This poem is far more about the nature of opportunity than it is about a specific battle or soldier. The entire narrative may be imagined, but the moral comes through very clearly. In fact, the poet uses such clear language and descriptions that this poem requires little interpretation to understand what it’s about.
Opportunity Edward Rowland SillThis I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:--There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;And underneath the cloud, or in it, ragedA furious battle, and men yelled, and swordsShocked upon swords and shields. A prince's bannerWavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.A craven hung along the battle's edge,And thought, "Had I a sword of keener steel--That blue blade that the king's son bears, -- but thisBlunt thing--!" he snapped and flung it from his hand,And lowering crept away and left the field.Then came the king's son, wounded, sore bestead,And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,And ran and snatched it, and with battle shoutLifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,And saved a great cause that heroic day.
‘Opportunity’ by Edward Rowland Sill is a poem that uses war imagery to describe opportunity or missed opportunity.
The poem describes an unknown battle that may be imagined and a cowardly man who tosses his weapon to the side and deserts. That same demeaned weapon is picked up by the king’s son and used to win the battle for a great cause. The cause and all the characters are only symbolic in nature, presented to share a message rather than relay details of an event.
The message of ‘Opportunity’ is that one should seize opportunities that present themselves. In this case, the speaker describes a battle that was almost lost until the prince picked up a discarded sword and used it in battle. It was only because he seized this opportunity that his side won the battle.
Structure and Form
‘Opportunity’ by Edward Rowland Sill is a block-form poem that is made up of seventeen lines. These lines do not follow a single rhyme scheme. But, there are some examples of half-rhymes, like “steel” and “field” in lines eight and eleven. There are also examples of assonance, like “saved” and “day” in the final line of the poem, that helps drive home the most important parts of the text.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And” which begins lines eight and eleven. There are two more examples in lines twelve and fifteen.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “dreamed it in a dream” in line one.
- Consonance: the repetition of the same consonant sound in multiple words. For example, the “d” sound in “Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed.”
- Sibilance: the repetition of an “s” sound in multiple lines. For example, “Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner.”
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of lines of verse. For example, “That blue blade that the king’s son bears, — but this.”
This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:–
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing something they saw or dreamed. It’s not clear if it’s one or the other, so readers shouldn’t necessarily be trying to connect the events in the poem to something that happened in real life.
The speaker recalls seeing/dreaming of a long open plain filled with dust and soldiers fighting to the death in a furious battle. It had everything one would expect in a battle, death, yelling, pain, and the “shock” or “swords and shields.” It’s noisy, terrifying, and certainly chaotic.
The speaker also notes the “prince’s banner” wavering. This suggests that the prince’s side was losing. The words “wavered,” “staggered,” and “hemmed” also suggest desperation and a losing battle.
A craven hung along the battle’s edge,
And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel–
That blue blade that the king’s son bears, — but this
Blunt thing–!” he snapped and flung it from his hand,
And lowering crept away and left the field.
The speaker introduces another character in line seven—a craven. This is an older word that’s used to describe someone who is especially cowardly. Someone who should be fighting, the speaker is saying, is instead hanging along the edges of the battle.
He sees the prince’s sword and says to himself that if he had a better sword (unlike the one he has) that he’d fight bravely. But that’s not the case, and he tossed his sword down and crept away, deserting the field.
The “craven’s” words are clearly revealed to be an excuse, and his actions make way for the opportunity that changes the battle’s outcome.
Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
And ran and snatched it, and with battle shout
Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,
And saved a great cause that heroic day.
It’s only in the final lines that the nature of the opportunity is described. After tossing his sword on the ground, the cowardly soldier creeps away. But the narrator is still watching the scene play out. He sees the king’s son, who is exhausted from battle and wounded, pick up the sword that the craven tossed away.
He sees it “hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand.” The description here helps readers better visualize the scene that’s playing out. The land is marked by the battle and is “dry” anyway, suggesting that it is devoid of life.
But, the terror of the battle, for one side at least, is soon lifted as the prince, reenergized, runs back into the fray and wins the battle with the broken sword. He “saved a great cause that heroic day.”
The main message of ‘Opportunity’ is that it’s important to never give up and, if one finds an opportunity, to take it.
The main theme of the poem is seeking out and taking opportunities when they present themselves and how important it is to never give up. If the prince had given up, he wouldn’t have used the broken sword to its best advantage and saved the day.
‘Opportunity’ is an allegory. It uses a narrative story to describe how important it is to make use of opportunities. It is also a block-form poem. This means that all the lines are contained within a single stanza.
The poem ‘Opportunity’ is about an opportunity that presents itself on a battlefield during an unknown or imagined battle.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Opportunity’ by James Elroy Flecker – personifies opportunity in order to explain how important it is to seize every advantage one can.
- ‘War Photographer’ by Carole Satyamurti – explores the impact modern warfare has on people.
- ‘Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861’ by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt – describes one speaker’s curiosity regarding the happenings of a distant battle.