Best poems about the glory of battle?
June 9, 2008 3:18 PM   Subscribe

What are the best poems about glory in battle and valor in warfare?

Most of the poetry I've read is modern, so when it comes to war, it's pretty much about the horrors of war. I'd like to see some examples of poems extolling mighty warriors, the thrill of battle and so forth.
posted by clockworkjoe to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Illiad.


High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds -- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)
A Canadian Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britian
posted by sharkfu at 3:32 PM on June 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

OK, I'll start the ball rolling: Virgil's Aeneid -- it's available in lots of translations.
posted by davemack at 3:33 PM on June 9, 2008

Ha, beaten to the punch by sharfu! Oh that I had quicker, nimbler fingers . . .
posted by davemack at 3:34 PM on June 9, 2008

The Song of Roland is gleefully bloody, as I recall. It's been some years since I read it, though.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:41 PM on June 9, 2008

To arms, to arms! my jolly grenadiers!
  Hark, how the drums do roll it along!
To horse, to horse, with valiant good cheer;
  We'll meet our proud foe, before it is long.
      Let not your courage fail you:
      Be valiant, stout and bold;
      And it will soon avail you,
      My loyal hearts of gold.
Huzzah, my valiant countrymen! — again I say huzzah!
'Tis nobly done — the day's our own — huzzah, huzzah!

posted by yeti at 3:45 PM on June 9, 2008

Speaking of the Illiad, there's Logue's War Music.

Also, for certain values of "best":
The Táin Bó Cúailnge, which in turn makes me think of Macaulay's Horatius. Which again makes me think of The Charge of The Light Brigade.
posted by zamboni at 3:46 PM on June 9, 2008

And as restless_nomad reminds me, there's a deep vein of heroic epic to mine. La Chanson de Roland, El Cid, Digenis Acritas, Eschenbach's Parzifal (although it's not quite as bloodthirsty as the previous three), etc.

Finally, how the hell did I forget Beowulf?
posted by zamboni at 4:01 PM on June 9, 2008

Response by poster: Are there any particular sections of these classic poems I should be looking at, any highlights?
posted by clockworkjoe at 4:04 PM on June 9, 2008

Rupert Brooke is generally criticized for being a little too patriotic in his First World War poems (first of six sonnets. Click "NEXT" for the rest). Everybody in them is pretty much already dead, but that's okay, because it was glorious.
posted by steef at 4:09 PM on June 9, 2008

It's not strictly a poem, but Henry's "St. Crispin's Day Speech" from Henry V gives me the shivers every time I read it.

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:09 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

My vote goes to The Charge Of The Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Here, amongst others.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 4:10 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Er... (cough of mild embarrassment)... poems from R.E. Howard. [Conan]

Marching Song of Connacht

The men of the East are decked in steel,
They march with a trumpet's din,
They glitter with silks and golden scales,
And high kings boast their kin --
We of the West wear the hides of wolves,
But our hearts are steel within.

They of the East ride gallant steeds,
Their spears are long and brown;
Their shields are set with sparkling stones
And each knight wears a crown --
We fight on foot as our forebears fought,
And we drag the rider down.

We race the steed of the Saxon knight
Across the naked fen --
They of the East are full of pride,
Cubs of the Lion's den.
They boast they breed a race of kings --
But we of the West breed Men.
posted by Liosliath at 4:21 PM on June 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

William Ernest Henley's Invictus wasn't written about war, but it was about battle (Henley fought grave illness throughout his life). It could easily apply to war and its soldiers.
posted by mewithoutyou at 4:21 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ezra Pound's Sestina: Altaforte isn't about glory or valor, precisely, but it always makes me feel like putting someone to the sword...

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour's stour than a year's peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there's no wine like the blood's crimson!


Plus, sestinas are neat.

A side note about Invictus, which mewithoutyou mentions above: it's infamous as the final statement made by Timothy McVeigh before his execution.
posted by a young man in spats at 4:37 PM on June 9, 2008

the battle hymn of the republic has some pretty glorriffic lyrics...
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:07 PM on June 9, 2008

Response by poster: Great poem! Too bad it's in copyright or I would create a heavy metal band around that poem. Any public domain poems in that vein?
posted by clockworkjoe at 5:08 PM on June 9, 2008

I am seconding zamboni on Logue's War Music - a modern reinterpretation of the Illiad (good on ya, zamboni I keep trying to get people to read it.)

