The poem was inspired by real events that occurred 20 days prior to the Battle of Solferino in June 1859. According to reports, a young Italian boy was found among the Austrian dead who, as detailed in a note on his person, had been forced to serve and entered into battle without a loaded gun.
The note declared that he would rather be killed by his countrymen than fire on them or harm them in any way. The Italians reclaimed their dead countryman and buried him with their own. They later, along with the French, declared victory at the Battle of Solferino.
Explore The Forced Recruit
‘The Forced Recruit’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells the story of a young man who was forced to march into battle against his country.
The poem starts after the young man has already lost his life. It jumps into the details of what happened to him, how he felt before battle as he was preparing to die, and why he chose to go into battle without a loaded weapon. Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes how this young man was taken against his will by the Austrian forces, put into their uniform, and forced to walk into battle.
He was a loyal, incredibly brave Italian, though, and was determined not to harm any of his countrymen. He didn’t load his weapon and walked into battle with a smile on his face, a sublime image that the speaker finds incredibly tragic and deserving of sorrow.
The main themes of this poem are war and loyalty. The speaker tells the story of a young man who showed incredible loyalty and bravery in the face of certain death. He meets, in his end, during a battle in which he is forced into the opposing country’s forces.
Structure and Form
‘The Forced Recruit’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an eleven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are very easy to read and only have a few instances of at all complicated syntax.
In ‘The Forced Recruit,’ the poet uses a few different literary devices. They are:
- Personification: using human-specific descriptions to imbue non-human objects, feelings, or experiences with meaning. For example, the poet wrote, “His soul kissed the lips of her guns,” meaning Italy’s soldier’s guns.
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that help readers fully visualize something the poet is writing about. For instance, “With a smile on his lips over-tender / For any mere soldier’s dead mouth.”
- Juxtaposition: a contrast between two images. In this case, the poet juxtaposes who the young man was on the inside, a loyal Italian ready to die for his country, with how he appeared on the outside, a traitor to his country.
- Allusion: seen through a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. For instance, the poet alludes to the War of 1859 throughout this piece.
In the ranks of the Austrian you found him,
He died with his face to you all;
Yet bury him here where around him
You honor your bravest that fall.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by starting a tragic story of a young man who was “in the ranks of the Austrian” when he was discovered by his Italian countrymen. The boy died “with his face to you all.” This line is addressed to the Italians and feels, at this point, somewhat accusatory. The Italians did, in fact, kill him, but it is not their fault that he was there to begin with.
They took his body and “buried” him somewhere honorable. They interred him in an Italian grave where he belonged. As the fourth line says, this meant that he was considered among the “bravest” to fall in battle.
Stanzas Two and Three
Venetian, fair-featured and slender,
He lies shot to death in his youth,
With a smile on his lips over-tender
For any mere soldier’s dead mouth.
No stranger, and yet not a traitor,
Though alien the cloth on his breast,
Underneath it how seldom a greater
Young heart, has a shot sent to rest!
The boy was a Venetian and had the features to back up his heritage. He was shot to death, despite his young age, with a “smile on his lips.” This is a haunting image that is hard to ignore, one that surely would’ve shaken those who discovered his body and the note attached to it.
The boy was Italian, but, despite the fact he was found with the Austrian dead, he was not a traitor. He was wearing the wrong uniform, an “alien” cloth (belonging to the Austrians) but had within him a great young heart. This is an example of juxtaposition. The poet contrasts what’s inside the young man with how he looks on the outside. He might be wearing the colors of his enemies, but he isn’t a traitor.
By your enemy tortured and goaded
To march with them, stand in their file,
His musket (see) never was loaded,
He facing your guns with that smile!
The fourth stanza of ‘The Forced Recruit‘ reveals that the young man was captured, tortured, and forced to wear the uniform and walk into battle by the Austrians. He never wanted to be on that side of the battle and did what he could, as the next lines reveal, to prove his loyalty to his Italian countrymen.
The young man went into battle with a musket that was “never…loaded.” The word “see” is in parentheses in the third line, indicating that the speaker is gesturing to the musket, saying, “see, here is the musket, and it wasn’t loaded. The boy isn’t a traitor.” He faced down his countrymen’s guns with a smile on his face, happy that he could die at the hands of Italians and relieved that he wasn’t going to have to harm any of them.
