Thursday, 26 March 2009

A Short Post About Killing

I have always been fascinated by those very few post-Homeric poems which deal with the subject of killing on the battlefield. They are vastly outnumbered by poems about dying, or watching comrades dying, and it is not hard to guess why. Even though it is the job of soldiers to kill the enemy, both they and their civilian readers have a vested interest in disguising that fact. One of the reasons why Keith Douglas's 'How to Kill' seems to me to be one of the greatest of modern war poems is that Douglas refuses to connive with his audience. 'Look', he insists, obliging the reader to gaze with him through his 'dial of glass' at an enemy 'who is going to die'. What the soldier does, he does for us. If we look, we acknowledge that we are incriminated ('damned'); worse still, if we turn away squeamishly, we are moral hypocrites.

I can think of only two other poems about killing which deserve to be bracketed with 'How to Kill'. The first is Hardy's Boer War poem, 'The Man He Killed', in which the protagonist tries to escape from his own experience ('I shot at him as he at me') into the generalities of the second-person pronoun ('You shoot a fellow down'). The second is Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Kiss':

To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.

Sassoon wrote some years later that the poem had been inspired by a lecture on the use of the bayonet in which the lecturer, a major, had spoken with 'homicidal eloquence'. Bullet and bayonet, the major reported, were brother and sister. Sassoon was puzzled by 'The Kiss', feeling that he never could have 'stuck a bayonet in anyone', but admitting that the poem 'doesn't show any sign of satire'.

There is, as Sassoon admits, little reason not to take the poem as a strange sadistic fantasy. The bayonet is eroticised --- but eroticised, disturbingly enough, as the soldier's naked 'sister' whose very kiss is fatal. The 'kiss' is itself a curious description, covering up a sexual metaphor which is more obviously thrusting and penetrative. And yet the bayonet's gender resolutely resists the metaphor's logic, so that the poem is at war with itself, at once revealing and withholding, accepting agency and shifting agency from soldier to bayonet. Paradoxically, in its tongue-tied confusions 'The Kiss' comes as close to homicidal eloquence as any poem from the First World War.


  1. There's also 'The Target' by Ivor Gurney, although there is not much about the act of killing (the shooting) and in fact the fourth stanza implies that the German might well have survived (or is this Gurney easing his guilty conscience?):

    I shot him, and it had to be
    One of us "Twas him or me.
    'Couln't be helped' and none can blame
    Me, for you would do the same

    My mother, she cant sleep for fear
    Of what might be a-happening here
    To me. Perhaps it might be best
    To die, and set her fears at rest

    For worst is worst, and worry's done.
    Perhaps he was the only son. . .
    Yet God keeps still, and does not say
    A word of guidance anyway.

    Well, if they get me, first I'll find
    That boy, and tell him all my mind,
    And see who felt the bullet worst,
    And ask his pardon,if I durst.

    All's a tangle. Here's my job.
    A man might rave, or shout, or sob;
    And God He takes takes no sort of heed.
    This is a bloody mess indeed.

    It's interesting that the German is dehumanised into 'the target' by the poem's title. The first line contains no emotion, no remorse: 'I shot him, and it had to be'. The enjambment into the second line leaves the first line as a complete sentence; it had to be done. The rest of the poem can be read as Gurney protesting too much, trying to convince the reader that he had to do it, but actually convincing no-one, least of all himself.

    The other poem that comes to mind is Edmund Blunden's 'Concert Party: Busseboom', but the reader is not invited to see the act of killing; it is literally happening offstage.

    The men emerge from the concert party to a new concert complete with light show (the barrage). Meanwhile, 'men in the tunnels below Larch Wood/ Were kicking men to death'.

  2. Thanks Seb. I talk briefly about 'The Target' in a forthcoming essay, pointing out that it's a wonky rewriting of 'The Man He Killed'. The Gurney poem is itself 'a bloody mess indeed', I would say.

    'Strange Meeting' has the report of killing: 'for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed'. I remember Douglas in Alamein to Zem Zem (or, probably, misremember --- my text is in work) when he drives his tank among some Germans who scatter in all directions. He jumps out to shoot them, but is suddenly overcome with world-weariness: what would be the point?

