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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Book of War Songs
The Speaker, June 1, 1901

Songs of the Sword and the Soldier. Collected and edited by Alexander Eagar. London: Sands and Co. 3s. 6d

There are many very high-minded people who consider all poetic glorifications of battle alike horrible and foolish, to whom the hero striking down the spoiler and the patriot falling with his country's fall are on one level of brutality with bravoes and buccaneers. To take such a view as this appears to me a far greater cruelty to our kind than war itself. It is better to have some brotherly understanding of the enthusiasms of men than merely a grandmotherly caution about their bones. It is better even to respect men's souls and despise their bodies than, after the manner of some humanitarians, to respect their bodies and despise their souls. A book of genuine war-songs, such as Mr. Eagar's volume now before us, is or should be a catalogue of the things that men have loved more than life. Such a book cannot be degrading if it be genuine. The idea that the glorification of the soldier in literature and society is merely an admiration of killing, of brainless destructiveness. will surely not endure scrutiny. Butchers are not heralded with a roll of intoxicating drums. Rat-catchers are not decked out by society in scarlet and gold. The Public Executioner is not a favourite with ladies. As all the trades which kill without risk to themselves are despised rather than honoured, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the thing which is admired in the soldier is not the accomplishment of killing, but the more elegant accomplishment of being killed. There is no particular view of militarism involved in this matter. It cannot be to any of our interests to do an injustice to human nature.

But a collection of war-songs demands the most serious and fastidious examination. In a sense, if I may use a phrase that may amuse many, war is a sacred thing. It is the ultimate, which should not even be named except in an atmosphere purified from every breath of frivolity or malice. To mix up good and bad war-songs, cries that have come from the very heart of a people, with fatuous jingles that have amused a people's imperial leisure, is to commit the worst of profanities. A man has only one life, and he can do nothing so solemn as to stake it for an object he thinks worthy. The worst infamy of Jingoism is that it has encouraged an idle theatrical way of looking at this sacrifice, as if a man had nine lives, like a cat. Mr. Eagar should have remembered this distinction more clearly: it would have prevented him from mingling good wine with bad soda water. I would as soon see a man playing skittles with the cross of St. Paul's as pitching and tossing and playing with the sword as Mr. Eagar plays with it. Indeed, both the cross and the sword are in the same relation to mankind: they are horrible and ungainly tools, made beautiful by the vast and subversive power of human love. Nothing more intrinsically repulsive can be thought of than nailing a man to a wooden stake. Nothing more hideous can be conceived than violently disorganisjng his anatomy with an iron spike called a sword. But the transformation which pity and self-sacrifice has made even in the bodily aspect of these objects is one of the most gigantic of the triumphs of man's moral imagination. I am proud to belong to a race that could so teach its soul to teach its eyes. But these symbols are reverenced because they are rare; because they represent a terrible wager possible only in the last resort. The curse of Jingo poetry is that it makes an unreal and fashionable thing of the appeal by battle. Can anyone conceive a more appalling pantomime than a fashion of being crucified?

Beyond this primary fault of a somewhat indiscriminate selection, there is little to be said against Mr. Eagar's bright and readable anthology. The one great gap in it, a gap that I can in no way comprehend and find it difficult to excuse, is the entire absence of any example of the noble old ballad-poetry of England and Scotland. A book of war poems without "Chevy Chace" is monstrous at the first glance, like a man without an arm. Not only should these old ballads have been represented because of their bony strength, their salt and shrewd humour, their rude and yet ringing metrical movement, but because they especially would give a shock of shame to the elaborate virulence of the war-poetry of the moment. It never crosses the mind of the English minstrel who tells the story of "Chevy Chace," or the Scotch minstrel who tells the story of "Kininont Willie," to doubt that his enemies are his equals. A strange camaraderie in destruction makes killing itself good-tempered. To the English of the Middle Ages the Scots presented an appearance very similar to that of the Boers: they were poor, obstinate, often cruel, sometimes accused of treachery. Yet the petty poets who ate with the footmen of Scrope and Percy spoke of the enemy with an international breadth, a true magnanimity of literature, miles over the heads of the songs shouted in the great illuminated theatres of our great modern Empire. They did not, like the more chivalrous of modern Jingoes, admit the bravery of the enemy, they boasted of it. The writer of "Chevy Chase" seems to exult in the proud words of Douglas and in the solemn obeisance which in the face of the whole battle, Percy made to his corpse. There is one touch which I think especially unthinkable in a music-hall song.
Thus did these two great captains die
Whose courage none could stain.
That natural, unconscious equalising of the two leaders is a point no Jingo could reach.

There are other minor errors in Mr. Eagar's collection. It is a mistake arbitrarily to back off the first verse of Graham of Gartniore's song, "If doughty deeds my lady please," and publish it as a war-lyric. The whole poem is a description of various ways of pleasing a lady: it gives a list of occupations, concluding with an appeal founded on fidelity and truth. It is, consequently, no more a war-song than the child's rhyme of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor" is a war-song. Nor can I understand why "The Wearing of the Green" should be called a song of battle. It is not even a song of rebellion. The whole point of that noble ballad is a haughty submission and a calmness full of unfathomable scorn.
When laws can stay the blades of grass from'growing where they grow
And when the leaves in summertime their colour dare not show
I can hardly bring myself, however, to complain of any mistake which brings before me for a moment the most magnificent of political poems. It is only fair to add that Mr. Eagar has balanced these misinterpretations and omissions by including many lyrics which are not commonly known to Englishmen and which are well worth knowing. I am particularly grateful for having my attention drawn to two poems by Paul Deroulede.

Nevertheless, the mind returns, upon the whole, to the conception that Mr. Eagar has mixed up a number of widely different things, and has not even arranged them in any true classification. The titles of the divisions annoy us with their foppery. "Singeth the Praise of the Sword" is the sort of thing that only occurs in boys' novelettes and in the essays of decadents. He has not realised, for example, one great distinction which separates all war-poetry into two classes. In primitive war poetry, such as the Iliad and some of the earlier of the old ballads, man is conceived as being in a state of war. War is not the incident in the Iliad, as it is in a modern romance: war is the background. Spears and banners stand like grass and trees as mere scenery. The real drama is the drama of hatred or love, or sorrow. But in our later times war, to speak paradoxically, has so fallen into disuse as to become prominent. It is, as we have said, the ultima ratio, and it expresses simply the elementary truth about human nature which is expressed by Lewis Carroll's parody in which Hiawatha
Stated that he would not stand it,
Stated in emphatic language,
What he'd be before he'd stand it.
We need have no fears in any wholesome civilisation that this shadow of the ancient sword will either endanger or desert us. The further it recedes into the twilight of the remote and the unusual, the more strong and sacred will be its hold upon the imagination. It is only because the sword has in our time been stolen and played with by children that it stands in any danger of being merely despised. That in the last resort any one of us might have to summon the savage virtues, that in the last extremity any one of us might have to prove our manhood by ceasing to be, this will always give, with an unfathomable subtlety, a mystery to all our joys and a poetry to all our levities.

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