After Blenheim by Robert Southey

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh —
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.

“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out.
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”

“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.

“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

Summary

The poem opens on the scene of a summer evening. An elderly farmer named Kaspar was sitting in the sun in front of his cottage, watching his grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin, playing on the field. Wilhelmine saw her brother Peterkin who was rolling something large and round that he found near a stream. He then takes it to Kaspar and asks what it is. The old man took it from the curious boy and with a natural sigh replied that it was some poor man’s skull that died in the war. He further added that he had found many such skulls while ploughing the fields as thousands of brave men died in the ‘Battle of Blenheim’, known for its famous victory. The young Peterkin became more curious to know all about the Battle of Blenheim and for what did the men fought with each other. To this Kaspar said that it was the English who defeated the French, but he was not sure as to why they fought but could only say that everybody said that it was a ‘famous victory’.

Kaspar said that his father lived at Blenheim at that time who had suffered heavy loss by the war, his house was burnt and he had to flee with his wife and children and became homeless. Kaspar added that the war rage, its fire and sword caused much destruction all over the country and many pregnant women and new born babies died. But things like that are quite common for every war with a famous victory. It is said that it was a shocking sight as after the battle was won, thousands of copses lay rotting in the sun but he again repeated that things like that must happen after a famous victory. Everybody praised Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene for their triumph over French. Wilhelmine said that this was a bad thing but Kaspar again said that “Nay…nay…my little girl, It was a famous victory”. Everybody praised the Duke for the great fight but Peterkin questioned as if any good came at last. To which Kaspar could say anything but only repeated that it was a famous victory.

Analysis

Robert Southey’s poem “After Blenheim” comprises 11 stanzas, each containing 6 lines. It has been written in the form of a ballad, capturing a piece of conversation between an old man named Kasper and his two grandchildren.

Kaspar explains to the children the story of the battle, that the Duke of Marlborough routed the French, although he admits he never understood the reason for the war himself. He also mentions that his father had a cottage by the rivulet (small stream). The soldiers burned it to the ground, and his father and mother had fled, with their child. Thousands of corpses lay rotting in the fields, but he shrugs it off, as part of the cost of war. Wilhelmine says it was a wicked thing, but he contradicts her saying, no, it was a great victory. Kaspar does not come up with any concrete answer, when the grandchild Peterkin asks him what good came out of the war. This is because Kaspar is focusing more on what we would call today the “spin” about the war and this specific battle. He is emphasizing “the great victory” more.

The poem is replete with the terrible consequences of war – its wastefulness and how this affects the people and the land. The irony is that war wreaks havoc on the victor and the vanquished alike. The victors, in their success do receive terrible consequences as well. It’s quite likely that the grandpa is looking to shield Peterkin from this reality, since Peterkin is of a tender age. Maybe the grandpa wants to wait till the boy is more mature to reveal to him what war is really all about. In addition, it is possible that Grandpa Kaspar doesn’t really know what came out of the war. Maybe he feels nothing positive and constructive as to what did come out of this war and that is also why he doesn’t provide an answer – or at least a suitable answer for Peterkin.

Throughout the poem the phrases “great victory” and “famous victory” are repeated but with no boast behind it. In the sixth stanza Kaspar tells them that it was the English and French who fought for some unimportant reason, but it was a great victory. The next two stanzas explain all the collateral damage in the battle, for example women and children fleeing from burning homes, the country side wasted and dead babies and mothers. The ninth stanza paints the image of the battlefield with thousands rotting in the sun. The tenth, which shows the people praising the victory of the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene to which the little girl reacts by saying how terrible it was. But, as if rehearsed he said it that was a famous victory. The final stanza is the boy Peterkin asking what good came from all this death and destruction and the grandfather responds again ‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he ‘But ’twas a famous victory’.

The repetition of the old man words builds up an ironic climax. The moral of the poem is that there is no real rationale for destructive war among human beings and nations that should learn to get along.

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