The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, No. 57, July, 1862 / A Magazine of Literature, Art, and Politics
It is certain that since the time of Homer the deeds and circumstances of war have not been felicitously sung. If any ideas have been the subject of the strife, they seldom appear to advantage in the poems which chronicle it, or in the verses devoted to the praise of heroes. Remove the "Iliad," the "Nibelungenlied," some English, Spanish, and Northern ballads, two or three Old-Bohemian, the war-songs composed by Ziska, and one or two Romaic, from the field of investigation, and one is astonished at the scanty gleaning of battle-poetry, camp-songs, and rhymes that have been scattered in the wake of great campaigns, and many of the above-mentioned are more historical or mythological than descriptive of war. The quantity of political songs and ballads, serious and satirical, which were suggested by the great critical moments of modern history, is immense. Every country has, or might have, its own peculiar collections. In France the troubles of the League gave an impulse to song-writing, and the productions of Desportes and Bertaut are relics of that time. Historical and revolutionary songs abound in all countries; but even the "Marseillaise," the gay, ferocious "Carmagnole," and the "Ça Ira," which somebody wrote upon a drum-head in the Champ de Mars, do not belong to fighting-poetry. The actual business of following into the field the men who represent the tendencies of any time, and of helping to get through with the unavoidable fighting-jobs which they organize, seems to inspire the same rhetoric in every age, and to reproduce the same set of conventional war-images. The range of feeling is narrow; the enthusiasm for great generals is expressed in pompous commonplaces; even the dramatic circumstances of a campaign full of the movement and suffering of great masses of men, in bivouac, upon the march, in the gloomy and perilous defile, during a retreat, and in the hours when wavering victory suddenly turns and lets her hot lips be kissed, are scarcely seen, or feebly hinted at. The horizon of the battle-field itself is limited, and it is impossible to obtain a total impression of the picturesque and terrible fact. After the smoke has rolled away, the historian finds a position whence the scenes deliberately reveal to him all their connection, and reenact their passion. He is the real poet of these solemn passages in the life of man.1
One would think that a poet in the ranks would sometimes exchange the pike or musket for the pen in his knapsack, and let all the feelings and landscapes of war distil through his fine fancy from it drop by drop. But the knapsack makes too heavy a draught upon the nervous power which the cerebellum supplies for marching orders; concentration goes to waste in doing porter's work; his tent-lines are the only kind a poet cares for. If he extemporizes a song or hymn, it is lucky if it becomes a favorite of the camp. The great song which the soldier lifts during his halt, or on the edge of battle, is generally written beforehand by some pen unconscious that its glow would tip the points of bayonets, and cheer hearts in suspense for the first cannon-shot of the foe. If anybody undertakes to furnish songs for camps, he prospers as one who resolves to write anthems for a prize-committee to sit on: it is sutler's work, and falls a prey to the provost-marshal.
Nor are poets any more successful, when they propose to make camp-life and soldiers' feelings subjects for aesthetic consideration. Their lines are smooth, their images are spirited; but as well might the campaign itself have been conducted in the poet's study as its situations be deliberately transferred there to verse. The "Wallenstein's Camp" of Schiller is not poetry, but racy and sparkling pamphleteering. Its rhyming does not prevent it from belonging to the historical treatment of periods that are picturesque with many passions and interests, that go clad in jaunty regimental costumes, and require not to be idealized, but simply to be described. Goethe, in his soldier's song in "Faust," idealizes at a touch the rough work, the storming and marauding of the mediaeval Lanzknecht; set to music, it might be sung by fine dilettanti tenors in garrison, but would be stopped at any outpost in the field for want of the countersign. But when Goethe describes what he saw and felt in the campaign in France, with that lucid and observant prose, he reproduces an actual situation. So does Chamisso, in that powerful letter which describes the scenes in Hameln, when it was delivered to the French. But Chamisso has written a genuine soldier's song, which we intend to give. The songs of Körner are well known already in various English dresses.2
But the early poetry which attempts the description of feats at arms which were points in the welfare of nations—when, for instance, Germany was struggling to have her middle class against the privileges of the barons—is more interesting than all the modern songs which nicely depict soldiers' moods. Language itself was fighting for recognition, as well as industrial and social rights. The verses mark successive steps of a people into consciousness and civilization. Some of this battle-poetry is worth preserving; a few camp-rhymes, also, were famous enough in their day to justify translating. Here are some relics, of pattern more or less antique, picked up from that field of Europe where so many centuries have met in arms.3
The Northern war-poetry, before the introduction of Christianity, is vigorous enough, but it abounds in disagreeable commonplaces: trunks are cleft till each half falls sideways; limbs are carved for ravens, who appear as invariably as the Valkyrs, and while the latter pounce upon the souls that issue with the expiring breath, the former banquet upon the remains. The celebration of a victory is an exulting description of actual scenes of revelling, mead-drinking from mounted skulls, division of the spoils, and half-drunken brags4 of future prowess. The sense of dependence upon an unseen Power is manifested only in superstitious vows for luck and congratulations that the Strong Ones have been upon the conquering side. There is no lifting up of the heart which checks for a time the joy of victory. They are ferociously glad that they have beaten. This prize-fighting imagery belongs also to the Anglo-Saxon poetry, and is in marked contrast with the commemorative poetry of Franks and Germans after the introduction of Christianity. The allusions may be quite as conventional, but they show that another power has taken the field, and is willing to risk the fortunes of war. Norse poetry loses its vigor when the secure establishment of Christianity abolishes piracy and puts fighting upon an allowance. Its muscle was its chief characteristic. We speak only of war-poetry.
