Tuesday, 24 February 2009

An Epitaph on MacDiarmid's 'Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries'

A surprising number of visitors to this site have been seeking information about Hugh MacDiarmid's 'Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries', written in 1935. This morally corrosive poem may have wormed its way onto some benighted syllabus as an example of anti-war poetry.

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth a man's pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

I argued in an earlier post that MacDiarmid was (at best) historically ignorant in his attempts to rebut Housman's 'Epitaph'. 'These' were the Old Contemptibles, the British Expeditionary Force sent in 1914 (by a democratic government and with the overwhelming support of the population) to repel invading Prussian forces and protect the sovereignty of occupied nations. To call our soldiers 'professional murderers' is merely to make the same crude allegation against professional armed forces throughout history. Are we encouraged to understand that amateur murderers are more acceptable?

MacDiarmid minded some murderers less than others. His apotheosis of Stalin, which endured even beyond the Hungarian Revolution (1956), contaminates much of his poetry and prose from the 1930s onwards. As far as MacDiarmid was concerned, Stalin helped 'elements of worth' to 'persist on earth'. Better to murder cold-bloodedly for ideology, than to 'murder' in battle for pay; and so, MacDiarmid's 'Epitaph' would have us believe, a soldier fighting in defence of his own or another nation is worse than a genocidal dictator.


  1. Gareth Griffiths16 May 2009 at 21:12

    Some information for you on the 'benighted syllabus' that you guessed at: the new AQA A2 syllabus uses Stallworthy's anthology, 'The Oxford Book of War Poetry' (pp.160-224). This sample of World War One literature that is analysed in part B of the A2 examination.

    Housman and MacDiarmid's poems are placed in juxtaposition in Stallworthy's work, on pages 167 and 168.

    I must say that think you're simplifying MacDiarmid's poem, just as he simplified Housman's.

    As you know, if we were to line up against the critical wall all the poets of the thirties who at one time or other aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and socialist Utopia, we'd end up with a literary mass grave, if you'll forgive the irony. There's a bit of retrospective judgement going on here, politically speaking. It's not that I think your criticism is invalid, but it seems to me ahistorical, prejudicial.

    As for MacDiarmid's crudity of outlook regarding professional soldiers, well: moral conviction often tends towards the absolute. Certain people believe that those who take pay to kill ARE immoral: to criticise the poem on this account is like saying a Quaker should never read The Iliad. And the 'amateur murderer' point you make is rhetorical, surely: MacDiarmid is not contrasting amateurs with professionals, but the principled with the unprincipled. The slackness of language is colloquial.

    All that said, any poet who writes in English who lists 'Anglophobia' in his entry in 'Who's Who'- (a communist in 'Who's Who'?)- has to be somewhat limited, imaginatively speaking.

  2. Thank you for your post, Gareth. I'm grateful to know the syllabus and the anthology. I wonder how well taught the MacDiarmid poem is, generally?

    I agree that it was not unusual for the poets of the 1930s to line up behind Stalin's Russia. Auden put it like this, retrospectively: 'our great error was not a false admiration for Russia but a snobbish feeling that nothing which happened in a semi-barbarous country which had experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment could be of any importance.' As apologies go, that one is almost as unethical as the original offence. But what keeps MacDiarmid apart even from Auden and co. is his continued and public support for Stalin well into the 1950s, when the genocides were common knowledge and the brutal oppression of Eastern Europe was well established.

    I'm not sure I aqree with your point about 'professional murderers'. MacDiarmid doesn't like the principles of a British army, sent with the backing of a democratic nation to defend the sovereignty of a friendly state against aggressive invasion. At the same time, he enthusiastically supports a genocidal tyrant who is murdering millions of his own people in cold blood. It seems implausible that his objection to the B.E.F. is based on a Quaker scrupulosity. His are a bigot's principles, masquerading as anti-war fine-feeling.

  3. Gareth Griffiths17 May 2009 at 02:13

    Thanks for your response, Tim. I can't really comment on the teaching of the new syllabus: it's brand new this summer, and we haven't had our moderation meetings yet, so as yet I have no idea how the course is going down with others. As you might have guessed, I'm an A-level teacher. I've taught at a London comprehensive for about two and a half years now.

