Friday, May 15, 2015

Horrifying or happy? Grenfell's "Into Battle"

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In Poetry of the First World War,  Tim Kendell describes "Into Battle" as "one of the finest and most problematic poems of the war," (108), while John Stallworthy in Anthem for Doomed Youth writes, "This is in many ways a horrifying poem" (27). 

"Into Battle" is difficult for modern readers because it is that rare thing -- a"happy" war poem.  Grenfell's verse celebrates war, and in the tradition of ancient Greek poetry such as The Iliad, it finds beauty, glory, and meaning in fighting, killing, and dying. 

Into Battle*
(Flanders, April 1915)

The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after death.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship,
The Dog-Star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion's Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend,
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridges' end.

The kestrel hovering by day
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, “Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Brother, sing.”

In dreary, doubtful, wailing hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only Joy of Battle takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Praising war, the poem asserts that fighting and dying in battle give life purpose and meaning.  It paradoxically argues that choosing to fight is choosing to live, while "he is dead who will not fight." In this, Grenfell's work recollects Tennyson's "Ulysses," the hero who laments, "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" and who longs for the days when once he had "drunk delight of battle with my peers/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy."

Writing home from the Western Front, Grenfell said of his battle experiences, "It is all the most wonderful fun; better fun than one could ever imagine.  I hope it goes on a nice long time; pig-sticking will be the only possible pursuit after this, or one will die of sheer ennui.  The first time one shoots at a man one has the feeling of 'never point a loaded gun at anyone, even in fun,' but very soon it gets like shooting a crocodile, only more exciting, because he shoots back at you…."

The poem gives voice to that excitement -- the constant threat of death infuses each sight and sound with meaning and poignancy.  Sun, breeze, woodlands, birds, horses, and stars:  as comrades, they give the warrior a heightened awareness of "Colour and Warmth and Light."

But when "the brazen frenzy starts," when the "burning moment breaks," then like an ancient berserker possessed by the "Joy of Battle," the warrior becomes blind to all that lies outside the field of combat.  This focused and altered vision assures him that he can die only if it be "Destined Will." For while "in the air Death moans and sings," the soldier in the midst of fighting is held fast to the Day and enfolded in the Night.  He is one with Nature and intensely alive until that moment when fate calls him to death and gives him "increase." 

In another letter home, Grenfell wrote, "I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy."

On May 13th, 1915, Grenfell skull was pierced by shrapnel after a shell exploded nearby.  Taken to a nearby casualty clearing station, he wrote to his mother, "We are practically wiped out; but we charged and took the Hun trenches yesterday.  I stopped a Jack Johnson with my head**; and my skull is slightly cracked.  But I'm getting on splendidly." He died on May 26th, and his poem "Into Battle" appeared in The Times on May 28th, the same day as the notice of Grenfell's death.  The poem was immensely popular during the First World War, receiving much critical acclaim. 

Today, combatants who boldly state that they are willing to die for glory or those who admit to finding joy in killing are more likely to be associated with terrorist organizations than with national military service.  Writing for The Atlantic, Jay Winter has argued, "The Great War discredited the concept of glory, a word that many Europeans simply could not swallow." Grenfell and his poem, however, echo the spirit of ancient wars, a spirit and attitude that many of us now find disquieting, if not slightly horrifying. 

*Two manuscript versions survive of the poem, and these differ slightly from the version published in The Times on May 27, 1915.  Grenfell's mother, Ettie, made several minor revisions, such as changes in line 3 (from "sun's kiss" to "sun's gaze"), line 26 (from "keen of ear" to "keen of sound" and line 37 (from "And Joy of Battle only takes" to "And only Joy of Battle takes").  The version I've shared is that as published in The Times.  

**Jack Johnson was the first black American heavyweight world boxing champion, and the name became a slang term used by British soldiers to refer to German heavy artillery shells.


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