Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes describes the few desperate moments of a soldier's charge against a defended position, dramatising the feelings of fear, dislocation and confusion.
While the soldier and the conflict are only described in general terms, meaning that the experience is universalised, Hughes may have been imagining his father's experience as one of the soldiers in the First World War, whose charges 'over the top' of the trenches have passed into legend.
Bayonet Charge By Ted Hughes
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,
In bewilderment then he almost stopped –
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second? He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride. Then the shot-slashed furrows
Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
Open silent, its eyes standing out.
He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,
King, honour, human dignity, etcetera
Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.
The poem starts 'suddenly', with no explanation or scene-setting other than the title. Although the soldier is unlikely to have been actually asleep, the idea that he 'awoke' from a sleep-like state of stillness or waiting into a state of action sets the whole poem into a 'hyper-real' mode.
First, as he runs, the soldier is confused and 'stumbling', clumsily 'lugging' his rifle and feeling pain and panic in his chest. Strong enjambements keep the poem uneven and sudden, until Hughes uses a dash parenthesis - like this - and a stanza break to change the speed and the tone.
The soldier's confusion leads him to 'almost stop' and we are given an insight into the clarity that comes with fear and assault for a soldier ordered 'over the top'. He is able to observe himself and the world around him in minute and accurate detail, and to wonder about his place in time and space.
The soldier questions "Why me? Why here and now?" and pictures himself as the hand on a clock, subject to the inevitable force of a clockwork motor that cannot be slowed or quickend. He realises that he does not really know why he is running and feels like a statue frozen in time.
Longer lines can be used by the poet to help with the conceit of time 'stopping still'. The line 'In what cold clockwork…' has twelve syllables and has three stressed beats in a row ('In what cold clockwork'), forcing the reader to slow as the poem is read. The 'still' of 'still running' is being used as an adjective, and could be understood to describe the continuing running of the soldier, yet the word is ambiguous, suggesting an oxymoron of unmoving running that is like a severe slow-motion sequence in a film. Then the 'shot-slashed furrows' prepare us to change gear again.
The soldier's focus moves to consider the hare that has been shot or hurt by the gunfire and he realises that he cannot stay and philosophise if he is to survive: he must race on and find cover, or he, like the hare, will soon be wordlessly writhing in his own 'threshing circle' in the field.
Bayonet Charge is presented as though it had a formal shape, but in reality there is no strong pattern inside the lines - perhaps like the many amateur soldiers of the First World War, conscripted and dressed in uniform, but remaining civilians on the inside.
The three stanzas have eight, seven and eight lines, but the strong enjambement means that the break between the second and third stanzas is already stressed: the start of a new stanza artificially gives a greater emphasis and 'suddenness' to the words 'Threw up a yellow hare' to dramatise the surprise of the animal's appearance and the break in the soldier's daydream. The lines have around five stressed syllables each - some more, some fewer - but parts of the poem are strongly iambic and other parts more trochaic.
The poem does not give an account of a particular charge, a particular battle or a particular soldier. The man, who has a dominant presence in the poem by the repetition of the pronouns 'he' and 'his' six times each, has no rank or name, and is introduced quickly in the first line of the poem.
This helps the poem become a poem of action, for while no enemy appears, the poem is full of movement and detail. In fact, the poem really imagines how a soldier's attention, even under fire, can be distracted by the strange events to focus on the ground beneath him, nature around him or his place in the universe - all recurring themes in Hughes' poetry.
While the 'yellow hare' is given a detailed, three-line description, 'King, honour, human dignity' and everything else associated with them are rattled off in a single list of a line. These abstract ideas are clearly less important in the moment than the soldier's apprehension of what is going on around him - they are 'luxuries' that he has not got the time to appreciate, and so like heavy, but valuable, treasures they are dropped in his rush to escape.
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