Bayonet Charge – Ted Hughes

Bayonet Charge

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 –
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest, –

In bewilderment then he almost stopped –
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second? 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. Then the shot-slashed furrows

Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
Open silent, its eyes standing out.
He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,
King, honour, human dignity, etcetera
Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.

TED HUGHES

Analysis

Depending on how you read this poem, it will either be an easy poem to understand and analyse, or a hard one. From the title we get the impression before we read that this is going to be about a man in uniform charging the enemy and is going to share some of his raw emotion at doing so; that is what we expect from simply reading the title.

But we also find that it is one of those poems that is like the good old fashioned onion, in that it has many layers. Its surface meaning reflects the terror and the awe at which this man runs forward, thinking noble and brave thoughts of country and bravery as he does so.

On a deeper level, there is more to be unpicked. This is a man charging with bayonet fixed, a moment of sheer bravado and guts from anyone and to this reader, who has been trained in such things, it is reminiscent of Army training, running at the “green hedge” that could be meant to reflect the enemy or the place you are trying to take.

Beginning with the word “Suddenly” is for me, an interesting beginning. It is like the writer is wanting you to read this at a rush at the beginning, that the necessity to launch into the reading of this poem is subliminally given to the reader. As this is then followed by “he awoke and was running,” the reader is led on a charge of their very own, enabling the reader to share something of this man’s task at hand. It is a “raw” task completed by someone “in raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,” as it comes down his brow as he makes that desperate run forward. This is an act of desperation.

As the charge continues, itself similar in tone to that of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, we see a man armed with a rifle, “stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge” that is alive with “rifle fire,” but it is what the soldier is “hearing” that makes the tone more desperate than ever, for he can hear “bullets smacking the belly out of the air.” That single word, “smacking” is a word denoting violence or a violent act. It is one associated with someone inflicting pain and harm on another. It is therefore, an emotionally violent part of this poem.

SLR SA80

But then the tone changes again as the soldier “[lugs] a rifle numb as a smashed arm” up to that hedge. The use of the simile here is helpful to the reader as it enables us to see just what a weight a rifle actually would be. When I did my Basic Training in 1977, we were given something that fired 7.62 rounds [left picture] and it was no lightweight piece of kit. Now, the army are given the SA80 [right picture], among others, a much lighter beast to haul anywhere. As this poem is undoubtedly set in former times, when the SLR was prominent, one can only imagine the extra weight trudged up that hill to the hedge in question.

The poem then uses words to bolster pride in the reader because we see that “patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye” as he progresses and we see the sweat, “like molten iron from the centre of his chest” as he runs. Up to this point this is a poem about bravery, a brave man taking part in something equally heroic. It is reminiscent of Colonel H in the Falklands Conflict and of so many before him and since.

But then, we see in the second stanza a different feeling and set of emotions. The soldier now feels a sense of “bewilderment” as he nearly stops and begins to think things through, thinking “in what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations” is he pointing at that very moment. Soldiers are taught not to think of the fear or what might happen when moving forward. They are taught to obey an order, do what they have to do and then when it is all over there is time for thinking to be done. But this soldier is now taking time to think, as he is running. In one sense this could be seen as the normal thing to do. In another, not so. But what is evident in this second stanza is that we now see a man who is able to think logically for himself. The use of the metaphor in “cold clockwork,” as well as being alliterative, allows us to see past the soldier and to the man.

It is as though he has started to run and then stopped for a split second in flight as if to say what am I doing here? This could indicate an opinion in the mind of the poet, who equally thinks that all war and therefore all battles like this, are futile. The conflict of war therefore, is one that is being discussed here as Hughes asks us to consider just what we mean by words like “brave” and “noble.”

All of this then progresses into the third stanza, where we see the man seeing something very odd happening. He sees a “yellow hare” but one is left to consider whether this in itself, is a metaphor for something else. Is it a real animal emerging from the ground he is running and being startled, or does he consider the soldier, or even the reader, in this thinking state, to be that yellow, cowardly hare who begins the run and then thinks about it half way through?

As the reader continues the image of the real hare emerges more colourfully as it is now described as crawling “in a threshing circle, its mouth wide open silent, its eyes standing out.” Clearly, the actions of the man in the poem have disturbed something in the animal kingdom and it is this action by the man that has a similar reality in the human world also. Conflict and warfare are things that bring damage and decay and perhaps, Hughes is trying to make the reader think about how they view warfare and the impact it has on the animal world, the world of agriculture and the creation that we share.

Then we see the man as he proceeds “past with his bayonet” on his journey “toward the green hedge,” thinking once again of the reason he is there, the reason he among all others, has to undertake this charge. In Tennyson’s poem, the soldiers learn the idiom of “ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die,” but here, we see a man who is able to reason more clearly his actions before he does them and as he is doing them. He thinks of “King,” of things like “honour” and “human dignity,” allowing us to see a more modern view on world conflict. His only desire is to “get out of that blue crackling air,” the air whistling with bullets coming the other way, what he calls “his terror’s touchy dynamite.”

That last line is magnificent in its colour and depth. We can inflict terror on each other with dynamite, but to call his situation, or even his actions, “touchy dynamite” is something rather special, almost beautiful if not for the fact that he is speaking about someone with the intent to kill, or at least, maim someone else. The way he uses alliteration, not just here, but also in other parts of the poem, allows us to see a writer playing with the English language to make for a better picture in the mind of the reader.

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