Saturday, 7 April 2012

Bayonet Charge

Ted Hughes once said in an interview 'when I first started writing I wrote again and again and again about the first world war', an engagement shaped partly by his admiration for poets like Wilfred Owen, partly by his father's experiences in the war at Gallipoli, and partly, according to his own report, by the West Yorkshire countryside of his childhood, which he reported as 'in mourning for the first world war'. You can read a fuller account of Hughes's engagement with the war in Fighting Back Over The Same Ground: Ted Hughes and War, but for the moment it is enough to know just that at the start of his writing career, he experimented a lot with this kind of pseudo war-poetry, living himself into the role of a WW1 soldier. I call it pseudo war poetry because although it imitates quite well the poetry of masters like Owen and Sassoon, it does not have that edge that the poetry borne out of real experience seems to have--something Hughes himself later came to admit.

The poem is in three stanzas, the first and last of eight lines, and the second of seven. This unevenness is emphasised by the enjambement between stanzas, which the punctuation (particularly the parenthetical dashes of lines 8 and 9) emphasises. The lines vary in length but are about ten syllables long, with little regularity of metre or length, something that adds to the colloquial feel of the speaking voice, the poet seeming to recount a dream or a nightmare-like experience, as though caught in mid-account.

Just like 'Belfast Confetti', this poem starts with the adverb 'suddenly'--and in the same way, this gives us the impression that we are plunged into the middle of the action that it describes. The poem is full of participles: 'running.. stumbling... hearing... smacking... sweating' that give it a sense of pace and purpose. we are dragged out of the past tense 'awoke.. was running' into what seems like the present action 'stumbling', enacting the confusion of the central character in the poem.

The 'raw' experience of the protagonist and the 'raw-seamed hot khaki' link together the new recruit and his uncomfortable clothes and the sharpness of his awakening until we are uncertain as to whether this is a real experience or not. The enjambement between line 1 and 2 emphasises the word 'raw' and brings to it the added sense of hurt or vulnerability. He seem literally weighed down by sweat, the wordplay here on 'heavy' suggesting that his fear and effort is a physical weight upon him. The object of the charge is paradoxically pictured as beautiful-'a green hedge / that dazzled'  suggests that he is attracted to it, the following 'with rifle fire' almost creating a sense of bathos as we--with him--realise the danger it represents.

The semantic field of the body resonates throughout the poem, but it is represented by inanimate things that are personified--the 'bullets smacking the belly out of the air', the rifle 'numb as a smashed arm', these imagined injuries making the man in the midst of it seem almost invulnerable by comparison, though the wounds suggested do present a dark threat of what may be in store for him. The 'patriotic tear' of line 7 might remind us of the patriotism in 'Flag' or perhaps 'next to of course god america i' or 'the Charge of the Light Brigade'. Here, it is transformed into an industrial weight of 'molten iron', the machine-like image reinforcing the unnaturalness of the experience of the charge, and the effort it represents. The 'catch in the throat' of tears here becomes the real pain of breathing heavily when running, the pain 'like molten iron' as Hughes uses hyperbole to get his point across.

In stanza two, the transformation of patriotism to pain seems to impel the hesitation of the man 'in bewilderment then'. The forces propelling him--presumably states, government--are seen as 'cold clockwork'; both fate and powers simply beyond his control. He is seen as the moving hand that the clockwork causes to act 'pointing that second', but the self-questioning causes him (unlike the soldiers Tennyson describes) to pause. He seems to see himself at this moment, running like someone who has been awakened out of fear, 'jumped up in the dark' (here surely a symbolic dark--he has run into the battle without questioning what he is fighting for) and is 'listening between his footfalls for the reason'. The image suggests someone who is being chased, and of course he is not being chased, but has simply started to charge, he is the one running towards the guns--and this makes him pause. again he seems like something inanimate, a statue, frozen in movement while he thinks about what he is doing. The strong caesura in the middle of line 15 emphasises this pause, as does the shorter stanza.

The poem sets off again with the strongly sibilant line 'then the shot-slashed furrows/ threw up a yellow hare'. The hare--traditionally a swift-moving animal who could easily outrun a man--is here passive, 'thrown up' by the earth, and instead of running, it 'rolled like a flame / And crawled in a threshing circle'. Against the 'clods' of the field across which the soldier runs, it seems brightly coloured (like the green hedge--or like the flame it resembles in movement?) and yellow (Hares are usually a light brown colour--but this hare may be more the colour of a golden Labrador) It seems to be clearly injured, the word 'threshing' particularly suggesting its pain, but it is silent, and the horrible silent scream suggested by 'its mouth wide/ Open silent' seems to foretell the soldier's fate if he stays still. Hares often rely on their colour to camouflage them against predators, and will therefore lie still in fields unless disturbed,when they run in their characteristically zig-zag fashion to elude pursuit (like a soldier trying to dodge bullets, one might think). Have a look at this clip of hares being hunted by golden eagles (don't worry, the hares escape) to get an idea of how fast they can go. For Hughes (and more importantly, for the soldier he is writing about ) a running hare like this would have been a familiar sight--the hare wounded and thrashing about on the ground, would have been a very vivid reminder of what injury you could get by staying still.

In the final stanza, the soldier moves again: 'plunged past' the hare. The very 'plunged' here reminds us perhaps of the gassed soldier in 'Dulce and Decorum Est'-- 'he plunges at me', but more powerfully--as does this whole poem--reminds me of Owen's poem 'Spring Offensive'.  This poem has also the grass and the attractiveness of the green along which men race 'exposed'--and also describes how they 'plunged' toward death and how they 'crawled' back--well worth a read to really see where Hughes was coming from.
Hughes here describes how the soldier drops everything--like someone running for their life would drop 'luxuries', he here drops 'King, honour, human dignity'--in other words, drops that 'brimming tear' of patriotism. Abstractions here seem like real possessions, abandoned in the face of reality. Here, finally, only 'alarm' fuels his run, like the hare running from hounds. The final image of the poem suggesting how the air becomes electric, his terror like a bomb about to explode, the vivid 'blue' like the earlier 'yellow' and 'green' seeming to sharpen the image.

The poem actually ends with this panic, the 'terror's touchy dynamite' crackling and about to go off--like the start of the poem, it seems abrupt, as though we have seen just a section of an experience, perhaps only partly understood. For an interesting reading of the poem, look at Tim Kendall's War Poetry blog. Despite his unkind words about the anthology, or perhaps because of them, he makes some good points about this poem.


  1. Interesting that it is a 'threshing circle', implying harvest, new life etc. but reminds us of thrashing by the word choice

  2. Thank you so much for uploading this! I am 14 and am studying this for my GCSE ENGLISH exam in 2017, thank you so so so much for uplaoding this!