Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Quote of the Day (Robert Southey, on a Costly British ‘Famous Victory’)

“ ‘They say it was a shocking sight  
  After the field was won,    
For many thousand bodies here  
  Lay rotting in the sun;  
But things like that, you know, must be  
  After a famous victory.’”— Robert Southey, “After Blenheim” (1798)  

Robert Southey, who wrote his best work as an early member of the Romantic movement, only to fall off sharply before being named poet laureate nearly two decades later, was born on this date in 1774 in Bristol, England. The eldest son of a draper who fell into poverty and death, he developed his manners at the home of his wealthy aunt. His college friend, fellow Romantic poet, and future brother-in-law Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not long after meeting him, remarked that he was “truly a man of perpendicular Virtue a downright upright Republican!” (That was "republican" in terms of the style of government, not the political party, he preferred.)

Like friend (and poet laureate successor) William Wordworth, he was a kind of English forerunner of the neo-cons—a youthful radical who, appalled by the excesses of the revolution he had hailed, turned reactionary with age.

“After Blenheim” (sometimes called “The Battle of Blenheim”) was written before his swing to the right. Its stature as one of the greatest antiwar poems in the English language is strengthened by the fact that it was created over a century before WWI made such sentiments widespread. 

I have written a post about Blenheim (or, rather, its victor, Sir John Churchill—otherwise known as the Duke of Marlborough) before. I followed the lead of most histories by analyzing Blenheim’s importance (i.e., checking the continental designs of King Louis XIV of France), but far less about its cost. So, picking up on the poet’s thread about the “thousand bodies” everywhere on the battlefield: Total Allied losses (i.e., troops under the command of the duke and his co-commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy) were 12,000 killed and wounded, with 40,000 killed, wounded and captured for their French and Bavarian opponents.

Like Mark Antony’s “Brutus is an honorable man” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the powerful connecting element of “After Blenheim” is a refrain that gains in searing irony with each repetition: in this case, the notion that, for all its carnage, Blenheim was a “famous victory.” Many more such victories, the poet suggests, and nobody will be left to appreciate the win.

You can be sure that “After Blenheim” was hardly the favorite poem of the Duke of Marlborough’s descendant and (not so coincidentally) worshipful biographer, Sir Winston Churchill. And you can rest assured that, in the three decades when Southey served as poet laureate, he never wrote anything so critical about his country again.

(The image accompanying this post shows part of the Battle of Blenheim tapestry at Blenheim Palace—the home built by the Duke of Marlborough--by Judocus de Vos.)

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