Ted Hughes, a British poet who wrote ‘Bayonet Charge’, is probably best known for his tragic marriage to the American poet, Sylvia Plath. Since Hughes did not serve as a soldier himself, it is likely that he felt he was able to imagine what a soldier might have felt simply because of the battles he had faced in his own life. Although he was not likely to have ever been marching head-on into death, it is clear that he could empathize with the feelings of the soldiers. The title “Bayonet Charge” shows that Hughes is using a World War I soldier as the main subject of this poem. The soldiers in the first world war would have experienced face to face combat and would have been so close to their enemies that they may have had to use their bayonets to stab the enemy across from them. This is the kind of battle Hughes seems most familiar with. It is not a private matter that Hughes’s marriage with Plath was a battle. Although it is certainly hyperbole to compare marriage conflict to national conflict, it is common for Hughes to make such striking analogies.
Plath and Hughes married only four months after they met, and Hughes admitted that while they seemed relatively happy for the first few years, there were definite “chasms” between them. It could be that the green hedge in ‘Bayonet Charge’ represents the chasms that Hughes felt between his wife and himself. The conflict may have felt like a war. Perhaps it often felt like one or more would die. In another of Ted Hughes’ poetry, entitled, ‘Wind‘ he describes their marriage as a house stranded out to sea. It is no surprise that Hughes may have felt a connection with those who have endured face to face battle. Perhaps ‘Bayonet Charge’ only mentions the soldier himself and the hare because Hughes felt so alone in his marriage. This idea would certainly correspond with the themes presented in the poem, ‘Wind‘.
In various other poems, Hughes expounds upon his feelings toward their marriage, and even ventures to make reference to Plath’s suicide. Whether ‘Bayonet Charge’ is one that is simply out of empathy to soldiers or one that also symbolizes his own life, Hughes uses radical language and intense description to make the feelings of the soldier come alive in a way that all readers can identify with, whether or not they have ever fought as soldiers. Hughes is able to portray fear, strength, and raw human emotion through the words of ‘Bayonet Charge’. He is able to convey the feeling of being subject to destiny, a pawn in the game of some greater structure. His vibrant words and vivid descriptions allow his readers to identify with all of this feeling while watching this soldier as he struggles to find the driving force behind his actions.
Bayonet Charge Analysis
Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing
Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest, –
The speaker leaves no doubt as to the central figure of ‘Bayonet Charge, which can be read in full here. He is clearly a soldier, dressed in his khaki uniform, bearing the hot summer heat. The poem begins by saying that this man “awoke”. It appears he was in a kind of daydream just moments before the poem begins. But suddenly, with the first line of ‘Bayonet Charge’, he awakens to reality, and he finds himself running and raw. “Raw” probably refers to his emotions, as he marches into war. He was unable to feel anything other than the raw emotion of fear as he runs straight into battle. The speaker describes him as stumbling across lumps of the earth as he heads “towards a green hedge”. He sees that the hedge is “dazzled with rifle fire” but he continues to run toward it anyway.
The speaker describes the sound of the bullets as “smacking the belly out of the air”. One can imagine the deafening noise of so many weapons firing. This soldier continues to run, but his rifle begins to feel heavy and “numb as a smashed arm”. This symbolizes the change in the way the soldier feels about his position, his duty, and the weapon he carries. The speaker continues to describe this change when he says, “The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye” was now no longer in his eye, but coming “from the centre of his chest” in the form of sweat. This reveals that while the soldier was once proud to wear his uniform and carry his weapon with his head held high and a tear of patriotism in his eye, he was not now feeling patriotism or pride. He felt only the sweat on his chest and the weight of his bayonet. It is almost as if he were numb as he runs full force into the battle that could very well end his life.
In bewilderment then he almost stopped –
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride. Then the shot-slashed furrows
In this stanza, the soldier suddenly comes to his senses. He stands “in bewilderment” as he begins to wonder why he is there fighting that battle. “He almost stopped” running toward the battle as he began to think about the reasons for his fighting. This soldier knows that this battle may be the end of him. The patriotic tear has long been gone from his eye. Now he begins to wonder why he is running to his death. If it is not his own heart’s desire to fight in this battle, he concludes that it must be “cold clockwork or the stars and the nations” that has brought him here to die. The “cold clockwork” refers to something that is cold and non-emotional. “Clockwork” refers to timing. Thus, the speaker believes that it was nothing more than bad timing that has brought him to fight in this particular battle.
