Saturday, 31 January 2009

An Epitaph on Epitaphs on an Army of Mercenaries

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) is unfairly treated in Lorrie Goldensohn's engaging and (usually) reliable study, Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry. Goldensohn's later chapters are full of detailed and perceptive readings, but early on she risks making a travesty of pre-Somme war poetry in her hunt for what she calls the 'glory trader[s]'. So, having attacked Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' for 'hailing and encouraging the extension of empire by its professional builders' (wait a minute --- doesn't the poem starkly criticise those blundering builders?), Goldensohn goes on to associate Tennyson and Housman with a benevolent 'poetry on military glory... that the distantly involved could bestow in tones mixing an Olympian pity tinged with irony and admiring gratitude.'

Her first example from Housman is unfortunate; she quotes 'Lancer' apparently without noticing the homoerotic double meaning in 'Oh who would not sleep with the brave?' And she claims to find 'more of the same' in her next example, 'Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries'. (Please imagine that Blogger has permitted me to indent lines 2 and 4 of each stanza.)

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

By way of riposte, Goldensohn quotes MacDiarmid's 'Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries': 'It is a God-damned lie to say that these / Saved, or knew, anything worth a man's pride. / They were professional murderers', etc. (There is a 'Third Epitaph' by Edwin Morgan, but Goldensohn doesn't mention it and I can't say that I blame her.)

Housman's 'Epitaph' is more sophisticated than either MacDiarmid (who greatly admired Stalin) or Goldensohn allow. Written about the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, it repeats with bitter irony the German propagandist description of those soldiers as 'mercenaries'. Everything in the poem suggests a motivation greater than money, greater even than the (selfishly mercenary) hope of Christian salvation. Housman rewrites Romans 6:23 --- 'The wages of sin is death' --- knowing that the Biblical passage continues with the promise of eternal life: 'but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.' These so-called mercenaries 'Saved the sum of things for pay', but what pay can the dead expect when they have been abandoned even by God? Theirs is the ultimate sacrifice --- a sacrifice for which they have no hope of being rewarded in this life or the next.

Update: see here for an account of MacDiarmid's 'Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries'.


  1. Somewhere or other Kipling says he thought the Epitaph the finest poem of the War. But then much of his early work is written in admiration of the soldiers who do the dirty work of Empire for a shilling a day.
    The war produced countless poems in praise of gallant volunteers, but few praising the regular professionals. Can you think of any other good ones?

  2. Very good question --- and, of course, you're right about Kipling (named by Goldensohn as the third who always walks beside Tennyson and Housman).

    Would you count 'Men Who March Away'? I think that it's a terrible poem: 'braggarts must / Surely bite the dust'. I'm sure that Hardy doesn't believe any of it, because he's trying to sound suitably patriotic and uplifting.

  3. I think Epitaph is a great poem which works because it is not specifically tied to a WW1 context. Indeed, I've always read it in the context of Housman's Classical interests, as relating to the foederati who were contracted to defend the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity.