The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, No. 57, July, 1862 online

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VOL. X. - JULY, 1862. - NO. LVII.


It is certain that since the time of Homer the deeds and circumstances
of war have not been felicitously sung. If any ideas have been the
subject of the strife, they seldom appear to advantage in the poems
which chronicle it, or in the verses devoted to the praise of heroes.
Remove the "Iliad," the "Nibelungenlied," some English, Spanish, and
Northern ballads, two or three Old-Bohemian, the war-songs composed by
Ziska, and one or two Romaic, from the field of investigation, and one
is astonished at the scanty gleaning of battle-poetry, camp-songs, and
rhymes that have been scattered in the wake of great campaigns, and
many of the above-mentioned are more historical or mythological than
descriptive of war. The quantity of political songs and ballads,
serious and satirical, which were suggested by the great critical
moments of modern history, is immense. Every country has, or might
have, its own peculiar collections. In France the troubles of the
League gave an impulse to song-writing, and the productions of
Desportes and Bertaut are relics of that time. Historical and
revolutionary songs abound in all countries; but even the
"Marseillaise," the gay, ferocious "Carmagnole," and the "Ça Ira,"
which somebody wrote upon a drum-head in the Champ de Mars, do not
belong to fighting-poetry. The actual business of following into the
field the men who represent the tendencies of any time, and of helping
to get through with the unavoidable fighting-jobs which they organize,
seems to inspire the same rhetoric in every age, and to reproduce the
same set of conventional war-images. The range of feeling is narrow;
the enthusiasm for great generals is expressed in pompous commonplaces;
even the dramatic circumstances of a campaign full of the movement and
suffering of great masses of men, in bivouac, upon the march, in the
gloomy and perilous defile, during a retreat, and in the hours when
wavering victory suddenly turns and lets her hot lips be kissed, are
scarcely seen, or feebly hinted at. The horizon of the battle-field
itself is limited, and it is impossible to obtain a total impression
of the picturesque and terrible fact. After the smoke has rolled away,
the historian finds a position whence the scenes deliberately reveal to
him all their connection, and reenact their passion. He is the real
poet of these solemn passages in the life of man. [1]

[Footnote 1: There is a little volume, called _Voices from the
Ranks_, in which numerous letters written by privates, corporals,
etc., in the Crimea, are collected and arranged. They are full of
incident and pathos. Suffering, daring, and humor, the love of home,
and the religious dependence of men capable of telling their own Iliad,
make this a very powerful book. In modern times the best literature of
a campaign will be found in private letters. We have some from Magenta
and Solferino, written by Frenchmen; the character stands very clear in
them. And here is one written by an English lad, who is describing a
landing from boats in Finland, when he shot his first man. The act
separated itself from the whole scene, and charged him with it.
Instinctively he walked up to the poor Finn; they met for the first
time. The wounded man quietly regarded him; he leaned on his musket,
and returned the fading look till it went out.]

One would think that a poet in the ranks would sometimes exchange the
pike or musket for the pen in his knapsack, and let all the feelings
and landscapes of war distil through his fine fancy from it drop by
drop. But the knapsack makes too heavy a draught upon the nervous
power which the cerebellum supplies for marching orders; concentration
goes to waste in doing porter's work; his tent-lines are the only kind
a poet cares for. If he extemporizes a song or hymn, it is lucky if it
becomes a favorite of the camp. The great song which the soldier lifts
during his halt, or on the edge of battle, is generally written
beforehand by some pen unconscious that its glow would tip the points
of bayonets, and cheer hearts in suspense for the first cannon-shot of
the foe. If anybody undertakes to furnish songs for camps, he prospers
as one who resolves to write anthems for a prize-committee to sit on:
it is sutler's work, and falls a prey to the provost-marshal.

Nor are poets any more successful, when they propose to make camp-life
and soldiers' feelings subjects for aesthetic consideration. Their
lines are smooth, their images are spirited; but as well might the
campaign itself have been conducted in the poet's study as its
situations be deliberately transferred there to verse. The
"Wallenstein's Camp" of Schiller is not poetry, but racy and sparkling
pamphleteering. Its rhyming does not prevent it from belonging to the
historical treatment of periods that are picturesque with many passions
and interests, that go clad in jaunty regimental costumes, and require
not to be idealized, but simply to be described. Goethe, in his
soldier's song in "Faust," idealizes at a touch the rough work, the
storming and marauding of the mediaeval _Lanzknecht;_ set to
music, it might be sung by fine _dilettanti_ tenors in garrison,
but would be stopped at any outpost in the field for want of the
countersign. But when Goethe describes what he saw and felt in the
campaign in France, with that lucid and observant prose, he reproduces
an actual situation. So does Chamisso, in that powerful letter which
describes the scenes in Hameln, when it was delivered to the French.
But Chamisso has written a genuine soldier's song, which we intend to
give. The songs of Körner are well known already in various English
dresses. [2]

