I ran into this poem the first time reading “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson. It is in many ways a dark and subversive poem, especially for, as self titled, a “Christmas story”.
While I already had a fondness of Kiplings short stories, my love of poetry (and history) owes less to my english teachers and more to the science fiction authors I read who shamelessly cribbed poems and stories from the great poets and histories of ages past (Pournelle, Stephenson, Drake, etc..) to bind their future histories with the eternal human condition. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the Anabasis or the Nika revolts retold.
OR, A Christmas Tale, Told by a School-boy to His Little Brothers and Sisters. by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
Underneath an old oak tree There was of swine a huge company That grunted as they crunched the mast: For that was ripe, and fell full fast. Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high: One acorn they left, and no more might you spy. Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly: He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy! Blacker was he than blackest jet, Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet. He picked up the acorn and buried it straight By the side of a river both deep and great. Where then did the Raven Go? He went high and low, Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go. Many Autumns, many Springs Travelled he with wandering wings: Many summers, many Winters– I can’t tell half his adventures. At length he came back, and with him a She And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree. They built them a nest in the topmost bough, And young ones they had, and were happy enow. But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise, His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes. He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke, But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke, At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak. His young ones were killed; for they could not depart, And their mother did die of a broken heart.
The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever; And they floated it down on the course of the river. They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip, And with this tree and others they made a good ship. The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand. It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast; Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast. He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls– See! see! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls! Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet, And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet, And he thank’d him again and again for this treat: They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET! *
This is a poem that I can’t remember whether or not they made us read and “analyze” it in high school, but it was definitely in the reader. As was my usual practice, I’d skipped ahead through the book in my first week, and already had fallen in love with both the poem and the Waterhouse painting that accompanied it.
THE LADY OF SHALOTT
by ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
On either side the river lie Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the wold and meet the sky; And thro’ the field the road runs by To many-tower’d Camelot; And up and down the people go, Gazing where the lilies blow Round an island there below, The island of Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver, Little breezes dusk and shiver Thro’ the wave that runs for ever By the island in the river Flowing down to Camelot. Four gray walls, and four gray towers, Overlook a space of flowers, And the silent isle imbowers The Lady of Shalott.
By the margin, willow-veil’d Slide the heavy barges trail’d By slow horses; and unhail’d The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d Skimming down to Camelot: But who hath seen her wave her hand? Or at the casement seen her stand? Or is she known in all the land, The Lady of Shalott?
Only reapers, reaping early In among the bearded barley, Hear a song that echoes cheerly From the river winding clearly, Down to tower’d Camelot: And by the moon the reaper weary, Piling sheaves in uplands airy, Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”
There she weaves by night and day A magic web with colours gay. She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her if she stay To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott.
And moving thro’ a mirror clear That hangs before her all the year, Shadows of the world appear. There she sees the highway near Winding down to Camelot: There the river eddy whirls, And there the surly village-churls, And the red cloaks of market girls, Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad, An abbot on an ambling pad, Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad, Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad, Goes by to tower’d Camelot; And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue The knights come riding two and two: She hath no loyal knight and true, The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror’s magic sights, For often thro’ the silent nights A funeral, with plumes and lights And music, went to Camelot: Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed; “I am half-sick of shadows,” said The Lady of Shalott.
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves, He rode between the barley-sheaves, The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves, And flamed upon the brazen greaves Of bold Sir Lancelot. A redcross knight for ever kneel’d To a lady in his shield, That sparkled on the yellow field, Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free, Like to some branch of stars we see Hung in the golden Galaxy. The bridle-bells rang merrily As he rode down to Camelot: And from his blazon’d baldric slung A mighty silver bugle hung, And as he rode his armour rung, Beside remote Shalott.
