Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Volunteer + To The Others

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament:
Yet ever ’twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied;
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort;
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Herbert Asquith

To The Others

This was the gleam then that lured from far
Your son and my son to the Holy War:
Your son and my son for the accolade
With the banner of Christ over them, in steel arrayed.

All quiet roads of life ran on to this
When they were little for their mother's kiss;
Little feet hastening, so soft, unworn,
To the vows and the vigil and the road of thorn.

Your son and my son, the downy things,
Sheltered in mother's breast, by mother's wings,
Should they be broken in the Lord's wars -- Peace!
He who has given them are they not His?

Dreams of knight's armour and the battle shout,
Fighting and falling at the last redoubt;
Dreams of long dying on the field of slain:
This was the dream that lured, nor lured in vain.

These were the Voices they heard from far,
Bugles and trumpets of the Holy War;
Your son and my son have heard the call,
Your son and my son have stormed the wall.

Your son and my son, clean as new swords,
Your man and my man and now the Lord's!
Your son and my son for the Great Crusade,
With the banner of Christ over them -- our knights, new-made.

Katherine Tyan

Basing your answer on The Volunteer and To The Others, you should:

  • write a comparison of the ways the poets present the themes of religion and romanticism

  • say how far you agree with the view that Asquith is critical to those who don’t fight, whereas Tynan is more understanding

‘The Volunteer’ is a pro-war poem written by Herbert Asquith which heavily relies on romanticism to honour the soldiers who fought for England in the First World War. ‘To The Others’ is also a pro-war poem, but it likens the soldiers to Jesus Christ rather than old war legends.

Asquith uses stark contrasts right from the outset by comparing “grey” cities to the “phantom skies” of war. This distinction makes existence in the city seem inferior to the “thundering” life on the battlefront. Tynan also uses contrasts to make war appear heroic but – unlike Asquith – she does not trivialise the “quiet roads of life”, reflecting on them somewhat nostalgically. The narrator seems proud to have brought up her son well enough for him to fight for England.

Religion plays a big part in the imagery used in Tynan’s poem. She frequently couples her son with “Your son”. The capitalisation indicates that she is talking to God, and therefore about Jesus.

An aspect which is common to both poems is the association between the First World War and another battle of historical importance. Asquith compares the war to the battle of “Agincourt”, won by Henry V of England despite being heavily outnumbered by the French. Tynan compares the war to the “Great Crusade”, the numerous battles to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Both wars were won in the name of Christianity and can therefore be used as bragging points by England.

Asquith is very unsympathetic to people who won’t fight. His poem narrates the life of a clerk who, rather than assuming that “life’s tournament” requires no effort, enlists in the army. Asquith’s account on traditional life is quite scathing, accusing non-fighters of letting their days “drift away”. Tyson however has a very evocative view of peaceful living, reflecting on the narrator’s experience as a mother. Despite being “sheltered in mother’s breast”, the narrator’s son eventually comes of age and bravely enlists. This is shown as a good thing, as the child rightfully belongs to “Him”, as does the war.

Both poems heavily romanticise the war, with Asquith assimilating fighter planes to “gleaming eagles” and Tyson equating Christ and the narrator’s son to “our knights, new made”. The “new made” bit is interesting as it suggests that before dying in the war, the son’s bravery was not appreciated. The same can be said for Jesus, whose worldwide following started long after his crucifixion.

Asquith’s interpretation of war is very heroic. The death of the clerk is not explained, nor is there any indication of the time of passing. Rather, Asquith takes a break from the story of the clerk to tell us of soldiers “thundering past” before reintroducing us to the now departed protagonist, whose “lance is broken” yet “lies content”. This bravery in the face of death could easily be a metaphor for England’s willingness to fight, even “in the last resort”.

Tynan comes off as more emotive than Asquith in these poems, mainly down to her fairly long depiction of life as a mother of a baby. She illustrates the “soft, unworn” “little feet” of a child, before going on to describe the death of the child simply as belonging “now [to] the Lord”.

In conclusion I would like to reiterate what I’ve already said in this essay. I find that both poems have a favourable attitude to war, but the key difference is that only Tynan’s poem is tolerant to life as a non-fighting citizen while Asquith seems to be repulsed by the idea that someone may want to stay home and study rather than fight “beneath the oriflamme”.