[Footnote 2: See translations of Von Zedlitz's _Midnight Review_,
of Follen's _Blücher's Ball_, of Freihgrath's _Death of
Grabbe_, of Rückert's _Patriot's Lament_, of Arndt's
_Field-Marshal Blücher_, of Pfeffel's _Tobacco-Pipe_, of
Gleim's _War Song_, of Tegner's _Veteran_, (Swedish,) of
Rahbek's _Peter Colbjornsen_, (Danish,) _The Death-Song of
Regner Lodbrock_, (Norse,) and Körner's _Sword-Song_, in Mr.
Longfellow's _Poets and Poetry of Europe_. See all of Körner's
soldier songs well translated, the _Sword-Song_ admirably, by
Rev. Charles T. Brooks, in _Specimens of Foreign Literature_, Vol.
XIV. See, in Robinson's _Literature of Slavic Nations_, some
Russian and Servian martial poetry.]

But the early poetry which attempts the description of feats at arms
which were points in the welfare of nations - when, for instance,
Germany was struggling to have her middle class against the privileges
of the barons - is more interesting than all the modern songs which
nicely depict soldiers' moods. Language itself was fighting for
recognition, as well as industrial and social rights. The verses mark
successive steps of a people into consciousness and civilization. Some
of this battle-poetry is worth preserving; a few camp-rhymes, also,
were famous enough in their day to justify translating. Here are some
relics, of pattern more or less antique, picked up from that field of
Europe where so many centuries have met in arms. [3]

[Footnote 3: Among such songs is one by Bayard Taylor, entitled
_Annie Laurie_, which is of the very best kind.]

The Northern war-poetry, before the introduction of Christianity, is
vigorous enough, but it abounds in disagreeable commonplaces: trunks
are cleft till each half falls sideways; limbs are carved for ravens,
who appear as invariably as the Valkyrs, and while the latter pounce
upon the souls that issue with the expiring breath, the former
banquet upon the remains. The celebration of a victory is an exulting
description of actual scenes of revelling, mead-drinking from mounted
skulls, division of the spoils, and half-drunken brags[4] of future
prowess. The sense of dependence upon an unseen Power is manifested
only in superstitious vows for luck and congratulations that the Strong
Ones have been upon the conquering side. There is no lifting up of the
heart which checks for a time the joy of victory. They are ferociously
glad that they have beaten. This prize-fighting imagery belongs also
to the Anglo-Saxon poetry, and is in marked contrast with the
commemorative poetry of Franks and Germans after the introduction of
Christianity. The allusions may be quite as conventional, but they show
that another power has taken the field, and is willing to risk the
fortunes of war. Norse poetry loses its vigor when the secure
establishment of Christianity abolishes piracy and puts fighting upon
an allowance. Its muscle was its chief characteristic. We speak only
of war-poetry.

[Footnote 4: Braga was the name of the goblet over which the Norse
drinkers made their vows. Probably no Secessionist ever threatened more
pompously over his whiskey. The word goes back a great distance.
_Paruf_ is Sanscrit for rough, and _Ragh_, to be equal to.
In reading the Norse poetry, one can understand why _Brága_ was
the Apollo of the Asa gods, and why the present made to a favorite
Scald was called _Bragar-Laun_ (_Lohn_). _Bravo_ is also a
far-travelled form.]

Here, for instance, is the difference plainly told. Hucbald, a monk of
the cloister St. Amand in Flanders, wrote "The Louis-Lay," to celebrate
the victory gained by the West-Frankish King Louis III. over the
Normans, in 881, near Saucourt. It is in the Old-High-German. A few
lines will suffice: -

The King rode boldly, sang a holy song,
And all together sang, Kyrie eleison.
The song was sung; the battle was begun;
Blood came to cheeks; thereat rejoiced the Franks;
Then fought each sword, but none so well as Ludwig,
So swift and bold, for 't was his inborn nature;
He struck down many, many a one pierced through,
And at his hands his enemies received
A bitter drink, woe to their life all day.
Praise to God's power, for Ludwig overcame;
And thanks to saints, the victor-fight was his.
Homeward again fared Ludwig, conquering king,
And harnessed as he ever is, wherever the need may be,
Our God above sustain him with His majesty!