“The stars” refers to his horoscope or destiny. He believes that it was simply the way the stars were aligned at the time of his birth that determined his place in the current war. “The nations” of course refer to the countries which were at war with one another. By blaming all of these outward things for his involvement in the war, the soldier reveals his belief that he is nothing more than “a cog in the machine” or something that is used by forces greater than he to accomplish their own goals. He feels like a pawn in a game. He has no true vested interest in this war. In fact, as he runs toward the green hedge, his only vested interest is his very own life. This is implied by his lack of acknowledgment of the people around him.
‘Bayonet Charge’ almost sounds as if he is running into the battle by himself. Of course, if he is describing a real battle in a real war, there would have been other soldiers on all sides of him, running alongside him. But the soldier in this poem fails to mention that fact. This is most likely because, in the face of his own possible death, he is unconcerned with the people around him. At this point, the soldier begins to feel as though he were outside of himself. He does not know if it was his own “hand pointing” or if it was something else strange and apart from him. As he continued to run, he began to listen.
He ran as though he were running through the dark. Perhaps he looked confused like he did not know where he was going. As he ran, he listened intently “for the reason of his still running” as if he could hear the purpose behind what he was doing. When the answer did not come to him, “his foot hung like statuary in mid-stride”. The speaker does not say that the soldier deliberately stopped running. Rather, it was as if his feet simply stopped moving apart from his own mind. As he ran, he tried to figure out why he was running into the battle. When the answer did not come to him, his feet simply stopped mid-stride and he stood there like a statue. This is described as if the soldier’s body worked against his mind and stopped moving of its own accord.
Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.
This stanza begins with the description of “a yellow hare” which was frightened from his hiding place by the shots of the weapons. The hare “rolled like a flame” from the place he was hiding in, and began to frantically crawl in “a threshing circle”. The animal was clearly terrified. The reader can imagine the small, terrified animal as the speaker describes him, with “its mouth wide” and “open silent”. It’s eyes were “standing out”. It is significant to note that the hare is the only other living creature that the soldier acknowledges. Perhaps the enemy is not mentioned in terms of human soldiers because the soldier knew that he was charging to battle to kill them. To think of them as a human would make that duty unbearable. Perhaps the soldier did not describe the people around him because they were his friends, and he could not bear to think about how many losses he would suffer if he survived the battle himself. For whatever reason, the speaker does not mention any other living being aside from the hare.
It is possible that the soldier feels a connection with the small animal. Both are terrified. Both are driven from their homes and lives of comfort. Both are confused. Both seem to be in the middle of a battle they care nothing for. After observing the hare, the soldier snaps out his frozen, statue-like stance. Once again, he begins to run. He “plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge”. The speaker does not give a real reason for his continuing to run, but for some reason his identifying with the hare allowed him to keep going. When the speaker says, “King, honour, human dignity, etcetera” he reveals that these are not the reasons that he is plunging into war. The use of the word “etcetera” writes off all of the other reasons he listed and reveals that these reasons are all the ones in which he should believe, but does not. He knows that back home, they speak of these things. But in the face of a real battle, when life would be lost, they seemed trivial.
In fact, they were “dropped like luxuries”. Just as a soldier gives up all luxuries he may have been formerly accustomed to, so he gives up all sense of loyalty to the king, honor, and human dignity. These things suddenly seem pointless when compared with his one goal, “to get out of that blue crackling air”. There are varying interpretations to the last line of ‘Bayonet Charge’. The one that seems to fit the title and the context of the poem best claims that the “touchy dynamite” is his bayonet. It is a weapon he carried that could inflict terrible wounds and take the lives of his enemies. As he runs into battle, aware of the danger and his longing to get away, he also becomes aware that he is holding a very powerful weapon, and that it could take the life of the one he comes up against. While his enemy could do the same to him, the soldier realizes that his weapon is like “touchy dynamite” for if someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could take his life. With the last line, the speaker reveals that the soldier is now aware not only of the danger that he is in, but also of the threat that he poses to his enemies. He realizes that he is a part of the battle, one in danger of losing his life, but also one who could take another’s life.