Critical Appreciation

“After Blenheim” is an anti-war poem written in the traditional ballad form by Robert Southey where an old man, sitting in front of his cottage intently watches his grand children playing on the field. The cottage, having an important historical connection of its own, is situated on the bank of a stream where an important historical battle between the English army and the French army has been fought long back. While playing the boy found a skull partially buried under ground and carried it to his grandfather for being curious about revealing its identity at the instant. The old man, in his reply, revealed that it is supposed to be a human skull, a terrible reminder from the battle of Blenheim, fought many years ago. The boy asked his grandfather about the battle in detail; the grandfather said that it was a famous war recording ‘a Great Victory’ for English army which reverberates at the end of almost each stanza.

The poem recounts the terrible aftermath of war fought between two European super powers some ninety four years ago. What is even more interesting is that the choice of the locale of the poem which happens to be small cottage near a stream where actually the battle was fought between two rival parties long back. The story of the poem involving an old man and his grandchildren, (not his son, perhaps killed in the very battle itself), are left to lick the wounds of a great war. The old man sitting outside his cottage, not inside it, has some symbolic connotations that war has reduced many civilians homeless who cannot straighten their back bone after being terribly affected by the war. Interestingly a human skull links the remote past with the present. What past has sown in the form of a war, the immediate present reaps the result of that devastating consciousness. The poem follows a symmetrical structure where bloodshed and horrible accounts of war has been consciously described almost in each stanza. The old man is not in a mood to give in that war is has catastrophic consequences hailing it as a great victory. Even when his grandchildren remind him that war is a wicked thing he is in no mood to rethink about the reality, justifying the war as being the national pride comes with a cost of its own. It might also throw light on another facet of Southey’s personality that the young revolutionary poet is in favour of a war which has been changed later to accept things as they are being represented symbolically by grand children.

While old Kaspar approaches war, rescinding all its catastrophic consequences, casually. However, irony is at work when the poet uses the deliberate ploy of gruesome details of war followed by a casual approach hailing it as great victory. It also points, time and again, that war comes with a great cost, whatever reasons one must assign for its justification. It has also contemporary relevance of how the questioning of our national pride is invoked while allocating meaty share of the budget to defense establishments, not withstanding plight of poverty the common people are subjected to, of the respective countries. The imagery of ploughing is used to show that skulls are multiplying; the old Kaspar found more skulls in the plough field which points to symbolic reproduction of the skulls and it certainly is disturbing sight for young children representing the future generation.

Again the introduction of the skull is not a smooth one. At the outset,  the poet introduces us to something ‘large and smooth and round’ which certainly refers to playing object like a toy or ball. When it is revealed that the child has found a skull exposed before the children, unsettling all our hopes and pleasantries in a great way. No more is it about a pleasant English summer evening. The incident of a boy playing with a skull without knowing what is, is shocking. A similar effect is achieved in stanza eight when it is revealed that “A new born baby died’ indicating that the death of innocent new born baby is really shocking without assigning a valid reason.

Shocking imagery also found in the soldiers death for unknowingly carrying out orders of their masters, for the survival of kingdoms or for continuation of dominance of one country over the other. Human life has been reduced to meeting deaths routinely without realizing the true worth of their life. The poet is aware of the notoriety of a war; he is repeatedly asserting that the war is a great victory for English side, but for the losing side, the cost with which it is fought is irreparable.

The theme of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is being interwoven into thecorpus of the poem effected by a war. Skulls found in plenty in the plough field and the one that Peterkin finds, bear testimony to this cowardly act. The perpetrators of war must also know for sure that while fulfilling their wild ambitions, they also put the entire humanity in a spot of fix for centuries together. Ironically, what the adult world is ignorant about war, children seem to undertake the responsibility of judging the war for its wicked connections.

Children are intent on knowing the repercussions of war: immediately after finding a skull Peterkin asks his grandfather what it is; Wilhelmine is also prompt about knowing the things associated with war. Kaspar explains the devastating happenings at Blemheim but does not know the causes of war. Nor is he interested to know its causes. He reiterates one thing that it is a great victory for Austria and England. Later old Kaspar knows pretty well that women and innocent children also died in the battle of Blemhiem as the cost for the glorious victory. Unlike the modern day politicians who justify war in the name of “collateral damages”, Kaspar seems to be complacent.

The symbolic overtone, a human skull carries is significant because being the most important functionary of human body it has got no significance before a war which consumes everything like a wild fire. Similarly, the repetitive effect of war as a great victory suggests that the opposite true because the death and devastation that a war brings with it overshadows the tag of victory for a selected few. For an immediate gain one has to pay prices for centuries together. Southey argues in contrasting terms that war is not at all welcome in the context of development of human civilization.

Poetic Devices

Alliteration: A poetic device which refers to consonant sounds at the beginning of the words is called Alliteration. Southey uses this poetic device to achieve special effects in the poem. Consider this example:

“Now tell us what ‘twas all about,
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about war;
And what they each other for.”

Irony: It is a poetic device in which the literal meaning is exactly the opposite of the intended meaning. Basing on situations, irony does play a significant role within the poem to attract the reader’s attention as to what the poet actually intends to convey. In the poem, the ole man Kaspar’s glorification of war as a great victory comes only at the great cost of loss of life and individual dignity. Victory at war comes at the costly expense of poverty, mass killing and loss of continents and blurring of boundaries. Notions of “famous victory” and “great Victory” have been blatantly overshadowed by phrases like ”I couldn’t make out” and “why that I cannot tell”. The truth is that war brings with it a fleeting and false pride which is a nonstarter in comparison to the causalities and destruction it leads to.  Irony gives the poet an advantage to deal with such poignantly contrasting situations which no other poetic device can ably represent.

Archaism: It refers to the words which are no longer in use. Its odd and offbeat appeal helps the poet to make out for the loss of lighter vein in the poem. High seriousness sacrificed sometimes to balance between the serious and lighter moods within the framework of the poem. Lines like “Nay nay, my little girl, qouth he” uses archaic words like Nay and quoth to achieve the desired effect. The only thing is that the reader needs to know the meaning of such words.

Metonymy: It’s a figure of speech in which a concept or thing is explored by something closely associated with it. In the line “And by him sported on the green” refers to the ground covered with grassland on which the children play. Here the playground is associated with greenery which is green in colour.

Repetition: The poet also uses repetition to good effect as to point out the ignorance of the old man Kaspar about war and its aftermath. The repetition of phrases like “things like that”, “you know”, and must be” point to the increasing degree of uncertainty and ignorance of the after-effects of a great war. Similarly, reference to war as a “famous victory” or “great victory” also points to the limitation of the old man in comprehending the negative sides of war. In both cases, the old man is the victim who is supposed to have much more foresight than the children who do not have enough experience to know about the deeper values of life.

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Prosody And Rhyming Scheme

Meter: It refers to the technical aspect of
Each stanza contains six lines.  The meter of the stanzas confirms to the folabided pattern
1. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
2. Iambic trimeter (three iambs for a total of six syllables).
3. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
4. Iambic trimeter (three iambs for a total of six syllables).
5. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
6. Iambic tetrameter  (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).

The end rhyme in each stanza except the second is abcbdd. The third stanza demonstrates this pattern:
a….Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
b…    Who stood expectant by;
c….And then the old man shook his head,
b…    And, with a natural sigh,
d….”‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
d…    “Who fell in the great victory.
In the second stanza, the end rhyme is abcddd.

In several stanzas, Southey uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony. Stanza five is an example.

"Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
    Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
"Now tell us all about the war,    
    And what they fought each other for."

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