After Blenheim by Robert Southey
Something about the background of the poem.. Historically, Europe has been a theater of strife, battles, and wars. Dukes, kings, and emperors fought wars from the safety of their palaces with no great reason, other than expanding their spheres of influence. Through patriotic propaganda, coercion, and brainwashing, ill-trained and ill-equipped young people were sent to the battlefront. What resulted was death, injury, and deprivation of colossal scale. The pain inflicted on the society was immense, but no one had the courage and sense to stand up and ask why the wars were being fought. Every pain was justified on the altar of patriotism. Europe bled, while its rulers boasted.
In this poem, the author launches a scathing attack on such senseless resort to violence and bloodshed for no apparent reason. Small causes that could easily be resorted through diplomacy were blown up to project them as affronts to the national honour. No one thought about the young widows, the orphans, the old parents who lost their dearest ones. Battles are savage exercise of strength where morality and rationality are consigned to flames. Brute animal instincts are fanned that unleash the devil in a man. The poet passionately underlines the futility of wars and portrays the urge to kill another human being as something totally abhorrent and vulgar.
The poem… It is set in Blenheim in Germany. A war was fought there in 1704, where British soldiers fought against the French. The British finally prevailed, but the cost to either side was terrible. The scars took long to heal.
Stanza 1 .. Kasper was a German. He had a grandchild named Wilhelmine. It was a summer evening. Kasper had finished his day’s work, and was basking in the soft sunlight. Wilhelmine was playing nearby.
Stanza 2 .. The child’s brother, Peterkin had stumbled upon a large smooth spherical thing while playing near a stream flowing in the vicinity. The boy was curious to know what the object he had brought was.
Stanza 3 .. Kasper took the object from the boy’s hand, examined it, and declared that it was the skull of a dead soldier, who had been killed in the ‘great war’. [It is pertinent to mention here that in popular perception, the ongoing war was assumed to be something glorious and great.]
Stanza 4 .. The grandfather further explained that he regularly finds such skulls in good number when he ploughs his field. The ploughshare digs our the skulls. He says that many soldiers had laid down their lives in the ‘great’ war, these are the remains of those valiant men.
Stanza 5 .. The two grandchildren, Peterkin and Wilhelmine, the skulls certainly held some dark secrets. They were eager to know from their grandfather, why the people died, and what they fought for. ‘What was the motivation behind the war, and what purpose it served,’ they begged Kasper to reveal.
Stanza 6 .. Kasper said it was the English who turned their fury on the French and inflicted much death and destruction. However, he could not say what triggered the war, and why mayhem in such gigantic scale happened. He could only say that it was a ‘famous victory’. He had no other clue.
Stanza 7 .. Kasper recollected the events of the war days at Bleheim. His father’s house beside the stream was reduced to ashes as the enemy rolled in. His parents had to flee with their children to save their lives. They had no place to take shelter in.
Stanza 8 .. The war caused mammoth loss of innocent civilian lives. Men, young and old, women, some of them pregnant, children, all perished. There was death and destruction all around the country. Untold misery and horror ravaged the landscape. But, in the popular perception, it was a ‘famous victory’.
Stanza 9 .. After the guns of the war fell silent, one saw the scale of loss of human lives in the battle field. Countless dead and decaying bodies lay under the sun. There was no one to give the dead men a decent burial. In the next breath, Kasper says that wars such as this always bring massive loss of life and property. It is inevitable. After all, it was a ‘famous victory’.
Stanza 10 .. Kasper described hoe the Duke of Marlbro won and brought glory to his people. Prince Eugene endeared himself to his people for bringing such victory and fame. Wilhelmine was not convinced. She felt such sacrifice of life and property was unjust and unwarranted. It was too big a loss to justify the suffering and pain it caused. However, Kasper kept on asserting that it was a ‘famous victory’.
Stanza 11 .. Kasper narrated how, in the aftermath of the war, everyone praised the Duke for having brought such a great victory. Little Peterkine couldn’t reconcile himself to the stance of his grandpa. He continued to be indignant. He demanded to know what great cause the war was fought for. Kasper ceded some ground to his little Peterkine. He admitted that he didn’t know why the war was fought, but kept repeating that it was a ‘famous victory’.
- What is the underlying theme of the poem?
- Do you feel this poem should be hung in all public place like schools, offices, airports, stations etc. to awaken the citizens about the futility of war?
- If war is so repugnant to our moral sense, why we have not been able to banish it altogether?
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Very helpful for understanding.