The Soldiers Came by John Agard

War is a constant influence on the minds of millions; it is strangely inspiring, and detrimentally horrifying. The extreme emotional output that surrounds the topic (much more the reality) is enough that it is a common theme that appears in works of art across all mediums with increasing frequency. In the modern age, poets like John Agard are able to craft distinctive, lasting, and powerful works by channeling those emotions, and its clear that there are a number of significant and important perspectives that arise from them. The Soldiers Came explores the idea of a post-war kind of environment, and takes place largely in an emotional landscape, the kind that can be related to on some level by any reader, making it a particularly effective piece.


The Soldiers Came Analysis

Stanza 1

The poem, which can be read in full here, begins on a surprisingly and abruptly brutal note. The description of soldiers simply arriving and destroying a forest is self-explanatory — so much so that it feels almost as though something is missing anyway. There is no particular syllable pattern, nor is there any rhyme to the stanza. It is simply written in a free-verse kind of style that conveys one single thought: there were soldiers, for whatever reason, in the vicinity of the speaker. They brought bombs with them and destroyed a forest, presumably with those bombs. It’s simple, and these terrible facts are conveyed simply as facts, without any kind of emotion entering the verse. Even the first line and the title — The Soldiers Came — doesn’t explain why or from where the soldiers came, or even who they are — just that they are soldiers, and they are there.

At face value, the facts of the poem are a little strange; the wording — that the soldiers came, dropped their bombs, and brought the forest down — implies that destroying the forest was the intention of the soldiers. It seems strange to think of any group of individuals intentionally bombing a forest for the sake of destroying it, so it is possible that the “forest” is a metaphor for a natural home, or that the “bomb” is a metaphor for warfare in general, destroying the planet slowly and in no great amount of time. Whatever the intended, deeper meaning of the verse, it is easy to derive, in abrupt fashion, that the narrator is observing some kind of war effort that has, in short order, caused significant damage to something very important.


Stanza 2

The second verse follows very much the same path as the first one, dropping unhappy facts in quick and abrupt fashion, and leading the reader to draw their conclusions concerning the meaning. Once again, with little adherence to syllable, and none to rhyme, the narrator discusses the consequences of the soldiers’ intervention. The forest is gone, the speaker tells us, which means the birds are gone, having been deprived of their place to live. Without birds, of course, there can be no birdsongs, and this is portrayed as a loss of great significance. In the grand scheme of things, of course, the loss of birdcalls is not enormous (and anyone who’s ever slept in a room with a bird’s nest next to the window will probably attest to this), but as an abstract concept, the idea of an innocent creature with the capacity to sing is a strong kind of metaphor for the concept of peacetime that predates this idea of “when the soldiers came,” and in this context, the loss of the birdsong is a strong metaphor for what is so often lost in times of war.


Stanzas 2-3

At this point in the poem, the verses are lengthened, and the content filled with more emotion and sentimentality than the previous two verses. The narrator tells the reader that although the forest is destroyed, the memory of the forest still remains with the surviving generation. “The soldiers forgot” is a repeated theme of this verse that defies logic slightly — a soldier can destroy a forest, but cannot destroy a memory. This is an important element of the poem that becomes recurring with this repetition; that physical destruction and emotional damage, while linked, are not the same thing. Losing the forest is a physical obstacle that can be recovered from. Forests can be replanted, but in order to replant a forest, it is important to remember what a forest is like. That idea of a silver lining is a welcome addition to this verse that sets it apart from the previous two. In dreams and in hearts, there is still a forest, and there is still a song. This speaks to the idea that even war cannot destroy everything it opposes.


Stanza 4

The one issue with the logic of the previous verse is that only one generation of individuals will remember their forest fully, because a memory is something that is linked to a particular person, who’s death would erase it permanently. But now, in the present, as the first line of the final verse suggests, that memory is being passed on. The soldiers are gone, and the forest is being regrown from seed and from memory. There is an image associated with this verse, of children smiling and planting trees, and it is a heartwarming image of significant contrast to the initial “The soldiers came / and dropped their bombs.” These children are described as welcoming simplicity and working hard to return beauty to life.

One theme that resonates strongly throughout The Soldiers Came is the idea of looking forward. The positive imagery that persists through the latter half of the poem excludes the idea of vengeance or anger, or even bitterness towards the destruction of the forest. The people who survived its destruction work towards its repair instead of seeking further destruction elsewhere. They are happy with their simple means, and find birdsongs in their fondest dreams and in the smiles of their children. They adapt and rebuild. The idea that the aftermath of war does not have to be bitter, brutal, and enraging is a difficult one for most people to accept — after all, the idea of blind destruction is in itself enraging — but it is portrayed here with touching simplicity and stunning beauty, as something to aspire to, and, perhaps most importantly of all, as something that is possible itself.

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