a letter that tells them he has been injured; “gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital”. The impact the letter has on the family is devastating and when the mother finds out that her “only son is dead”, she is so grief stricken that she wants to die.
The second ancient poem under consideration is Li Po’s “Nefarious War”. Li Po or Li Bai, the variation of Romanization of æŽç™½, was a poet who lived around 700 BC in imperial China. He was a famous poet who wrote many poems on varied subjects including war, love and wine. He was renowned for his ability to write without correction. His career was spent in the court of the Chin Dynasty  but he fell foul to court intrigue and eventually committed suicide. Li Po was not a soldier but in his “Nefarious War” the speaker is clearly a warrior, who talks of his weariness with conflict and his reflection on war’s impact. At the time of writing imperial China was engaged in continuous struggle to defend its borders against marauding tribes. The impact on its people was considerable. Given the vast size of China it was not possible to defend all the territory under the emperor and therefore much time was spent on the campaign where the armies would travel for years to combat warring hordes or tribes attempting to steal territory, people or possessions.
Po seems to suggest war is unavoidable. His first stanza describes locations of the campaigns “the head-stream of the Sang-kan”, “the Tsung-ho road”, “the waves of Chiao-chi lake” and the pastures “on Tien-shan’s snowy slopes”. This can be compared to Homer’s description of the plains of Troy where a specific battle is fought for a specific reason. Li Po provides no particular political reason for war other than the need for defense against a foe. “Nefarious War” suggests an unrelenting, grinding attrition where the defenders of the empire need to be ever watchful “Where the Chin emperor built the walls against the Tartars, There the defenders of Han are burning beacon fires. The beacon fires burn and never go out, There is no end to war” this signifying a constant state of alertness using alliteration to make the point “burning beacon fires./The beacon fires burn” where the use of “B” provides a harsh staccato and repetition provide a prelude to the final “There is no end to war” suggesting an exhausting vigil followed by the suggestion of lament that no end to the conflict is in sight. Due to the depressing language Po uses, one thought springs to mind, Po might well be making a plea for peace symptomatic of a need for rest from the ever present danger and the need for a constant watch. This can be contrasted to the battle being described by Homer, it is stated that the fighting is done in one place, not on a widespread scale.
Additionally, there are many references to the length of war, the fact that war goes on forever. Li Po describes the conflicts as “The long, long war goes on ten thousand miles from home. The repetition used here is very effective, it makes the reader feels the real expression of tedium made by speaker. Also, Po uses the repetition to link to the idea of the life of a warrior being boring; the mere fact that it is the same everyday and nothing changes. John Scott uses repetition in his poem “The Drum” with his reference to the troops parading “round, and round, and round”. This is similar to the repetition of “Long, long” which suggests that war has a negative effect on humanity.
Li Po goes on to describe the battlefield in his third stanza. “In the battlefield men grapple each other and die” provides a brief summary compared to Homer’s detailed description of the fight for Patroclus’ body. Li Po’s economy with words suggests a different view of war. Far from it being an illustrious fight between men for a reason (the recovery of Patroclus’ body) the empty, uselessness suggested in this opening line portray a futility. Li Po contrasts the leaders with the followers “So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass, and the generals have accomplished nothing”. Here it is the ordinary soldiers that do the dying whilst the generals who command the army achieve little by the efforts of their men. In “The Charge of the Light Brigade” Tennyson refers to this element of war with his “Not though the soldier knew, some one had blundered” where generals order the deaths of men under their command without thought. However Tennyson goes on to emphasis the heroism and dedication to duty displayed by the cavalry at Balaclava whereas Li Po’s reference to the men and horses dying merely reminds the reader of the impact of battle on them (“The horses of the vanquished utter lamentable cries to heaven”). This reminds us that the effect of war is not only on humanity, but on the animals. This can be therefore related back to Po’s point about the gravity of war and how it affects everyone, that it is inescapable and destructive
Li Po suggests a lot about the leaving of the bodies on the battle field. The mere fact of different birds of prey pecking at the “human entrails” explains to us that the dealing with human fatalities at this time was very poor. This image is repulsive – it is clear that they don’t even care what happens to the bodies due to the negative wording. However if you contrast this to Homer’s “The Iliad”, the fight for a hero’s body, such care and passion demonstrated in for the body of Patroclus and to ensure a proper burial. This is of course not the case for the bodies being described by Po. In Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night”, there are many references to a brother or very close friend relationship between the two comrades representing, on a general scale, the bond between soldiers at the time of the American Civil War. An interesting point is that if we compare “Nefarious War” with the perspective of “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”, it demonstrates the progression in concern for soldiers as human beings, over the centuries, with individual lives and families rather than just complete armies or unnamed bodies on the battlefield. At a point of interest, “The Iliad” and “Nefarious War” were written in different parts of the world; therefore this can be linked to the conflict that exists today. This is the clash of Western vs. Eastern culture; it can be interoperated that Homer was presenting the ethos of his people and Li Po doing the same. Both poets representing the way in which warfare is dealt in their culture.