Kipling also wrote valor poetry - Gunga Din for example.
posted by shothotbot at 5:31 PM on June 9, 2008

"The Death Lay of Bowie Gizzardsbane" from the book Silverlock by John Meyers Meyers:

Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven:
Foes had enfeebled the fortress at Bexar,
Leaving it lacking and looted the while
Hordes were sweeping swift on the land,
Hell-bent to crush him. The cunning old prince
Did not, though, despair at danger's onrushing;
Hardy with peril, he held it, perused it,
Reading each rune of it. Reaching the facts,
He thumbed through his thanes and thought of the one
Whose guts and gray matter were grafted most neatly.
"Riders!" he rasped, "to race after Bowie!"
"Bowie," he barked when that bearcat of heroes
Bowed to his loved prince, "Bexar must be ours
Or no one must have it. So hightail, burn leather!
Hold me that fortress or fire it and raze it.
Do what you can or else do what you must."

Fame has its fosterlings, free of the limits
Boxing all others, and Bowie was one of them.
Who has not heard of the holmgang at Natchez?
Fifty were warriors, but he fought the best,
Wielding a long knife, a nonesuch of daggers
Worthy of Wayland. That weapon had chewed
The entrails of dozens. In diverse pitched battles
That thane had been leader; by land and by sea
Winning such treasure that trolls, it is said,
Closed hills out of fear he'd frisk them of silver.
Racing now westward, he rode into Bexar,
Gathered the garrison, gave them his orders:
"Houston the Raven is raising a host;
Time's what he asks while he tempers an army.
Never give up this gate to our land.
Hold this door fast, though death comes against us."

The flood of the foemen flowed up to Bexar,
Beat on the dam braced there to contain it.
But Wyrd has no fosterlngs, favors no clients;
Bowie, the war-wise winner of battles,
Laid out by fever, lost his first combat,
Melting with death. Yet the might of his spirit
Kept a tight grip on the trust he'd been given.
"Buy time, my bucks," he told his companions.
"Be proud of the price; our prince is the gainer."
Bold thanes were with him, thirsty for honor,
Schooled well in battle and skilled with all weapons;
Avid for slaughter there, each against thirty,
They stood to the walls and struck for their chieftains,
Houston and Bowie, the bearcat of heroes.

Twelve days they ravaged the ranks of the foemen.
Tens, though, can't harrow the hundreds forever;
That tide had to turn. Tiredly the thanes
Blocked two wild stormings and bled them to death.
The third had the drive of Thor's mighty hammer,
Roared at the walls and rose to spill over,
Winning the fort. But the foemen must pay.
Heroes were waiting them, hardy at killing,
Shaken no whit, though sure they were lost.
Ten lives for one was the tariff for entry;
And no man got credit. Crushed and split skulls,
Blasted off limbs and lathers of blood
Were the money they soughted and minted themselves --
Worth every ounce of the weregild they asked.

Of every eleven, though, one was a hero
Turned to a corpse there. Cornered and hopeless,
They strove while they yet stood, stabbing and throttling,
Meeting the bear's death, dying while fighting.
Chieftains of prowess, not chary of slaying,
Led and fell with them. Alone by the wall,
Travis, the red-maned, the truest of warriors,
Pierced through the pate and pouring out blood,
Kept death marking time, defied it until
His sword again sank, sucking blood from a foeman.
Content then, he ended. So also died Crockett,
Who shaved with a star and stamped to make earthquakes.
Kimball, the leader of loyal riders,
Bonham whose vow was valor's own hallmark.