Earlier than this it was the custom for soldiers to sing just before
fighting. Tacitus alludes to a kind of measured warcry of the
Germans, which they made more sonorous and terrific by shouting it into
the hollow of their shields. He calls it _barditus_ by mistake,
borrowing a term from the custom of the Gauls, who sang before battle
by proxy, - that is, their bards chanted the national songs. But Norse
and German soldiers loved to sing. King Harald Sigurdson composes
verses just before battle; so do the Skalds before the Battle of
Stiklestad, which was fatal to the great King Olaf. The soldiers learn
the verses and sing them with the Skalds. They also recollect older
songs, - the "Biarkamal," for instance, which Biarke made before he
fought.[5] These are all of the indomitable kind, and well charged
with threats of unlimited slaughter. The custom survived all the social
and religious changes of Europe. But the wild war-phrases which the
Germans shouted for mutual encouragement, and to derive, like the
Highlanders, an omen from the magnitude of the sound, became hymns:
they were sung in unison, with the ordinary monkish modulations of the
time. The most famous of these was written by Notker, a Benedictine of
St. Gall, about the year 900. It was translated by Luther in 1524,
and an English translation from Luther's German can be found in the
"Lyra Germanica," p. 237.

[Footnote 5: Laing's _Sea-Kings of Norway_, Vol. II. p. 312; Vol.
III. p. 90.]

William's minstrel, Taillefer, sang a song before the Battle of
Hastings: but the Normans loved the purely martial strain, and this
was a ballad of French composition, perhaps a fragment of the older
"Roland's Song." The "Roman de Rou," composed by Master Wace, or Gasse,
a native of Jersey and Canon of Bayeux, who died in 1184, is very
minute in its description of the Battle of Val des Dunes, near Caen,
fought by Henry of France and William the Bastard against Guy, a Norman
noble in the Burgundian interest. The year of the battle was 1047.
There is a Latin narrative of the Battle of Hastings, in eight hundred
and thirty-five hexameters and pentameters. This was composed by Wido,
or Guido, Bishop of Amiens, who died in 1075.

The German knights on their way to Jerusalem sang a holy psalm,
beginning, "Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of the earth." This was
discovered not long ago in Westphalia; a translation of it, with the
music, can be found in Mr. Richard Willis's collection of hymns.

One would expect to gather fragments of war-poetry from the early times
of the Hungarians, who held the outpost of Europe against the Turks,
and were also sometimes in arms against the imperial policy of Germany.
But De Gerando informs us that they set both victories and defeats to
music. The "Rákótzi" is a national air which bears the name of an
illustrious prince who was overcome by Leopold. "It is remarkable that
in Hungary great thoughts and deep popular feelings were expressed and
consecrated, not by poetry, but by national airs. The armed Diets which
were held upon the plain of Rákos were the symbol of ancient liberty to
the popular apprehension; there is the 'Air of Rákos,' also the 'Air of
Mohács,' which recalls the fall of the old monarchy, and the 'Air of
Zrinyi,' which preserves the recollection of the heroic defence of
Szigeth."[6] These airs are not written; the first comer extemporized
their inartificial strains, which the feeling of the moment seized upon
and transmitted by tradition. Among the Servians, on the contrary,
the heroic ballad is full of fire and meaning, but the music amounts to

[Footnote 6: A. De Gerando, _La Transylvanie et ses Habitants_,
Tom. II. p. 265, et seq.]

The first important production of the warlike kind, after Germany began
to struggle with its medieval restrictions, was composed after the
Battle of Sempach, where Arnold Struthalm of Winkelried opened a
passage for the Swiss peasants through the ranks of Austrian spears. It
is written in the Middle-High-German, by Halbsuter, a native of
Lucerne, who was in the fight. Here are specimens of it. There is a
paraphrase by Sir Walter Scott, but it is done at the expense of the
metre and _naïve_ character of the original.

In the thousand and three hundred and six and eightieth year
Did God in special manner His favor make appear:
Hei! the Federates, I say,
They get this special grace upon St. Cyril's day.

