‘Goliath and David’ by Robert Graves is a two stanza poem that follows a consistent and structured pattern of rhyme. Graves has chosen to format this piece with a rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, alternating as the poem progresses. As noted, ‘Goliath and David’ is separated into two sections. The first is short, with only twelve lines, while the second is thirty-four. The first section works as an introduction to the main action of the poem while the second details the battle between David, a shepherd and musician, and Goliath, a Philistine giant.
A reader might also note, due to the changing nature of this narrative, that the title itself is backward. The story is generally referred to as that of “David and Goliath,” rather than “Goliath and David.” This switching of names alludes to the different outcome which is contained within this text and the domination of Goliath over David.
The tale of David and Goliath is described in the biblical Book of Samuel. In the original story, David and Goliath face one another, Goliath in armor and David with only a staff and sling. David hurls a stone at Goliath’s head and he falls to the ground. David proceeds to cut his head off, forcing the Philistines to flee and bringing a victory for Jerusalem.
An additional point of interest is the dedication which appears alongside the original text. It reads, “For D.C.T., Killed at Fricourt, March 1916.” This is a reference to the death of a close friend of Graves’ during the Battle of the Somme during World War I. This person whose full name was David Cuthbert Thomas, was only twenty years old when he died. He was the inspiration for this piece as another brave, but foolhardy David. Although in his case, he was unable to prevail against greater forces.
Summary of Goliath and David
The poem begins with the speaker describing the actions of the young David before the battle. In this short stanza, he gathers pebbles from a stream and tries to gain strength from his previous endeavors.
In the second part of ‘Goliath and David’, in which all of the action is contained, the speaker tells a different story of the battle between a giant and a shepherd. As in the traditional manner, David throws a pebble at Goliath’s head with his sling. But rather than knock him dead, the giant deflects it with his shield. David throws another, and another, with the same outcome. At this point, he is frustrated and terrified. He “damns” his weapon and takes up another—his staff which is used in his duties as a shepherd’s son.
The two come to blows, Goliath’s metal sword against the wooden staff. With only one swing the boy is felled. His death comes quick and Goliath straddles his body in an act of domination. This retelling of a traditional story shows that in all situations an underdog cannot prevail. In the real world, that which is not contained within fiction, death comes for those with lesser means.
Analysis of Goliath and David
Yet once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from the brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
In the first lines of this piece the speaker introduces the changing nature of the story, he will be telling. A reader will be familiar with the tale of David and Goliath, as detailed in the introduction to this analysis, and this version of events starts in a similar manner. The introductory lines are so relatable to the original text, they could be used as a prelude to the traditional version.
The narrative opens with the speaker referring to an “earlier David.” This is a direct connection to the dedication which is also featured in the introduction. It was about Graves’ own friend David that he thought when composing this piece. He is relating his friend’s death to the absurd victory of the shepherd David and bringing the re-telling of the story in a darker and more accurate manner.
The earlier David, about whom he speaks, is a shepherd. This young man is taking “Smooth pebbles” from a brook. He gathers them with purpose. From this place, he goes out to that “one-sided tournament” against Goliath. It is one-sided in that there was no way David could win, and in this version of the story, he doesn’t. David looks brave and fine in his meager defensive wear as he stares down the “Philistine / Clad all in brazen mail.” The two are outmatched from the beginning and as one would really expect, the young man cannot possibly beat the giant.
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But … the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.
In the second half of this stanza, after building up the narrative which is familiar to so many, the speaker takes a turn. He reveals that no matter how brave David was, or what he’d done in the past, he does not, and cannot, succeed. The story which is commonly told was not told right. Historians “had not the heart” to speak the truth of what really happened.
Striding within javelin range,
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The second stanza begins with the fighting between opponents breaking out. Goliath immediately runs towards the boy, dangerously close if his adversary had a “javelin” or spear. The giant sees the boy as being foolish and “Goodly-faced.” He has a good, and God-like nature about him. This is a weakness on the battlefield. The boy is too “proud of his strength” and doesn’t doubt his own abilities as he throws the stone at Goliath. He fully believes this action will be the only one he needs to take.
David throws the small stone with “a long vengeful swing.” He is prepared to slay the giant and bring victory to Jerusalem.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then … but there comes a brazen clink,
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
The stone which is thrown by David is not a great weapon. It is not even referred to as a stone or rock, but as a pebble. It does not move powerfully through the air, it only makes a slight “humming” as it separates from the “sling.” It is like a “wild bee” rather than any more deadly creature.
At first, it seems as if all is well, it is headed straight for the “forehead of the Philistine.” Rather than knocking the giant to the ground as the stone does in the traditional story, Goliath knocks it away with his shield. It makes a sad “clink” against the metal. Goliath was too fast, “quicker than a man can think.” This shows the power of the giant as almost every reader would expect.
David throws another stone and another. Each time they bounce from the shield with a “clang!” Until the young shepherd runs out of stones.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, “Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.”
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
In the next section of ‘Goliath and David’, the Giant proves himself to be too strong for David’s meager weapon. He stands at his full height, “six cubits high.” In the original story Goliath is said to be either “four cubits and a span” or 6 feet 9 inches or “six cubits and a span,” rather than 9 feet 9 inches. No matter his height, the Philistine truly towers over the young boy. This shows the ridiculous nature of the task at hand.
David suddenly bursts out with the phrase, “Damn your shield! / And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.” Although it looks like he will be defeated, he refuses to give up. As was mentioned in the introduction, David also carries a staff. It is referred to in the poem as being made of “Mamre oak.” This wood comes from an ancient tree which is said to mark the place where Abraham entertained the three angels. David expects the staff to have some power. It should be blessed by and imbued with the power of God.
It is further described as being “A knotted” staff, belonging to a simple shepherd. It has not been used for any greater feat than breaking the skulls of wolves and foxes. These would be the predators the came to prey on sheep belonging to David’s father, Jesse. Every time it seems as if David might have the upper hand, the speaker returns his readers to reality.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout; but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
Goliath is not intimidated by either David’s actions or his speech. He laughs loudly. It is a terrifying noise that can “scatter chariots” like “chaff,” or worthless things. They are made to “rout,” or retreat in a disorderly fashion. All run from Goliath, especially when he appears to be in good humor. All except for David.
He remains where he is, believing that God “will save” him from death. The “steel” of Goliath’s weapon crosses with the “wood” of David’s. There is a “flash.” This flash symbolizes a change in the narrative outcome. It is a shift in the story which proves fatal.
The speaker continues the narrative with the word “oh!,” spoken in horror and disappointment. God did not think to help David. His eyes were “dim” and his “ears…shut.” He had no desire to intervene on the boy’s behalf.
One cruel backhand sabre-cut—
“I’m hit! I’m killed! ” young David cries,
Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.
It did not take much for Goliath to cut down David. With one stroke from his “sabre” or sword, ‘ the young man falls to the ground. He calls out, ‘“I’m hit! I’m killed! ”’ It is the end of his life. He throws himself “forward” and “chokes” on what is likely blood. David’s life comes to an end there at the hand of the giant. Goliath, in a final act of domination, “straddles” David’s body on the ground.
Through this retelling of the story of “David and Goliath” Graves was showing how even those who are the bravest, with the best intentions, cannot defeat those with mightier means. This is likely how he felt about his friend, another David, to whom the poem was dedicated.