Monday, March 29, 2010

A Poem for Holy Monday: Soldiers Bathing

Yesterday's poem was common Holy Week fare. For today, here is a poem that is certainly well-known, but unlike Donne's work, this was not written explicitly for the purpose of Christian meditation. But I think it's certainly worth pondering this Holy Week. - +HRC

Soldiers Bathing

By F.T. Prince

The sea at evening moves across the sand.

Under a reddening sky I watch the freedom of a band

Of soldiers who belong to me. Stripped bare

For bathing in the sea, they shout and run in the warm air;

Their flesh worn by the trade of war, revives

And my mind towards the meaning of it strives.

All's pathos now. The body that was gross,

Rank, ravenous, disgusting in the act or in repose,

All fever, filth and sweat, its bestial strength

And bestial decay, by pain and labour grows at length

Fragile and luminous. 'Poor bare forked animal,'

Conscious of his desires and needs and flesh that rise and fall,

Stands in the soft air, tasting after toil

The sweetness of his nakedness: letting the sea-waves coil

Their frothy tongues about his feet, forgets

His hatred of the war, its terrible pressure that begets

A machinery of death and slavery,

Each being a slave and making slaves of others: finds that he

Remembers his old freedom in a game

Mocking himself, and comically mimics fear and shame.

He plays with death and animality;

And reading in the shadows of his pallid flesh, I see

The idea of Michelangelo's cartoon

Of soldiers bathing, breaking off before they were half done

At some sortie of the enemy, an episode

Of the Pisan wars with Florence. I remember how he showed

Their muscular limbs that clamber from the water,

And heads that turn across the shoulder, eager for the slaughter,

Forgetful of their bodies that are bare,

And hot to buckle on and use the weapons lying there.

–And I think too of the theme another found

When, shadowing men's bodies on a sinister red ground

Another Florentine, Pollaiuolo,

Painted a naked battle: warriors, straddled, hacked the foe,

Dug their bare toes into the ground and slew

The brother-naked man who lay between their feet and drew

His lips back from his teeth in a grimace.

They were Italians who knew war's sorrow and disgrace

And showed the thing suspended, stripped: a theme

Born out of the experience of war's horrible extreme

Beneath a sky where even the air flows

With lacrimae Christi. For that rage, that bitterness, those blows,

That hatred of the slain, what could they be

But indirectly or directly a commentary

On the Crucifixion? And the picture burns

With indignation and pity and despair by turns,

Because it is the obverse of the scene

Where Christ hangs murdered, stripped, upon the Cross. I mean,

That is the explanation of its rage.

And we too have our bitterness and pity that engage

Blood, spirit, in this war. But night begins,

Night of the mind: who nowadays is conscious of our sins?

Though every human deed concerns our blood,

And even we must know, what nobody has understood,

That some great love is over all we do,

And that is what has driven us to this fury, for so few

Can suffer all the terror of that love:

The terror of that love has set us spinning in this groove

Greased with our blood.

These dry themselves and dress,

Combing their hair, forget the fear and shame of nakedness.

Because to love is frightening we prefer

The freedom of our crimes. Yet, as I drink the dusky air,

I feel a strange delight that fills me full,

Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,

And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west

I watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ's breast.


  1. Why don't you give us some help for pondering it?

  2. There was a bad typo in the first post - sorry. A line was mangled in my copying of the poem. It's been corrected now.

    There's a lot to say about this poem, and much more beyond what I'm skilled enough to say. But I'll try a little. . .

    Note how the first and last stanzas set apart the reverie from the scene. Isn't it just like that? You see something and begin to ponder it - and then you are snapped back to reality. But the narrator - isn't he more right in the reverie than he is in the last stanza? Is the last line just a memory of what he pondered in the middle, now left behind - or is it hope that the slavery and making other slaves might end?



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