Monday, 2 April 2012

Ted Hughes: 'Bayonet Charge'

I have already 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 firstbut at this stage still fairly inconspicuousdebt 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 nationswhich is to say the powers celestial and terrestrialare 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'.


  1. I don't care for the poem any more than you do, but on point 7, I read the running as the kind you do in a dream for no very clear reason, and generally with great difficulty, as if your feet were weighted down. It doesn't make the syntax any easier but maybe the clogged sentence is itself mean to evoke dream-logic?

    And re the yellow hare. I can't answer for hares, but up here in Shetland we do in, in some parts, have a strain of golden-yellow wild rabbits.

  2. I can only assume the 'yellow hare' is meant to be suggestive of cowardice or yet another reminder that war is unnatural - as is Hughes' style of writing here.

  3. I am a GCSE set 1 English student, I am however Dyslexic. At this moment in time I am having to compare this infuriating poem to 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. I am glad to know that I am not the only one who finds it some what a little pointless. Having to compare it to a piece by 'Tennyson' is unavailing its faults and difficulties for me.
    So I thank you very much for posting this because it has helped me and I am incredibly grateful.

  4. I think a 'smashed arm' can be numb. I have read accounts by soldiers who have experienced these kinds of injuries, including the loss of an arm or leg. Apparently there can be an absence of pain for a short while after the injury.
    As for the 'yellow hare', two points. Hares do have a considerable amount of yellow colouring and can often show this colour strongly.
    In addition, I think the hare's fear and panic, counterpoints that of the soldier, who also appears to be running blindly in several places.

  5. Yes, and why two poems by Hughes in the Conflict cluster instead of at least two by Owen? And the absolutely dire Flag by Agard. Why, when we have such a choice of excellent war poets? Well, because the quality of the poems is not the main reason for selection, I fear.
    I tutor pupils who have English as a second language. It is a huge effort for them to understand poetry, and it seems especially cruel to be forcing them to expend so much effort on the second rate.
    And then there is the crazy idea that writing can be divided into "persuasive, argumentative, descriptive" etc etc categories. These poor children form the view that writers (I was a journalist for 30 years) sit down and think: "I am writing a leader for The Times, have I included a rhetorical question, some statistics and a full range of punctuation?"
    I spend much of my lessons apologising to the pupils for the content of the exam, but reassuring them that they can forget it all as soon as they come out of the exam room, as it will be of no use at all in their lives.

    1. "I spend much of my lessons apologising to the pupils for the content of the exam, but reassuring them that they can forget it all as soon as they come out of the exam room, as it will be of no use at all in their lives."

      How uninspiring of you! Yes, of course there are far better ways to present poetry and encourage engagement with literature and writing, but to suggest that your pupils should actively forget everything they have learned and that it will be of no use to them in their lives seems highly irresponsible and serves only to teach them that they are wasting their time and that there is no point. What good can that possibly do them? I love literature and that is due in part to having had a hugely inspiring teacher who was clearly excited by language and literature. I wonder what your legacy will be as a teacher of English and how many of your students will 'love' literature. Very sad, and having previously worked as a secondary school teacher of English, unfortunately all too familiar. The lack of inspiration, passion and knowledge among many English teachers is contributing to the general decline in culture in the UK.

  6. OK, I've found the yellow hare.
    So a creature of myth, which relies on speed... definitely yellow.

  7. I agree with benview's point of the hare reflecting the soldier's own fear.
    But the hare could have also been brought up to personify the dynamite that comes right at the end. 'Yellow' may have only been mentioned to bring the yellow fizz and crackle of the dynamite to life?
    The hare may also have great significance in portraying the soldier's great return of fear in the last stanza after time stood still for him and he began to think clearly in the 2nd stanza; 1st stanza being a simple blind run. Correct me if I'm mistaken..

  8. I wonder whether many of the images in this poem ('Bullets smacking the belly out of the air', 'Sweating like molten iron' and the 'yellow hare') aren't echoes of Isaac Rosenberg: I'm thinking particularly of "the swift iron burning bee" in 'Dead Man's Dump', of "Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth" in 'August 1914' and the "cosmopolitan" rat in 'Break of Day in the Trenches'.

    What I take to be 'August 1914''s symbolic preoccupation with an Age of Iron might be something Hughes also keys into- the sense that this dangerous and burning iron is without and within. The confusing couplet at the end of the first stave then becomes a (nonetheless unsatisfactory) symbol of corrosiveness, something like Rosenberg's "Ancient Crimson Curse" that "Corrode[s], Consume[s]" ('On Receiving News of the War'). Certainly I think the hare is like Rosenberg's rat, a mediating symbol of wished-for capability: not here cosmopolitan roving, but instead of sweating, stumbling heaviness, a 'flame' like speed.

  9. Teaching it again, while teaching Hughes' better work at A Level - I agree with every point in your critique!

  10. I think you misread (natural, as the syntax is a jumble) the last two lines - he's trying to get his terror's touchy dynamite (ie himself - his body - linked to machine imagery before, now entirely transformed into explosive) out of the potentially igniting air - not trying to remove his fear from the air.