Stanzas Five and Six
As orphans yearn on to their mothers,
He yearned to your patriot bands;—
“Let me die for our Italy, brothers,
If not in your ranks, by your hands!
“Aim straightly, fire steadily! spare me
A ball in the body which may
Deliver my heart here, and tear me
This badge of the Austrian away!”
The note attached to the boy’s clothing indicated the truth of his situation. He “yearned to your patriot bands” or the bands of colors on the Italian flag. He wanted to be loyal and represent his country well, but his situation was incredibly challenging. He was being used against his country at the hands of the Austrians.
The man decided that he would “die for our Italy” rather than harm any of the country’s ranks. He was happy to die if he couldn’t serve them.
The following lines continue t suggest what the boy was thinking during the battle. He wanted nothing more than to be rid of the Austrian colors and to die, if he had to, at the hands of his countrymen. It was a noble death, one that indicated the young man’s bravery and determination.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
So thought he, so died he this morning.
What then? many others have died.
Ay, but easy for men to die scorning
The death-stroke, who fought side by side—
One tricolor floating above them;
Struck down ‘mid triumphant acclaims
Of an Italy rescued to love them
And blazon the brass with their names.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker brings back their narration of the scene. They say that these were the thoughts the boy at this morning, and he passed away soon after. But, they add, “What then?” He is only one of many who died this day.
In answer to their own rhetorical question challenging the importance of the boy’s death, they add that it’s far easier to meet death when you’re with your friends and brothers. It’s much harder when you’re alone and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you are going to die.
The other men who died, but had an easier time facing death, did so with the tricolor, or the Italian flag, floating above them and after having accomplished something triumphant for their country. They died celebrated by those they loved and are sure to be remembered.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
But he,—without witness or honor,
Mixed, shamed in his country’s regard,
With the tyrants who march in upon her,
Died faithful and passive: ‘twas hard.
‘Twas sublime. In a cruel restriction
Cut off from the guerdon of sons,
With most filial obedience, conviction,
His soul kissed the lips of her guns.
The young man’s situation is different, though. He died without “witness or honor.” He walked onto the battlefield, knowing that anyone who saw him would think he was a traitor. He carried an unloaded weapon and knew that he would die at the hands of his friends and brothers. He, no doubt, felt some degree of shame to be standing alongside the troops of “tyrants” who marched “upon her” or upon Italy. It was a truly “hard” death that he faced, one that was “passive” and “faithful.”
The speaker goes on to say that the young man’s death was also sublime in a certain way. He was peaceful in among the horrors of war, resigned to his death, and happy to face it. He was far from any guerdon or reward for his actions and yet was still full of conviction.
His soul met the “lips” of Italy’s guns, the final line of stanza ten notes. This meaningful example of personification is another example of how willing he walked into battle. Lips are an intimate, gentle part of the body, and by using them in these lines, the speaker indicates that he was unafraid to walk right up to the guns and meet his end.
That moves you? Nay, grudge not to show it,
While digging a grave for him here:
The others who died, says your poet,
Have glory,—let him have a tear.
The final stanza of ‘The Forced Recruit‘ starts with another rhetorical question. The speaker asks, “That moves you?” and then says that the young man deserves “a tear” while others, like “your poet” (perhaps a reference to the author), have enough glory to go around. He deserves their respect and their tears for what he did, particularly the bravery and selflessness he showed.
The purpose is to retell a true story from the mid-1800s and highlight the different kinds of bravery one young man showed when he was put in a terrible, life-or-death situation.
The message is that there are different types of bravery, and some are easier to show than others. The young man, alone, considered a traitor, and doomed to death, faced his end with a smile on his face. This is an elevated sort of bravery that other soldiers in the Italian army didn’t have to show.
The speaker is someone who is intimately familiar with the details of this story. Perhaps they were there, or perhaps they heard about it from someone else. The reference to “your poet” in the final stanza has led some to suggest that Browning may have, in part, seen herself as the speaker.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 43‘ – is a famous love poem that conveys the love Browning has for her husband, Robert Browning.
- ‘If thou must love me’ – declares how the speaker wants to be loved. It is also known as ‘Sonnet 14.’
- ‘Sonnet XXIV’ – also known as ‘Let the world’s sharpness.’ It proposes that the work’s issues would be resolved if everyone could turn to love.