Robert W. Service had a great deal to say about the First World War, and his experience living throughout it combined with his already well-established career as a poet enabled him to say what he wanted very publicly about it. ‘The Call’ is one of his many poems written about the war as it was unfolding across Europe, and was written during a period when there was no end in sight for the conflict. In the text and subtext of this well-named piece, Service is able to express many of the feelings and thoughts he had for the war that a great many could benefit from hearing.
Analysis of The Call
(France, August first, 1914)
The poem begins with this preface. Historically, August 1st, 1914 is the day that the German Empire declared war on the Russian Empire, entering both nations into the Great War. In France, an army was already mobilizing in preparation for the upcoming conflict. Service’s purpose in including the date and country seems to largely have been establishing the wartime nature of the work. Notably, ‘The Call’ is the first complete poem (after the prologue) to appear in Service’s 1916 volume, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, which was based on his experiences with the First World War. You can read ‘The Call’ in full here.
Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!
Initially, ‘The Call’ is expressed as exactly what its title suggests — a call to action, or in this case, a call to war. When the war broke, Service was living in France, where the call to war, particularly on August 1st, 1914, would have been strong, and the war hysteria building. Service depicts this hysteria through short lines with abrupt and clear calls to action. He also uses alliterative phrases and words with positive connotation — “gorse and golden dells,” “ringing and swinging,” “and “wild farewells,” for instance. The repetition of the word “war,” along with its capitalization, sets it as a clear and central theme for the work. The overuse of exclamation points, positive language, and fast pace portray this as a positive thing, to match the feeling of various places around the world at the time the war was beginning.
Second, Third, and Fourth Stanzas
High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!
Prince and page, sot and sage,
Hark to the roar of War!
Poet, professor and circus clown,
Chimney-sweeper and fop o’ the town,
Into the pot and be melted down:
Into the pot of War!
The next three verses of ‘The Call’ are set up as lists, with items counted between various declarations of support and further calls to action for the conflict. Service makes it clear that all are to be swept up in the battle in some form or the other. The women of society are encouraged to begin taking up the day-to-day duties of their husbands or brothers, while those men are encouraged to set aside their lives and join the war effort. Again, Service’s language is encouraging and positive; ‘The Call’ continues to be exactly as advertised in the title, and the language continues to be strong and alliterative. The primary purpose of these verses is simply to make clear the fact that the war effort wants absolutely everyone who is capable of joining in; that the whole of the country must participate, from the richest princes to the common tinkers.
One line of interest includes the “comrades now in the hell out there,” the first negative image of the war brought up thus far. The use of the word “comrade” suggests that the meaning of the line is simply that the people hearing the call should consider that it is their friends and countrymen who are fighting and need help and that they should receive it. In practice, the word “hell” subtly shifts the atmosphere of the work from a triumphant call to a subdued warning — the reader cannot fail to miss the simple fact that there is a hell brewing on the fields.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
Women all, hear the call,
The pitiless call of War!
Look your last on your dearest ones,
There will be wailing and weeping to-night;
Death’s red sickle is reaping to-night:
War! War! War!
Only in the last two verses does Service drop the triumphant language and say, in plain terms, what the war truly means for its participants. His narrator shifts attention from the men being addressed to the women. For the men, the poem was about fighting gloriously and serving brother and country. For the women, the poem is about saying good-bye forever, to their brothers, their husbands, their fathers, their sons, and their peace of mind. It reminds them, in the same cheerful beat, that war is where soldiers go to die. Here, the language used includes words such as “pitiless,” “gluttonous,” “maniac,” “wailing,” and “weeping.” The alliteration stays, as do the short lines and repetition of “war,” but the meaning is vastly changed.
As Robert Service was living in Paris in 1914, it seems likely that ‘The Call’ is based on his own experience, living in a European country at the break of the war. In Paris, the call to arms would have been an intense experience, and Service undoubtedly saw both sides of that call, and what it meant for those who left, and for those they left behind. By 1916, when Rhymes of a Red Cross Man was published, the horrors of the war were better-known, and Service’s commentary could be informed both by his own experience and his own hindsight. Service himself worked briefly as a stretcher-bearer for the Red Cross during the war and would have seen “Death’s red sickle” a great many times throughout. His cynical commentary on that original call to arms is almost certainly well-earned and reflects many of his own experience, a simple fact that lends a great deal of power to the well-named Call.