‘The Veteran’ by Margaret Postgate Cole is an anti-war poem that uses an encounter with a young veteran to speak on the damages war can inflict.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by making straightforward statements about the man she encountered sitting in the sun. He was alone and blinded by war. There are no details about who he was, where he fought, or what happened that made him lose his eyes. A few young soldiers came up to him and asked for his advice. He gave it, sharing something of the horrors he encountered.
At the end of ‘The Veteran’ Cole surprises the reader by revealing, through the veteran’s words, that he is only eighteen. It’s only after concluding the poem that a reader can assess the themes. They include age, experience, and of course, war.
Poetic Techniques in The Veteran
‘The Veteran’ by Margaret Postgate Cole is a single stanza poem that contains twelve lines. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing need sounds as the poet saw fit. Cole also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include alliteration, caesura, half-rhyme, as well as enjambment.
The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “sitting” and “sun” in the first line and “this,” “that,” “told,” and “tales” in line five. Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There are a few examples of this technique in ‘The Veteran’. For instance, lines number two, seven and nine. It is often used to make a character’s or narrator’s words feel/sound halting as if they’re having trouble speaking, or in this case, remembering.
These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “him sitting in” in the first stanza, with the repetition of the short “i” sound.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There is an impactful example of this technique in the transition between the second and third lines, as well as at the end of the poem.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Veteran
In the first lines of ‘The Veteran’ the speaker, who is telling a narrative, begins by describing how she and another “came upon” a man. He was sitting, very simply, in the sun. The overall style, but particularly the diction, convey the story in a straightforward way. Cole does not use complex syntax or make complicated word choices.
Her speaker goes, describing how the man was “Blinded by war, and left”. Through the use of enjambment in the transition between the first two lines, a reader is forced into the shocking revelation that this man has led a very hard life. This also sets the tone for the rest of the poem as his story unfolds.
At almost the same moment the speaker and her companion came upon the man, a group of “young soldiers” came out of a nearby pub, called “the Hand and Flower”. She utilizes alliteration in the fourth line while conveying the other’s inquiries into the man’s life. They were seeking “advice” and knew that his experience would be beneficial to their own futures.
Despite the sparse details in these first lines, in regards to setting and personalities, the scene is quite easy to imagine. That being said, the lack of detail, aside from the pub name, makes it possible for these interactions to be taking place anywhere in the world, at any time.
Continuing on, Cole makes use of anaphora through the use and reuse of “And” at the beginnings of lines five, six, and later, nine. In these lines, she conveys the fact that the man said many things but doesn’t go through exactly what they were. He “said this, and that”. Through this simple language, it feels as though the statements he made, and the pieces of advice he gave, were commonplace. Possibly, the speaker didn’t feel the need to get into the details.
This paraphrasing works in two different ways. First, it might be the case that the speaker found what the man had to say boring and unimportant. Or, the scenario that seems much more likely, especially after reading through the rest of the poem, the things he described were commonplace. The speaker and those around her were immune to the facts of war and unsurprised by what he told them.
Line six, and the start of line seven (where one can find an example of caesura) confirm to the reader that some of what he said validated the young soldiers’ “nightmare”. They “Blew into air”.
The eighth line starts an interesting contrast in perceptions. The man, who has since been revealed to be a soldier with experience in the war (the veteran the title refers to) asks how the “‘Poor chaps”’ who came up to him know “what it’s like”. This last bit of the phrase refers, of course, to the war.
In the last lines of ‘The Veteran,’ the speaker describes how she and her companion watched the man. They studied him and tried to assess his age. At the same time, the man turned to look (with his empty eye “sockets”) where the other soldiers went. Finally, they ask him how old he is. Enjambment appears in its most poignant iteration in the last line. The man reveals himself to not yet be nineteen.
The ending is meant to come as a shock. The reader likely had a very different image of the man in mind. This is impounded when one considers the question he asked of the speaker. He asked, ‘”Poor chaps, how’d they know what it’s like?”’ He felt the other young men were too young to know anything about war. At the same time though, he should be considered young himself. This speaks to his own mental state, how he appears from the outside and how he feels on the inside.