The Poets

February 09, 2016

Southey's War

There's nothing more horrifying to me than war. That we have it 'in us' to slaughter each other by the billions, without compunction, and with such derelict indifference, is something so unbelievable to me that I've literally caught myself doubting whether warfare ever happens at all- no exaggeration. And yet, to my own dismay- because I find the subject so indelibly intriguing, even mystifying and sometimes morally imperative- I find myself steeped in scruples about it.

I purchased The New Oxford Book of War Poetry recently, and the first poem I flipped to was Robert Southey'sThe Battle of Blenheima poem lauded in England as an anti-war poem ... and yet Southey isn't exactly an anti-war poet like, say, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen (the two of whom, by the way, were soldiers in a war much more brutal than that of Blenheim). 

Byron couldn't peg Southey either. On the one hand, The Battle of Blenheim seems to detest the indifference we have when it comes to the carnage war brings, and yet in another poem of his, The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo, our poet seems to lend a sort of homage it. According to Wikipedia, "By 1820, however, Southey had changed his mind about the Battle [of Blenheim], describing it instead as the most brilliant moment in British arms." And yet, again, The Battle of Blenheim, written in 1796, implicitly, if not directly, condemns the apathetic attitude we have about war.

And so I find myself somewhat akin to Southey's ebb and flow on the topic of warfare, and its aftermath. 

Summary of the Poem

In Southey's poem an old man sits in front of his cottage with his granddaughter as the two watch her brother play by a stream. The brother finds something large and round, which he brings to his grandfather. Turns out, the boy found a human skull. The grandfather, Kaspar, tells young Peterkin that he finds these all the time, sometimes even turns up bones out of the ground when he ploughs. He goes on to explain that there was a great battle in the area between the English and the French, and that many lives were lost- even innocent women and children- but that the battle was nevertheless a great victory. Astonished, the grandson inquires into the reason for the battle, and the grandfather, cognizant only of the great victory and not of the thousands of lives lost, admits that he has absolutely no idea why the bloodshed occurred ... hence the poem's polemic on war as a seemingly unnecessary and unfortunate reality (not to mention our indifference towards it). Below, the poem in its entirety.  

The Poem

The Battle of Blenheim

It was a summer evening,
    Old Kaspar's work was done;
And he before his cottage door
    Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
    Roll something large and round,
That he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy
    Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
    And with a natural sigh,
'Tis some poor fellow's scull, said he,
Who fell in the great victory.

I find them in the garden, for
    There's many here about,
And often when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out;
For many thousand men, said he,
Were slain in the great victory.
Now tell us what 'twas all about,
    Young Peterkin he cries,
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
Now tell us all about the war,
And what they kill'd each other for.
It was the English, Kaspar cried,
    That put the French to rout;
But what they kill'd each other for,
    I could not well make out.
But every body said, quoth he,
That 'twas a famous victory.
My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by,
They burnt his dwelling to the ground
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
With fire and sword the country round
    Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born infant died.
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won,
For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that you know must be
After a famous victory.
Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.—
Why 'twas a very wicked thing!
    Said little Wilhelmine.
Nay—nay—my little girl, quoth he,
It was a famous victory.
And every body praised the Duke
    Who such a fight did win.
But what good came of it at last?—
    Quoth little Peterkin.
Why that I cannot tell, said he,
But 'twas a famous victory.

Of the Poem (A Few Notes)

It's not often that we happen upon human skulls or bones in our lives. In the poem, Kaspar has seen many of these, and is quite aware why- the result of a large battle where many thousand men were slain. His outlook on this, and on the aftermath of the battle, seems one of indifference and a sort of 'these things happen' attitude. He's repeatedly justifying or maybe even ignoring the carnage and loss of human life from the perspective of victory, as if the loss of human life through warfare was a normal condition of human existence:

And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born infant died.
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory

Or again, in stanza IX:

For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that you know must be
After a famous victory

Amazingly, Kaspar even glosses over that fact that his own father and mother were directly affected by this war, that as he was a child his parents had to flee for their lives because their home and the town they lived in was set aflame- his parents essentially becoming refugees ... yet still, as Kaspar's refrain declares, "things like that, you know, must be." 

My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by,
They burnt his dwelling to the ground
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

Perhaps the poem isn't solely a diatribe against war and our indifference towards it- perhaps it tacitly condemns our affection for vengeance.  I suggest this because it's strange to me that Kaspar knows the finest details of his parent's plight, but claims to know nothing at all about the cause of the conflict, which makes me wonder if his parents might have died as a result of it, and that as a result of deep-seated resentment he praises the routing and slaughter of the French by the English, not caring at all for the reason or 'why' of the war.

To be clear, the battle Southey refers to actually happened historically. In 1704, as the result of a long and drawn out power-struggle with France and Bavaria, Austria and England eventually, and essentially, massacred their enemy. 20 to 40,000 French soldiers lost their lives there by the Danube during this conflict- this compared to a mere (mere?) 5 to 6,000 lives of allied Austrian and English forces (this doesn't include civilian casualties and displacement, by the way, which are almost always higher). 

What I'm saying is that this poem doesn't just center around a story with fictional characters that we can just forget about when we're done reading it- no, real individual humans, thousands upon thousands, actually lost their lives over a conflict that our poet's narrator seems to care nothing about. 

Interestingly, we have the perspective of Kaspar's grandchildren, young Wilhelmine and her brother Peterkin. Horrified would be too strong a word to use, but they were no doubt deeply astonished that events like these occur. Warfare? Young Peterkin didn't even know that what he was playing with was a human skull (he came to ask what he had found, the poem declares). The concept of death itself seemed completely foreign to these children, much less that we inflict this eventuality on each other wholesale! 

Wilhelmine and Peterkin, eager to understand what happened here, and why they were handling a human skull, seemed naturally repulsed by the notion of war. In fact, if Southey's poem directly condemns the idea of war, it's from the perspective of Kaspar's grandchildren. 

The kids didn't care at all about the victory, but rather why such an event could even be possible. Peterkin asks repeatedly in perplexed desperation: Now tell us what 'twas all about ... tell us all about the war / And what they kill'd each other for

Wilhelmine, who seems to be the younger of the grandchildren, without prejudice outright condemns the notion of war, of such tremendous loss of life, and of the suffering of women and children.

Why 'twas a very wicked thing!
    Said little Wilhelmine.

One recalls the phrase: From the mouth of babes ... 

There are so many angles that one can take regarding the anti-war polemics this poem endorses (whether Southey is for or against war), way too many for me to cover here at this time. Still, I'm in scruples. Sometimes some wars seem imperative, and yet, at other times (most times), one of the most despicable evils that we have brought upon ourselves.

You tell me ... 

As of April 9th, 2010