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The Battle of Blenheim -- Robert Southey

       
(Poem #203) 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,
  Which 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 skull," 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 that 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 fought each other for."

   "It was the English," Kaspar cried,
     "Who put the French to rout;
 But what they fought each other for,
     I could not well make out;
 But everybody 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 baby 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 everybody praised the Duke
     Who this great 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."
-- Robert Southey
An antiwar poem with a somewhat different approach - rather than a graphic
portrayal of the horrors of the battle, or a heartrending account of loss,
it uses a matter of fact tone much more reflective of the common man's
attitude to war, and a couple of children to reveal that the emperor is,
indeed, unclad.

Compare this poem to Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce Et Decorum Est', which speaks of
"children ardent for some desperate glory" - Southey takes the opposite
point of view; that left to themselves, children see war for the pointless
exercise it usually is.

Biography:

  Southey, Robert

  b. Aug. 12, 1774, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Eng.
  d. March 21, 1843, Keswick, Cumberland

  English poet and writer of miscellaneous prose who is chiefly
  remembered for his association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and
  William Wordsworth, both of whom were leaders of the early Romantic
  movement.

  [...]

  Southey by this time [1799] had decided to earn his living as a writer. In
  these years he composed many of his best short poems and ballads, and he
  became a regular contributor to newspapers and reviews. Southey also did
  translations, edited the works of Thomas Chatterton, and  worked on the
  epic poem Madoc (1805) and completed the epic Thalaba the Destroyer
  (1801).

  In 1803 the Southeys visited the Coleridges, then living at Greta
  Hall, Keswick. The Southeys remained at Greta Hall for life, partly so
  that Sara and Edith could be together. Southey's friendship with
  Wordsworth, then at nearby Grasmere, dates from this time. The
  Southeys had seven children of their own, and, after Coleridge left
  his family for Malta, the whole household was economically dependent
  on Southey for a time. He was forced to produce unremittingly--poetry,
  criticism, history, biography, journalism, translations, and editions
  of earlier writers. During 1809-38 he wrote, for the Tory Quarterly
  Review, 95 political articles, for each of which he received £100. Of
  most interest today are those articles urging the state provision of
  "social services." He also worked on a projected history of Portugal
  that he was destined never to finish; only his History of Brazil, 3
  vol. (1810-19), was published.

  In 1813 Southey was appointed poet laureate through the influence of
  Sir Walter Scott, and in 1835 his government pension of £160, which
  had been secured for him by Wynn in 1807, was increased to £300 in
  recognition of his services to literature. He thus gained economic
  security, but the unauthorized publication (1817) of Wat Tyler, an
  early verse drama reflecting his youthful political opinions, enabled
  his enemies to remind the public of his youthful republicanism. About
  this time he became involved in a literary imbroglio with Lord Byron,
  who disliked him. Byron had already attacked Southey in English Bards
  and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and had dedicated to him (1819) the first
  cantos of Don Juan, a satire on hypocrisy. In his introduction to A
  Vision of Judgement (1821), Southey continued the quarrel by
  denouncing Byron as belonging to a "Satanic school" of poetry, and
  Byron replied by producing a masterful parody of Southey's own poem
  under the title The Vision of Judgment (1822). Southey's last years
  were clouded by his wife's insanity, by family quarrels resulting from
  his second marriage after her death (1837), and by his own failing
  mental and physical health.

  [...]

  Robert Southey was closely associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge
  and was looked upon as a prominent member, with them, of the "Lake
  School" of poetry. His grandiose epic poems, such as Thalaba the
  Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810), were successful in
  their own time, but his fame is based on his prose work--the vigorous
  Life of Nelson (1813), the History of the Peninsular War (1823-32),
  and his classic formulation of the children's tale "The Three Bears."

        -- EB

About the 'Lake Poets':

  Lake poet

  any of the English poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
  and Robert Southey, who lived in the English Lake District of
  Cumberland and Westmorland (now Cumbria) at the beginning of the 19th
  century. They were first described derogatorily as the "Lake school"
  by Francis (afterward Lord) Jeffrey in The Edinburgh Review in August
  1817, and the description "Lakers" was also used in a similar spirit
  by the poet Lord Byron. These names confusingly group Wordsworth and
  Coleridge together with Southey, who did not subscribe in his views or
  work to their theories of poetry.

          -- EB

Assessment:

  Except for a few lyrics, ballads, and comic-grotesque poems--e.g., "My
  days among the Dead are past," "After Blenheim," and "The Inchcape
  Rock" (considered a masterpiece of comic invention)--Southey's poetry
  is little read, but his prose style has been long regarded as masterly
  in its ease and clarity.
  [...]
  His less successful epic poems are  verse romances having a mythological
  or legendary subject matter set in the past and in distant places. In his
  prose works and in his voluminous correspondence, which gives a detailed
  picture of his   literary surroundings and friends, Southey's effortless
  mastery of prose is clearly evident, a fact attested to by such eminent
  contemporaries as William Hazlitt and Scott and even by such an enemy as
  Byron
        -- EB

12 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Peter Godwin said...

surely misdated by two centuries? Written in 1799, not 1999?

Rita Ann Wallace said...

Please note that the title of the poem is "After Blenheim", not "The Battle
of Blenheim".

Rita Wallace

For every child
Health, Education, Equality, Protection
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p.hooglander said...

I learned this poem at school (1962) in Holland (English lessons) . The title is After Blenheim. Robert Southey was right. Hardly any war is a solution of a problem, but many new problems arise from them.Today there are still people with trauma's from World War II. Why don't we learn from this. In 2005 the world should know better.But peace is far away, and global terrorism is the worst there is.
Peter Hooglander Papendrecht

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