The novel was published in 1939, and the first iteration of the poem and of the book itself contained a racial slur. This was removed from the book’s title and later versions and replaced with “Indians” in 1940. Once again, it was changed to “soldiers,” then the title of the book settled on And Then There Were None. There are still different versions of the poem, included in different editions of the novel that readers may encounter.
One by one, the “little soldiers” in the poem die similar deaths to those that occur on the island in And Then There Were None. Some of these are directly connected to the characters who die, while others are more vaguely similar.
Ten Little Soldiers (And Then There Were None) Agatha Christie Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine. Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight. Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon; One said he'd stay there and then there were seven. Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were six. Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five. Five little Soldier Boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four. Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three. Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two. Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one. One little Soldier Boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
‘Ten Little Soldiers’ is a famous short poem that is used as an epigraph at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
In the first lines of this poem, a little boy chokes himself, one oversleeps, one stays in Devon, one dies chopping up wood, and so on. Throughout, the poet utilizes examples of end rhyme and internal rhyme. Some of the connections to character deaths and Agatha Christie’s novel are clearer than others. Despite this, it is a haunting allusion to what’s to come throughout the rest of the book. The poem concludes with the final boy dying as he “went and hanged himself.” And then, the poet ends, “there were none.”
Structure and Form
‘Ten Little Soldiers’ is an eleven-line nursery rhyme that is contained within a single stanza. The lines are quite long, each of which is made up of two halves. The first half ends with an activity the boys engaged in, and the second half ends with a death and the number of remaining boys. The end words do not rhyme among themselves, but the poet uses internal rhymes. These connect the number of remaining soldier boys with the activity they just engaged in. For example, “One” rhymes with “sun” in the tenth line of the poem, and “hive” rhymes with “Five” in the sixth line of the poem.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when a poet inserts a pause in a line of verse. This could be through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were Five.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “soldier” and “sea” in line seven.
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats one or more elements of a poem. This could be the structure, an image, a word, phrase, or more. In this case, the poet uses several examples of repetition, including anaphora, epistrophe, and the use of the same structure throughout.
Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine.
Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were Eight.
Eight little soldier boys traveling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.
Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.
Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were Five.
In the first lines of the poem, the poet introduces the structure they use for the rest of the lines (except for the eleventh). Each line begins with the number of remaining “little soldier boys.” As the line progresses, something happens to one of these boys, and the number is whittled down by one. Each of these lines is divided in half to create an example of caesura.
Additionally, the reader should take note of the fact that throughout, the poet rhymes the word before the pause and the word that ends the line. For example, in the first line, “nine” rhymes with the word “dine” that appears in the middle of the line. The same thing occurs in the next line with “late” and “eight.”
The first few lines describe how the boys went from “ten” in number down to “five.” One is choked to death (Anthony Marston dies while taking a drink), another “overslept himself” (corresponding with Mrs. Rogers’ death. She dies from poisoning and is found in the morning), and another decided to stay in “Devon.” The third death in the novel is that of Macarthur. He’s pushed from behind after he goes out to sit and look at the sea.
Another boy “chopped himself in halves” (this connects with Mr. Rogers, who dies while chopping firewood for the household). Then, one was “stung” by a bumblebee. This refers to Miss Brent, who dies via an injection of poison in the waiting room.
Some of these deaths are more brutal than others. For example, it’s not entirely clear if the boy (in the poem) who stayed in “Devon” died or not. But, the boy who “chopped himself” clearly lost his life in a very dark way.
This piece includes many of the attributes that readers can find in nursery rhymes dating back to the 16th century. The poem is filled with strange allusions to events that readers are unaware of, includes perfect rhymes that make the poem feel like a song, and uses simple language that most children could understand.
Five little soldier boys going in for law; One got into chancery and then there were Four.
Four little soldier boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.
Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.
Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was One.
One little soldier boy left all alone; He went and hanged himself
And then there were None.
In the next few lines, the number of boys is whittled down until “there were none.” In the sixth line, the boys went “in for law,” and one “got in the Chancery.” This corresponds with the death of Wargrave, who supposedly dies when he is shot, wearing judges’ robes.
The seventh boy dies when the soldier boys go “out to sea.” He is swallowed by a “red herring.” In the book, MacArthur dies when he drowns at sea. (He was pushed in by Wargrave.) When there are only three little soldier boys left, or three characters in the novel, they go to the zoo, and “a big bear hugs one and then there were two.” This corresponds with Blore’s death. He is hit in the head with a bear statue.
The ninth little boy dies while sitting in the sun. He is “frizzled up.” In the novel, Lombard dies when Vera shoots him. (This is the death that is least like the death in the poem.)
Finally, there is one little boy left. This child commits suicide leaving “none.” The last person to die is Vera, who commits suicide to escape the guilt for Cyril’s death. The title of Agatha Christie’s novel can be found in the eleventh line of this poem. It provides a haunting ending to the poem as it also provides the novel’s contemporary title.
The poet probably wrote this piece as a haunting nursery rhyme to entertain and thrill children. It is unclear what the poet’s intentions were upon the publication of this poem in 1869. But, its legacy is firmly connected to Agatha Christie’s mystery novel.
The poem has an unknown speaker. It is someone who is observing and cataloging the deaths of “ten soldier boys.” They know what happened to each boy and what they were doing right before they died. But, their identity is unknown. Knowing who is speaking the lines of the poem does not influence one’s ability to interpret the piece’s meaning.
The themes of this piece are death and isolation. As the boys die, one by one, readers are eventually made aware of the fact that there is “one” left alone. The single remaining boy kills himself in order to end his isolation. This is similar to the way in which the last remaining character in Agatha Christie’s mystery novel kills herself out of guilt for another’s death.
Christie used this rhyme at the beginning of her novel in order to allude to the events that are to come. She was inspired, to an extent, by the order of events in the poem. Readers can get some idea of what the title means by reading through the deaths of the ten soldier boys.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other related poems. For example:
- ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ – may reference a history of burying children alive in the foundations of the bridge.
- ‘One For Sorrow’ – an old English nursery rhyme that playfully interprets magpies (a type of bird) as signs of the future.
- ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ – may be associated with The Great Plague which started in England in 1665.