Posts Tagged ‘Agincourt’

Herbert Asquith: The Volunteer

June 6, 2018

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.

Hindsight means it’s hard for us nowadays to get our minds around the idea that anyone might volunteer for the hell that was the trenches of the Great War, and yet we know that hundreds of thousands did, before conscription came in, and went to their deaths, doing what they believed to be their duty for King and country. Asquith’s anonymous subject is one of them: in a careful and regularly structured poem, we get the before and the after, the volunteering and the death.

The man is bored with his humdrum life: no difference here from the feelings expressed in Brooke’s sonnet Peace: Now God be thanked who hath matched us with his hour… war offers a change, the potential for being really alive, not toiling (note the choice of word: why is it better than working, which would also fit the metre? Listen to that oi sound in the middle of the word: what does it do?). And yet his imagination is back in an Arthurian or mediaeval world, thinking of lance and tournament. Look at the repetition of of the g sound in gleaming, eagles, legions (almost!) – and what is the effect of the assonance in the long ea sound in each of those words… emphasising eagerness and excitement to get involved, perhaps? There is a stunning and colourful visual picture conjured up in the clerk’s mind, to contrast with the city grey

And now: a subtle shift of mood here, at the start of the second stanza, hinted at in those two words: we know it was an illusion and the man is dead. But in the mediaeval setting of his imagination, he is a hero, for the halls of dawn are surely Valhalla, where the Norse heroes went after death. The man is content with what he did, the poet tells us, having done what he wished: fought and died. We may feel he needs no hearse because there may be nothing left of him to put in it, but that is our hindsight and twentieth-century cynicism speaking; the mention of Agincourt links him immediately and irrevocably with that speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and there is a slight sense of irony – or appropriateness? – because the village of Azincourt is in Picardy, on the edge of the Somme battlefield.

What is the poet’s attitude, in the end? What is the tone of the poem: is the volunteer mocked for his futile actions and innocent beliefs, or is his choice and his deed accepted for what it was? I find it hard to judge: I am so far from those times and the ways they thought back then, and the text reflects the times. But I do think this poem had to have been written in the early months of the war.

Shakespeare: Henry V

June 5, 2014

I recently saw the RSC productions of  Henry IV Part One and Two in Stratford during a Shakespeare course I took part in; we also watched a film of Richard II, so I thought I should complete the tetralogy by re-reading Henry V.

Shakespeare starts with a useless king (Richard) and ends with an effective one (Henry V); in between is sandwiched the reign of the illicit and troubled usurper, Henry IV; and yet his actions are suggested to have been necessary for the sake of the realm. Prince Hal has been transformed into Henry V, although there are times when this didn’t seem convincing. Both the plays Richard II and Henry V are very formal, ritualistic even, with much discussion in council and lengthy speechifying, Richard’s being beautiful and ineffectual, Henry’s being crisp, logical and directed. Court life during the reign of Henry IV was just chaotic. So there is a tidy sense of structure to this tetralogy.

Henry V is unlike the others in the use of prologue and choruses; these help shape the effect Shakespeare wants to achieve, heightening the presence and power of the king, and creating description and atmosphere for the campaign in France, particularly by articulating the fears of those who are off to war. There are still lots against the king, but unlike those against his father, there are easily dealt with, and the traitors even repent in the face of Henry’s apparent rectitude and good sense. And the good king still ensures that traitors lose their heads.

A less pretty side to Henry is revealed in the man of war and his threats against the French, but coupled with the conversations of the common people, the overall effect is to suggest what a dreadful thing war is in general, and how foolish those are that seek it (ie the French).

Another interesting effect is that of the king wandering off in mufti and enjoying conversations with the footsoldiers and lower class members of his army; again we see their fears through their arguments with the king, and he is not always at his ease with the new role that has been thrust on him, though he sustains it and develops a sense of fair play and justice of which Shakespeare’s audience would surely have approved, when he reveals his true self to those men later on.

Shakespeare brings the cycle of plays to a successful end with Henry’s victory at Agincourt, though his wooing of Katherine is now either tiresome or toe-curling or both. But what Shakespeare has done most effectively of all is to raise so many questions for us to reflect on, about kings and rulers, about justice, about the rights and fears of ordinary people when faced by power, and about the evils of warfare. All sides are laid bare, no-one escapes lightly, no easy answers are offered…

%d bloggers like this: