“After Blenheim,” also known as “The Battle of Blenheim,” is an anti-war poem written by Robert Southey, who was named poet laureate of England for his contributions to poetry. It was written in the style of a ballad. The poem’s subject matter is the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) when Charles II died without an heir after his death in 1700. Phillip V, King Louis XIV’s grandson, rose to the throne in a contentious manner, sparking a war between Austria and France; according to the former, the latter seized power through unfair methods. The entire continent had been drawn into the war, and the Austrian side, led by England, beat the France-led side in the Bavarian town of Blenheim in Germany, bringing the conflict to a close. Southey’s poem refers to England’s Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy as the two greatest heroes in the battle.
The poet progressively portrays the setting of a former war through a discourse between an old farmer, Kaspar, and his grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin. One of the children has discovered something ‘large and round,’ which his grandfather reveals is a skull, one of many recovered nearby.
Throughout the poem, similar occurrences are used to reinforce the major ideas – the tragic end of the war and the vulnerability of human life. The poem After Blenheim helps us consider the purpose and outcome of a war, even questioning its legitimacy. The war left widespread devastation and thousands of casualties. However, Old Kaspar appears indifferent about this, claiming that ‘it was a famous win’ and that ‘things like that must be’. His grisly depictions, followed by his nonchalant remarks, create an ironic impact. Oddly, a major battle was fought yet no one understands why.
The Background To The Poem “After Blenheim”
In the poem, two children seek knowledge about a skull from their grandfather, confirming the ballad form. What follows is the grandfather’s account of the conflict, which resulted in widespread damage of homes, widespread civilian casualties, and decaying bodies found everywhere, demonstrating the extent of inhumanity that war can bring. Southey’s fundamental point is that the common people suffer as much as anyone else in a war and are opposed to the unpleasant and ugly reality that comes with it, even alone celebrating it as a noble act. The grandfather’s repeated references to war as “a legendary victory” and “a magnificent victory” are meaningless because he fails to explain what exactly caused the war. Breaking out of a conflict has no value for the average person because they have no awareness of the war or its devastating consequences; they are only concerned with either the victory or the loss.
After Blenheim Stanza-wise Summary
Stanza 1– The first stanza begins with a picturesque description of a summer evening. The poet introduces the main character of the poem; old Kasper had just finished his work for the day and was sitting in the sun before his cottage door, watching his granddaughter Wilhelmine play on the field.
Stanza 2– While playing, Wilhelmine saw her brother Peterkin rolling something “large, smooth and round” which he had found beside the stream. He was curious to know what that thing was and thus turned to his grandfather for information.
Stanza 3– Old Kasper took the “large, and smooth, and round” thing from his grandson’s hands and shook his head with a sigh as he figured that it was some “poor fellow’s skull” who had died in the war. Ironically, he refers to the battle of Blenheim as a “great victory” at the cost of loss of human lives.
Stanza 4– Kasper goes on to mention that he had found many such skulls while ploughing the land as thousands of soldiers were killed in the victorious war. The dead bodies of these soldiers lie in the fields unnoticed. However, Kasper’s use of the term “great victory” expresses his pride at the sacrifice of the soldiers who played a vital role in the war.
Stanza 5– The children were excited to know more about the war. They were curious to know about the purpose of the war. They had associated a sense of thrill, adventure, and excitement with the idea of war and sacrifice. Little Wilhelmine looked up to her grandfather in anticipation with “wonder-waiting eyes”. In this stanza, the poet attempts to distinguish the kind of curiosity and enthusiasm associated with a child.
Stanza 6– The battle of Blenheim was one of the major battles of the war of
Spanish succession in which the English successfully defeated the Franco Bavarian army. Kasper takes pride in the “great victory” but he is unable to tell his grandchildren the reason behind the war. He did not even try to find the purpose behind it. He just chose to know what others told him regarding the war – that it was a “famous victory”.
Stanza 7– In this stanza, we observe Kasper recollecting the memories of his past. He tells the children that his father used to live at Blenheim. The French soldiers burnt the homes of several innocent people among which was his father’s. This destruction forced the people to leave the village and search for a safer place. Kasper’s father, thus, fled with his wife and young Kasper in search for shelter but he was unable to find a home because of the dreadful war. This rendered their family homeless.
Stanza 8– Stanza eight highlights the horrific aspect of wars. The symbol of “fire” and “sword” embodies the evil spirit of human cruelty and destruction. The image of the death of pregnant mothers and newborn babies heightens the idea of the ruination of human beings caused by none other than men themselves. The idea is to express how thousands of innocent lives are taken in due course of a futile and meaningless war that is sure to bring only damage and destruction. The irony in the poem is made evident by Kasper as he says that these things are meant to happen at every battle where there is a “great victory”.
Stanza 9– The poet, through Kasper, goes on to describe the agony of war. He mentions the “shocking sight” of the battlefield that was full of dead bodies of the soldiers rotting in the sun. Through this image, the poet attempts to bring into consideration the indignity in the way the soldiers lay. They are reduced to a mere status of an inanimate object. There is no dignity, no glory in war; only misery. Even after such a terrifying aspect of the war, Kasper regards it as a “famous victory” which emphasizes the ignorance of the old man about the purpose and consequence of war.
Stanza 10– Duke of Marlbro was an English General. He was the commander of the British forces in the battle of Blenheim. Prince Eugene and Duke of Marlbro represented Britain in the battle and defeated the French at Blenheim. Kasper sang praises for the men who brought the “famous victory” to the nation. But Wilhelmine, confused at the meaningless praises, exclaims that the war was a “wicked thing”. For the first time in the poem, we see disapproval of the false glory of war. But, not answering to his granddaughter he does take recourse to repeat the same thing again. The war is not a wicked thing for him as it comes with the grand success of a “famous victory”.
Stanza 11- In stanza eleven which concludes the poem, Kesper is in full praise for the Duke who has won the war for England, their motherland. With the innate nature of a child, young Peterkin asks his grandfather what worth the war has for the successive generations? Unable to satisfy the young mind’s query, all that he says is that it is a famous victory. It points to the poignant irony in the poem as against the grain of loss and devastation; the only thing the old man reiterates is that the war has brought national pride to them.
Analysis of the poem
It is an anti-war poem by poet laureate Robert Southey written in the ballad form in 1796. “After Blenheim” better known as “The Battle of Blenheim” where Blenheim is the English equivalent of the German village Blindheim found on the left bank of river Danube in the state of Bavaria in southern Germany.
Southey offers different perspectives on war by actually recounting the aftermath of one of the famous battles of the 18th century, the war of Spanish Succession where the coalition of forces led by the English Army defeated the French and Bavarian forces at the battle of Blenheim.
Southey maintains a safe distance from taking direct recourse to war but begins with in the conversational ballad tone where a farmer is talking to his grandchildren. Gradually the attention of the reader is drawn towards the battlefield. Peterkin has found ‘something Targe and round’ knows with the help of his grandfather that it’s a human skull, reminding the tender boy and the reader about the devastating aftermath of war.
Old Kasparov describes the horrible story of the battle and the resultant loss of life. But ironically he never tries to explain what the root cause of the war is or why such a war has broken out? The old man’s vivid description of war where corpses ‘rotting in the sun’ and little Wilhelmine’s firm assertion that war is a ‘wicked thing’, Southey’s spokesperson, the old man Kasparov repeatedly says that the battle is a ‘famous victory. The reader is repeatedly reminded of the assertion of validating the importance of war. Of course, later in his career, Southey seems to repudiate the passive acceptance of war as the inevitable happening.
The poem speaks against the inhuman killing as a result of indulging in war. Soldiers are the immediate causalities; innocent civilians are not spared either. The result, out of this gruesome battle, is a misnomer. Many people even do not know what a war actually means. They believe only in a tailor-made story to justify the stubborn behaviour of their leaders. The poem attempts to point out the reality involving a war, however, famous like the present one at Blenheim, is only about the mindless killing of innocent people resulting in the loss of life and property.
It begins with old Kasper finishing a normal day’s chore, takes a rest out in the sun in front of his cottage, watching his grandchildren at play. Peterkin, his grandson is playing with a hard round object he found near the stream. He takes it to the old man who explains ‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” which he often finds in fields while ploughing . the children insist on their grandfather telling the story behind the skull, particularly, the girl Wilhelmine waiting eagerly, “with wonder-waiting eyes,/ Now tell us all about the war/ And what they fought each other for”.
Kaspor explains the devastating story of the battle where the Duke of Malbourough routed the French, although he himself has no answer to the reason for fighting a war. He goes on to explain that his father had a cottage near the rivulet “My father lived at Blenheim then”, the place his grandson Peterkin traced the skull. The soldiers were on the rioting spree, burning the houses and killing innocent civilians at will. His parents had to flee to save their lives along with their child. The horrible account of the war records minutely how thousands of innocent people, including pregnant women and children were killed in the war. But Kasper never repents for the loss of life and property regarding the end result as a great victory for England.
Thousands of rotting corpses are found around but Kaspar justifies these deaths in the name of national pride which seems rhetoric of war where countries do not hesitate to spend lion’s share of their wealth for defence purposes ignoring the poverty of the masses. When his granddaughter Wilhelmine points out that war is a wicked thing, he contradicts her saying that it is a great victory. Whereas being a child, Peterkin asks a pertinent question what is the use of war? He did not offer a satisfactory answer, he only believes in others saying that it is a great victory.
It is through a conversation between Kasper and his grandchildren that the poem starts. One of the children informs his grandfather that he has found something ‘large and round’ on the field, to which his grandfather remarks that it is a skull and there are many more to be found. Some instances run throughout the poem to support the main ideas of the tragic end of the war and the vulnerability of human life. The poem “After Blenheim” makes us ponder over the purpose and result of war and questions its validity.
War always comes paired with catastrophe and destruction. Kasper’s gruesome descriptions of the war, which is followed by his casual utterances, form an effect of irony. Ironically, it was a great war but no one knows why. In the meaningless outbursts of the war heroes, the unawareness of the futility of war and the inability to comprehend the scathing horror of the outcome is detected in the minds of the common people.
The characters are introduced in the poem in the very beginning. We come across an elderly farmer named Kaspar who is sitting in front of his cottage watching his grandchildren Wilhelmine and Peterkin play on the lush green field on a summer evening. When the children enquire about the cause of the war, Kaspar replies that the significance of the war was in the victory that the English routed the French that the later generations would call a great and famous victory. Kaspar also informs them boastfully that there are several skulls to be found on the field that belongs to the poor fellows who died while fighting in the war.
The ‘great victory’ refers to the victory in the battle, which also happens to be an example of patriotism as well as ignorance. However, Kaspar is at a loss to explain the cause of the battle. Kasper knew that the fields were filled with dead bodies of the soldiers, he knew about the destruction of life and property, the death of the newborn babies. However, according to him, such things are all a part of the war and they do not negate the glory of the victory which is why when Wilhelmine says that the battle must be a “wicked thing,” Kaspar tells her she is wrong. It was a famous victory, he says.
In the following stanzas, we see the poet depicting the terror of war. After the battle was over, thousands of dead bodies of soldiers lay rotting in the field in indignity. There are sound effects in this stanza and they are generally helped by the assonance of ‘shocking’ and ‘rotting’ and the sense of alliteration in the first line. These together give greater resonance to the horrific image of death. The scene of ‘rotting’ reduces dead men to carrion.
“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;”
The poet has employed several poetic devices in the poem like alliteration, repetition and irony. Throughout the poem Kaspar regards the war as a glorious victory.
The readers come across Kaspar praising the Duke and the Prince for defeating the French army and for bringing glory and pride to the nation, thus, creating more confusion and dilemma in the children’s mind. The children are unable to grasp the essence of the so-called glory in a war that their grandfather is singing praises about. It is through the innocence of the children that the disapproval and pointlessness of war is presented.
Kaspar seems to hide all the destruction and agony caused by the war by repeating that it was a great victory. He seems to be afraid of breaking the romantic notions of war that are influenced by the people around him who idealize war without realizing the damage that comes with it. And these romantic ideals of war are what he also wants to put in the minds of the grandchildren. War to him was of a greater good, even though came at the cost of death and destruction.
We again come across the line “But ’twas a famous victory”. The war was fought over a trivial dispute but it did cost the lives of thousands of soldiers. It was fought near the village of Blenheim, in Bavaria, on the left bank of the river Danube, on August 13, 1704. The English and Austrians, under the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, defeated the French and Bavarians, under Marshall Tallard and Marsin.
The only thing that is undeniable in a war is that the destruction of life and property is sure to take place. Victory cannot bring back all the lives which were lost during the war. That is why the poet questions the effectiveness and the need of war. Thus, the poem ‘After Blenheim’ successfully depicts the poet’s message that war is something which must be avoided, as all it brings is more destruction and dissatisfaction in this cruel world.