“Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes was originally published in the 1957 collection of poems “Hawk in the Rain”. Hughes wrote this poem, with inspiration from Charge of the Light Brigade as a remembrance to his father, uncle, and family friends who fought in the First World War. His father fought in the Gallipoli campaign.
Hughes, born in 1930, grew up in West Yorkshire, England, which was in mourning due to the war. He went on to study Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge University where he met and later married the poet Sylvia Plath. Hughes became Poet Laureate in 1984.
Let’s take a quick look at a summary of Ted Hughes’s “Bayonet Charge” and then discuss it through a line-by-line analysis.
The speaker of “Bayonet Charge” follows a soldier in what is likely the First World War. This soldier goes through a series of emotions: fear, confusion, patriotism. The man runs across a field to charge upon the enemy. Once he gets there, he fights not for his country nor king but for himself. He wishes to escape the nightmare.
This poem is straight forward in terms of overall meaning. However, readers who wish to delve more into the subject can easily do so. There are many subtleties of this writing which make it one of the best war poems in recent history.
Title: Bayonet Charge
Style: Free Verse written in 23 lines spread across 3 stanzas
Rhyme scheme: None
Line-by-line Analysis and Figurative Language
- Suddenly – This could mean either unexpectedly or the man is actually having a nightmare. Or it just seems like a nightmare.
- Raw – Used specifically because it is a homonym. Does the author mean cold or fresh/new? Likely he means both. It is being used likely to help put a setting in the poem, state the soldier is likely a rookie, and also used as a juxtaposition for the word “hot”.
- His sweat heavy – Why do people sweat? Because they feel hot or because they are extremely nervous/desperate. Likely the soldier is both.
- Field of clods – Likely the author used this as a shortened way to state “lumps of earth”. However, it could be argued that the author is using the word “clods” to refer to the dead soldiers as it also has the meaning of “a stupid person”.
- Dazzled with rifle fire – Again, another phrase with duel meaning: overwhelmed and blinded by the bright lights of the rifle fire.
- Smacking the belly out of the air – If you’re wondering what this means, go ahead and smack your stomach with your hand. It is a fantastic use of imagery and also gives us a sense of violence.
- Lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm – Imagery used as a simile to show the weight of the rifle. It also gives us another violent feel with the word “smashed”.
- Patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye – Hughes is likely using this as sarcasm. The man is obviously scared.
- Sweating like molten iron – Out of nervousness? Or due to the amount of exercise? Possibly it is indeed a hot summer. If the poem is about Gallipoli, it gets quite hot there during the summer months.
- In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations / Was he the hand pointing that second – The stars and nations likely refers to the countrymen and their country. Cold clockwork (an alliterative) refers to the ever continuous fighting nations do. In these two lines he is asking what country’s people is he attacking.
- Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs / Listening between his footfalls for the reason – He feels like he suddenly awoke into this place and doesn’t know the reason why. These two lines relate back to the first line of the poem.
- Of his still running, and his foot hung like / Statuary in mid-stride. – He’s simply running. He feels like he is just going through the motions because he must.
- Then the shot-slashed furrows – referring to the trench
- Yellow hare – “Yellow” was a common term used to describe someone scared. “Hare” is a term used to describe a person who runs fast. Thus, the line is likely talking about the men throwing up a dead soldier who charged them previously. This would explain the next two lines as well.
- King, honour, human dignity, etcetera / Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm – Those things didn’t matter when he was fighting. He likely was fighting for just his own life instead.
- To get out of that blue crackling air / His terror’s touchy dynamite. – To leave the place full of shots being fired, his nightmare.
Poem: “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.
This war poem is one of my favorites. At first glance it seems like an easy read–we can take it for what it says. But once we dig a little deeper, it is all too human. The First World War—really any war—is a nightmare. Bullets flying everywhere, soldiers fighting to stay alive. It is a nightmare. Perhaps this writing is much more than just a simple poem dedicated to his father’s horrors. It could very well be about the horrors of humanity—the ever revolving wars and the terrors inside of all of us.