Saturday 6 February 2010

Julian Grenfell: 'Into Battle'

Like his fellow Old Etonian Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Julian Grenfell (1888-1915) is remembered today for just one poem. That poem is 'Into Battle', one of the finest lyrics of the Great War. Yet its reception history has been uneven. Second in popularity only to Brooke's 'The Soldier' during and immediately after the War, 'Into Battle' is now either awkwardly ignored or explicitly condemned. When Jon Silkin included it in his Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, he marked its title with an asterisk in the contents page, explaining that he 'dissented from the implied judgments of taste' of the poem's admirers. At least Silkin was candid. Grenfell is often patronised by those who, wanting all war poetry to sound the same, cannot allow contrary views. They conclude that Grenfell would have come round to their right way of thinking had he lived longer.

Grenfell loved the thrill of battle: 'I adore war. It's like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic... The fighting excitement vitalises everything... One loves one's fellow-man so much more when one is bent on killing him.' He specialised in stalking and sniping, and the same game-book which recorded his partridge-shooting on his parents' estate was used to keep a tally of 'pomeranians'.

Grenfell's war service was brought to a sudden halt in May 1915 when, as he reported phlegmatically in his last letter to his mother, he ‘stopped a Jack Johnson with [his] head’. He died from his wounds a fortnight later.

I take as my text the version published in Elizabeth Vandiver's Stand in the Trench, Achilles, pp. 184-85.

Into Battle

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship---
The Dog-star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion's Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge's end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they---
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, 'Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing.'

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind---

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.


  1. Another great poem from the Great War. I will look for more of Grenfell's poems. Also looking forward to the anthology of First World War poetry to see what the German and other non-English contemporaries are remembered for.

  2. I guess one can admire the opening stanza, and various images/lines after that, without embracing the message or, alternately, the irony of Grenfell's sorry end. Too verbose, so overlong; too sing-songy in the rhythm/meter (save for the odd blackbird stanza); too obvious often until the unintended irony of that peaceful ending.

  3. And life is Colour and Warmth and Light, yes, at the front I can verify this.

    Ten days ago, I spent an evening with snipers and recce. They share Grenfell's love of stealth and stalk, the patient and sure professionalism of their chosen trade. They are the best of the very best at what they do.

    Vis-a-vis the nature detail, again, the eye and ear of the sniper who may crawl on his belly a foot an hour, maybe less, for 48 hrs, towards a target, observing everything, revealing nothing, until the objective is met, then an equally stealthy retreat.

    thanks Tim

  4. I gotta hand it to whoever wrote this, you've really kept me updated! Now, let's just hope that I can come across another blog just as interesting :)

  5. Tim - just on an editorial note, if this is the version taken from Vandiver's book, line 3 actually reads "sun's kiss glorying", compared to your choice of "sun's gaze glorying." Any particular choice for this, or merely a slip of the keyboard?

  6. Thank you. That's entirely my fault. The word 'gaze' appears in all the anthology versions, and I knew the poem so well that I typed it out without checking that bit against Vandiver's version.

    Ettie made some changes from Grenfell's two manuscripts of 'Into Battle'. Elizabeth Vandiver talks about them in a footnote, but she doesn't mention the change from 'gaze' to 'kiss', so I can only guess that 'gaze' is in the Times courtesy of Ettie's revision. Another possibility is that Grenfell's two manuscripts are different at that point.

  7. This is a very well written poem. Thanks for the information about Julian Grenfell. It has helped in whole. Although I would have to say that "Flanders Field" was the most popular poem from the Great War.

  8. It makes me weep, the sadness and wastefulness of this unnecessary war. But it is so beautiful and it glories not so much war but nature, birds and beasts and the bravery and stoicism of man.

    1. I agree with your interpretation. I tend to the view that Grenfell, having seen the fighting about him, and being at the forefront, knew very well that his chance of survival was unlikely. Into Battle is therefore torrent of emotion at the beauty of life; a yearning for his to continue, but with a sure and certain knowledge his would soon end.

  9. I think it glories war. Thank goodness somebody likes to *engage* as it appears that we will always have enemies who want to engage us, whoever we are.

    1. I recognise in this sublime verse the tone of a man so absorbed by what he has done and seen that he elucidates it perfectly in a way that we can actually relate to. He portrays the emotion and captures it with his steady rythm so much so you can feel it and picture it. And strangely enough it is love of life rather than war that is captured in this because we all know life is a battle and we all in our own unique way have our fight