An analysis of the language and imagery in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

In the last post, I explored the use of form and structure in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes, which is in this year’s AQA GCSE English Literature anthology for exams from 2017.  Today, I’ll be exploring how language works with the form and structure to convey Hughes’ viewpoint about the themes of conflict explored in the poem.

Bayonet Charge starts in the middle of the action, unlike some other poems in the anthology, which give you the necessary back story you need to make sense of it. Here, all we get is the title, an unknown war, an unknown time. It isn’t an entire story like The Charge of the Light Brigade.

So, what’s the effect of starting in the middle of something?

It’s immediately more dramatic. We’re dropped into the action, unprepared, perhaps like the soldier himself. The opening word ‘Suddenly’ emphasises this. It’s as much a shock for us as it is for the soldier. We also see that it’s past tense. This is another point of comparison with The Charge of the Light Brigade which is also past tense.

Here, you’ve got to think about the effect of tense. Present tense makes something more real, more ‘now’ – it’s as if it is happening now in front of our very eyes. We don’t know, just as the characters don’t, what will happen. Past tense is reflection. It gives us time to think, to consider our angle. I suppose, in a way, present tense is a little less biased – it’s presenting what happens, as it happens. Of course, this is only an illusion. All poems are written after the event, rather than during it. It’s not as if they unravel as time does. Past tense means that you’re reflecting on a completed action. There isn’t much, however, that is reflective about this poem. However, writing after the fact means that Ted Hughes, just like Tennyson, is allowed to consider his ‘spin’, his angle on things, to add his views and to polish the writing. Past tense is more commonly used with narrative and reflective writing. Present tense is more vivid in some ways, because it’s like watching something as it happens.

There’s something peculiar about what’s happening. The soldier, who is as yet un-named, and his role unidentified (we don’t know that he’s a soldier – it just says ‘he’ – and we can only guess from the title) is awake and immediately running. It’s odd. We don’t normally wake up and then start running. Why would we do this? Because we’re under threat? Are we running to something, or away from something?

The word ‘raw’ is separated by a dash from the line. The poet makes us stop and think about this word. It stands alone, brief and ‘raw’. And then he repeats it in the next line, so if we were in any doubt about the importance of this word, we aren’t now. So what does raw tell us? It tells us that something is unfinished or unprocessed (like ‘raw’ crude, which is petrol as it comes out of the ground, unrefined) and like his seams, which aren’t sewn over, aren’t made for comfort. They’re rubbing against him, making his skin ‘raw’. When our skin is ‘raw’, we’re often describing a wound. His skin has been chaffed until it is red. It’s painful. It’s a word that evokes pain. It’s what happens when something abrasive has rubbed on your skin. It’s also a word that when we use about emotions means emotions that are really clear, really on the surface, “strong and undisguised” (Oxford Dictionary) which could mean that all his emotions are on show, for everyone to see.

There are other things we could say about this word ‘raw’

  • Is he like a ‘raw’ recruit, unpolished, unrefined, inexperienced?
  • Is it that his skin is raw on a literal level?
  • Is he emotionally raw, on a metaphorical level?
  • Are his emotions strong and undisguised, like ‘raw anger’?

This little fragmented, repeated word gives us a lot to think about and it works on lots of levels.

The word ‘khaki’ is our first sign that this is an army situation. Khaki is the colour of army uniforms, and it’s often used in a military sense. It’s little clues like this that make it overtly about the war, in ways that we have only seen so far in Charge of the Light Brigade. 

The third line starts with ‘stumbling’. Like all the great verbs in The Charge of the Light Brigade, this is a very evocative word. If you stumble, it’s like you’re out of control. Wilfred Owen says a man caught in a mustard gas attack was ‘stumbling’ in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est – it doesn’t sound like the noble, brave or glorious soldiers in The Charge of the Light Brigade with all their sabres flashing, racing on proud horses into battle. This sounds like a man running to escape, desperate. If we stumble, we are hesitant. We stumble when we are unsure, when we have made a mistake. It sounds as if this man is at great risk. Yet we are three lines into the poem, and other than the title, we have no concept of why he is running. 

Like other poems in the selection, Bayonet Charge also uses the natural as a contrast. He races towards a ‘green hedge’ – it seems strangely out of place on this battlefield. We’re reminded that often, battlefields are exactly that: fields. And yet, other than his khaki clothing and the title, we’ve had little other clue that this man is a soldier or is involved in a battle. We see here how incongruous a war would be, out in the countryside. It doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t seem natural. 

The first five lines use enjambment to run the lines into each other, so you end up saying them like this:

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, hearing Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –

It’s all one long breathless sentence – and it still doesn’t have a full stop when we get to line 5. So why would Ted Hughes want us to be breathless? Does it evoke and recreate the soldier’s own breathlessness, unable to take a pause?

