Call of Poetry

Because Poetry is Meant to be Read Aloud

Month: May 2013

Sterret’s Sea Fight

This wasn’t consciously planned, but this weeks selection, while relatively plain and bloodily straight-forward, is a fitting pean to the sailors and crew who fought with Sterret in the war with Tripoli, which is also the source of the line “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine anthem.

As Kipling reminds us, they are not plaster saints. Nevertheless, those that fought for us, with their bravery and courage to face death and destruction, deserve to be remembered.

The original text of this can be seen in the archives at Umich, in their online display of information related to the war with the barbary pirates:

http://www.clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/barbary/barbary-first-war.php

“Sterret’s Sea Fight”

–anonymous broadside, 1801

Stand to your guns, my hearts of oak,
Let not a word onboard be spoke,
Victory soon will crown the joke;
 Be silent and be ready.
Ram down your guns and spunge them well,
Let us be sure the balls will tell,
The cannons’ roar shall sound their knell;
 Be steady boys, be steady.
Not yet, nor yet — reserve your fire,
Says brave Sterret —- Fire!
And sink those Moorish Tripolines,
All were amaz’d who beheld the scenes.
  A broadside my boys.
See the blood in purple tide,
Trickle down her batter’d side;
Wing’d with fate the bullets fly,
Conquer boys — or bravely die,
Be steady and defend your rights.
  She’s silent — huzza!
To Columbia’s flag she strikes.

Cells

I first ran into this poem while reading an early, collected version of Pournelle’s “Falkenberg” mercenary stories set in a future “CoDominium”. This is much earlier in the same timeline as the classic first contact science fiction novel “Mote in Gods Eye”.

Needless to say – Kipling was well aware that soldiers were hardly saints. 

Cells

by Rudyard Kipling

I’ve a head like a concertina: I’ve a tongue like a button-stick:
I’ve a mouth like an old potato, and I’m more than a little sick,
But I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guard: I’ve made the cinders fly,
And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink
and blacking the Corporal’s eye.
With a second-hand overcoat under my head,
And a beautiful view of the yard,
O it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard!”
Mad drunk and resisting the Guard —
‘Strewth, but I socked it them hard!
So it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard.”

I started o’ canteen porter, I finished o’ canteen beer,
But a dose o’ gin that a mate slipped in, it was that that brought me here.
‘Twas that and an extry double Guard that rubbed my nose in the dirt;
But I fell away with the Corp’ral’s stock
and the best of the Corp’ral’s shirt.

I left my cap in a public-house, my boots in the public road,
And Lord knows where, and I don’t care, my belt and my tunic goed;
They’ll stop my pay, they’ll cut away the stripes I used to wear,
But I left my mark on the Corp’ral’s face, and I think he’ll keep it there!

My wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard,
It ain’t that I mind the Ord’ly room — it’s ~that~ that cuts so hard.
I’ll take my oath before them both that I will sure abstain,
But as soon as I’m in with a mate and gin, I know I’ll do it again!
With a second-hand overcoat under my head,
And a beautiful view of the yard,
Yes, it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard!”
Mad drunk and resisting the Guard —
‘Strewth, but I socked it them hard!
So it’s pack-drill for me and a fortnight’s C.B.
For “drunk and resisting the Guard.”

Dover Beach

This poem by Matthew Arnold is a lot drearier and more despairing than I usually go for, yet the cadence and the visuals, for all of its pessimism, are filled with a haunting beauty. 

Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

This poem leaves me torn. It speaks to both the honor and bravery to follow impossible orders into the jaws of death, trusting that there is a purpose and your lives are not simply being thrown away, and the tragedy and stupidity of pointless death when a leader screws up. Yes, there is glory, but there is also profound sadness.

As a note, “theirs not to reason why” isn’t about following orders blindly as unthinking, brainwashed automatons. The alternative, taking time to debate an order in the midst of a battle, can easily lead to the loss of the army or battle. 

That is why they are noble, and that is why this event is such a tragedy. They were willing to trust their orders and face near-certain death to do their duty. The tragedy wasn’t being sent off on a suicide charge (as there are circumstances where in their death they may win the day or save lives – see Thermopylae ), but being sent on a pointless one, especially since they were not intended to make a frontal assault against the main batteries, but to harry a different set entirely, and somewhere along the line the orders got screwed up.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
  Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
  Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
  Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
  Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
  All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
  Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
  Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
  All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
  Noble six hundred!

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