Introduction of the Poem
Southey wrote “After Blenheim”, a war poem, in 1796. The poem is set at the site of the Battle of Blenheim that took place in 1704, with the questions of small children about a skull one of them has found. An old man tells two small children of burned homes, civilian casualties, and rotting corpses, while repeatedly calling it “a famous victory”. Blenheim is the English name for the German village of Blindheim, situated on the left bank of the Danube River in the state of Bavaria in southern Germany. In November 1700, the grandson of King Louis XIV of France acceded to the throne of Spain as Philip V. Austria and other European nations saw this development as an unfair maneuver by Louis to increase his power and influence.
Consequently, war broke out in 1701 between Austria and France. England and The Netherlands allied themselves with Austria. The German principalities of Bavaria and Cologne and the Italian principalities of Mantua and Savoy allied themselves with France. As the war progressed, Portugal and various German dominions, including Prussia and Hanover, entered the war on the side of Austria. In addition, Savoy renounced its allegiance to the French and joined the anti-French coalition. In 1704, the coalition defeated French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim. Among the conquering heroes were England’s Duke of Marlborough and Savoy’s Prince Eugene. After thousands of casualties, and vast civilian destruction, the battle of Blenheim ended. The English and Habsburg victory insured that Vienna would not be captured by the French. It was arguably among the most important battles of the 18th century, and the turning point of the War of the Spanish Succession.
The poem appeared in publication with several others, in the category of Ballads and metrical tales.
Summary of the Poem
One evening in fields around the Bavarian town of Blenheim in southern Germany a village folk called Old Kaspar has finished his work and is sitting in the sun in front of the cottage, watching his little granddaughter at play. Peterkin, his grandson, has been rolling a hard round object he found near the stream. He brings it to the old man, who explains ‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull”. He admits that the often finds them while ploughing in the garden. The children anticipate a story – “And little Wilhelmine looks up/with wonder-waiting eyes”. Kaspar explains to the children the story of the battle, that the Duke of Marlborough routed the French, although he admits he never understood the reason for the war himself.
He also mentions that his father had a cottage by the rivulet – “My father lived at Blenheim then” – where Peterkin found the skull. The soldiers burned it to the ground, and his father and mother had fled, with their child. The verse refers to a childing mother, or a mother with child and many of them died with their newborns, possibly alluding to his own mother.
Thousands of corpses lay rotting in the fields, but he shrugs it off, as part of the cost of war. Wilhelmine says it was a wicked thing, but he contradicts her by saying that it was a great victory.
Critical Appreciation of the Poem
“After Blenheim” is a poem that illustrates the pointlessness of war. Written 94 years after the Battle of Blenheim at the war ground, it is the aftermath of war. It tells the story of an old man and his grandchildren. Old Kaspar is sitting outside his cottage when his grandson Peterkin and his sister about the Battle of Blenheim that once took place there. In each verse Old Kaspar explains a violent scene of bloodshed and death:
“With fire and sword the country round………
And newborn baby died:”
The war caused devastation and hundreds of killings. Old Kaspar has a casual attitude towards this claiming that ‘things like that must be’. His gruesome descriptions, followed by his casual sayings create an effect of irony. It is ironic that it was a great war but no one knows why.
This poem like the others I have looked as a theme for farming. Old Kaspar is a farmer and finds a lot of skulls when he ploughs his fields. This again shows rebirth.
This poem is separated into 11 equal verses. Rhyme is used to speed up the poem.
Southey uses a skull, as it is the most unique part of the human body. This makes you recognize that the skull was once part of a human body that was ruthlessly killed, and again emphasizes the pointlessness of war.
As in the other poems the poet uses repetition as at the end each verse he repeats the ironic saying :
“But’ twas a famous victory.”
Old Kaspar continuously repeats this sentence as this is all he knows about the war. Although it is constantly mentioned that it was a great victory this is not what the poem is saying. Southey is using this phase to emphasis the exact opposite, that it wasn’t a great victory. It is a very effective way of making his point.
