The subject of both “The War Horse” and “A Soldier’s Son” is war and the pity of war; the second poem kills me, whereas the first, the title poem of the collection, leaves me untouched.
Clip-clopping down the street, a horse brushes against the speaker’s hedge, and becomes a rather heavy-handed metaphor for a far-off war that frightens but affects the neighborhood little. “No great harm done,” the speaker tries to calm her fear, since, from the hedge, only one leaf, one rose and one crocus were torn. Only one of each: this horse is a mighty selective destroyer. Here the rhetoric of the poem takes over any realism. The tone in the poem also wavers uncertainly. The torn rose is described fancifully as a “mere/ Line of defence against him, a volunteer,/ You might say.” The nonchalance of “You might say” clashes with the melodramatic comparisons of the flowers to “one of the screamless dead,” and “Like corpses, remote, crushed, mutilated.” The striking metaphor at the opening—the horse stamps death on the street “Like a mint on the innocent coinage of earth”—is not developed; the poem ends grandiosely by recalling “A cause ruined before, a world betrayed.” The rhyming couplets move smoothly but not inevitably. In the most telling couplet of the poem,
But we, we are safe, our unformed fear
Of fierce commitment gone; why should we care
the speaker criticizes—whom? I am not convinced the criticism includes herself.
“A Soldier’s Son,” written “for Andrew,” is more convincing, in part because it looks at war through a specific person’s perspective, and then, in an admirable turn, shows how that individual perspective says something more general, and more devastating, about the war. In a war where “Every warrior is under age,” a son becomes, in the cycle of vengeance, a father of “future wars and further fratricide.” The poet pleads with the son of a soldier to find in the party of peace, if not peace, then honour. She reminds him of what he knows, that when his father shot his under-aged enemy, he saw he was killing a son who could have been his son. The poem concludes with great directness and paradoxical power:
That heart today; you are his killed, his maimed.
He is your war; you are his pacifist.
Reading “A Soldier’s Son”
My country is calling, calling,
“Come back and make your living, our living.”
My father is dying, dying
of making a living. I am surviving.