Through out the range of poems that are being considered, there are aspects of soldiers joining in unity. Noticeably it is hardly used at all in “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”, as the idea that the poet wants to get across is the concept of the individual love and not of comrades showing unity. One may even sense an impression of ignorance, coming from the poet, of the soldiers’ feelings or of the terrible effects of the war-torn environment that surround them by focusing on one relationship and not the big picture. However, this is definitely not the case shown in “Nefarious War”; Po wants the widespread effects on humanity to be apparent while being read. “Last year we fought by the head-stream of the Sang-kan, this year we are fighting on the Tsung-ho road. We have washed our armor in the waves of Chiao-chi Lake; we have pastured our horses on Tien-shan’s snowy slopes”. The repetition of “we” in this context is an effective means of pulling in the reader and allowing Po to create unity between himself and his comrades. “We” is often used as a motivational device to form a community within a group; it is used to show equality from even the lowest ranked soldier fighting alongside to a King. In this case, Po is trying to present to the reader the universal suffering that is taking place. This can be contrasted, with great clarity, to “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”, by the author showing individual anguish instead of a collective misery.
Whilst the misery illustrated by Po throughout his poem does seem to distract from the actual descriptive nature of the war, his message should not be ignored – that war is a destructive force and nothing good comes out of it. However, it is worthy of note that Po’s exploration/description of war differs from Homer’s or Whitman’s. Whitman shows an energized approach towards war, as though, he is remembering action to happen, for example, “Beat! Beat! Drums!–Blow! Bugles! Blow! Through the windows–through doors–burst like a ruthless force”. This quotation demonstrates a real eruption of Whitman’s message here – that war is destructive, the explosive “B” alliteration articulated by Whitman shows us the genuine energy that war does in fact bring. In the first stanza of “Nefarious War”, the idea of fatigue is portrayed by Po with a thought of no hope, “armies [have] worn and grown old”. An automatic image that comes to mind when including such words as “old” and “worn” gives off the negative vibe intended by Po, it makes us imagine a withering army consisting of a few men. Consequently, Po intentionally illustrating the effects on humanity but especially the armed forces of the country.
In spite of this; Po uses a lot of active verbs in the third stanza, comparable to the energy in “The Iliad”. Po uses words such as “grapple” and “vanquish”. This can be compared to the violent words used by Homer. The image in our heads of men “hacking” the lines to pieces and the illustration of “both sides dragging the corpse”. These expressions are full of energy; they are the many of the violent cinematic imagery used by Homer to formulate the actual “being there” effect the poet wants the reader to experience. In addition to that point, Homer wanted to report the horror of the battle of Troy; as a consequence he uses much hyperbole to shock his audience. One of the very moving similes Homer uses to describe the fighting is the link to fire, relating the fighting as a “swirl of living fire”. The main descriptive word here is “fire”, which gives an impression of carnage and mayhem. This is exactly what Homer wants to create; he wants to explain to the reader what a hectic battle this truthfully is.
