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Clouds
Century of poetry and war

PART 7: responsibility

 

The Castle by Edwin Muir

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away.
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us in, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true...
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunnelled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

 

POETRY INDEX

  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
The hand that signed the paper GO
The Castle GO
The Responsibility GO
The Voice of Authority GO

  women's voice
s


INFORMATION
   
provender': dry feed for animals, but perhaps here meaning food for humans as well as their horses
'quick': alive
'true': loyal, trustworthy
'wicket gate': a very small gate within or beside a large one, for use by people on foot one at a time
'citadel': fortress
'gold': money
   

HISTORY
   
     

IDEAS
   

This poem, like 'The hand that signed the paper', uses a fable to make a point. The clearest point seems to be that betrayal is secret and subtle, and that an army is only strong if its men can't be bribed.

This raises another issue, however: the business of the 'strength' of armies. It is an entirely destructive strength, whichever side you're on. The poet's fable lures the reader into sympathy with the side of the speaker telling the tale. The language leads us to admire his people's qualities of bravery and commitment, and to feel their shame at being betrayed.

But the same qualities and risks could be applicable just as easily to 'the enemy', even if the enemy's army isn't protected by fortifications. Are we supposed to believe that the people in the castle would never think of offering a bribe if it helped to defeat the 'enemy'? They may despise an opponent who could be bought with a bribe, of course, but still take the advantage if they could.

In short, when conflict is dealt with by military means, the ordinary morality that we subscribe to in everyday life is laid aside. There may be a kind of military morality, if only in the attempt to make war a game played by rules - an attempt bound to fail, since someone is sure to cheat in order to win. In a game that dices with death, anything goes.

So what makes this poem a poem of sadness and shame is not that a confident army is betrayed for money, but the story-teller's inability to see that armed confrontation breeds betrayal, and many other vices, right from the start.

 

   
     

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