    My personal response: as an admirer of Stallworthy and his anthology, I nonetheless think that examining First World War poetry through this selection from his War anthology is a little eccentric. There are many excellent poems in the portion we look at, and there are some fine and more unusual choices, like Carl Sanderburg's 'Grass' and Robert Frost's 'Range-Finding': poems that decentre the human experience of war, in ways similar to Owen's 'Futility'. The recurrant Edwardian pastoral in WWI poetry becomes something interestingly scientific in all of these, and I enjoy teaching them. It seems to me to be a mark of Stallworthy's catholicism that he includes both the poems first mentioned. Yet there are such gaps: I'm thinking of women's responses to the war in particular (there are only two poems written by women in the 60-odd poems selected). Today- remembering, of course, the anthology was compiled in '84- this seems a very serious omission.

    As for MacDiarmid, thanks for your clarification: I must say, I wasn't aware of his continuing apologism for Stalin. Yet the problem here seems to be a difference in values, surely: if I remember the word rightly from my university days, isn't this an antimony? I mean between the ideas of country and (on the other hand) ideology as a legitimator of violence. I'm getting theoretical here, I suppose.

    Auden was well chosen as an example of the 30's dalliance with communism, I think. His 'Spain' was perhaps a high point of that flirtation, and famously Orwell condemned it- not really fairly, I sometimes think, but the moral point he made was a powerful one. Orwell also had his say about MacDiarmid, but in his government reports about communist sympathisers, I seem to remember. The point seems to be: when someone like Orwell wrote about how patriotism legitimises killing ('England, Your England'), in what way is that necessarily morally superior to the perspective of the revolutionary?

    I'm wool-gathering. What I would be really interested to ask is the current academic standing of Stallworthy, and your opinion on his anthology. I didn't study First World War literature at all when at university: any thoughts would be interesting to take back to my students.

  4. I'm not the person to offer an unbiased view of Jon Stallworthy: he's my ex-tutor and now a good friend. Because of that, and because I'm an OUP author as well, I ought to say that I'm delighted to hear that the Oxford Book of War Poetry is on the syllabus! But I'm slightly surprised, because I would have thought it would make more sense for A level students to focus on the poems of a particular conflict.

    As for the representation of women, elsewhere on this blog there's a lively debate about the women poets of the Great War. There has been a huge archeological effort to turn up significant women poets who write about war, so far with only limited success. I mention Cole and Cannan from the Great War, and I believe that Charlotte Mew's three elegies for that war are among the most sophisticated poetic responses to it. But this still looks slender alongside Owen, Gurney, Sassoon, Blunden, Jones, Rosenberg, Graves, etc.

  5. MacDiarmid served in the army in World War 1 - in Salonika - and was gravely wounded. His poem is surely non-specific in its intense dislike of the notion of those who fight for money without the involvement of principle. Arguably if more soldiers in WW1 had concurred there would have been no war - and no "weapons with a worker at each end", as the bayonet was then defined...

  6. MacDiarmid's title, and the reference to 'these' in the opening line, make it clear that he's referring to Housman's poem and Housman's subject: the B.E.F.

    MacDiarmid is a good enough Communist to think that you can't have principles if you get paid. Housman insists that action which is not driven by political or religious ideology is more praiseworthy. Many things are nastier than money. MacDiarmid's support of Stalin lends weight to that point.

    1. Interesting discussion. The following simple-minded response occurred to me (excuse the Scots):
      Whit fir blame the bloody squaddie
      Fir daein’ aa that he wis telt?
      His shillin’ went tae feed the faimly
      The bosses kept the bloody gelt.

  7. Prof. Kendall:
    In what way is it proper to describe the U.K. in 1914 as "democratic," when at least half the population was disenfranchised?

    Referring to MacDiarmid's admiration of Stalin as often as possible is an ad hominem argument which leaves the merit of the poem untouched, in my opinion.

  8. Whatever we think of MacDiarmid, his poem is itself guilty of serious ethical failings.

    MacDiarmid's admiration of Stalin helps us to appreciate exactly what it is that his poem finds objectionable. He is prepared to support genocide. In that curious (and revealing) phrase 'professional murderers', the weight of his disapproval falls on 'professional', not 'murderers'. Murder, even on a genocidal scale, is acceptable if it is on behalf of a political programme which the poet supports. In MacDiarmid's perverse worldview, a soldier taking pay for protecting the sovereignty of a political ally is far more culpable.

    As for your point about democracy, are you suggesting that public opinion was not overwhelmingly in favour of the B.E.F.'s actions? Otherwise, in this context it becomes a semantic quibble.

  9. Hmm. Well, I feel that I would need to do a bit of research to fully and properly respond to some of the issues raised here, but I would like to throw out a few less-studied, immediate responses now.

