Right, let’s start with an overview. Bayonet Charge is a three-stanza poem, written by Ted Hughes, who’s considered to be one of the most influential poets of the last century. It’s an account of a soldier in the First World War participating in a bayonet charge towards the enemy – a bayonet is a knife attached to a rifle.
The poem doesn’t have a fixed rhythm and doesn’t rhyme, which gives it a panicky quality – like the panic and fear the soldier must be feeling himself.
Before we go any further, let’s look at the context of this poem.
World War One was a bloody conflict that raged from 1914 to 1918. Much of the war was fought in trenches – deep ditches in which soldiers lived, before emerging to charge at the enemy. This was extremely dangerous, and millions of soldiers died in the conflict.
Ted Hughes didn’t fight in the war himself – he was born in 1930 – but he heard about it from his father, who had fought and survived the conflict. It’s likely that his dad’s memories helped to inform the grim portrait Hughes paints in his poem.
1:16-2:43 – What’s it all about?
The poem is told in third person, but the language is emotive – so we are both detached from the scene but also immersed in it. The poet uses violent vocabulary that really helps us to feel the panic and danger – he’s transporting us to the trenches.The poem starts in media res – in the middle of the action – with the soldier running towards the enemy. The first words, “Suddenly he awoke” suggest that he has been in a daze up til now – perhaps through fear of what’s to come, but maybe also metaphorically: he’s been blind to the harsh realities of war. He’s “stumbling” and “dazzled”, giving us a real sense of confusion. Hughes repeats the word “raw” at the beginning of the first stanza, to describe both the soldier and his uniform; this gives us the impression that the man is both inexperienced and not fully trained or finished – just like the clothes he’s wearing.
This continues into the second stanza, when our protagonist looks round in “bewilderment” – he’s lost the sense of why he’s there and is caught up in the “cold clockwork” of events. (The harsh alliteration adds to the sense of violence here.)
Finally, in the third stanza, he’s moving again. The use of the word “plunged” tells us that his movement is still clumsy and desperate, while the noble qualities of “honour” and “human dignity” become luxuries he cannot afford in his frantic bid to survive.
Right, so we’ve got a general sense of what the poem’s about – now let’s explore it in a bit more depth.
2:44-4:19 – Dig deep
You might be forgiven for thinking that, given that there’s no set rhythm to the poem, there’s not a lot to say about structure. But you’d be wrong! Apart from the narrative structure, which we explored in the last section, the poem also uses devices like caesura (pauses in the middle of a sentence), enjambment (where one line runs on to another) and dashes (which create a disjointed feel). These all contribute to a stop-start quality, which conveys the panic and chaos on the battlefield.
As well as the chaos, this poem really hits us with the violence of war. Look at the descriptions: the soldier’s rifle is like a “smashed arm” and he is running over “shot-slashed furrows”. The sibilance makes that phrase an impressive tongue-twister, but it’s also a graphically violent description of his environment.
There’s also lots of descriptions of heat – the soldier is sweating, he has “molten iron” in his chest, the hare rolls “like a flame” and his terror is explosive, a “touchy dynamite”. It’s hot and loud and chaotic: a real hell on earth.
Finally, let’s touch on the poet’s message. One of the ideas he’s asking us to think about is how patriotism and duty can disappear in the face of carnage. The soldier’s thoughts of “king, honour, human dignity” disappear on the battlefield. And look at that “etcetera” at the end of that list – it’s dismissing these qualities as irrelevant among these horrors.
This is connected to the alliterative “cold clockwork” of the second stanza: the poet is saying that the soldier is at the mercy of both the “stars” (a reference to fate) but also “nations” (his superiors who decide when and where he will fight).
4:20-5:03 – That’s a wrap
So, that’s a very speedy look at the poem! Let’s summarise our main points:
- Bayonet Charge is a three-stanza poem with no fixed rhyme or rhythm, which reflects its subject matter.
- It’s a third person account of a soldier charging at the enemy during the First World War.
- The poem is choc-full of devices such as caesura and enjambment to convey the chaos and confusion of the battlefield.
- There’s also plenty of violent language to convey the brutality of war.
- The poet wants us to think about how human or noble qualities can disappear in the face of horrific events.