‘Bayonet Charge’ by Ted Hughes is a poem about the confusion and chaos of war, where the ideologies of countries, governments, and nations transfer to the individual soldiers who fight for them.
These soldiers are forced to give up their lives for the sake of abstract beliefs such as honour and patriotism. The soldier in the poem is young and inexperienced; in this intense moment of war, as he charges towards the enemy, he forgets ‘the reason of his still running’ as the former beliefs about ‘king, honour’ and ‘dignity’ no longer matter in the face of death.
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“Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, …..”Ted Hughes
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright restrictions)
Bayonet – a knife that is stuck to the end of a rifle gun in order to be able to stab opponents
Charge – surging or running forwards at a fast pace, as in battle
Raw-seamed – rough at the edges, clothes that are quickly or roughly made
Khaki – a grey-green colour that is often used for army uniforms
Clods – clumps of earth
Dazzled – blinded with bright shining lights
Rifle – a type of gun that’s used to shoot at a distance
Lugged – dragged / carried heavily
Patriotic – filled with a sense of patriotism, a duty to one’s country or nation
Molten – melted metal
Bewilderment – confusion
Footfalls – the sound that feet make as they hit the ground
Statuary – a display of statues
Mid-stride – in the middle of taking a step forward
Shot-slashed – torn to pieces by gunshots
Furrows – trenches, usually made by ploughing the earth to prepare it for farming
Hare – a wild animal, like a rabbit but larger
Threshing – thrashing about, as in an animal caught in a net
Plunge – dive or push deeply into something
Honour – a sense of pride and greatness
Dignity – worthiness and respect
Etcetera – a Latin phrase, meaning ‘all the rest’, often used in an offhand sort of way when a person can’t be bothered to finish their list
Yelling alarm – a shout of panic, either as an expression of shock or a warning to others
Dynamite – a highly explosive material, often formed into sticks that used for blowing large holes in the rock
Stanza 1: Suddenly he woke up and he was running – raw in raw seamed hot khaki uniform, heavily sweating, stumbling across a field of lumpy earth towards a green hedge that dazzled with the lights of firing guns, he heard bullets all around him, they sounded like they were smacking the belly out of the air – he carried a rifle that was heavy and numb like a smashed arm; there was a tear in his eye as he thought of his country, he was sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest.
Stanza 2: Then, in confusion, he almost stopped – In what cold mechanisms of fate and politics, was he the difference between success and failure at that moment? He was running like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs listening in between the thud of his footsteps for the reason why he’s still running, and his foot hung like a statue in the middle of taking a step. Then the furrows of the earth had been destroyed by gunshots.
Stanza 3: Threw up into the air a yellow hare that rolled like a flame and crawled around in a circle as it thrashed about, its mouth wide open and silent, its eyes bulging. He ran ahead past the hare, with his bayonet pointing towards the green hedge, king, honour, human dignity, etc – all these thoughts and feelings disappeared from the soldier’s mind as though they were luxuries as he yelled to get out of the blue crackling air, the violent air which was like dynamite to his terror.
The poem uses a third-person omniscient narrator who seems to be distanced from the moment of action, as he recounts using past tense a moment of panic in which the soldier with a bayonet is forced to rush at an unseen enemy, almost certainly to his death (though the ending is left deliberately unclear to add to the atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty). From this removed perspective, we are able to watch the scene unfolding similarly to a film, from the objective comfort of our own situations where we are distanced from the moment of action in the war. This creates a deeper sense of pity or pathos for the poor, confused soldier.
Visual imagery – ‘raw / In raw-seamed hot khaki’ – the use of enjambment creates a pause in the image as it flows over the line, adding to the sense of confusion and disorientation of the soldier. The image depicts the soldier wearing khaki combat gear – a kind of camouflaged uniform, but the compound adjective ‘raw-seamed’ implies that the uniform is not well made or comfortable – it has been quickly made and is too ‘hot’ for the soldier to wear well, perhaps alluding to the way in which soldiers themselves are often roughly trained for war, they are ‘raw’ and inexperienced and suddenly placed into a moment of battle. The repetition of ‘raw’ emphasises the concept of freshness and newness but also represents the idea that the soldier is too young and sensitive to be suited to his job, therefore he finds it difficult and painful; it may also reference the uncomfortable, ill-fitting clothes that chafe him and don’t suit him well.
- ‘stumbling… towards a green hedge /That dazzled with rifle fire’ – this visual image is a little perplexing, and critics have interpreted it in two ways: firstly the enemies may be using a green hedge for cover and therefore shooting through the hedge at the soldier without being clearly seen themselves. In this sense, the hedge may be a metaphor for the beauty and lushness of nature that is spoiled in war, Otherwise, it may also represent the release of tear gas – a green gas that is used to blind and confuse soldiers; as the ‘rifle fire’ is shooting from behind the hedge, this interpretation would suggest that the soldier is deliberately bewildered at the moment, as he misinterprets the green gas as a natural feature of the landscape. Furthermore, the continuous verb ‘stumbling’ suggests awkward and clumsy movement, again highlighting the soldier’s panic and lack of expertise.