“Nefarious War” has a lot in common with another Whitman poem, “Come Up From the Fields Father”. This poem deals with the torment of war on humanity. It is about a letter arriving at a household in America reading that the son has a “gunshot wound to his breast”. This of course is devastating to the family. Whitman then focuses on the mother’s reaction, which is fainting going “Sickly white in the face” and consequently wishing to die when she discovers her son is dead. “Come Up From The Fields Father” can be compared to “Nefarious War” in that they both deal on the effect of war on humanity and the disturbance of the normal life. “While they stand at home at the door he is dead already, The only son is dead”. This quotation is adequate for what the author is trying to explain to the reader, the idea is linked back to what Po wants to get across, the suggestion of no hope. This image plays in our mind, the word “only” automatically creates an image of aloneness or “only one”, and this demonstrating the devastating effects that war has on family life therefore Whitman showing no amnesty towards war.
If you look at the different poetic devices used by Homer and Po, you will see that Homer uses a lot of enjambements to retain the flow of the action in the battle; In Nefarious War there is only one example of enjambment. An example from the illiad is; “Achaeans to drag him back to the hollow ships/ And round him always the brutal struggle raging.” It is worth noting how Homer wants the flow to stay fluent when being read; this is done by not using a comma at the end of the first line, “hollow ships”. Po wants to get the message through about the evils of war; he shows this by using negative poetic devices, such as sibilance. Sibilance comes from the Latin word meaning “hissing” the link to the ancient belief of a snake hissing; this being the link to evil. As in the bible, Satan disguised himself as a snake in the garden of evil. The representation of this is made by authors’ use of s, soft c, sh and z sounds. “So, men are scattered and smeared”. The annotation “smeared” is a very ugly word, it creates an automatic blood shed image, the hint of smearing blood on a sword. The concept of “men [being] scattered” is very potent to the reader, it creates a picture of a bomb shell hitting the battle field. This quotation is very clear in what Po wants you to get from his poem; he wants you to pick up on the evils of war, as shown by the use of sibilance. Po also wants you pick up on the effects of war on humanity, humanity being the men that have been “scattered and smeared”.
Po comes across as one of the normal men affected by the war participating in his country; he uses a first hand account, fabricating the struggle of the humanity in ancient China. After all, war affected the run of the mill man, not specially trained soldiers, the average farmer as hinted by Po; “The barbarian does man-slaughter, not plowing”. This completes Po’s message to the reader, the thought of war having an effect on not just humanity but the livelihood and the wellbeing of families. Thus Po intentionally showing the reader the detestable effects of war on the humanity in China at the time.
Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is an example of a war poem written for a purpose that to provide some useful propaganda and to understand this more fully the context surrounding the setting needs to be considered.The Crimean War (1853 to 1856) fought between the allied coalition (Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia) and Russia was the first large scale conflict to be covered by journalists as we understand it today. For the first time reports of battle could be cabled or returned by fast sloop back to London in time for newspaper runs. Accounts of the battle field by independent reporters shocked the home audience as the public became aware for the first time of the poor conditions of the fighting soldiers and the incompetent nature of the leadership.
The conflict surrounded Russia’s continual threat to the Ottoman Empire. Russia required a warm water port in the Mediterranean and provoked a war with Turkey over religious matters in Ottoman held Jerusalem. Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid and sent men and ships to the black sea to counter the Russian threat to the Bosphorus. At this period, Britain was at its most powerful with an empire stretching around the globe. British superiority in trade, manufacturing and sea power provided a sense of invincibility to the nation who supported the war. Technology had developed to enable telegraphic communications and photography and so it was possible for the conflict to be followed both in the written form and visually in much shorter timescales than ever before. Russell of “The Times” was the most noted correspondent.
The coalition forces had landed in the Crimea on the black sea and laid siege to Sevastopol, the main Russian port in the area. The coalition forces were thinly stretched through battle casualties but mainly through disease and poor sanitary conditions. In an attempt to raise the siege the Russian forces attacked the coalition flank at Balaklava. During this action there were three major events, the Highland soldier’s resistance to a Russian cavalry charge – the Thin Red Line – the Charge of the Heavy Brigade to repulse a further cavalry attack and the most famous of all, the Charge of the Light Brigade. The first two actions were fine examples of British soldiers led by their commanders beating the enemy when defeat looked certain, however it is the Charge of the Light Brigade that has become world famous for its pointlessness. Against all the accepted rules of warfare of the day, the British Light cavalry charged the main body of the Russian army due to a poorly worded order. Many men and horses were killed for no gain.
