Synopsis of After Blenheim by Robert Southey

Synopsis of After Blenheim by Robert Southey

About the Poet After Blenheim

Robert Southey (1774 - 1843) was one of the three renowned 'Lake Poets' associated with the Romantic school (the other two being William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge). He was 'Poet Laureate' of England for around three decades, starting from 1813 until his death in 1843.

During his long literary career, Southey wrote a number of lyrics, ballads, and comic-grotesque poems. His poetry was first published in 1795 in a collection, titled Poems; containing The Retrospect, Odes, Sonnets, Elegies, &c. by Robert Lovell and Robert Southey of Balliol College, Oxford. The collection included 21 poems by Southey and 11 by Lovell. Joan of Arc, My days among the Dead are past, After Blenheim, English Eclogues and The Inchcape Rock are some of his best-known poems. English Eclogues anticipates Alfred Tennyson's English Idylls as lucid, relaxed, and observant verse accounts of contemporary life.

Besides being a poet, Southey was also a prolific letter writer, literary scholar, essay writer, historian, a polyglot-translator and biographer. His biographies include the life and works of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. One of his most outstanding contributions to literary history that earned him great fame is the children's classic The Story of the Three Bears, the original story of Goldilocks, first published in his prose collection The Doctor. He also served for a brief period of time, as a Tory Member of Parliament.

About the Poem After Blenheim

"After Blenheim", also known as "The Battle of Blenheim", is a famous antiwar poem written by Robert Southey. The poem, published in 1798, is in the form of a ballad and its theme is the famous Battle of Blenheim of 1704. It was fought between the combined forces of France and Bavaria representing one side, and the forces of England and Austria representing the rival side. The poem is set at the site of that Battle, the Anglicised name for the German village of Blenheim, situated on the left bank of the Danube River in the state of Bavaria in southern Germany. The poem starts with the queries of two little kids about a skull which has been found by one of them while playing near their cottage. As the kids are surprised and curious, they approach their grandfather and ask him about it. The grandfather, Kaspar, then tells the two kids about a war that had been fought years ago. He describes the horrors of war. Despite that, he does not categorically criticize the war as such. The poem ends on a rather baffling note, suggested by the repeated use of the phrase "a famous victory" that the war reminds him of at present.

Summary of After Blenheim

The poem opens on the scene of a summer evening. An elderly farmer named Kaspar was sitting in the sun in front of his cottage, watching his grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin, playing on the field. Wilhelmine saw her brother Peterkin who was rolling something large and round that he found near a stream. He then takes it to Kaspar and asks what it is. The old man took it from the curious boy and with a natural sigh replied that it was some poor man's skull that died in the war. He further added that he had found many such skulls while ploughing the fields as thousands of brave men died in the 'Battle of Blenheim', known for its famous victory. The young Peterkin became more curious to know all about the Battle of Blenheim and for what did the men fought with each other. To this
Kaspar said that it was the English who defeated the French, but he was not sure as to why they fought but could only say that everybody said that it was a 'famous victory'.

Critical Analysis of After Blenheim

Robert Southey's poem "After Blenheim" comprises 11 stanzas, each containing 6 lines. It has been written in the form of a ballad, capturing a piece of conversation between an old man named Kasper and his two grandchildren.

Kaspar explains to the children the story of the battle, that the Duke of Marlborough routed the French, although he admits he never understood the reason for the war himself. He also mentions that his father had a cottage by the rivulet (small stream). The soldiers burned it to the ground, and his father and mother had fled, with their child. Thousands of corpses lay rotting in the fields, but he shrugs it off, as part of the cost of war. Wilhelmine says it was a wicked thing, but he contradicts her saying, no, it was a great victory. Kaspar does not come up with any concrete answer, when the grandchild Peterkin asks him what good came out of the war. This is because Kaspar is focusing more on what we would call today the "spin" about the war and this specific battle. He is emphasizing "the great victory" more.

The poem is replete with the terrible consequences of war - its wastefulness and how this affects the people and the land. The irony is that war wreaks havoc on the victor and the vanquished alike. The victors, in their success, do receive terrible consequences as well. It's quite likely that the grandpa is looking to shield Peterkin from this reality since Peterkin is of a tender age. Maybe the grandpa wants to wait till the boy is more mature to reveal to him what war is really all about. In addition, it is possible that Grandpa Kaspar doesn't really know what came out of the war. Maybe he feels nothing positive and constructive as to what did come out of this war and that is also why he doesn't provide an answer - or at least a suitable answer for Peterkin.

Throughout the poem the phrases "great victory" and "famous victory" are repeated but with no boast behind it. In the sixth stanza Kaspar tells them that it was the English and French who fought for some unimportant reason, but it was a great victory. The next two stanzas explain all the collateral damage in the battle, for example women and children fleeing from burning homes, the country side wasted and dead babies and mothers. The ninth stanza paints the image of the battlefield with thousands rotting in the sun. The tenth, which shows the people praising the victory of the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene to which the little girl reacts by saying how terrible it was. But, as if rehearsed he said it that was a famous victory. The final stanza is the boy Peterkin asking what good came from all this death and destruction and the grandfather responds again 'Why that I cannot tell,' said he 'But 'twas a famous victory'.

The repetition of the old man words builds up an ironic climax. The moral of the poem is that there is no real rationale for destructive war among human beings and nations that should learn to get along.

Word - Meanings 

sported - played;
rivulet - a small stream;
expectant - eager, hopeful;
ploughshare - broad cutting blade of a plough;
slain - killed;
rout - defeat;
quoth - said:
yon - beyond:
dwelling - house:
fly - run away;
wasted far and wide - destroyed or ruined up to a great distance;
childing - expecting a child;
praised - admired;
nay - no

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