    It seems to me that repeatedly invoking Stalin is perhaps to take the low road to a certain extent. One comment has already pointed out how common it was for poets - and English writers of the 1930s more generally - to be supportive of the Soviet Union. Referring so often to Stalinism and Stalin is to create a kind of anachronistic indictment of MacDiarmid's views - as if he knew then all that we know now. Even if we accept that MacDiarmid continue to back the Soviet Union and tolerate, or even praise, Stalin into the 1950s, it does feel a bit simplistic to invoke Stalin so heavily as a way of criticising the poem. And certainly, I think, it is a bit much to say that MacDiarmid "is prepared to support genocide." In this and elsewhere in some of your comments there seems to be a bit of slippage between the views we read off the poem, with a bit of context, and views we ascribe to MacDiarmid. I think it is quite possible that there the poem might throw up meanings and positions that don't accurately and/or completely reflect MacDiarmid's. It is, after all, an angry broadside, with a quality of being dashed off.

    I had both poems taught to me, side by side, at UC Berkeley, without much historical context for either - certainly without the more detailed background on the Housman that you provide here on your blog. The professor - Robert Hass, later poet laureate for the United States - was interested in the two poems as a conversation, using them to talk about times where poetry was more vividly and passionately felt than it has been of late - at least in the United States - about poetry as a kind of "public sphere" and part of the larger public sphere as well - those this is not how Prof. Hass put it at the time. And it seems to me on that score alone the MacDiarmid poem has something of value to offer.

    Consider the conversation here, about the issues Housman and MacDiarmid raise. Without the MacDiarmid poem, the Housman would, I think, be a bit less widely taught and read. It would I think be less interesting.

    And while I think that perhaps the Housman poem is, in some bland sense, a better poem, I love the verve - the anger and the energy - of the MacDiarmid

  10. Thank you, annares. My point, which you and others disagree with, is that MacDiarmid's approval of Stalin is pertinent to our understanding of his poem's contexts. This isn't 'the low road'; it is central to an understanding of what MacDiarmid says and why.

    It comes down to that phrase 'professional murderers', which has been revealingly underanalysed by MacDiarmid's admirers. Leaving aside the fact that it indicts all soldiers who are paid (and the law does not recognise killing on the battlefield as 'murder'), it is worth wondering why MacDiarmid objects to payment. The answer is that he is prepared to support murder (that is, real murder) in the name of ideology, not for payment. 'They were professional murderers' --- MacDiarmid's disappoval falls on 'professional' more than on 'murderers'.

    It is an important side-issue that the Kaiser's propaganda against the BEF as 'mercenaries', used with complex irony by Housman, is merely repeated and reasserted by MacDiarmid. Society tends to disapprove of mercenaries, which is why MacDiarmid's poem has enjoyed an unchallenged reception; but MacDiarmid is condemning soldiers who, except by sneaky propagandists, would never be classed as mercenaries. The BEF may have been professional, but they weren't mercenaries and they weren't murderers.

    MacDiarmid's poem is a lie.

  11. There are a few things to quibble about, but I take the gist of what you are saying. I suppose what I found objectionable was the way Stalin and Stalinism got thrown in - which is often a very heavy-handed, debate-stopping move, like invoking Hitler.

    It seems possible to make what I take to be your main points without invoking Stalin: that the BEF were not mercenaries by any ordinary definition; that MacDiarmid's opinion of them is odd and doesn't hold up to scrutiny; and that the poem as a whole is intellectually and morally muddled.

    It seems possible that MacDiarmid's notion of the BEF as "murderers" has to do precisely with the "professional" classification. That is - and I think this is close to what you are saying - if they had been motivated by ideology of one sort or another (patriotism or communism or what have you), that would have made them, I suppose we might say, "amateurs" and not therefore murderers. It's a weird point of view, but you can sort of see his point, or at least where he might be coming from if that were his view of the matter.

    We could go through the whole poem and try to unpack it in various ways. For instance, the "impious riskss" and bit about a man's pride... Would these risks have been pious, rather than impious, if the soldiers had not been "mercenaries." Etc.

    But I think most people don't read it as closely as you - certainly very few readers (including myself) would know enough about the historical background to know that the soldiers at issue shouldn't really be called mercenaries.

    I think for a lot of people what comes across is a sort of mini-jeremiad about war and soldiers. It's not a very accurate reading, but the poem is muddy and imprecise enough to lend itself to shallow readings. He objects to Housman's poetic celebration of some soldiers. On that level, and on the level of language rather than ideas, the poem is not without its merits or appeal.

    I've already mentioned the interest in it as a riposte to Housman, as constructing a dialogue in verse, and also as positioning both poems in a kind of public sphere. The pair of them argue for poetry's place on the op-ed page - a position it once did in fact occupy in the United States at least. The Housman poem by itself doesn't make such a strong case for this.

