Like the famous First World War poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Louis Simpson depicts the battlefield in a distinctly un-heroic way, focusing in on the hardship and suffering of the soldiers in The Battle. The tone is bleak and matter-of-fact; and the language is spare, yet it successfully portrays the horror these men endure. Read the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in four quatrains with a steady ABAB rhyme scheme. The rhythm is iambic pentameter.
The Battle Analysis
The soldiers are reduced to a mere summation of their parts:
Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat
Marched through the forest.
This technique is known as synecdoche. They have lost their individuality as humans, and they are now like automatons, whose sole purpose is to fight. Like Sassoon, Simpson lists the items the men must carry with them, weighing them down. The pending violence is signalled by sounds in the distance: ‘Somewhere up ahead/Guns thudded.’ This shows that the men are walking directly into the action. The onomatopoeic use of ‘thudded’ shows the dull, heavy sound of gun fire, and the language throughout is flat and doom laden. It is as though the fate of these men is sealed and it just a case of waiting for the end.
Tension is created by the simile ‘Like the circle of a throat’ which effectively conveys a feeling of constriction, as though the men are trapped. This sense of inescapable doom is further conveyed by the final line in the stanza: ‘The night on every side was turning red’. Again, the poet says little but the reader imagines bloodshed and the gunfire from shells and grenades. It could also signify the sun going down, and points to the reality that many of these men will not see the light of day again.
The unglamorous language continues. The repetition of the pronoun ‘they’ serves to distance ourselves from the men: they are anonymous foot soldiers, to whom grim tasks are assigned.
The simile ‘they sank like moles’ dehumanises them further. In a more jingoistic poem we would expect the brave soldiers to be likened to lions or a similar ferocious creature, not a small furtive animal which tunnels underground.
Simpson evokes pity for the men through the sibilance of the repeated ‘s’ sounds in the lines:
And soon the sentries, standing in their holes,
Felt the first snow. Their feet began to freeze.
These lines are mellifluous and easy to read. The ‘f’ sounds are gently fricative, and belie the agony that these soldiers must feel. The assonance of the long ‘ee’ sounds draws the line out so we must read it slowly, forcing us to imagine their discomfort.
Now the discomfort is replaced with carnage, which Simpson conveys in short, stark sentences. The soldiers are awoken when: ‘At dawn the first shell landed with a crack.’ The cacophonous sound is conveyed by the harsh onomatopoeia of ‘crack’. The onslaught begins, and is relentless. The verb ‘swept’ which Simpson uses to describe the artillery fire conveys the force of the attack. There is a sense that ‘the icy woods’ afford little shelter. The short, simple statement, ‘This lasted several days’ makes effective use of understatement to describe the battle.
We have the unusual detail about the colour of the snow being black. The symbolism of this is significant, since we imagine snow gleaming white and signalling purity, but the battle has turned it to grimy slush.
The closing metaphor is perhaps the bleakest image in the poem. The men, now machine gun fodder, are simply corpses which ‘stiffened in their scarlet hoods’. The impersonal way in which Simpson imparts this information makes it all the more heartrending. Again he has made clever use of colour to show the blood stains the ground like a hood. Scarlet is the colour of blood when it is still rich with oxygen, and only seconds before has been pumping round their bodies, keeping them alive. We feel the dreadful waste of these young lives acutely.
The perspective suddenly changes here and we see the soldiers as real, tired, frightened men. Simpson zooms in on their vulnerability. They seem fragile, with “the tiredness in their eyes’ and their ‘thin’ hands. To me the tone is one of anger here, at how men can be sent into battle, so ill-catered and ill-prepared. From the images of countless men and all their accoutrements, setting up camp and going into battle, our eyes are now drawn to the tiny image of the cigarette glowing in the darkness. Unlike the bright scarlet of the blood before, this ‘bright ember’ is evidence of life, as the soldier still has the strength within to smoke the cigarette. Simpson has chosen the word ‘pulse’ with care. He has used it as a verb to show that the soldier’s breath keeps the flickering light moving, and thus this is a sign of hope.
About Louis Simpson
Louis Simpson was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, born in Jamaica in 1923. He moved to the United States to study but in World War joined the Allies to serve in Europe as part of the Elite 101st Airborne Division. He fought in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, in now infamous battles such as The Battle of Bastogne when German troops surrounded American soldiers for three weeks.
His poetry could also be compared to that of another Second World War poet, Keith Douglas.
He died in 2012 aged eighty-nine.