Crazed by their losses, the conquerors offered
No truce to cadavers; the corpses were stabbed
In hopes that life's spark would be spared to afford them
Seconds on killing. Then some, taking count,
Bawled out that Bowie was balking them still;
Like weasels in warrens they wound through the fort,
Hunting the hero they hated the most.
Least of the lucky, at last some found him,
Fettered to bed by the fever and dying,
Burnt up and shrunken, a shred of himself.
Gladly they rushed him, but glee became panic.
Up from the grip of the grave, gripping weapons,
Gizzardsbane rose to wreak his last slaughter,
Killing, though killed. Conquered, he won.
In brief is the death lay of Bowie, the leader
Who laid down his life for his lord and ring giver,
Holding the doorway for Houston the Raven,
Pearl among princes, who paid in the sequel;
Never was vassal avenged with more slayings!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:32 PM on June 9, 2008

You may or may not get something out of Horatio at the Bridge.
posted by recoveringsophist at 6:02 PM on June 9, 2008

This is a prayer, not technically a poem, but otherwise it bears all the right elements:

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."
posted by mikeand1 at 6:29 PM on June 9, 2008

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:43 PM on June 9, 2008

Lots of songs of course...

Men of Harlech

Wha Wadna Fecht For Charlie

The Nazi Horst-Wessel Lied and the Leftist Internationale.

One of the bloodiest is "La Marseillaise"
Arise, children of the Homeland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny
Bloody banner is risen. (repeat)
Do you hear in the countryside
These ferocious soldiers howling?
They are coming into our arms
To cut the throats of our sons, our wives!

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us walk, let us walk!
May an impure blood
Water our furrows!
To arms, citizens!
Let us form our battalions!
Let us walk, let us walk!
May an impure blood
Water our furrows!
Poems more strictly:

"Homage to a Government" by Philip Larkin is about regret over a government that shirks from imperialism.

Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads aren't of the usually "Glory, glory" sort (neither is say, The Iliad, mentioned above) but it's not the modern anti-war sort of poetry either. Also his "Recessional".

There are war Psalms, such as Psalm 18.

Here's a 1917 anthology.
posted by Jahaza at 8:12 PM on June 9, 2008

Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est draws from Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo."

"How sweet and fitting it is to die for your native land:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths."

I wish I remembered more of my Latin just now :/
posted by pointystick at 8:21 PM on June 9, 2008

Best answer: Bertrand de Born, from the 12th century:

My heart is filled with gladness when I see
Strong castles besieged, stockades broken and overwhelmed,
Many vassals stuck down,
Horses of the dead and wounded roving at random.
And when battle is joined, let all men of good lineage
Think of naught but the breaking of heads and arms,
For it is better to die than be vanquished and live . . .
I tell you I have no such joy as when I hear the shout
"On! On!" from both sides and the neighing of riderless steeds,
And groans of "Help me! Help me!"
And when I see both great and small
Fall in the ditches and on the grass
And see the dead transfixed by spear shafts!
Lords, mortgage your domains, castles, cities
But never give up war!
posted by skwm at 8:31 PM on June 9, 2008

While it's not poetry, I just have to mention Pericles's beautiful Funeral Oration from Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. The climactic passage:
But none of these [men] allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to living submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory.
posted by Cucurbit at 8:34 PM on June 9, 2008

Book 22 of the Odyssey (Homer) is perhaps my favorite of all the scenes of war and valor and battle that I have ever read.

You do have to read the preceding 21 books to understand it in context, and it helps to have read the Iliad too, for the backstory. It is a cruel, vengeful massacre, and utterly justified. It makes me shiver with horror and delight.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:23 AM on June 10, 2008

The medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin celebrates an utter defeat as glorious. Here is an English translation. A snippet:
Weapons scattered,
Columns shattered, standing their ground.
Great the havoc,
The hero turned back the English.
He planted shafts,
In the front ranks, in the spear-clash.
He laid men low,
Made wives widows, before he died.
Hoywgi's son flamed
Before spears forming a rampart.
posted by misteraitch at 1:10 AM on June 10, 2008

The Battle of Maldon:

Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener,
mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens.
Here lies our prince all hewn,
good one on grit. He may always mourn315
who from this war-play thinks now to turn.
My life is old [ 46 ]: I will not away;
but I myself beside my lord,
by so loved a man, think to lie.

posted by crocomancer at 4:10 AM on June 10, 2008

Sorry about the poor clean up of the pasted text.
posted by crocomancer at 4:11 AM on June 10, 2008

One of my favorites, from the Havamal:

"The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle,
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead."
posted by vorfeed at 8:58 AM on June 10, 2008

THIS PIECE (5MB mp3) is not to be missed.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:23 PM on July 6, 2008

« Older Where's my pushup website gone?   |   Should I buy a used 12" G4 Powerbook as a stopgap... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.