This 20th-century war poem works as an elegy for all the men from Oxford who went to war, leaving their homes behind and sacrificing themselves for their country. The poem is very easy to read, and its meaning comes through in the first few lines, making it incredibly effective.
The Spires of Oxford Winifred M. LettsI saw the spires of Oxford As I was passing by,The gray spires of Oxford Against the pearl-gray sky.My heart was with the Oxford men Who went abroad to die.The years go fast in Oxford, The golden years and gay,The hoary Colleges look down On careless boys at play.But when the bugles sounded war They put their games away.They left the peaceful river, The cricket-field, the quad,The shaven lawns of Oxford, To seek a bloody sod—They gave their merry youth away For country and for God.God rest you, happy gentlemen, Who laid your good lives down,Who took the khaki and the gun Instead of cap and gown.God bring you to a fairer place Than even Oxford town.
Explore The Spires of Oxford
‘The Spires of Oxford’ by Winifred M. Letts is a simple memorial poem recognizing the loss of men from Oxford in war.
The poem is about the beauty of the Oxford grounds and how the young men who used to attend the school and carried themselves with carefree attitudes have had to put their happiness aside to go to war. The speaker recognizes their dedication and what they’ve sacrificed for their country. The poem ends with the speaker expressing their hope that all the deceased men are in Heaven, somewhere even more beautiful than Oxford.
Structure and Form
‘The Spires of Oxford’ by Winifred M. Letts is a four-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCB, with a few variations. The poem is filled with repetition, such as the poet’s use of “Oxford” in stanza one.
In this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” in stanza one and “God’ in stanza four.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective imagery that should stimulate the reader’s senses. For example, “The gray spires of Oxford / Against the pearl-gray sky.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sun at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “golden years and gay” in stanza two.
I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker begins by describing walking by the “gray spires of Oxford.” The word “Oxford” is repeated three times in the first stanza, bringing the reader back to very specific imagery over and over. When the speaker passed Oxford, the famous school that’s considered to be the second-oldest university, with continuous operation, in the world.
When the speaker walked by the school or anywhere in the area of the school, they were reminded of all who spent time there and, specifically, those who “went abroad to die.” Here, the speaker is alluding to the loss of life in war. The speaker relates to these people through their love for the area and from the fact that they are likely around the same age as those who passed away or knew someone specifically who died.
The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.
The speaker says that “years go fast in Oxford.” At first, one is young and happy, but as one ages, the “games” are put away. This is a very recognizable time progression. As one age, the childish worries they used to have disappeared and are repeated by the “bugles” that sound war. The previous “careless[ness]” that these Oxford boys enjoyed is gone.
They left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod—
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.
The boys who were once careless left behind the “peaceful river,” and the “shaven” (or trimmed/cared for) lawns of Oxford and had to head toward the “bloody sod.” This is a reference to how horrifying war can be and how, after a long and bloody battle, the ground will be saturated with blood.
These boys knew, to an extent, the speaker implies, what they were getting into. They gave away their “merry youth” for “country and for God.” They traded their happiness, carefree attitude, and carelessness for the terrifying worries of war.
God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.
The final stanza says farewell to the men who died in war. The “happy gentlemen” who willingly “laid your good lives down” for the country. They traded the “cap and gown” of Oxford (symbolizing someone as attending or having attended the school) for “khaki and the gun,” which symbolizes a new fear for their lives.
The speaker ends the poem hoping that God brings them to a “fairer place” than Oxford. The recognize the beauty of the grounds and indicate that these men have passed away. No longer will they walk the lawn, and the speaker hopes that where they are now, in Heaven, is seen as more beautiful than “Oxford town.”
The main theme of this poem is the loss of life in war. The speaker spends the lines alluding to the many men from Oxford who lost their lives fighting for their country.
The message is that the men from Oxford fought for their country with incredible bravery that was starkly different from the carefree way they grew up.
The poem is about the landscape of Oxford and how it brings to the speaker’s mind the memory of all the men who died fighting for their country. The “spires” and other elements of the university/town remind them of what’s been lost.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘War is Kind’ by Stephen Crane – a war poem that is addressed to a young woman who is told not to cry over war.
- ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy – depicts the unrest in the world from a photographer’s perspective.
- ‘When Great Trees Fall’ by Maya Angelou – speaks about loss as a tragic yet inevitable part of the human experience.