Not only that, but we stumble over our words too, when reading it aloud. It makes us read the words in a halting, hesitant manner, although speeding through it. The line breaks don’t fall where maybe they might, similar in ways to Heaney in Storm on the Island. In contrast to that poem, though, where the secterian violence is an unmentioned backdrop to the poem, where the lexical field of war is used to paint a picture of how nature attacks the island, here it is the war which seems out of place. 

The fourth line is where we begin to see the images of war: the hedge is dazzling with ‘rifle fire’ – which makes us wonder why he’s running to the hedge – surely, if that’s where all the bullets are going, he’s better behind the bullet line? Is he just running into danger? The verb ‘dazzled’ is very reminiscent of words in The Charge of the Light Brigade, which also uses words like ‘flashed’ to describe the weaponry. It’s these verbs that make the poem so vivid and recreate the sights of conflict. ‘Dazzled’, to me, doesn’t have the same visceral brutality as ‘smacked’ in the next line. Dazzled, if anything, is quite pretty. Smacked is not.

Ted Hughes personifies nature here, the air, saying the bullets ‘smacked’ the belly out of the air. It’s as if nature itself is the target: it’s the hedge being shot up, it’s the air that is being shot in the belly. Belly is also a fairly basic, evocative word. In fact, the word belly was banned from the Bible for a couple of centuries! Still, children often say ‘tummy’ rather than ‘belly’ and if you ask a grown-up they might say stomach, or a doctor might say ‘abdomen’ – belly is still a word that has got a fairly crude whiff about it. It’s a brutal, basic word. The Bible sees the belly as the seat of all our more primitive emotions, lust, greed and so on. Put it with ‘smacking’ and you’ve got some fairly brutal, harsh language. Couple that with the image of the air being shot at, and you’ve got a really powerful image. The ‘b’s in this line are also fairly plosive. Your mouth closes to say the ‘b’ (like other plosive sounds) and then pushes it from your mouth. Plosive sounds are often used by Hughes and his contemporary, Heaney, to have an oral effect. And the effect of a plosive explosion of ‘b’s? It’s harsh, basic and violent. Those plosive words ‘belly’ and ‘bullets’ really add to the effect of the poem, how violent it sounds. You might think I’m labouring the point but there are only four ‘b’ plosive sounds in the first verse, and two of them are on this line. This image of nature being attacked by war is the reverse of the images that we see in Exposure where it is nature that is the enemy.

Following these harsh plosives and the personification of the air, we have a simile: ‘he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm’. This image shows how the rifle has become almost like an extra limb – albeit a useless one. It’s dead weight. It’s also a very violent image – a ‘smashed’ arm – not just broken, but ‘smashed’. It couldn’t be much more brutal. It reminds us that the machinery and weaponry of war is senseless, literally, unfeeling. It’s a part of him, like an arm, but also it’s not a part of him – it’s useless, a hindrance.

Hughes moves to the pluperfect tense when he describes the patriotism that ‘had’ driven this man, suggesting that it is not there now. Now it is ‘sweating like molten iron’ from him – iron being heavy, weighing him down, but also metal – an inanimate object as unfeeling as the rifle. All of these metallic images seem to make him sound ‘robotic’ – like he is being replaced by metal and weaponry, like Robocop.

At that moment, he is ‘bewildered’, confused. And what confuses him? That confusion also echoes the confusion of Owen in Exposure. It reminds me here of another Owen poem too, Futility, where Owen reflects on God and life, how pointless the miracle of the universe seems when lives are snuffed out so easily and without consequence or even recognition. 

Where Owen refers to the ‘cold’ emotionless clay that formed the world in Futility, Hughes calls it a ‘cold clockwork’ suggesting something emotionless and mechanical, inhuman. The alliteration of ‘c’ – cuh – is cutting. It’s another plosive sound – kuh – and it’s cacophonous – dischordant. It stands out. It emphasises the ‘cold clockwork’ – making us think about it. The alliteration draws attention to it. Again, like many of the other poems in the selection, God is not present in this war. It continues the theme of this literally ‘god-forsaken’ war – a war that God can have no part in. All we are is ‘cold clockwork’ – the universe is something mechanised, something emotionless. The soldier ponders his place in time, where all this conflict fits in the grand scheme of things. In the billions of years that have passed and may pass, what is the significance of this war? Like Owen, even like Tennyson, he raises questions that almost cannot be answered, because the answer is that life, death and conflict are meaningless, pointless. And that very nihilistic thought is almost too depressing to live with. No wonder the soldier almost stops.

He ‘listens’ for the reason for things, and finds no reason at all.

