A Poem by Robert Southey (1774-1843)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
.......“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.
......."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.
.......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."
.......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
She saw her brother Peterkin
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
"I find them in the garden,
"Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
"It was the English," Kaspar cried,
"My father lived at Blenheim then,
"With fire and sword the country round
"They say it was a shocking sight
"Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
"And everybody praised the Duke
Each stanza contains six lines. The meter for these lines is as follows:
1. Iambic tetrameter (four iambs for a total of eight syllables).The first stanza demonstrates the metric pattern.
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,In the second stanza, the end rhyme is abcddd.
In several stanzas, Southey uses alliteration to promote rhythm and euphony. Stanza five is an example.
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.
.......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).
.......Speck, W.A. Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
1. Write a poem (one stanza or more) that imitates the structure of the stanzas in Southey's poem. The topic is open.