Tag Archives: Battle_of_Isandlwana

Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare poem VI pt3.

So far I’ve been proceeding slowly through this poem in order to arrive at a judgement with regard to quality. Thus far things aren’t looking too promising but least I have a clear idea as to what he’s talking about. The subject here is the British defeat at Isandlwana (1879) during the Anglo-Zulu war. Here’s the first three verses:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage,
Make a pranged voice nasal through ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

This astounding people (Disraeli), their spears
Beating shield-hides, murmuring high a basso,
Hive-like, buzzing rage become torpor almost
Blood self-enthralling.

Assegais whish-washed in the fleshy Empire
Jelk you inside out like a dumdum bullet;
Death by numbers, one-shot Martini Henry
Redhot on target.

Before I proceed, I need to stress that all of my knowledge concerning the war and this battle is derived from Wikipedia which I know is occasionally quirky but contains more than enough information to deal with this material. ‘Jelk’ doesn’t occur in the OED although the Urban Dictionary has “an exercise to increase penis size naturally” as its definition for ‘jelq’ and a quick look around the web indicates that ‘jelk’ is an alternative spelling. I really don’t want to go into what’s involved in this particular exercise – suffice it to say that it’s unlikely that Hill is referring to it here. He does have a track record of making up words- ‘clavics’ being the most recent case in point.

My arduous research has led to the fact that the Zulu in 1879 were using two types of assegai. The traditional version was throwing spear and was thrown from some distance at the enemy as you would throw a javelin. The iklwa (so called for the sound it made when being pulled out of the body) had a shorter shaft (about two foot) with a one foot blade and this was used for stabbing at close quarters.

I have no idea whether or not either of these weapons pulled large amounts of flesh out of their victims, as is suggested here and I’m even less clear that the action of any kind of spear can be likened to that of a dumdum bullet. Even in the nineteenth century the use of such bullets was controversial because of the mess that they created in the body and they were banned by the Hague Convention of 1899. The British and the Americans were the only countries to object and I now have this wonderful piece of justification from Sir John Ardagh who pointed out that men could still run on even when wounded by ‘ordinary’ bullets-

“The civilized soldier when shot recognizes that he is wounded and knows that the sooner he is attended to the sooner he will recover. He lies down on his stretcher and is taken off the field to his ambulance, where he is dressed or bandaged. Your fanatical barbarian, similarly wounded, continues to rush on, spear or sword in hand; and before you have the time to represent to him that his conduct is in flagrant violation of the understanding relative to the proper course for the wounded man to follow – he may have cut off your head.”

This has to be one of the best examples of the imperial mind at work as in -it’s the fault of the savages who don’t understand (because they are savages and therefore incapable of understanding) the rules of the game that we are forced to use these barbaric weapons.

Of course, ever since there have been suspicions that troops have modified their own bullets to produce the same messy effect- a suspicion that was examined at the Saville Inquiry.

The other thing to note is that this particular war demonstrated that the use of the .577/450 bullet in the Martini-Henry rifle was a bit of a disaster in that it would jam as the barrel heated up. So ‘redhot on target’ seems a bit odd given that if the rifle was ‘redhot’ then it wouldn’t actually work. This particular rifle was a single-shot weapon which could (at best) fire 12 rounds per minute so it is unlikely that ‘redhot’ refers to the speed of fire.

In response to a previous post on this, one commentator suggested that Hill has more than a degree of guilt about the fact that he didn’t serve in combat and that his frequent references to the two world wars are a means of compensation for him. I have to confess that I was a bit sceptical about this at the time but this particular verse does have more than a smattering of Boys’ Own derring-do about it. We are taken from the whishery-washery of the spears in the body of the corpulent Brits through to the ‘death by numbers’ fiasco in the face of Ardagh’s ‘savage’.

The next verse alludes to the failures of the officer class in this particular debacle and ‘death by numbers’ does seem to encapsulate the way in which the troops were killed although it doesn’t really hold up if you think about it. The battle was more of a rout than a fair fight and if the British had done things ‘by numbers’, i.e. in their normally organised and ruthless way then they wouldn’t have been slaughtered so this particular phrase might refer to the intention rather than to what actually occurred.

It’s the word use that leads me to infer that Hill is excited about this stuff and wants us to be to. There’s an adolescent’s idea of machismo in ‘redhot’, ‘jelk you inside out’ and the whishery washery of the spears which is more than a little odd in one of our finest poets. Of course any combat soldier will tell you that there is lots of fear and very little excitement in the midst of battle but that doesn’t seem to bother Hill…

On the next occasion I’ll attempt to move from ballistics to the officer class….


Odi Barbare poem VI (pt 2)

On the last occasion I had an extended struggle with the first verse of this poem. I’m now going to try to make further progress with the rest. Here are the first two verses together:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage,
Make a pranged voice nasal through ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

This astounding people (Disraeli), their spears
Beating shield-hides, murmuring high a basso,
Hive-like, buzzing rage become torpor almost
Blood self-enthralling.