Simile – ‘he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm’ – the simile ‘numb as a smashed arm’ emphasises the heaviness of the gun and also its uselessness, as the soldier is not well trained or experienced then carrying the rifle is not a help, but a hindrance as it slows down his running. The verb ‘lugged’ further underscores the weight of the rifle.
Plosive alliteration / Auditory image – ‘Bullets smacking the belly out of the air’ – the use of plosive ‘b’ sounds creates a sense of violence and chaos which is underscored by the dynamic verb ‘smacking’ and the personification of the ‘air’ as being an entity which is pummelled by the war.
Rhetorical Question – ‘In what cold clockwork of the stars and nations / Was he the hand pointing that second?’ – the alliterative phrase ‘cold clockwork’ stands out from the line, conjuring the image of the soldier being a mere cog in a machine, at the whims of the wider mechanisms of the universe that are entirely beyond his personal control, but which at the same time dictate whether he lives or dies. The reference to ‘stars and nations’ connotes both the ideas of fate and politics – two types of wider mechanisms upon which the world functions. The rhetorical question reinforces the deterministic tone of the poem that implies there’s nothing an individual soldier can do against such powerful forces. The second part of the question uses a metaphor: ‘Was he the hand pointing that second?’ This extends the analogy of clockwork, as a clock has hands that tick round its dial to indicate the passage of time. Visually, the hand of a clock also looks very similar to the shape of a rifle with a bayonet attached to it. The effect is to suggest that the soldier may see himself as the representative of his country and army at this moment, feeling as though his personal success or failure could win or lose the whole war.
Asyndetic listing – ‘King, honour, human dignity etcetera / Dropped like luxuries’ – the use of enjambment underscores the way in which the soldier’s values and beliefs are stripped away or ‘dropped’ as he enters the moment of life or death. They are compared using a simile to ‘luxuries’, implying that these beliefs are not truly what makes up a person, they are merely ideologies that the soldier has been forced into following rather than his true self. In his moment of ‘terror’, he thinks not of his king or of what others will think about him, he is just in absolute panic and confusion. The phrase ‘etcetera’ implies that he can no longer even remember the full list of reasons why he signed up for war or the beliefs that are supposed to keep him fighting with a sense of patriotism for his king and country.
Opening – the poem begins in medias res (in the middle of the action): ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw’. The adverb ‘Suddenly’ creates a sense of panic and immediacy, as we – like the soldier himself, who has just woken up and been forced into action – are plunged into the middle of the action. The caesura in the middle of the line indicated by the dash creates a dramatic pause which further disorientates the reader. The soldier is perhaps asleep, and woken by the rifle fire, or he may have had an epiphany or moment of realisation that suddenly awakened his consciousness and made him reconsider his life and his reasons for being in war.
Shorter lines in the final stanza – the line length in the final stanza starts to diminish as the poem draws to a close, enhancing the pace of reading which increases the dramatic tension of the moment as the soldier moves ever closer towards his death. There is also a sense of bathos (anticlimax) in the ending as we are unaware whether he survives, this forces us to look more intently at the psychology of the soldier as he charges in battle rather than thinking about the outcome – his success or failure.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was a famous English poet, known particularly for his nature poetry. He was born in a small village in Yorkshire (Mytholmroyd), later moving to a mining town in the same county. His childhood experiences in the wild moorlands and his degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge form the basis of his poetic material, where he often seeks to capture the intrinsic relationships between man and the natural world. Yet in this poem, that connection is patently disrupted as Hughes twists typical pastoral imagery that is normally used to depict the idyllic countryside into something more grotesque and unnatural. The ‘green hedge’ may in fact not be a hedge at all, and the ‘shot-slashed furrows’ of the farmland symbolically represent the way in which natural harmony has been disrupted – the farming has been forgotten and destroyed in the moment of the war. Furthermore, the ‘yellow hare’ that is caught in the crossfire of the bullets dies perhaps from being shot, but more likely from absolute panic and confusion. It is a mere casualty of war, ignored and discarded; it is not being hunted and eaten as the normal countryside rituals would dictate.
Hughes himself was never a soldier in war – although he did work in the military as a mechanic before going to university, and he also drew on the experiences of his father, who was a soldier in the First World War. In particular, Hughes recalls a story about his father being shot in the chest during a battle at Flanders Fields; his life was saved by a paycheck book in his breast pocket, which stopped the bullet – something which is perhaps directly referenced in the image ‘sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest’, which could in this way be interpreted as the soldier having been shot but being too fuelled with adrenaline and panic to notice straight away.