    I think too that the language of the poem, particularly in the first line, is worth considering - the use of the vernacular, the prose quality of it, the "swear words." That kind of thing was by no means entirely new or unheard of in 1935, but it still seems a bit refreshing. If you run across MacDiarmid in an anthology of English poetry (such as the Norton anthologies widely used in American universities), it is a breath of fresh air.

    The language, the purchase on daily life and the op-ed page, the sense of poetry as a dialogue / public sphere... all of these give the MacDiarmid real value in teaching poetry at the secondary or undergraduate level.

    If we then go on to clarify the intellectual muddiness of the poem's content, that's another thing.

  12. Without taking sides re the moral content of the above posts,I cannot help feeling that (with regard to poems concerning such serious ethical issues), a formal analysis of the poem ,with regard to the "refreshing" nature of vernacular swear words is taking intellectual detachment dangerously close to the effete.Rather akin to the ancient Romans admiring the technical skills of gladiatorial combat.As I stated , this is a "feeling" , rather than an intellectual process on my part ,but both poems were aimed at visceral rather than intellectual responses , and any other reaction risks missing the point or even being criticised as decadent.

  13. If MacDiarmid's adulation of Stalin is not considered fair comment, perhaps his remark, in an essay on Lewis Grassie Gibbon, that he regarded a million lives for a single perfect lyric as a fair exchange could be used instead.

  14. This is the same BEF that was raised after the Haldane Reforms and made up largely of units from the British Indian Army. It was formed as the name implies, after the shock of the Boer War as a quickly deployable flexible army capable of 'supressing' 'colonial rebellions'. they advertised for 'hardened fighters' not patriots. Their role at the Battles of Arras and Mons were in this sense, unplanned, despite the fact that they made a good job of it. Your history is a little hazy and the Stalin stuff is merely a cover. Starving Russian serfs bad, starving African and Indian peasants good-is that the idea? Prussian expansionism ugly, British colonialism beautiful eh? Oh, I forgot, those damned Junkers killed Europeans not just the worthless 'darkies' the BEF enjoyed 'popping off'. Stick to the formal analysis it'll do you good!

  15. Dear Anonymous,

    I'm afraid that you've misread the Wikipedia page. You say that the BEF was 'made up largely of units from the British Indian Army'. In fact, the IA contributed only about one-seventh of the BEF's ranks. And you say that the BEF's focus had been on 'supressing' [sic] colonial rebellions. In fact, the BEF was created in preparation for a European war.

    As for your attempt to create moral equivalence between the Stalinist terrors (estimated deaths: 20 millon) and the BEF (who, not having been involved in India and Africa, certainly didn't enjoy 'popping off' those whom you call 'darkies'), that deserves nothing but contempt.

    Next time, why not post under your real name?

    Love and kisses.

  16. Anonymous II ;-)

    While the BEF certainly was not made up of BIA units, some BEF units did have a John Company origin: e.g., the Royal Munster Fusiliers were the old 101st adn 104th (European) Bengal Fusiliers. Incidentally, there were seveal mutinies among the Company's European troops when they were told that they were henceforth taking the Queen's shilling.

    Units that formed the original BEF were regular British Army units and many would have served in India (and elsewhere in the Empire) and in the course of that service would have probably been used to put down native insurrections--usually quite brutally by modern standards, nothing out of the ordinary by late 19th century standards. Certainly the German suppression of the Herero uprising in Namibia was a true genocide (and has been recognized as such; Germany formally apologized for it as well) and worse than anything the British ever did in their Empire (other than probably the suppression of the Indian Mutiny).

    I have always had a fondness for Houseman's poem and agree with your defense/interpretation. I think the Old Contemptibles did themselves proud--even if the Kaiser never issued that order....

  17. Tim, I'm with you on this one.

    It's just a bad poem. Never mind that the language is mostly venom, and undistinguished venom at that; Mac's defenders might argue that the pacifist content is more important than bourgeois poetic fashion. But that ideological defense won't work, since MacDiarmid wasn't a pacifist.

    As you say, the BEF were not "murderers," except in the eyes of moral absolutists. In that case, the war was murderers vs. murderers, and luckily the more democratic and civilized murderers won.

    So much for MacDiarmid's moral argument.

    Then there's the straw man. Housman's "Epitaph" isn't, as MacDiarmid implies, about honoring murderers or "mercenaries" (a word Housman chose for its complicating irony). It's about recognizing the heroism (define it as you will) of 100,000 plain men who did their duty and perished (as instruments of policy, one must admit) in an international cause that transcended the labels of "liberal," "conservative," and even, for millions of people, "socialist."

