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After Blenheim
A Poem by Robert Southey (1774-1843)
A Study Guide
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Title Information
Type of Work
Summary
Historical Background
Text of the Poem
Meter
Rhyme
Alliteration
Themes
Southey Changes Opinion
Question, Writing Topics
Biography of Southey
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2009
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The Title

.......“After Blenheim” is also known as “The Battle of Blenheim.” Blenheim is the English name for the German village of Blindheim, situated on the left bank of the Danube River in the state of Bavaria in southern Germany.

Type of Work and Year of Publication

......."After Blenheim" is an antiwar poem in the form of a ballad. Robert Southey wrote and published it in 1798. It centers on the most famous battle in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). See Historical Background for additional information.

Summary

.......One evening in fields around the Bavarian town of Blenheim in southern Germany, an elderly farmer named Kaspar sits in front of his cottage watching his grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin, at play. Peterkin is rolling an object he found near a stream. He takes it to Kaspar and asks what it is. The old man, who has found many such objects while plowing the fields, replies that it is the skull of a soldier who died in the Battle of Blenheim. Their curiosity aroused, the children ask him about the battle and why it was fought. The English routed the French, he says, in what later generations would call a great and famous victory. However, Kaspar is at a loss to explain the cause of the battle. He does know that thousands died in it—not only soldiers but also townspeople, including children. In fact, the fields were littered with corpses. But such terrible consequences are part of war, he says. They do not negate the glory of the victory. Wilhelmine then comments that the battle was "a wicked thing," but Kaspar tells her she is wrong. “It was a famous victory,” he says. Peterkin asks what good came of the fighting. Kaspar says he does not know, but adds, " 'twas a famous victory."

Historical Background

.......In November 1700, the grandson of King Louis XIV of France acceded to the throne of Spain as Philip V. Austria and other European nations saw this development as an unfair maneuver by Louis to increase his power and influence. Consequently, war broke out in 1701 between Austria and France. 
.......England and The Netherlands allied themselves with Austria. The German principalities of Bavaria and Cologne and the Italian principalities of Mantua and Savoy allied themselves with France. As the war progressed, Portugal and various German dominions, including Prussia and Hanover, entered the war on the side of Austria. In addition, Savoy renounced its allegiance to the French and joined the anti-French coalition. 
.......In 1704, the coalition defeated French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim (the English name for the town of Blindheim) in one of the most important battles of the war. Among the conquering heroes were England's duke of Marlborough and Savoy's Prince Eugene.

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Text of the Poem

It was a summer evening, 
     Old Kaspar's work was done,
 And he before his cottage door
     Was sitting in the sun,
 And by him sported on the green
     His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

   She saw her brother Peterkin
     Roll something large and round,
 Which he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
    That was so large, and smooth, and round.

  Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
    Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
    And, with a natural sigh,
"'Tis some poor fellow's skull," said he,
    "Who fell in the great victory.

  "I find them in the garden,
    For there's many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men," said he,
    "Were slain in that great victory."

  "Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
    Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
"Now tell us all about the war,
    And what they fought each other for."

  "It was the English," Kaspar cried,
    "Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
    I could not well make out;
But everybody said," quoth he,
    "That 'twas a famous victory.

  "My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
    Nor had he where to rest his head.

  "With fire and sword the country round
    Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be 
    At every famous victory.

  "They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
    After a famous victory. 

  "Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
    And our good Prince Eugene." 
"Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!"
    Said little Wilhelmine.
"Nay... nay... my little girl," quoth he,
    "It was a famous victory.

  "And everybody praised the Duke
    Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
    Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
    "But 'twas a famous victory."

Meter

Each stanza contains six lines. The meter for these lines is as follows:

1. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
2. Iambic trimeter (three iambs for a total of six syllables).
3. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
4. Iambic trimeter (three iambs for a total of six syllables).
5. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables). 
6. Iambic tetrameter  (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).
The first stanza demonstrates the metric pattern.
....1..............2.............3.............4
It WAS..|..a SUM..|..mer EV..|..en ING
.....1...................2...................3
Old KAS..|..par's WORK..|..was DONE
.....1...............2...............3.................4
And HE..|..be FORE..|..his COT..|..tage DOOR
.....1...............2.............3
Was SIT..|..ting IN..|..the SUN,
....1..................2................3...............4
And BY..|..him SPORT..|..ed ON..|..the GREEN
.....1................2..................3...............4
His LIT..|..tle GRAND..|..child WIL..|..hel MINE
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Rhyme

The end rhyme in each stanza except the second is abcbdd. The third stanza demonstrates this pattern:

a....Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
b....    Who stood expectant by;
c....And then the old man shook his head,
b....    And, with a natural sigh,
d...."'Tis some poor fellow's skull," said he,
d.... "Who fell in the great victory.
In the second stanza, the end rhyme is abcddd.

Alliteration

In several stanzas, Southey uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony. Stanza five is an example.

  "Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
    Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
"Now tell us all about the war,
    And what they fought each other for."

 

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Themes

Man's Inhumanity to Man

.......War represents the worst form of human behavior: “man's inhumanity to man” (a phrase originated by poet Robert Burns). The skull Peterkin finds, as well as those that Kaspar regularly unearths while plowing, are mute testimony to the truth of this observation. The poem implies that the perpetrators of war cannot or will not suppress wayward ambitions that provoke a violent response. The children—as yet uncorrupted by adult thinking—readily perceive war for what it is. 

Curiosity—and Lack of It

.......After finding the skull, Peterkin immediately asks what it is. Kaspar tells him that it is part of the remains of a soldier who died at Blenheim. Wilhelmine then asks Kaspar to describe the war and explain its causes. Kaspar can describe what the war was like at Blenheim, but he cannot explain why the belligerents went to war. Nor does he seem curious about the causes. All that matters to him is that Austria and England won a glorious victory. 

Complacency

.......Old Kaspar unquestioningly accepts the loss of innocent women and children in the Battle of Blenheim as one of the prices of the glorious victory. His complacent attitude is not unlike that of modern politicians who dismiss the deaths of innocent civilians in arenas of war by referring to them with the impersonal phrase “collateral damage.”

Southey Changes Viewpoint on the War

.......Twenty-two years after Southey wrote "After Blenheim," he altered his pacifist view of the war, writing that the Battle of Blenheim was "the greatest victory which had ever done honour to British arms" (qtd. in Speck 180).

Work Cited

.......Speck, W.A. Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

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Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write a poem (one stanza or more) that imitates the structure of the stanzas in Southey's poem. The topic is open. 
2. Why are students today required in history courses to know the causes of major wars, such as the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the British-Argentine War over the Falkland Islands, and the first and second wars between America and Iraq? 
3. Define the following terms from the poem: rivulet, ploughshare (plowshare), yon, and childing.
4. Research the Battle of Blenheim. Then write an essay defending Wilhelmine's position that the battle was a "wicked thing" or Kaspar's position that it was a "great victory."

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