The Charge was reported by Russell and along with other reports of the poor handling of the war, public opinion turned against the conflict. Florence Nightingale famously intervened with the wounded and set up a hospital in Scutari. Questions were raised in parliament and long after the war ended there were concerns on all aspects of the handling of the war. It is against this backdrop that Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” must be considered. Like Homer, Tennyson had specific reasons for the construction of his poetry. The war had proved unpopular and as Poet Laureate, Tennyson may have been responding to the public attacks against the establishment by presenting the charge in its more favourable light. Tennyson emphasises this in his last three lines “Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!” He keeps this exaltation to the last to leave the reader in no doubt that whatever the reasons for the blunder the charge was an honorable thing.
Tennyson opens the account by recreating the rhythm of the horses cantering, “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward”. This is an example of dactylic meter with the last foot “onward” as trochaic. This use of meter helps to establish the prologue to the action – the cavalry steadily advancing on the enemy.
Tennyson takes the reader to the centre of the action, “Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them”, and “Stormed at with shot and shell”. This use of anaphora and alliteration simulates the effect of gun fire as the cavalry move down the valley. Tennyson provides this imagery to set the scene of the carnage the men faced. “Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell”. Here Tennyson tells us that despite the storm of lead these well trained disciplined soldiers kept going where perhaps others would have stopped. He raises this point earlier in the poem “Forward, the Light Brigade!’ Was there a man dismayed?” This seems at first a rhetorical question, however Tennyson quickly confirms the irrelevance of the question with “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die” in doing so he reminds the reader that the soldiers were there to do their duty and not question the intentions of their leaders. The repetition of “Theirs” is emphatic. It is not for the soldier to reply to an order neither is it to try to fathom the intricacies of military tactics, their job was to follow orders and perhaps die in the process. Tennyson is reminding the audience of the nature of soldiering and warfare.
The first three stanzas deal with the approach, the fourth addresses the action at the guns while the fifth describes the return of the Light Brigade. Tennyson repeats his use of alliteration here again Stormed at with shot and shell to remind the reader that the cavalry was under fire both in to action and homeward bound.
Against a backdrop of criticism of the war Tennyson is reminding the reader throughout that the action was to be admired “When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered.” Here reminding the reader that through the action Britain remains admired. This contrasts with Li Po’s Nefarious War that has none of the elements of message contained within Charge of the Light Brigade. Li Po’s poem is at its heart anti war; “So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass, And the generals have accomplished nothing” suggests the absolute pointless waste of human life by the soldiers’, leaders. In contrast Tennyson’s only reference to the poor leadership of the war was “Not though the soldier knew, Someone had blundered”
Tennyson’s assertion that some good came out of the action exampled by the splendid military precision displayed by the cavalry “Boldly they rode and well” and “Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air” suggesting military discipline and prowess, this contrasts with Scott’s “The Drum”- “I hate that drum’s discordant sound, Parading round, and round, and round” the repetition of round provides an imagery of pointless drilling of soldiers undergoing repetitive tasks for no apparent reason.
In conclusion, the range of poems and poets that I have included in my study have expressed the full range of emotions and views from the heroic to the wastefulness of war but, ultimately, all have provided a graphic portrayal of the effect of war on humanity. Of the main poets that I have concentrated on, Homer and Tennyson focus on the energy of war and portray human sacrifice as the ultimate in. In contrast, Po wants to inform people of the terrors of war in order that humanity will learn from the terrible deaths of the war-torn and not have wars in the future. While Po has more of a wide-reaching message, probably aimed at a more at a high political level, Whitman similarly portrays war as wasteful, he concentrates on the more personal, everyman loss that soldiers’ deaths have on families back home. Finally, John Scott’s poem, “The Drum” portrays the initial bravado and excitement that war can incite in both soldiers and the people at home, but ends with the brutal realities of the “mangled limbs, and dying groans, And widow’s tears, and orphans’ moans, And all that Misery’s hand bestows”, that demonstrate the truly awful effects of war on humanity, which are perfectly summed up by Benjamin Franklin (1706 -1790), “There never was a good war or a bad peace”.
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