All in the blue unclouded weather Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather, The helmet and the helmet-feather Burn’d like one burning flame together, As he rode down to Camelot. As often thro’ the purple night, Below the starry clusters bright, Some bearded meteor, trailing light, Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d; On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode; From underneath his helmet flow’d His coal-black curls as on he rode, As he rode down to Camelot. From the bank and from the river He flash’d into the crystal mirror, “Tirra lirra,” by the river Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces thro’ the room, She saw the water-lily bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume, She look’d down to Camelot. Out flew the web and floated wide; The mirror crack’d from side to side; “The curse is come upon me,” cried The Lady of Shalott.
In the stormy east-wind straining, The pale-yellow woods were waning, The broad stream in his banks complaining, Heavily the low sky raining Over tower’d Camelot; Down she came and found a boat Beneath a willow left afloat, And round about the prow she wrote The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse– Like some bold seër in a trance, Seeing all his own mischance– With a glassy countenance Did she look to Camelot. And at the closing of the day She loosed the chain, and down she lay; The broad stream bore her far away, The Lady of Shalott.
Lying, robed in snowy white That loosely flew to left and right– The leaves upon her falling light– Thro’ the noises of the night She floated down to Camelot: And as the boat-head wound along The willowy hills and fields among, They heard her singing her last song, The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy, Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, Till her blood was frozen slowly, And her eyes were darken’d wholly, Turn’d to tower’d Camelot; For ere she reach’d upon the tide The first house by the water-side, Singing in her song she died, The Lady of Shalott.
Under tower and balcony, By garden-wall and gallery, A gleaming shape she floated by, A corse between the houses high, Silent into Camelot. Out upon the wharfs they came, Knight and burgher, lord and dame, And round the prow they read her name, The Lady of Shalott.
Who is this? and what is here? And in the lighted palace near Died the sound of royal cheer; And they cross’d themselves for fear, All the knights at Camelot: But Lancelot mused a little space; He said, “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott. *
This Kipling poem is one that I’ve memorized off and on, and one of the first I tumbled into (I think “The ‘Eathen” was the first) in the process of discovering Kipling as a poet. It too would have been fitting for Memorial day, and no, I wasn’t going to wait for veterans day.
The accent is horrible, but trying to read it as actually written pushes you halfway there anyway. Might as well go with it.
I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.
Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.
We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that,
an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”,
when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys,
there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”,
when there’s trouble in the wind.
You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees
The following is from the excellent Terry Pratchett novel Hogfather, and is an excerpt from a conversation between Death, and his granddaughter (long story) Susan.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
The term “Gentleman Ranker” applies to an enlisted man who is a former officer, or was born into sufficient wealth or prestige that he could have been an officer.
In short, the odds are they majorly screwed up. They may be an outright screw-up.
In this case, the viewpoint character carries a mix of pride and bitterness.
by Rudyard Kipling
TO the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned, To my brethren in their sorrow overseas, Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed, And a trooper of the Empress, if you please. Yes, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses, And faith he went the pace and went it blind, And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin, But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind. We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa! We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray, Baa–aa–aa! Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity, God ha’ mercy on such as we, Baa! Yah! Bah! Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops, And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell, To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well. Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop, And branded with a blasted worsted spur, When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy living cleanly Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”. If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep, And all we know most distant and most dear, Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep, Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer? When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters And the horror of our fall is written plain, Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling, Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain? We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth, We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung, And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth. God help us, for we knew the worst too young! Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence, Our pride it is to know no spur of pride, And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us And we die, and none can tell Them where we died. We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa! We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray, Baa–aa–aa! Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity, God ha’ mercy on such as we, Baa! Yah! Bah!
This poem works on many layers and discusses many things in one place. Those easily offended or perpetually paranoid, those who are so busy with new projects that they could leave behind significant work untended as something else grasps their attention, and how perhaps that is not an entirely good thing to change focus so much, so fast, so often.
The Wood Pile
by Robert Frost
Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day I paused and said, “I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther–and we shall see.” The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went down. The view was all in straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather– The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled–and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, Or even last year’s or the year’s before. The wood was grey and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labour of his axe, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.