Born on 27th March, 1923, Louis Aston Marantz Simpson is one of America’s best know poets. He has won many awards in his field, including the 1964’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The latter was in recognition for one of his works, At The End of the Open Road. Born in Jamaica, his family migrated to the United States of America while he was 17. For two years (between 1943 and 1945), he fought for America during World War II. This experience shaped most of his works when he started writing after the war.
He served as a messenger between his company’s headquarters and the soldiers fighting on the front line. Most of his poems and other works are narratives of his experiences as a messenger. The Battle is one of his well known poems that depict the experiences of a messenger on the front line. In four stanzas and sixteen lines, Louis takes the reader through the horrors of war, which is the major theme of this poem. In this paper, the author is going to provide the reader with a critique of this poem. The poem will be critiqued using the formalist criticism theory. Among the issues that will be addressed in this critique is the structure and organization of the poem, the way the poem begins and how it proceeds from the beginning. The author will also look at how the poem ends, the plot of the work and how this plot is related to the structure of the poem.
The Battle: Structure and Organization of the Poem
The poem is structured in four stanzas and sixteen lines (Poetry365 1-16). Louis seems to be seeking for a balance in the structure of the poem. This is given the fact that each of the stanzas is made up of four lines, mimicking the four stanzas of the poem. This creates some semblance of proportionality between the stanzas and the whole poem.
However, the structure of the lines is not uniform throughout the poem. For example, some of the lines are made of two sentences separated by a full stop, a case in point been the second line “Marched through a forest. Somewhere up ahead” (Poetry360 2). Others are made of single sentences separated by a comma, for example the first line “Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat” (Poetry360 1). Still, other lines are made of a single, solid and unbroken sentence, for example the 6th line “into the clammy earth between the trees” (Poetry360 6).
Beginning of the Poem
Louis begins the poem by providing the reader with an imagery of a soldier. Though he does not mention the word soldier anywhere, the selection of words in the first line leaves no doubt that the poet is talking of a soldier.
He begins by “Helmet and rifle, pack and overcoat” (Poetry360 1). The soldier described in this line is obviously headed for combat, and this is made clear by the inclusion of “rifle” in his cargo. It is also made clear that the weather is cold, and that is why the soldier carries an overcoat. It is probably in winter, and the soldier is headed to the battle line.
Where does it go?
The tone that Louis starts with in the first stanza is maintained throughout the poem for the larger part.
For example, he starts by using imagery, and this appears in the other stanzas of the poem. For example, in the eleventh line, he talks of “….The snow was black” (Poetry360 11). Snow is generally white, but by describing it as “black snow”, Louis conjures in the reader’s mind an image of snow with its purity interfered with by the flow of blood from the fallen and injured soldiers. The poem starts with a description of the soldier embarking from the camp and to the front line. The poem continues to trace the journey of the soldier into the woods, towards the battle field.
In the third stanza, Louis describes how the soldier, now on the front line, faces the “….(the) shells and bullets (sweeping) the icy woods” (Poetry360 10). The poem paints a horrific picture of what the soldier goes through in the battle field.
How does the Poem End?
The poem ends with the persona telling the reader what they remembered about the battle.
It appears that the persona is not involved in combat; he assumes the tone of a bystander. He describes the appearance of the soldiers, “The tiredness in (their) eyes, (and) how hands looked thin” (Poetry360 14). The only bright thin about the soldier’s appearance is the bright ember around their cigar.
The poem closes with the line “…., and the bright ember (of the cigarette)/Would pulse with all the life there was within” (Poetry360 15, 16). This line creates an image of a soldier, who is as frail as the ember of the cigarette he is smoking.
The poem gives the story of soldiers leaving the camp to go to the battle field. Armed with their rifles, they march through the forest, and towards the sound of thudding guns. The story given in this poem does not seem to paint a good picture regarding the battle. The poet describes scenes full of “black snow”, and if the black color can be taken as the color of coagulated blood on the snow, then it seems there was a lot of bloodshed.
Relationship of the Poem’s Plot to its Structure
Some comparisons can be drawn between the plot of the poem and its structure. As earlier indicated, the poem structure appears balanced, with four stanzas with four lines each. However, this is in contrast with the plot of the poem. There is nothing balanced about the life of the soldier, or the battle that is being fought. If there was balance in the society, maybe the war would have been unnecessary.
However, it can be said that the soldiers in the battle and the war in general, is aimed at achieving some balance in the society, balance like that of the poem’s structure. The contradiction between the poem’s structure and the plot extends to individual lines in the poem. For example, in describing the soldier going to war in line 1, the poet describes the soldier putting on his fatigues and taking his weapons from back to front. For example, one would expect the soldier to first put on the overcoat, then heist his pack on his soldiers, take the rifle and finally put on the helmet. But Louis does not see it this way. Instead, the soldier first wears the “Helmet (then takes the) rifle, pack and overcoat” (Poetry360 1).
In his poem The Battle, Louis describes soldiers going to the battle line, and what transpires there. The major theme in the poem is the horrors of war.
This paper criticized the poem from a formalist perspective. Among the aspects of the poem addressed is the beginning and ending of the poem, the plot of the poem and how the poem is related to its structure.
Poetry365. The Battle, Louis Simpson. Poetry365.
August 9, 2009. May 23, 2011.