‘Bayonet Charge’ is a poem written by Ted Hughes. It is included on the English Literature GCSE syllabus. It depicts the thoughts and feelings of one soldier as he charges at the enemy and begins to question his role in the battle.
‘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.
Tone and Action in ‘Bayonet Charge’
This poem is set in the midst of action as soldiers attempt a bayonet charge during battle. Hughes recreates the feeling on this chaotic moment in several ways.
The poem opens abruptly: ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running’. This is a startling opening, immediately giving the feeling of action and danger. Similarly, Hughes uses dashes to abruptly and unpredictably break up the flow of the sentences.
Enjambment describes the technique of breaking up a sentence so that it runs over more than one line of the poem. There is almost constant enjambment throughout ‘Bayonet Charge’ – sentences even continue over the breaks between stanzas. This constant, uninterrupted flow reflects the fast pace and chaos of the moment.
The Soldier’s Role in War
In the second stanza, the soldier begins to question his role in the conflict. He wonders ‘In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations / Was he the hand pointing that second?’ The stars and the nations are massive, impersonal, even cosmic forces that decide his fate. They work mechanically and unemotionally like ‘cold clockwork’. The soldier doesn’t feel that he has made a choice to actively participate in war. He is merely a hand on a clock, a cog in the machine, exploited by much larger and more powerful forces.
The poet undermines the usual rhetoric of war – ‘King, honour, human dignity’ – with a dismissive ‘etcetera’. During battle, these concepts ‘drop like luxuries’. For those directly involved in the fighting, belief in these ideals is self-indulgent and irrelevant and must be abandoned to survive. Far from being a necessary motivation, these concepts are hollow and meaningless in the brutal realities of war. Only those not involved in fighting can continue to believe in these grand ideals.
It is also striking that the soldier is the only person described in the poem. His comrades are not mentioned. This is surprising – a battlefield would in reality be full of people. This sense of isolation makes the moment more intense. The soldier is fighting for his own survival; everything else is irrelevant and no one else can defend him.
Similarly, the only indication of the enemy’s presence is the ‘green hedge / That dazzle[s] with rifle fire’. The enemy is dehumanised and unseen, making them more frightening and unpredictable.
In fact, the only other living being in the poem is the hare – although it might not live for long. The hare is terrified and defenceless, ‘its mouth wide / Open silent, its eyes standing out’. It helplessly ‘roll[s] like a flame / And crawl[s] in a threshing circle’. These circular motions give the impression that the hare is trapped. Both the hare and the soldier are caught up in a deadly situation – in someone else’s battle.