Stanza-wise Explanation of the Poem
Stanza 1 & 2
“It was a summer evening
Old Kaspar’s work was done
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found
He came to ask what he had found
That was so large, and smooth, and round.”
Explanation : The poem starts with a pastoral image. In the first two stanzas we are given a picture of serene green countryside in the backdrop of a warm afternoon and small stream where an old man was watching calmly his grandchildren playing by themselves. This evokes the warmth of a family portrait. The metaphorical warmth of the family is evoked by the literal warmth of the sun. Summer itself evokes the feeling of warmth, peace and tranquility. The word little gives us the idea of innocence of the children.
Stanza 3 & 4
“Old Kaspar took it from the boy
Who stood expectant by
And the old man shook his head
And with a natural sigh
“Tis some poor fellow’s skull’, said he
“Who fell in the great victory”.
“I find them in the garden
For there’s many here about
And often when I go to plough
The ploughshare turns them out
For many ‘thousand men’, said he
Were slain in that great victory.”
Explanation : This passage exposes the reality of the war that took place long ago. Old Kaspar learnt from experience that those round smooth things were the skulls of the soldiers as well as other civilians who were the poor victims of the war. He told that the skull might be a new experience for the children but he was habituated in finding them from underneath the surface of his land which he tilled with the help of his ploughshare.
Since many people were killed in the war the skulls were also too many. The vastness of the killing is symbolized by Kaspar’s words “For many thousand men were slain in the great victory.” Except for a “natural sigh” Old Kaspar seems not at all affected by the sight of the skull. He recounted his habitual confrontation with skulls in such a matter of fact manner that proves he is not at all bothered about the genocide the war unleashed.
Stanza 5 & 6
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes
“Now tell us al about the war
And what they fought each other for?”
‘It was the English,’ Kaspar cried
Who put the French to rout
But what they fought each other for
I cold not well make out
But everybody said’, quoth he
“That ’twas a famous victory.”
Explanation : The simplicity of the children is contrasted to the wisdom of the old man here. The children wanted to listen to some story as they must be listening from their grandpa since many days. Kaspar told them about the battle in a nutshell but did not hide the fact that he was not aware of the reason behind the war. He was a simple village folk who had no idea about why the war broke out. The old man actually proved himself as naive as the children.
Stanza 7 & 8
“My father lived at Blenheim then
Yon little streams hard by
They burnt his dwelling to the ground
And he was forced to fly
So with his wife and child he fled
Nor had be where to rest his head.
With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide
And many a childing mother then
And new-born baby died
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.”
Explanation : This speech of Kaspar points to the sheer meaninglessness of war. It also exposes how innocent civilians become the victims of a war. Fire and sword symbolize death and destruction here. Wasted is an emotively charged word here. It conjures the image of a land stripped of any sue, purpose and dignity. It shows both the futility of war and its destructive side. Besides, the image of the mother and child, both getting killed, evokes an image of the destruction of both the present and the future.
Stanza 9 & 10
“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.
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing”
Said little Whilhelmine
“Nay…..nay……my little girl”, quoth he
It was a famous victory”
And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win
But what good came of it as last?
Quoth little Peterkin
“Why that I cannot tell”, said he
“But ’twas a famous victory”.
Explanation : Kaspar gives a vivid and gruesome picture of the death and destruction caused by war. The use of the word ‘rotting’ reduces the dead man to a state of carrion. It shows how war not only takes away life but humanity and dignity. The was was won by the English side but it left untold destruction in its trail. Many corpses of human bodies lay rotting on the field of the fight. These bodies lay rotting in the sun because there was none to give them a decent burial.
By winning this fight two English Generals, namely the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, won long lasting fame. At this Wilhelmine exclaimed that killing people in this manner was a very wicked thing. Peterkin asked what good result war yielded. In reply Kaspar nonchalantly said that the he did not know the answer to these queries and all he knew was it was a great and famous victory. His repeating the line ‘it was a famous victory’ brings out the irony of war. The questions of the two innocent children signify the futility of war.