That was July 9, 1386. The Swiss had been exasperated by the
establishment of new tolls by the nobility, who were upheld in it by
the Duke of Austria. The Federates (_Confederates_ can never again
be used in connection with a just fight) began to attack the castles
which sheltered the oppressive baronial power. The castle behind the
little town of Willisow is stormed and burned. Thereupon the nobles
swear to put these Swiss free peasants down and get them a master. The
poet tells all this, and proceeds to describe their excesses and
pride. Then, -

Ye Lowland lords are drawing hither to the
To what an entertainment ye do not understand:
Hei! 't were better for shrift to call,
For in the mountain-fields mischances may

To which the nobles are imagined to reply, -

"Indeed! where sits the priest, then, to grant
this needful gift?"
In the Schweitz he is all ready, - he'll give
you hearty shrift:
Hei! he will give it to you sheer,
This blessing will he give it with sharp halberds
and such gear.

The Duke's people are mowing in the fields near Sempach. A knight
insolently demands lunch for them from the Sempachers: a burgher
threatens to break his head and lunch them in a heavy fashion, for the
Federates are gathering, and will undoubtedly make him spill his
porridge. A cautious old knight, named Von Hasenburg, rides out to
reconnoitre, and he sees enough to warn the Duke that it is the most
serious business in which he ever engaged.

Then spake a lord of Ochsensteín, "O Hasenburg,
Him answereth Von Hasenburg, "Thy words
bring me a smart:
Hei! I say to you faithfully,
Which of us is the coward this very day you'll see."

So the old knight, not relishing being punned upon for his counsel,
dismounts. All the knights, anticipating an easy victory, dismount,
and send their horses to the rear, in the care of varlets who
subsequently saved themselves by riding them off. The solid ranks are
formed bristling with spears. There is a pause as the two parties
survey each other. The nobles pass the word along that it looks like a
paltry business: -

So spake they to each other: "Yon folk is
very small, -
In case such boors should beat us, 't will bring
no fame at all:
'Hei! fine lords the boors have mauled!'"
Then the honest Federates on God in heaven

"Ah, dear Christ of Heaven, by Thy bitter
death we plead,
Help bring to us poor sinners in this our strait
and need;
Hei! and stand by us in the field,
And have our land and people beneath Thy
ward and shield."

The shaggy bull (of Uri) was quite ready to meet the lion (Leopold),
and threw the dust up a little with its hoof.

"Hei! will you fight with us who have beaten you before?"

To this the lion replies, -

"Thank you for reminding me. I have many a knight and varlet here to
pay you off for Laupen, and for the ill turn you did me at Morgarten;
now you must wait here till I am even with you."

Now drew the growling lion his tail in for a
Then spake the bull unto him, "Wilt have
your reckoning?
Hei! then nearer to us get,
That this green meadow may with blood be
growing wet."

Then they began a-shooting against us in the
And their long lances toward the pious Federates
Hei! the jest it was not sweet,
With branches from the lofty pines down rattling
at their feet.

The nobles' front was fast, their order deep
and spread;
That vexed the pious mind; a Winkelried he
"Hei! if you will keep from need
My pious wife and child, I'll do a hardy

"Dear Federates and true, my life I give to
They have their rank too firm, we cannot break
it in:
Hei! a breaking in I'll make.
The while that you my offspring to your protection

Herewith did he an armful of spears nimbly take;
His life had an end, for his friends a lane did make:
Hei! he had a lion's mood,
So manly, stoutly dying for the Four Cantons' good.

And so it was the breaking of the nobles' front began
With hewing and with sticking, - it was God's holy plan:
Hei! if this He had not done,
It would have cost the Federates many an honest one.

The poem proceeds now with chaffing and slaughtering the broken enemy,
enjoining them to run home to their fine ladies with little credit or
comfort, and shouting after them an inventory of the armor and banners
which they leave behind. [7]

[Footnote 7: It is proper to state that an attack has lately been made
in Germany upon the authenticity of the story of Winkelried, on the
ground that it is mentioned in no contemporaneous document or chronicle
which has yet come to light, and that a poem in fifteen verses composed
before this of Halbsuter's does not mention it. Also it is shown that
Halbsuter incorporated the previous poem into his own. It is
furthermore denied that Halbsuter was a citizen of Lucerne. In short,
there was no Winkelried! Perhaps we can afford to "rehabilitate"
villains of every description, but need therefore the heroic be reduced
to _déshabillé_? That we cannot so well afford. We can give up
William Tell's apple as easily as we can the one in Genesis, but
Winkelreid's "sheaf of Austrian spears" is an essential argument
against original sin, being an altogether original act of virtue.]

