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Battle Song -- Patrick Barrington

Guest poem sent in by William Grey
(Poem #1655) Battle Song
 There's havoc on the staircase where the guests come streaming,
 Shirt-fronts shining and tiaras gleaming,
 Frail folk shuddering and stout folk steaming --
   Steaming in the heat of the fray.
 Midnight striking and the strife appalling,
 Strong men staggering and weak men falling,
 And deep in the heart of me a still voice calling:
   'Make for the buffet while you may.

 'Make for the buffet while you may, poor stranger,
   Make for the buffet while you can;
 There's hope for the stale there, strength for the frail there,
   Drink for the thirsty man.
 Thrust through the throng! Be obstreperous and strong!
   Fight till your strength is sped.
 Fight and prevail; do not falter, do not fail,
   Make for the buffet and be fed!

 'Make for the buffet and be fed, poor stranger,
   Make for the buffet and be strong;
 Dense is the press and the air is growing less,
   Fierce is the fight and long.
 Fierce is the fight and oppressive is the night,
   Stern is the strife and fell;
 Pale is your cheek; you are wan and you are weak;
   Make for the buffet and be well!'

 Painfully and wearily the hours are dragging,
 Old men are falling now and young men flagging;
 White ties weakening and stiff shirts sagging --
   Sagging as the hours go by.
 Consciousness is failing me and outlines merging,
 Thunder in my ears as of sea-foam surging,
 And deep in the heart of me a faint voice urging:
   'Make for the buffet lest you die.

 'Make for the buffet lest you die, poor stranger;
   Make for the buffet while you can;
 Fight your way through like a woman in a queue,
   Fight like a jungle-man!
 Batter the élite with your hands and your feet,
   Butt them in the backs with your head:
 Strike for your own! You are hungry and alone;
   Make for the buffet and be fed.

 'Make for the buffet and be fed, poor stranger,
   Make for the buffet lest you die.
 There's hope for stale there, strength for the frail there,
   Drink for the throat that's dry.
 Courage and strength will rewarded be at length;
   Weight in the end will tell.
 Up, then, and on! Are you weary? Are you wan?
   Make for the buffet and be well,
                                                Poor stranger!
   Make for the buffet and be well,
                                                Poor ranger!
   Make for the buffet and be well!'
-- Patrick Barrington
The rousing heroic metre of this poem is sublime. Imagine the jingoistic
ends to which this form might have been pressed by a Henry Newbolt! Indeed
some of the lines could almost have been penned by Newbolt -- except that
Newbolt never wrote poetry anywhere near as good as Barrington's. But one
can almost imagine some of the lines seamlessly incorporated into a Newbolt
paean:

  Strong men staggering and weak men falling,

  Consciousness is failing me and outlines merging,
  Thunder in my ears as of sea-foam surging,
  And deep in the heart of me a faint voice urging:

Perhaps not. The prosody is too good. Newbolt's sentimental jingoistic
claptrap (Vitai Lampada, Poem #946) enjoyed an inflated reputation only
because of its timely articulation of tiresome (but then-fashionable)
imperialist values. His reputation was based not on poetic merit but on
politics. Barrington in contrast possesses fine prosodic skills, masked by
his wonderfully eccentric loopiness -- and the exuberant absurdity which
shines through his verse.  (Carefully rereading him while typing the poem
deepened my appreciation of his prosodic talents.)

The genius of this poem lies in Barrington's handling of the heroic verse
genre, subtly applied to a formal social occasion -- circumstances in which
anything like the belligerent heroic behaviour which Barrington recommends
would be simply unthinkable. The absurd juxtaposition in this case is a
wonderful clash between form and content.

The poem was published in 'Songs of a Sub-Man' (London: Methuen & Company
Limited, 1934).

William Grey

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