    The Iliad, of course, is full of killing. Homer loves it.

  3. If Gurney's "The Target" describes an incident at Vermand, it is probable that he killed the German. According to Marion Scott, " Vermand in a night attack, when he saw a German under a tree just about to shoot him, he could barely fling the bomb [grenade]that saved his own life". It is unlikely that he only wounded the man with a grenade.


  4. Thanks, Tim. Yes, it's a pretty terrible poem. I was going to use that line to describe it myself - 'a bloody mess indeed'. It seems like an argument with himself, which he loses!

    The lines

    'Yet God keeps still, and does not say
    A word of guidance anyway.'

    sound like a bad reworking of Browning's 'And yet God has not said a word!' from 'Porphyria's Lover'.

    Thanks for the suggestion, Pam. You know more about Gurney than me, and I hadn't heard of the incident you describe, but still I would have thought that 'I shot him' implies a gun, not a grenade.

  5. Yes, "shot him" certainly implies a gun but I think that this might be poetic license at work. If Gurney was recalling the Vermand incident I expect that since he was turning real life experience into poetry the appropriate description of the effect of a grenade -- "I blew him apart" -- would not have the same word effect as "I shot him".

    The lines "Perhaps he was the only son" and

    "Well, if they get me, first I'll find
    That boy, and tell him all my mind,
    And see who felt the bullet worst...

    suggest Gurney is saying if I get killed, I'll find the man I killed and we'll go from there. This suggests to me that the other soldier died.


  6. i'd call the Gurney poem rough-draft versifying at best, badly (w)rote meter-and-rhyme. i assume all you Gurney supporters have other, better examples to work with!

  7. Yes, 'The Target' is just about the worst poem Gurney suffered into print. I don't think anyone was saying that it was good. But the reasons why it's so bad might be worth considering. Whereas Hardy and Sassoon exploit tonal uncertainty, Gurney is the victim of it. It won't be until 1925 that he can write about 'Fritz' in a style sufficient to the challenge of the brotherly enemy.

  8. 'How easy it is to make a ghost.' Brilliant summary of a lifetime of guilt and/or PTSD ahead for some soldiers, though not for all...

    and yes, soldiers will "do the business" for which they train, and while technically, they 'get their hands dirty' in our country's name, and by extension for us, my perception from talking with some soldiers is that they do it for the brothers, their own survival, the mission...

    I wonder how many poems about the act of killing might be found in war diaries, unpublished, for the reasons you state. I'm certain there will be some of these poems coming from the war we are engaged in (Afghanistan) and the war in Iraq.

    Finally, a book I recommend to read if you are interested unflinchingly in war, is the book that all of the officers that I know have read or are reading as they prepare for deployment... On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a study of the 'psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society'. Grossman's book, On Combat, is equally fascinating.

  9. There is also this from Iraq War vet Brian Turner. The title 'Sadiq' is Arab fro 'Friend'. The quote/preface should be in italics.


    "It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more." - Sa'di

    It should make you shake and sweat
    nightmare you, strand you in a desert
    of irrevocable desolation, the
    seared into the vein, no matter
    what adrenaline
    feeds the muscle its courage
    no matter
    what god shines down on you
    no matter
    what crackling pain and anger
    you carry in your fists, my friend
    it should break your heart to kill.

  10. Herbert Read's The Happy Warrior. The victim may already be dead, but that doen't affect the psychological aspects:
    i saw him stab
    And stab again
    A well-killed Boche.

    This is the happy warrior,
    This is he...

  11. I love poetry and the links in this site
    are very interesting. I really enjoy the reading, thanks and have a nice day!

  12. Valentina Golysheva23 November 2014 at 20:23

    Ivor Gurney's poem "The Target "reminds us of the song of lamentation "Brother, terrible silent brother, down there in the dark soil what have we done to each other? What have we done? I am "alive" , you are "dead", but there is some communication between us" written by Richard Aldington in his wartime stories. One of my students read ths poem on the Day of Remembrance, Nov.11 during the commemoration service at university in Archangel, Northern Russia