Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Erotic Poetry of the Bayonet

The French loved their bayonets. The image on the left is of the Rosalie, that most ostentatiously eroticised of all weapons. In a song of 1914, the Rosalie was celebrated as elegant in her tight-fitting sheath-dress. When she 'surged', terrible and naked, she pierced and excited the victim's body, and plunged herself into the roseate blood which inspired her name. She was, bizarrely, both lover (often described as the soldier's 'wife') and phallus, and her penetrative killings were also a rape. She made her soldier appear devastatingly sexual: according to another song, when he marched through villages the local girls would gladly pay an écu---and give up their virtue---to play with his bayonet.

English poetry of the War was a little more restrained. Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Kiss' surrenders to sadistic pleasure as it imagines the bayonet ('Sweet sister') entering the quailing body of the enemy, although Sassoon backs away slightly from the logic of his metaphor by describing the bayonet's thrust as a 'downward darting kiss'. An unpublished poem by Ivor Gurney, 'Joyeuse et Durandal', complains that his new bayonet is 'longer, certainly not stronger', and has 'no looks to speak of'; Gurney would prefer his old bayonet, 'Having caressed that fair blade with long fingers'. Similarly, Wilfred Owen in 'Arms and the Boy' invites the boy of the title to 'try along this bayonet-blade / How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood'; the bayonet is 'famishing for flesh'.  These examples may be plain enough in their fetishisation of the bayonet, but they remain understated compared with the extremities of the French tradition. I once made passing comments about the sexual content of 'The Kiss' in a talk on Sassoon's poetry, and was astonished to be approached afterwards by a disapproving audience member who assured me that 'Sometimes, Sigmund, a cigar is just a cigar'. Even the most wilfully determined anti-Freudian would struggle to deny the extreme sexual violence apparent in the French cult of the bayonet.

I am grateful to Hazel Hutchison for introducing me to an anglophone poem about the Rosalie. It is by the American poet Grace Fallow Norton (1876-1926), whose volume Roads (1916) deserves wider attention. 'The French Soldier and His Bayonet' is suitably disconcerting:

The French Soldier and His Bayonet

Farewell, my wife, farewell, Marie,
I am going with Rosalie.

You stand, you weep, you look at me—
But you know the rights of Rosalie,

And she calls, the mistress of men like me!
I come, my little Rosalie,

My white-lipped, silent Rosalie,
My thin and hungry Rosalie!

Strange you are to be heard by me.
But I keep my pledge, pale Rosalie!

On the long march you will cling to me
And I shall love you, Rosalie;

And soon you will leap and sing to me
And I shall prove you, Rosalie;

And you will laugh, laugh hungrily
And your lips grow red, my Rosalie;

And you will drink, drink deep with me.
My fearless flushed lithe Rosalie!

Farewell, O faithful far Marie,
I am content with Rosalie.

She is my love and my life to me.
And your lone and my land—my Rosalie!

Go mourn, go mourn in the aisle, Marie,
She lies at my side, red Rosalie!

Go mourn, go mourn and cry for me.
My cry when I die will be ‘Rosalie!’


  1. Whoa. I knew nothing about the Francophone poems about bayonets before this; must also check out Norton. Thank you.

  2. This reminds me of a rather memorable passage in Robert Lowell's translation of Racine’s Phèdre:
    See, Prince! Look, this monster, ravenous / For her execution, will not flinch. / I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch.

  3. Wilfrid Gibson seems to be more realistic here as well:


    This bloody steel
    Has killed a man.
    I heard him squeal
    As on I ran.

    He watched me come
    With wagging head.
    I pressed it home
    And he was dead.

    Though clean and clear
    I've wiped the steel,
    I still can hear
    That dying squeal.

  4. The bayonet was a pathetic piece of fantasy in the Great War, to untried soldiers, who would face rapid fire accurate artillery, machineguns & rifles. Probably more men were killed with shovels than bayonets in WW1. We hear about poison gas but twice as many were killed by avalanches. The mystique continues, we fixed bayonets in training during the Cold War [despite tanks, fighter-bombers & ICBMs] and carried them into combat in Iraq. The erotic poetry is funny though, as are the profs comments.

    1. I wouldn't say mystique. The bayonet today has a strong psychological effect. If you shoot at each other in modern firefight, it's basically a "to whom it may concern" message that may or may not hit home. If you fix bayonets, however, that's a close and personal thing, that says "I'm going to get into your face."

      Against insurgent forces, who are usually not drilled and disciplined in modern war, where engagements are commonly via firearm over distance? Oh yeah, that sends a message.

      The Brits fixed a couple of times in Iraq and Afghanistan, and used that against their opponents with success for that reason.