In ‘Last Post’, the poet takes us in an imaginative journey, as she turns back the clock to help the reader visualize an alternative ending to the events of World War One, which saw so many young men’s lives wasted upon the battlefields in France.
Last Post was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the deaths of the two surviving First World War soldiers, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. You can read the full poem Last Post here.
Structure and Form
Last Post begins with two lines taken from Wilfred Owens’ famous poem Dulce Est Decorum Est. In this poem, the poet/soldier paints the vivid picture which torments his dreams- that of a comrade in battle who is the victim of a gas attack. The lines are packed full of active verbs that capture the horror and panic of the young serviceman as he dies, unable to catch a breath. We acutely feel the impotence of the watching soldier, who watches ‘helplessly’. Unfortunately, though, this did not only happen in a dream but in real life too. Carol Ann Duffy then takes us back to envision a different future for this young man and all the others.
After the initial two lines, there are three more stanzas, two of 11 lines, and a final one of 6. The lines are mostly iambic but of uneven length. Again, the rhyme scheme too is irregular, however, the poet makes much use of internal rhyme.
Last Post Analysis
The poem then changes tack, shifting from the third to the second person, addressing the soldier as ‘you’. This creates a more personal relationship with the fallen man. We sense the poet’s feeling of wistfulness, as she yearns to paint a different picture with her words:
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
Here, she presents us with an ugly scene from the battlefield. The sibilant ‘s’ sounds fuse with the harsh cacophony of ‘shrapnel’ and ‘stinking’ to recreate the goriness and ignominy of the soldier’s brutal end. The use of the word ‘scythed’ as a verb demonstrates how quickly and effortlessly the young man’s life is erased. Just as a farmer takes a scythe to harvest crops, we visualize how swathes of young men were killed in their prime and make us think of The Grim Reaper on a particularly violent spree.
The ellipsis after ‘mud’ gives us a moment to breathe and pause before the soldier lifts himself up from the ground. He is ‘amazed’ and we feel a glimmer of magic and hope. The poet skillfully recreates the scene as though we are rewinding a film. We follow the alliterative trail of plosive ‘b’ sounds in ‘bled bad blood’, short words that convey the poet’s sense of anger and revulsion. This rage is further referred to by the use of the ‘slime’ and reference to ‘wounds’ which makes us pity the soldiers, sent out as machine gun fodder to die in the mud.
Internal rhyme is used to great effect in the following line, with the word ‘lines’ used twice to conjure up the rows of men as they went ‘over the top’ and into the battle-field. These then rhyme with ‘rewind’ which is the central tenet of Last Post.
We go back over what the men would have done prior to leaving the trenches, and their final kiss to those they loved back home. Using the technique of a list: ‘mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers’, Duffy ensures we feel the preciousness of these young lives and how each one meant so much to so many.
The repetition in the short line ‘to die and die and die’ is a deliberate technique used to shock and pay homage to every single man lost. The iambic rhythm hammers home each ‘die’ and the short, monosyllabic sentence sits out starkly from the rest. Duffy does something similar in the next line as she breaks up the words from the Latin with dashes to emphasize that there is nothing sweet or good to die for one’s country in battle. Reading this line aloud, one is forced to draw attention to every syllable and each ‘No’ is a rebuke to this famous expression.
By repeating ‘You walk away’ twice, the poet gives the impression of creating distance between the dead and the living. The use of parentheses after ‘gun (fixed bayonet)’ is effective in conveying the horrors of war. This detail is simply ‘tagged on’ as though a minor detail. Soldiers were issued with guns with a bayonet attached, so they could stab an opponent to death, should hand to hand combat be required. By casually mentioning this detail Duffy is showing how one can easily become, if not immune, at least desensitized to the brutality.
Next, we realize that it is not just a single soldier but a whole Battalion who have been granted a second chance, in this poet’s reverie. By using the informal term ‘mates’, we are forced to think of the closeness and the camaraderie of these men who lived and died together. In the next line, she lists their names, all of which is so fitting of the time, which adds a sense of realism and poignancy. The diminutives such as ‘Harry’, ‘Tommy’ and Bert’ again reinforces the relationship between the men; never once does she include a reference to titles such as ‘Officer’ or ‘Sergeant’, these are just a group of lads ‘in it together.’ It can be no coincidence that she chooses to include the name ‘Wilfred’, since it was Owen who penned ‘Dulce Est Decorum Est’ as he railed against the terrible conditions in the trenches, before being killed in the very last days of battle in 1918. The name ‘Edward’ may well have been used by Duffy to remember the poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in the Battle of Arras in 1917.
In the following lines, Duffy conjures up comforting images, of the simple pleasures these men would have enjoyed before they were relegated to the fields of Ypres. The reader thinks ‘if only’ as she vividly creates the image of the men coming back to life ‘shaking dried mud from their hair/and queuing up for home.’ The word ‘home’ sits starkly against the image of the mud and the four terrible words which precedes it: ‘all those thousands dead’.
The caesura pause after ‘home’ makes us savor this thought of ‘what if it had happened differently?’ before she surprises us with the image ‘Freshly alive’, as though indeed, someone has waved a fairy wand and granted them life. This, we feel, is how it should have been.
Once again, she describes the soldier playing ‘Tipperary’ as a ‘lad’ to heighten pathos, and there is too, a poignancy in the choice of song which British troops used to sing to boost morale and dream of home.
The use of adjectives ‘glistening and healthy’ used to describe the horses shows that it wasn’t only humans who suffered in battle, and she wishes for these men to have a royal entourage and to be treated as heroes and kings because they utterly deserve it.
The line: ‘You lean against a wall’ suggests a quiet moment of reflection and contentment, to think what could have been. Duffy is not writing about one victim in her poem, but every single soldier who perished in battle is represented in the line: ‘your several million lives still possible.’ Her use of enjambement and a list effectively shows what these men have missed out on. The verb ‘crammed’ shows just how full and rich these lives could have been, if only they had been allowed to live them.
Finally, she presents us with the image of the ‘war poet’, who, instead of documenting the horrors of WW1, can ‘tuck away his pocketbook and smile’.
Last Post ends as it began, taking us full circle back to the wistful thought at the start.
This poem appears on the CCEA Conflict Anthology and deals with World War One. It could be linked to several other poems, such as Vergisseminnicht by Keith Douglas, for example.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy was the UK Poet Laureate until 2019 when Simon Armitage took on the role. As a poet, Duffy never shies away from controversial issues and often uses her poetry to comment on social and political issues.