Treasure Trove A Collection of ICSE Poems Workbook Answers Chapter 4 Notes – After Blenheim – ICSE Class 10, 9 English
About the Poem
“After Blenheim” is an anti- war poem written by English Romantic poet laureate Robert Southey in 1796. It was written in the form of a ballad. “After Blenheim” is also known as “The Battle of Blenheim.” 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.
It centers on the most famous battle in the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714). 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 manoeuvre by Louis to increase his power and influence. Consequently, war broke out in 1701 between Austria and France.
Robert Southey’s ballad offers a particular perspective on one of the most famous battles of the eighteenth century. In 1704, in the War of the Spanish Succession, a coalition of forces, including the English, defeated the French and Bavarian armies at Blenheim.
Southey does not describe the battle directly but, through the conversation between an old farmer and his grandchildren, it gradually emerges that the setting is a former battleground. Peterkin has found something Targe and round’, which his grandfather explains is a skull, one of many to be found in the earth nearby.
Old Kaspar describes the battle and the loss of life. He offers an explanation to the children about why the battle was fought? In spite of the graphic description of bodies ‘rotting in the sun’ and little Wilhelmine’s belief that it was a ‘wicked thing’, the line that Southey frequently repeats has Old Kaspar saying that the battle was ‘a famous victory’. Inevitably, we are encouraged to think about the purpose and validity of war. Many years later, Southey altered his pacifist, questioning view of the war.
About the Poet
Robert Southey was an independent-minded young man who was expelled from Westminster School for opposing flogging. He developed radical religious and political ideas and, at one stage, considered emigrating to America with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge to set up a utopian commune.
The idea was abandoned, and Southey began writing plays and poems and, in particular, developed the ballad form in poems such as ‘After Blenheim’ and ‘The Inchcape Rock’.
He was “a prolific writer of verse and histories and an accomplished biographer, who wrote The Life of Nelson. If he was not as original and successful in his poetry as contemporaries such as Wordsworth, his prose is highly skilful. Byron called it ‘perfect’, although he felt that Southey had compromised his beliefs for money and fame.
In the early period of his life Southey was a radical republican influenced by the great Thomas Paine and by the early optimistic years of the French Revolution. In 1794, even before he had written After Blenheim, Southey had written a ‘dramatic poem’ in three acts called Wat Tyler. As its name gives away, this was a play about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. At the start of the play Wat Tyler and his friend Hob Carter are found in Tyler’s blacksmith’s shop in Deptford indignantly discussing the new ‘poll’ tax being imposed by the Crown to pay for its wars in France.
Southey gradually lost his radical opinions and became much more of an establishment figure. Fie was appointed Poet Laureate in 1813.
The poem conveys the futility of war. Thousands of lives are lost of innocent people and of soldiers. But what is achieved except destruction and death. No one knows why these wars are fought , they just believe whatever they are told. Terrible consequences are part of war is what everyone believes. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim which is just senseless and useless destruction and loss of human life.
- Sported – played
- Green – grass fields
- Rivulet – small stream.
- Rout – defeated, made to flee.
- Ploughshare – the main cutting blade of a plough, behind the coulter.
- Slain – killed
- Wonder-waiting – awestruck, surprised, expectant.
- Quoth – said
- Yon – (archaic) there, nearby.
- Dwelling – house
- To fly – fled
- Rest his head – to take shelter
- Childing mother – pregnant woman
- Wasted – destroyed, razed to the ground.
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 says.He admits that he 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.
Kaspar then mentions that his father had a cottage by the rivulet—”My father lived at Blenheim then”—where Peterkin found the skull. The soldiers burnt he houses down and killed the villagers with swords. His father and mother had fled, with their child. Kaspar recounts how thousands were killed in the war and among the dead were pregnant women and even children But then this was the collateral of war and it was a great victory says Kaspar.
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, saying that ‘no, it was a great victory. Peterkin questions him asking what good resulted from the war . Kaspar answers that he did not know but everyone said that it was a great victory.
