Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Winifred M. Letts - The Deserter

There was a man, - don't mind his name,
Whom Fear had dogged by night and day.
He could not face the German guns
And so he turned and ran away.
Just that - he turned and ran away,
But who can judge him, you or I?
God makes a man of flesh and blood
Who yearns to live and not to die.
And this man when he feared to die
Was scared as any frightened child,
His knees were shaking under him,
His breath came fast, his eyes were wild.
I've seen a hare with eyes as wild,
With throbbing heart and sobbing breath.
But oh ! it shames one's soul to see
A man in abject fear of death,
But fear had gripped him, so had death;
His number had gone up that day,
They might not heed his frightened eyes,
They shot him when the dawn was grey.
Blindfolded, when the dawn was grey,
He stood there in a place apart,
The shots rang out and down he fell,
An English bullet in his heart.
An English bullet in his heart!
But here's the irony of life, -
His mother thinks he fought and fell
A hero, foremost in the strife.
So she goes proudly; to the strife
Her best, her hero son she gave.
O well for her she does not know
He lies in a deserter's grave.

Key words
      Deserter – someone who abandons their duty in the military. In WW1, if a soldier tried to escape from the army, he would be arrested and shot at dawn as punishment. 306 British men were killed in this way.

What is the poem about?
The poem tells the story of a man shot for cowardice – that is, trying to escape from the army. It details how the man goes to his death and asks how we can judge such a person. It highlights the emotions the man goes through and, like “The Hero”, looks at the lack of information about the war back home. The poem is written in the first person and the reader is forced to consider these issues through the use of rhetorical questions (“But who could judge him, you or I?”)

      One long stanza – why? – this makes it almost impossible for you as the reader to stop reading and escape from the inevitable – the man dying. This mimics how his fate is inescapable once he has become “The Deserter”.
      An 8 beat rhythm, which sounds like a nursery rhyme.
      How else has the poet created a sense of a nursery rhyme or fairytale? – look at the opening line: “There was a man” – this makes it sound like the poet is about to tell us a story.
      Why do you think she has done this? – think about who usually reads and listens to nursery rhymes – children. This emphasises the soldier’s youth and innocence.
      Rhyme scheme is based upon repetition of words and phrases – why? Again, this is like a nursery rhyme.

Like “The Hero” and “Lamentations”, this poem’s main character is anonymous: “don’t mind his name” – this soldier is representative of all 306 British soldiers shot for deserting.
The poet makes us feel sympathy for the soldier by emphasising his youth and innocence: “Was scared as any frightened child” – remember, he wouldn’t have been that old himself. The descriptions of him, with his knees “shaking”, breathing “fast”, “wild” eyes, emphasise his fear. The soldier is also set apart and isolated: “Blindfolded...He stood there in a place apart” from the impersonal “They” who are doing this to him.
The repetition of “An English bullet in his heart” (lines 24 and 25) highlight how this man’s death was caused by his own people; this is what we did to men who were too young to cope with the horrors of war. It is clear from earlier in the poem that this is not a snap decision he has made to run away, but that he has lived through quite a lot already: “Fear had dogged by night and day” – personification making Fear sound as though it is hunting him down all the time (and later his eyes are compared to a hare’s – a hunted animal).

Like “The Hero”, the mother back at home is told her son died nobly in the war and is proud – perhaps a positive effect of the lies told? The final rhyme of the poem (“gave”/”grave”) suggests that these men have been willingly sent to their deaths.

In summary
      A story about a man being shot for desertion
      Speaker expresses sympathy for his fate
      Relies heavily on repetition
      In what ways could you link this poem to “The Hero”?

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