So the choice of using a third-person narrative voice in order to distance the voice of the speaker from the subject and moment of the narrative is perhaps a deliberate way of creating a respectful distance between himself and the story of the poem.
It is more typical of war poets that were soldiers themselves to use the first person ‘I’ or ‘we’ narrative perspectives, as they speak from their own personal experiences.
The poem was written and published in 1957, around 12 years after the end of the Second World War.
First World War (1914-1918) – the conflict in the poem isn’t clearly outlined or named, but the use of bayonets, the confusion of the soldier, and the reference to ‘king’ (King George V) suggest that it is a First World War scenario. Interpreted in this way, we could say that the poem depicts the experience of ‘going over the top’, when a soldier was forced to climb out of their trench and run towards the enemy with a bayonet, with the goal of capturing the opponent’s trench. In the early years of the First World War, many young soldiers signed up based on the ‘patriotic’ attitude that had been instilled in them by government and media – the poorer, uneducated classes, in particular, were drawn to the idea of heroism and not provided with the wider perspective to fully understand what they were signing up for. Later on, in January 1916, the Military Service Act called upon all able-bodied men between ages 18-41 to sign up for war, so after a while even those who ideologically or personally opposed war were still forced to fight, being thrown into prison if they refused.
Shell shock – some critics have interpreted the poem as a flashback, memory, or dream of a former soldier to a moment of confusion when he was in the trenches and forced to run towards the enemy. In this sense, it could be commenting on the concept of PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that occurs after people have been placed into an incredibly stressful situation and are unable to recover from it or to readjust properly back to regular life. The term ‘shell shock’ was used to describe the particular kind of PTSD that soldiers suffer from.
Many soldiers are unprepared for the harsh realities of war – the opening of the poem and the general sense of confusion and disorientation implies that perhaps no person can really be prepared for the harsh and brutal moment of war when a soldier is forced into the situation of killing another or dying themselves, all for the sake of an abstract cause. It also suggests the tragic inexperience and lack of preparation of many soldiers in the First World War, as the general public were called upon to go to war – in January 1916, the Military Service Act called upon all able-bodied men between ages 18-41 (except priests, teachers, and some industry workers) to go to war – it was not the personal choice of these men to become soldiers, nor were most of them well suited to the task.
Propaganda and ideology are cruel mechanisms that institutions use to persuade individuals to become soldiers – as you can see from these World War I posters, the British government’s propaganda was highly persuasive and used a variety of methods to convince individuals to enlist in the war. Some posters said that men were cowards for not fighting, or that they had no sense of duty to their nation, some convinced them to sign up by making them think of protecting their families and friends. The sense of national pride for the country was heightened through media and propaganda in order to convince men that going to war was the right thing to do – it forced men, one way or another, into signing up and in many cases signing their lives and their sanity away.
Soldiers are dehumanised and become like machines in war – the fusion of the soldier in the poem with his weapon is apparent through the blended imagery of man and machine: he is ‘sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest’, his rifle is ‘numb as a smashed arm’ and he feels that his bayonet becomes ‘the hand’ of the army and the nation that all points towards conflict and victory. The First World War used many newly developed technologies – such as the bayonet rifles and potential references to tear gas that can be found in the poem – which caused warfare to transition from a man-to-man conflict into large scale, impersonal killing – there were no swords or arrows, no close combat, just brutal weapons that killed in increasingly brutal ways. The sense of heroism in wars of the past started to fade during the late 1800s for this reason, as war became less about skill and honour and more about numbers and technologies. In Hughes’ poem, he seems to conclude that heroism doesn’t exist in modern warfare, particularly not for the average inexperienced soldier.
Nature itself is a casualty of war – finally, as a poet of nature we can see Hughes’ concerns for the natural environment present in the poem. The ‘shot-slashed furrows’ invert a typically calm countryside image of farming and fields ripe for planting into a battleground that has been destroyed by bullets and action. The ‘yellow hare’ is a symbol of the innocent casualties of war, as it is dragged into and killed by a conflict that has nothing to do with itself. More than being upset about how war destroys nature, we could perhaps interpret the relationship between humans and nature in the poem as inverse – the more humans develop and progress, the less connected to nature they become. Furthermore, the natural order of the world is disrupted by war, showing how new life cannot be created as the world is in a state of destruction.
- Technology and Mechanisation
- Nature vs Humans
- Free Will vs Fate
- Compare the ways in which poets present the relationship between fate and war in ‘Bayonet Charge’ and at least one other poem from your collection.
- Compare the attitudes to modern warfare demonstrated in ‘Bayonet Charge’ and at least one other poem from your anthology.
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