When dealing with the first verse I speculated that Hill might be using ‘laureate’ in the sense that John Skelton used it to describe himself. I now feel a little vindicated as I’ve just come across this from Poem 95 of ‘Speech! Speech!- “…………..Skelton Laureate / was a right rapper: outdance you with your shades / any day…..” I’ll skim gracefully over the image that this conveys and just note that Hill has used the word in its older sense before and it might be useful to bear in mind that Skelton and Hill received recognition from Oxford University.

There now needs to be a slight digression with regard to beating spears. The British cultural landscape is littered with many things, in particular with many attempts to cling to our noble and imperial past. Within that landscape there is a film called ‘Zulu’ which makes great use of the spear beating on shields covered in hide motif. To those of a certain age (me) this is a Significant Childhood Memory because it was very very scary and underlined how strange and difficult some of our imperial subjects could be. And I know that ‘Zulu’ is about Rourke’s Drift and that the later ‘Zulu Dawn’ was about the Battle of Isandlwana which is the subject of this poem.

It will be appreciated that the second verse is much more accessible than the first but probably more troubling because of what it appears to say. Incidentally I can’t tie Disraeli into the italicised quote and the DNB informs me that he was prime minister at the time (1879) but had oaid little attention to African affairs until this defeat and that his primary concern about the defeat was the detrimental effect it had on the nation’s credibility.

I was going to confidently assert that Hill makes no other mention of the Anglo-Zulu War but then I noticed this in Poem 6 of ‘Speech! Speech!’:

.................But surely that's
not all? Rourke's Drift, the great-furnaced
ships off Jutland? They have their own
grandeur, those formal impromptus played
on instruments of the period (speech! speech!)

Incidentally, obtaining a copy of Ann Hassan’s recent and very detailed commentary on ‘Speech!’ has led me to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding re-reading of the poem. What I think I need to do here is note a similar use of musical terms.

Hill’s feelings about Empire are more complex than simple nostalgia, it’s fair to suggest that he views the ‘loss’ of Empire after 1945 as a Bad Thing but also harbours few illusions as to its many and varied barbarities. Whilst this Little Englander aspect of Hill’s politics is now hopelessly out of touch, it should be remembered that the British Empire was a very real entity during his childhood and there are many of his generation (my father included) who find it difficult to reconcile fighting and winning the Second World War only to ‘lose’ our imperial possessions.

We now come to the bee-analogy, that the (iconic) beating of the shields makes a murmuring noise and then builds to be like the buzzing of swarming and angry bees. From memory, the filmic shield beating was more percussive than murmuring although one of the other lasting themes is the sheer number of warriors and how these did seem to ‘swarm’ into battle. For this reason I’m not entirely clear whether this is Hill’s imagination or a synopsis of the movie.

The end of the verse is odd and probably sounds better than it should. It’s not clear whether it is the troops or their adversaries who are overcome by torpor although it is much more likely to refer to the troops. The battle was a fiasco, Wikipedia tells me that “while all the officers and NCOs carried rifles, only one in 10 in the ranks was armed with a muzzle-loading musket with limited ammunition[51][52] and many of them started to leave the battlefield at this point” which would seem to indicate paralysis as a result of incompetence rather than an the beating of shields. I rarely argue with Hill with regard to word choice but isn’t torpid better than the noun? Doesn’t torpor signal some degree of poetic affectation?

Neither is it abundantly clear what ‘almost’ refers to – should we read ‘almost become torpor’ or ‘almost blood self-enthralling? Or are we meant to read it both ways? This problem would be helped enormously if I fully understood the last line. ‘Self’ is a very big word for Hill who has borrowed the idea/principle of ‘selving’ from Hopkins and it is never used lightly- it usually signals that there’s something deep or profound going on. Turning to ‘entrhalling’, the OED has these definitions for ‘enthrall’;

  • to reduce to the condition of a thrall; to hold in thrall; to enslave, bring into bondage;
  • to ‘enslave’ mentally or morally. Now chiefly, to captivate, hold spellbound, by pleasing qualities.

So, the troops could be said to be held spellbound and torpid by the noise of the shields or it is their blood that is enslaved. This doesn’t work because of ‘self’ which might suggest the soldiers and their officers being lulled into a false sense of superiority. The historical record doesn’t suggest that there was a lot of torpor on either side, the British were both outnumbered and out-manoeuvred prior to being slaughtered- which is the subject of the next three verses.

So does ‘self-enthrall’ make sense? It could be argued that we might need to consider all of the poem before a judgement can be made but this verse is a sentence and even poetic sentences should carry some meaning. I have tried to explore the possibilities and to take into account the importance of ‘self’ but it does seem that this particular line sounds much better than it is.

One final question- is it really okay (even if you are a knight of the realm) to equate black African warriors with insects?