    Some readers seem to think that "earth's foundations" means "British imperialism," but if so, MacDiarmid is indirectly endorsing German imperialism. Imperialism vs. Socilism is not the issue in the "Epitaph." In the atmosphere of 1914-1918, the ultimate survival of the invaded Allied nations within their familiar borders, and the defeat of blatant aggression, looked, to the Allies, to be synonymous with the survival of western civilization itself.

    MacDiarmid, of course, hoped to revolutionize that civilization. Too bad he tried to make his point so cheaply by digging up the dead and slapping them around while he declaimed his platitudes.

  18. I'm slightly at a loss to see the issue with MacDiarmid's piece here. If you'd pointed to its metric deficiencies I'd be right with you. But the main thrust seems instead to be a dubious moral quibble with his dislike of people who kill other people for money.

    It feels like it hinges on the assumption that "the weight of his disapproval falls on 'professional' not 'murderers'". But in my political innocence, I feel pretty sure that MacDiarmid would have been relatively happy to go with professional doctors for example, and less happy with amateur psychopaths, Joseph Vissarionovich notwithstanding.

    The distinction he draws on to make his point is a commonplace, enshrined throughout a whole spectrum of languages the world over - the distinction between a freedom fighter and a mercenary, a lover and a prostitute - and it's one which far, far predates the temporally-local squabbles of capitalism, communism and the rest. So to attribute it to some peculiarity of MacDiarmid's personal politics seems... ermm... let's say "wilful".

    Surely the poem's virtue is in highlighting the patent hypocrisy whereby professional killers in the pay of a foreign government are looked on as mercenaries, worthy of detestation. While other professional killers doing precisely the same job - but happening to have been born within the catchment area of the government in question - are somehow "heroes". This sort of "heroism" is not and has never been anything more than a crude political expedient. Or are we to suggest that the moral status of an act can be dependent on the geographic location of the perpetrator's birth?

  19. Blake --- I'm puzzled by this. Have you read the discussion above? MacDiarmid's detestation of the B.E.F, and his unironic willingness to repeat the label given to it by Kaiser Willhelm, has everything to do with his politics, and to argue otherwise is 'wilful'. Let me repeat: the British Expeditionary Force was not in any recognised sense of the term 'mercenary'. It was defending British interests, and it was attempting to liberate friendly nations from a violent and oppressive invading power. It had the overwhelming support of the British public for each of those goals. And yes, it was heroic.

    Yet MacDiarmid called the B.E.F. 'professional murderers'. This from a man who was prepared to support, or at least to overlook, Communist purges. So what is it about the B.E.F. to which MacDiarmid objects? He had no apparent qualms about murder by the State in support of an ideology which he favoured. He was what Stalin called a useful idiot, and there are few poems more idiotic than 'Another Epitaph'.

  20. I'm not sure what the relevance of MacDiarmid's repulsive views on Stalin is. It seems to me that we have six lines of verse to look at, the final couplet of which makes a telling and emotional point very effectively. And you think it is distasteful to imply that the soldiers of the BEF were mercenaries, surely it is Housman, not MacDiarmid, who deserves your criticism?

  21. Housman, of course, is using the Kaiser's slur ironically. MacDiarmid, of course, isn't.

  22. Another two poems

    Siegfried Sassoon ‘At the Cenotaph’

    I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
    Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
    Unostentatious and respectful, there
    He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
    “Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
    Means; their discredited ideas revive;
    Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
    Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
    Men’s biologic urge to readjust
    The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
    Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
    And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
    The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
    Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

    'At the Cenotaph' - a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid

    Are the living so much use
    That we need to mourn the dead?
    Or would it yield better results
    To reverse their roles instead?
    The millions slain in the War -
    Untimely, the best of our seed? -
    Would the world be any the better
    If they were still living indeed?
    The achievemenets of such as are
    To the notion lend no support;
    The whole history of life and death
    Yields no scrap of evidence for't. -
    Keep going to your wars, you fools, as of yore;
    I'm the civilization you're fighting for

  23. Had he been an Irishman (as his pen name suggests) and Grieve was writing with the 'Black and Tans' in mind, his rewriting of the original epitaph of those who 'took the King's shilling' might not have been far off the mark.

    Perhaps as an ex-soldier at that time, he might have had some experience of this 'police auxiliary' unit and the kind of men who joined it.

    They were the sort of 'Mercs' described by Edwin Morgan (another Scot) in his more recent recaptiulation of the subject. A generation of 'warriors' for whom war itself was 'all in all'. And who would form a greater part of the (principled - for they weren't paid much) fighting forces of the Political movements of the 20's & 30's