Here, for instance, is the difference plainly told. Hucbald, a monk of the cloister St. Amand in Flanders, wrote "The Louis-Lay," to celebrate the victory gained by the West-Frankish King Louis III. over the Normans, in 881, near Saucourt. It is in the Old-High-German. A few lines will suffice:—
The King rode boldly, sang a holy song,
And all together sang, Kyrie eleison.
The song was sung; the battle was begun;
Blood came to cheeks; thereat rejoiced the Franks;
Then fought each sword, but none so well as Ludwig,
So swift and bold, for 't was his inborn nature;
He struck down many, many a one pierced through,
And at his hands his enemies received
A bitter drink, woe to their life all day.
Praise to God's power, for Ludwig overcame;
And thanks to saints, the victor-fight was his.
Homeward again fared Ludwig, conquering king,
And harnessed as he ever is, wherever the need may be,
Our God above sustain him with His majesty!
Earlier than this it was the custom for soldiers to sing just before fighting. Tacitus alludes to a kind of measured warcry of the Germans, which they made more sonorous and terrific by shouting it into the hollow of their shields. He calls it barditus by mistake, borrowing a term from the custom of the Gauls, who sang before battle by proxy,—that is, their bards chanted the national songs. But Norse and German soldiers loved to sing. King Harald Sigurdson composes verses just before battle; so do the Skalds before the Battle of Stiklestad, which was fatal to the great King Olaf. The soldiers learn the verses and sing them with the Skalds. They also recollect older songs,—the "Biarkamal," for instance, which Biarke made before he fought.5 These are all of the indomitable kind, and well charged with threats of unlimited slaughter. The custom survived all the social and religious changes of Europe. But the wild war-phrases which the Germans shouted for mutual encouragement, and to derive, like the Highlanders, an omen from the magnitude of the sound, became hymns: they were sung in unison, with the ordinary monkish modulations of the time. The most famous of these was written by Notker, a Benedictine of St. Gall, about the year 900. It was translated by Luther in 1524, and an English translation from Luther's German can be found in the "Lyra Germanica," p. 237.
William's minstrel, Taillefer, sang a song before the Battle of Hastings: but the Normans loved the purely martial strain, and this was a ballad of French composition, perhaps a fragment of the older "Roland's Song." The "Roman de Rou," composed by Master Wace, or Gasse, a native of Jersey and Canon of Bayeux, who died in 1184, is very minute in its description of the Battle of Val des Dunes, near Caen, fought by Henry of France and William the Bastard against Guy, a Norman noble in the Burgundian interest. The year of the battle was 1047. There is a Latin narrative of the Battle of Hastings, in eight hundred and thirty-five hexameters and pentameters. This was composed by Wido, or Guido, Bishop of Amiens, who died in 1075.
The German knights on their way to Jerusalem sang a holy psalm, beginning, "Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of the earth." This was discovered not long ago in Westphalia; a translation of it, with the music, can be found in Mr. Richard Willis's collection of hymns.