Out in the middle of this chaos, where the soldier is frozen like a statue, a ‘yellow hare’ appears. The land here is ‘shot slashed’ and it reminds me that no matter where you go in a war-ravaged area, you cannot but think of the tragedy and the blood spilt, that the rain and seasons have now washed away. We don’t know if the hare has been shot, but it seems injured. It is ‘threshing’, in a circle, like an animal might do with a broken leg, unable to go in a straight line. It comes from the word ‘thrashing’, as in ‘thrashing about’ – moving ‘in a violent and convulsive way’ – it doesn’t head for freedom. Its mouth is ‘wide/Open silent,’ and here, Hughes uses the enjambment and the semi-caesura of the comma to make this bit fractured and fragmented, disjointed. It’s a terrible image, this hare in pain on the battlefield, reminding us that war is totally opposite to what is natural and good. It destroys the natural order of things. It gets worse. The hare isn’t just thrashing about violently in a circle, with its mouth open, as if screaming silently, but its eyes are ‘standing out’ – it’s terrified. Its last moments are in pain, terror and fear. It’s a hideous image. But then, is it any different for any of the soldiers who die? The hare seems almost a euphemistic, softer way of making us think about the soldiers who died in similar ways. It’s almost too painful to imagine.

Still, this spurs the soldier on, to make it to the safety of the green hedge, if safety is what he’ll find there. Hedges are often homes and protection for small birds, small countryside animals like voles and mice, protecting them from predators, and here, I’m reminded of the sanctuary a hedge provides for smaller creatures from things like hawks. A hedge is their fortress. Yet we know a hedge isn’t going to protect this soldier from bullets or bayonets.

What spurs him on? Patriotism. ‘King, honour, human dignity’ – like Henry V spurring on his men in Shakespeare’s play, who rallies his men with ‘cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’ (and if you want a great rallying call that picks up on patriotism and loyalty, Henry V’s speech is a great place to start, since it picks up on loads of great images that are used to spur men on to be victorious in battle, like Henry V was at Agincourt) – but Hughes undermines the effect of this little tripartite rally (there’s your little persuasive list of three, like ‘Harry, England and St George!’) with ‘etcetera’ as if he can’t be bothered to name all the other trite and meaningless words that fill his spirit. It’s a real anticlimax. Shakespeare finishes on ‘St George’ – a real build-up – and yet  Hughes undermines his with this little ‘etcetera’ – as if you already know how it goes. It really shows how hollow and pointless this is, this use of anticlimax at the end. If those words did make you feel patriotic, then ‘etcetera’ bursts that patriotic bubble.

Hughes calls these thoughts ‘luxuries’ – as if in war, he can’t afford to be driven by these thoughts. A luxury is something we can do without, something non-essential, something additional or extra to what we need. Still, it is these thoughts that spur him on to finally make his way to safety. If, again, that’s what the hedge is. I can’t help but think if the hedge is ‘dazzling’ with gun shot, he’s actually going to find this isn’t a safe haven at all. A luxury can be a comfort, though, and we get the feeling that although these feelings of patriotism aren’t essential to battle, it’s what keeps him going. When he stops to question what it is all about, Hughes tells us: country, honour, dignity. It’s a battle for something more than land. You are doing it for something bigger than you will ever be. And it’s enough to light this man’s fuse.

We then get a sense that the hedge is hiding the enemy – he gets his bayonet out and runs at the hedge. It’s as if he’s attacking nature. Of course, Hughes doesn’t say that he’s running into the enemy. This soldier has gone ‘over the top’ and is running at the enemy. The hedge is marking the enemy. The dazzling is rifle fire. The hedge is not protection, but the enemy. He is running to certain death. A bayonet is a knife that you fit to the end of your rifle in order to charge at the enemy – designed for close-quarter combat, man on man. It’s a last-resort weapon – it’s not ‘clean’ like rifle fire, because you’re up close and personal with the men you have to kill, and if you are in a situation where you have to use a bayonet, your chance of survival is pretty limited. This soldier is nothing but ‘cannon fodder’ – food for the enemy, served up on a plate. They have nothing to do but run at the enemy and hope to overwhelm them. It’s an utterly pointless and useless method of combat reserved only for speeding up death when picking off people by rifle fire is taking too long, and you are cornered without ammunition or supplies.

It worked in earlier wars, where a platoon could run across a battlefield or no-man’s-land knowing that the enemy might only get off a couple of rounds, because muskets took such a long time to load. But it didn’t work by the time of World War One, because rifles were so much more accurate and so much more quick to load. A bayonet charge was a battle tactic that was outdated and cost many, many lives. So we get a sense of how ridiculous it is for this man to run with his bayonet at a hedge-full of whatever enemy it is that he’s facing. We also get no sense that he is in company. There’s a real feeling that he’s alone and that he’s facing a larger number of this nameless enemy – his prospects of living are very slim.

What it is finally that sets fire to the ‘dynamite’ of his terror is a little thought of patriotism. It is his ‘dynamite’ terror if anything that is forcing him to run, to fight, not honour or duty or loyalty or patriotism.

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

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