One evening in fields around the Bavarian town of Blenheim in southern Germany, an elderly farmer named Kaspar sits in front of his cottage watching his grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin, at play. Peterkin is rolling an object he found near a stream. He takes it to Kaspar and asks what it is. The old man, who has found many such objects while plowing the fields, replies that it is the skull of a soldier who died in the Battle of Blenheim. Their curiosity aroused, the children ask him about the battle and why it was fought. The English routed the French, he says, in what later generations would call a great and famous victory. However, Kaspar is at a loss to explain the cause of the battle. He does know that thousands died in it—not only soldiers but also townspeople, including children. In fact, the fields were littered with corpses. But such terrible consequences are part of war, he says. They do not negate the glory of the victory. Wilhelmine then comments that the battle was “a wicked thing,” but Kaspar tells her she is wrong. “It was a famous victory,” he says. Peterkin asks what good came of the fighting. Kaspar says he does not know, but adds, ” ’twas a famous victory. He told them that a great battle had been fought there, and many of the leaders had won great renown. But he could not tell why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a “great victory.” That was the moral of so many of the wars that devastated Europe for centuries. The kings fought for more power and glory; and the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim.
After Blenheim’ is a poem about an old man who is sitting in front of his cottage, watching his Grandson playing on the grass. Incidentally, this cottage was situated very near where the Battle of Blenheim was fought between the English and the French many years ago. When the boy was playing on the grass, he found a skull slightly buried in the ground; he took the skull to his grandfather and asked him what it was. The old man said that it must have been a skull from the famous Battle of Blenheim, which was fought there many years ago. The boy asked his Grandfather to tell him about the battle. The poet starts by saying that the Battle was a ‘Great Victory’, and he repeats this idea throughout the entire poem, at the end of nearly every stanza. This poem is separated into 11 equal verses. Rhyme is used to speed up 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 Kasper is sitting outside his cottage when his grandson Peterkin finds a skull. Old Kasper begins to tell the Peterkin and his sister about the Battle of Blenheim that once took place there. In each verse Old Kasper 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 Kasper 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. Old Kasper is a farmer and finds a lot of skulls when he ploughs his fields. This again shows rebirth.
The first indication that something is not right is the introduction of the skull. The poet talks of the child finding something ‘large and smooth and round’ which immediately makes the reader think of a football or similar toy. When it is revealed that the child has found a skull, this makes us feel very uneasy and we know that this is not a poem about pleasant English summer evenings. The thought of the child, so innocent, playing with something so gruesome as a skull and not realising what it was is very shocking. The language changes again in stanza eight when the poet says, ‘And new bom baby died’ this immediately jerks you into another emotion and situation within the poem. For example when the poet says words like, ‘fled’, ‘died’, ‘bodies’ and ‘shocking’ and so on, it is especially effective when he says, ‘newborn baby died’ because the death of someone so very young and completely innocent is very shocking.
He is also using this imagery to describe the soldiers in war who die fighting for the survival of kingdoms. Is this what human life has come to as a result of war? Worth nothing. The poets feelings about war is that they are catastrophically phenomenal, and leave hundreds of people without their homes, and without each other, completely destroyed. Wars affect everyone on a large scale. In ‘After Blenheim’, the poet repeats that the Battle of Blenheim was a huge and great victory for the English. He is saying that he believes that wars always end for one side in a great victory, usually achieved for a good cause but for the other side they are a total failure and the costs are huge.
In several stanzas, Southey uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony. Stanza five is an example.
Various themes are woven into the poem. The poet talks about the inhumanity to man. War represents the worst form of human behavior: “man’s inhumanity to man”. The skull Peterkin finds, as well as those that Kaspar regularly unearths while plowing, are mute testimony to the truth of this observation. The poem implies that the perpetrators of war cannot or will not suppress wayward ambitions that provoke a violent response. The children—as yet uncorrupted by adult thinking—readily perceive war for what it is.
After finding the skull, Peterkin immediately asks what it is. Kaspar tells him that it is part of the remains of a soldier who died at Blenheim. Wilhelmine then asks Kaspar to describe the war and explain its causes. Kaspar can describe what the war was like at Blenheim, but he cannot explain why the belligerents went to war. Nor does he seem curious about the causes. All that matters to him is that Austria and England won a glorious victory.
Old Kaspar unquestioningly accepts the loss of innocent women and children in the Battle of Blenheim as one of the prices of the glorious victory. His complacent attitude is not unlike that of modem politicians who dismiss the deaths of innocent civilians in arenas of war by referring to them with the impersonal phrase “collateral damage.”
Southey uses a skull, as it is the most unique part of the human body. This makes you recognise that the skull was once part of a human body that was ruthlessly killed, and again emphasises the pointlessness of war.
The poet uses repetition, as at the end each verse he repeats the ironic saying:
“But ‘it was a famous victory.”
Old Kasper continuously repeats this sentence as this is all he knows about the war and for him the deaths are a natural consequence of a war.. Although it is constantly mentioned that it was a great victory this is not what the poem is saying. Southey is using ‘ this phrase to emphasise the exact opposite, that it wasn’t a great victory.
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