One would expect to gather fragments of war-poetry from the early times of the Hungarians, who held the outpost of Europe against the Turks, and were also sometimes in arms against the imperial policy of Germany. But De Gerando informs us that they set both victories and defeats to music. The "Rákótzi" is a national air which bears the name of an illustrious prince who was overcome by Leopold. "It is remarkable that in Hungary great thoughts and deep popular feelings were expressed and consecrated, not by poetry, but by national airs. The armed Diets which were held upon the plain of Rákos were the symbol of ancient liberty to the popular apprehension; there is the 'Air of Rákos,' also the 'Air of Mohács,' which recalls the fall of the old monarchy, and the 'Air of Zrinyi,' which preserves the recollection of the heroic defence of Szigeth."6 These airs are not written; the first comer extemporized their inartificial strains, which the feeling of the moment seized upon and transmitted by tradition. Among the Servians, on the contrary, the heroic ballad is full of fire and meaning, but the music amounts to nothing.
The first important production of the warlike kind, after Germany began to struggle with its medieval restrictions, was composed after the Battle of Sempach, where Arnold Struthalm of Winkelried opened a passage for the Swiss peasants through the ranks of Austrian spears. It is written in the Middle-High-German, by Halbsuter, a native of Lucerne, who was in the fight. Here are specimens of it. There is a paraphrase by Sir Walter Scott, but it is done at the expense of the metre and naïve character of the original.
In the thousand and three hundred and six and eightieth year
Did God in special manner His favor make appear:
Hei! the Federates, I say,
They get this special grace upon St. Cyril's day.
That was July 9, 1386. The Swiss had been exasperated by the establishment of new tolls by the nobility, who were upheld in it by the Duke of Austria. The Federates (Confederates can never again be used in connection with a just fight) began to attack the castles which sheltered the oppressive baronial power. The castle behind the little town of Willisow is stormed and burned. Thereupon the nobles swear to put these Swiss free peasants down and get them a master. The poet tells all this, and proceeds to describe their excesses and pride. Then,—
Ye Lowland lords are drawing hither to the
To what an entertainment ye do not understand:
Hei! 't were better for shrift to call,
For in the mountain-fields mischances may
To which the nobles are imagined to reply,—
"Indeed! where sits the priest, then, to grant this needful gift?" In the Schweitz he is all ready,—he'll give you hearty shrift: Hei! he will give it to you sheer, This blessing will he give it with sharp halberds and such gear.
The Duke's people are mowing in the fields near Sempach. A knight insolently demands lunch for them from the Sempachers: a burgher threatens to break his head and lunch them in a heavy fashion, for the Federates are gathering, and will undoubtedly make him spill his porridge. A cautious old knight, named Von Hasenburg, rides out to reconnoitre, and he sees enough to warn the Duke that it is the most serious business in which he ever engaged.
Then spake a lord of Ochsensteín, "O Hasenburg,
Him answereth Von Hasenburg, "Thy words
bring me a smart:
Hei! I say to you faithfully,
Which of us is the coward this very day you'll see."
So the old knight, not relishing being punned upon for his counsel, dismounts. All the knights, anticipating an easy victory, dismount, and send their horses to the rear, in the care of varlets who subsequently saved themselves by riding them off. The solid ranks are formed bristling with spears. There is a pause as the two parties survey each other. The nobles pass the word along that it looks like a paltry business:—
So spake they to each other: "Yon folk is
In case such boors should beat us, 't will bring
no fame at all:
'Hei! fine lords the boors have mauled!'"
Then the honest Federates on God in heaven
"Ah, dear Christ of Heaven, by Thy bitter
death we plead,
Help bring to us poor sinners in this our strait
Hei! and stand by us in the field,
And have our land and people beneath Thy
ward and shield."
The shaggy bull (of Uri) was quite ready to meet the lion (Leopold), and threw the dust up a little with its hoof.
"Hei! will you fight with us who have beaten you before?"
To this the lion replies,—
"Thank you for reminding me. I have many a knight and varlet here to pay you off for Laupen, and for the ill turn you did me at Morgarten; now you must wait here till I am even with you."
Now drew the growling lion his tail in for a spring: Then spake the bull unto him, "Wilt have your reckoning? Hei! then nearer to us get, That this green meadow may with blood be growing wet."
Then they began a-shooting against us in the
And their long lances toward the pious Federates
Hei! the jest it was not sweet,
With branches from the lofty pines down rattling
at their feet.
The nobles' front was fast, their order deep
That vexed the pious mind; a Winkelried he
"Hei! if you will keep from need
My pious wife and child, I'll do a hardy
"Dear Federates and true, my life I give to
They have their rank too firm, we cannot break
Hei! a breaking in I'll make.