Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes gets its second outing as a GCSE English Literature anthology poem for AQA, having previously been included in the last. Whilst it may not be his best poetic offering, it fits well within the Power and Conflict section and compares easily with other war poems such as The Charge of the Light Brigade as well as those that explore the battle with nature such as Exposure or even Storm on the Island.
Context… Ted Hughes, like Heaney, is a poet who often explores nature in his poems. I don’t think he’s as accessible as Heaney, which is why you find fewer of his poems littering anthologies, although some of his poems are popular in collections. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he was also Poet Laureate, which shows in some measure his popularity. Hughes’ father served during World War One and fought at Ypres. This poem is from his first collection, published in 1957, The Hawk in the Rain, which contains a number of poems about the war. The most interesting images in this collection as you might be able to work out from the title are the way he uses animals to explore a number of themes. The Thought Fox, View of a Pig and Pike are three of his poems that focus on animals and use them to explore other themes. The collection itself is noted for its use of rhythm and the way Ted Hughes, not unlike Heaney, also uses the sounds of words for specific effect and to complement the ideas in his poems.
In terms of ideas in the poem, it compares well with Charge of the Light Brigade simply because of those graphic, violent images.
When we start looking at the form of the poem, we see that it’s written in free verse. We see those three stanzas of seven or eight lines – there’s a loose regularity, but nothing you would feel compelled to comment on. The stanzas are as long as they need to be and do not force the poem or box it into corners by requiring it to be more ‘neat’. You’ll notice the stanzas blend into one another, as we consider how the ideas are structured and we see that the first stanza runs into the second, and the second runs into the third. I think that it is more than appropriate to convey the sense of motion in the poem, to echo the way the soldier moves through the poem. The first line of stanza two seems to be very much a part of the first stanza, and then the second line changes subject, as he stops and reflects on the “cold clockwork” – almost like the soldier is frozen in motion as his mind reflects on the events, or like the poet deliberately (almost) stops him in mid-charge to interject this reflection on what it is the soldier is doing here.
Similarly as we move into stanza three, the last line of stanza two seems like it would be better placed in stanza three, but the gap between the stanzas very much emphasises the shot-slashed furrows. I’ll talk more about why he runs an idea into stanza two from stanza one, and why he leaves that little fragment of stanza three hanging back there in stanza two, but the overall effect is one of a disjointed, fragmented and fractured moment.
The poem is not driven or constrained by rhythm and rhyme in the same way that other poems are. One of the focal points we might notice about the form of the poem is that it makes a lot of use of enjambment, with two noticeably enjambed lines in stanza one, the “raw/in raw-seamed hot khaki,” and “hearing/bullets smacking the belly out of the air” where the rest of the line breaks kind of fall where you would expect them to. That begs us to consider why he runs these lines into the next, why he wants to break up these phrases. For me, he leaves that word “raw” hanging at the end of the line, making it more important somehow, especially given the repetition of the word. It really makes us reflect on that rawness. And in the second, there is a gap between “hearing” and what he hears, the “bullets”, which seems to slow them down – a tiny, mini pause on paper that we don’t hear in the reading. That word “hearing” dangles… We’d read it and wonder what it is he hears, it’s like the word “bullets” catches up a microsecond later.
In stanza two, we also have some interesting use of enjambment, focusing us on the words “running” and “runs”. The lines literally run into the next line. When you take that huge sentence, split over four lines, you are obliged to think about why Hughes has written it this way:
He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride.
That 35-word sentence is long. It leaves us breathless to read. That’s its first effect… we are as breathless as he is. I’m reading, desperate for the comma after “still running”, and by the time I get there, I’m breathless. It makes that breath-pause comma-stop even more necessary and when I read it aloud, I find myself stopping there for longer than I would to catch my breath. For me, it emphasises the need to get to the target (the comma) in order to breathe again… I’m conscious of needing to get there, just as the soldier must be to get to the safety of his target – “the green hedge”. I’ll talk more about how he uses enjambment to add meaning to those active verbs in the next post exploring the language and imagery in the poem.
In the third stanza, we also have some noticeable enjambment between “wide/open silent”, splitting the idea over two lines. I think this does a similar thing as it has done in other parts of the poem. The line breaks stop us in mid-phrase, leaving us hanging for a microsecond, as if time has just stopped still at that moment. I don’t know why but it reminds me of when they slow film down and you can see the individual frozen moments that make up a movie. It seems to capture that moment like a photograph and freeze it, like they’re in suspended animation. At the very least, it allows us to process the image, to take it in. But where he splits phrases across lines, those line breaks seem to me to be a chasm of a pause rather than just a line break. The effect for me is that it seems to put the soldier – or the hare – into suspension, stopping them for a brief moment before continuing.
When we consider structure, the poem starts as if the man has awoken from sleep. It drops us right into the action alongside the soldier when it starts with “Suddenly he awoke”. It’s disorienting and confusing. We have no idea what woke him or why he is running, or indeed who “he” is. Like Heaney’s and Owen’s ambiguous “we”, this “he” gives us no idea who “he” is, although the title will, of course, have filled us in on what is happening here. The title gives us a sense of what is going on and why he is running – it’s essential in order to make meaning from the first line that we understand the title. But it gives us a little of the soldier’s confusion and disorientation.
The poem narrates two moments: the soldier running, and then the appearance of the hare. We notice the word “then” at the end of the second stanza which shifts us on to the next moment. It’s a brief incident, but it is described in such detail that it becomes almost slow motion, with each action distinct. The introduction of the hare seems almost surreal, and we’re reminded that in order for the man to pass the hare, the hare’s “threshing circle” must be its death throes. It wouldn’t make sense any other way.
I find the ending the most interesting aspect of the structure: does the soldier get to the hedge or not? We don’t know. It is left unfinished. The fact that the poem is also past tense means that Hughes could have made that clear, had he wanted to, but it finishes with the final moment being the soldier’s wish to get to the hedge, “to get out of that blue crackling air” – and that’s where it finishes. We never know if he survives or if he dies. It’s a bit of a philosophical dilemma – like Schrodinger’s cat. You’ll need to get someone better at explaining complex quantum physics to tell you about Schrodinger’s cat, but essentially the dilemma is this: there is a cat in a box. It’s either alive or dead. Until you open the box, it is BOTH alive AND dead. I have no idea what the comparison is supposed to explore, but the soldier is in that same state. It’s possible he lived, it’s possible he died. Both things are true and not true. The poem finishes with the uncertainty over the man’s life. We don’t know who he is, which war this is, when this is, where this is, and we finish the poem not even knowing if he is alive or dead. In this way, Hughes leaves us with an enormous mystery which leaves us feeling unsettled.
The poem is not just observational – there are moments where we go into the mind of the soldier. By the last four lines of the poem, it has become much more subjective as Hughes takes us into the inner thoughts of the soldier. What had been largely observational and focused on external actions is now focused on telling us that the soldier has forgotten all the nobility, the glory of war and is only now fixed on saving himself. We have a structural shift then from external actions to internal thoughts as we arrive at the final lines. That subjectivity touches us too as a reader: we cannot help but feel like we want him to get to safety, but we are cheated of that knowledge.
In the next post, I’ll look at how Hughes uses language and imagery in Bayonet Charge, exploring the words he chooses and how he uses the sound of language for effect as well as some of the ideas within the poem.
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