Veit Weber, a Swiss of Freiburg, also wrote war-verses, but they are
pitched on a lower key. He fought against Charles the Bold, and
described the Battle of Murten, (Morat,) June 22, 1476. His
facetiousness is of the grimmest kind. He exults without poetry. Two or
three verses will be quite sufficient to designate his style and
temper. Of the moment when the Burgundian line breaks, and the rout
commences, he says, -

One hither fled, another there,
With good intent to disappear,
Some hid them in the bushes:
I never saw so great a pinch, -
A crowd that had no thirst to quench
Into the water pushes.

They waded in up to the chin,
Still we our shot kept pouring in,
As if for ducks a-fowling:
In boats we went and struck them dead,
The lake with all their blood was red, -
What begging and what howling!

Up in the trees did many hide,
There hoping not to be espied;
But like the crows we shot them:
The rest on spears did we impale,
Their feathers were of no avail,
The wind would not transport them.

He will not vouch for the number of the killed, but gives it on hearsay
as twenty-six thousand drowned and slain; but he regrets that their
flight was so precipitate as to prevent him from recording a more
refreshing total. He is specially merry over the wealth and luxurious
habits of Charles, alludes to his vapor-baths, etc.: -

His game of chess was to his cost,
Of pawns has he a many lost,
And twice[8] his guard is broken;
His castles help him not a mite,
And see how lonesome stands his knight!
Checkmate's against him spoken.

[Footnote 8: Once, the year before, at Granson.]

The wars of the rich cities with the princes and bishops stimulated a
great many poems that are full of the traits of burgher-life. Seventeen
princes declared war against Nuremberg, and seventy-two cities made a
league with her. The Swiss sent a contingent of eight hundred men. This
war raged with great fierceness, and with almost uninterrupted success
for the knights, till the final battle which took place near Pillerent,
in 1456. A Nuremberg painter, Hans Rosenplül, celebrated this in verses
like Veit Weber's, with equal vigor, but downright prosaic
street-touches. Another poem describes the rout of the Archbishop of
Cologne, who attempted to get possession of the city, in 1444. All
these Low-German poems are full of popular scorn and satire: they do
not hate the nobles so much as laugh at them, and their discomfitures
in the field are the occasion of elaborate ridicule.

The _Lanzknechts_ were foot-soldiers recruited from the roughs of
Germany, and derived their name from the long lance which they
carried;[9] but they were also armed subsequently with the arquebuse.
They were first organized into bodies of regular troops by George
Frundsberg of Mindelheim, a famous German captain, whose castle was
about twenty miles south-west of Augsburg. It was afterwards the centre
of a little principality which Joseph I. created for the Duke of
Marlborough,[10] as a present for the victory of Hochstädt (Blenheim).
Frundsberg was a man of talent and character, one of the best soldiers
of Charles V. He saved the Imperial cause in the campaign of 1522
against the French and Swiss. At Bicocco he beat the famous Swiss
infantry under Arnold of Winkelried, a descendant, doubtless, of one of
the children whom Arnold Struthabn left to the care of his comrades. At
Pavia a decisive charge of his turned the day against Francis I. And on
the march to Rome, his unexpected death so inflamed the
_Lanzknechts_ that the meditated retreat of Bourbon became
impossible, and the city was taken by assault. His favorite mottoes
were, _Kriegsrath mit der That_, "Plan and Action," and _Viel
Feinde, viel Ehre_, "The more foes, the greater honor." He was the
only man who could influence the mercenary lancers, who were as
terrible in peace as in war.

[Footnote 9: It is sometimes spelled _landsknecht_, as if it meant
_country-fellows_, or recruits, - men raised at large. But that was
a popular misapprehension of the word, because some of them were
Suabian bumpkins.]

[Footnote 10: The French soldier-song about Marlborough is known to
every one.]

The _Lanzknecht's_ lance was eighteen feet long: he wore a helmet
and breastplate, and was taught to form suddenly and to preserve an
impenetrable square. Before him all light and heavy cavalry went down,
and that great arm of modern war did not recover from its disgrace and
neglect till the time of Frederic. But his character was very
indifferent: he went foraging when there was no campaign, and in time
of peace prepared for war by systematic billeting and plundering. It
was a matter of economy to get up a war in order to provide employment

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