said my piece about the AQA GCSE poetry syllabus and what it calls the 'Conflict' cluster. (I take 'cluster' to be the AQA's decorous abbreviation of a more accurate military term which, alas, cannot be used on a family-friendly blog.) Now I will do my best to help those unfortunates brought to this site in search of information about one particular poem: Ted Hughes's 'Bayonet Charge'. What follows is a set of loose notes. Anyone inclined to explore Hughes's treatment of war more generally can read my essay on that very subject here.
1. 'Bayonet Charge' was published in Hughes's first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957). It belongs among a group of poems dealing with the First World War, in which the poet's father and uncle fought. Hughes grew up believing that 'the whole region [West Yorkshire] was in mourning' for that War.
2. 'Suddenly he awoke and was running'. Which is the dreamworld and which the reality? The poem wants to confuse the two: Hughes's protagonist wakes into nightmare.
3. '[R]aw / In raw-seamed hot khaki'. Here is the first—but at this stage still fairly inconspicuous—debt to 'Spring Offensive', Wilfred Owen's only poem about a bayonet charge. The repetition of 'raw' mimics a similar repetition in line 2 of Owen's poem: 'eased of pack-loads, were at ease'. And the word 'hot' prepares for a poem of suddenly changing temperatures: 'molten', 'cold', 'flame'. This technique is straight out of 'Spring Offensive': 'warm', 'sun', 'hot', 'burned', 'flames', 'cool'.
4. The first stanza is nothing if not sweaty. '[H]is sweat heavy' prepares for the perplexing image of lines 7-8: 'The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye / Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest'. It is hard to manipulate this image into anything approaching sense. Can tears sweat? Why has the tear been relocated from the eye to the chest? The poem clumsily seeks to convey the message that patriotism has given way to a visceral panic. There may be a distant memory of Sassoon's advice to Owen: 'Sweat your guts out writing'. Certainly, the reference to 'Bullets smacking the belly out of the air' contributes to that determined anatomical insistence.
5. 'He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm'. Keats said that we hate poetry which has palpable designs upon us. Hughes's designs, here, are all too palpable as he evokes the wounded body. But would a smashed arm really be 'numb'?
6. 'In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations'. The stars and the nations—which is to say the powers celestial and terrestrial—are cold and mechanistic. They feel nothing.
7. 'He was running / Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs / Listening between his footfalls for the reason / Of his still running'. This simile offers little reward to the reader patient enough to unpick its convoluted syntax. The image is virtually tautological: he was running like someone would run if he found himself in the same situation as our protagonist.
8. 'Then the shot-slashed furrows // Threw up a yellow hare'. Yellow? Even the best animal poet since John Clare will not persuade anyone of that. The hare does bring to our attention one curious fact: it is the only other living creature in the poem. No soldiers are mentioned. For that matter, there are no corpses, either. The eye which is at liberty to spot a flushed hare might be expected to notice bodies of one kind or another. Perhaps, then, this poem does describe a dream?
9. 'And crawled in a threshing circle'. Cf. 'Spring Offensive': 'And crawling slowly back'.
10. 'He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge'. Cf. 'Spring Offensive': 'plunged and fell away past this world's verge'. Or, if you prefer, cf. 'Dulce et Decorum Est': 'He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning'.
11. 'King, honour, human dignity, etcetera / Dropped like luxuries'. Yes, of course they did, but even Hughes knows that he is going through the motions. That word 'etcetera' admits that we have heard it all before, that the treatment is hackneyed, that 'Bayonet Charge' is too much a performance, a reconstruction. It has been done elsewhere, and more successfully.
12. 'To get out of that blue crackling air / His terror's touchy dynamite'. Odd that at the moment of defeat, Hughes ends the poem with its finest lines. ('[B]lue... air' convinces as 'yellow hare' does not.) The enjambment deliberately misleads: the reader might expect the protagonist simply to want to 'get out of that blue crackling air', that is, to escape from the battle. The continuation of the sentence conveys the panicked inventiveness of a protagonist who is still, despite everything, an active agent. We are left with the bizarre, powerful image of the soldier scrabbling at the air in an effort to rid it of his own desperate terror.
Hughes wrote far better poems than 'Bayonet Charge'. Owen wrote far better poems than Hughes about the War, as 'Spring Offensive' demonstrates. The question for the AQA examiners must be: why favour the copy over the original?
Postscript: for an account of Jane Weir's 'Poppies', see here. And here is my reading of Wilfred Owen's 'Futility'.