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Leigh Hunt: Captain Sword and Captain Pen

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Leigh Hunt: The devilish drouth of the cannon’s ever-gaping mouth

Leigh Hunt: Some Remarks On War And Military Statesmen

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Leigh Hunt
Captain Sword and Captain Pen
A Poem (1835)

If there be in glory aught of good,
It may by means far different be attained,
Without ambition, war, or violence. – Milton.

This Poem is the result of a sense of duty, which has taken the Author from quieter studies during a great public crisis. He obeyed the impulse with joy, because it took the shape of verse; but with more pain, on some accounts, than he chooses to express. However, he has done what he conceived himself bound to do; and if every zealous lover of his species were to express his feelings in like manner, to the best of his ability, individual opinions, little in themselves, would soon amount to an overwhelming authority, and hasten the day of reason and beneficence.

The measure is regular with an irregular aspect, — four accents in a verse, — like that of Christabel, or some of the poems of Sir Walter Scott:

Càptain Swòrd got ùp one dày—
And the flàg full of hònour, as thòugh it could feèl—

He mentions this, not, of course, for readers in general, but for the sake of those daily acceders to the list of the reading public, whose knowledge of books is not yet equal to their love of them.

Canto I
How Captain Sword marched to War.

Captain Sword got up one day,
Over the hills to march away,
Over the hills and through the towns,
They heard him coming across the downs,
Stepping in music and thunder sweet,
Which his drums sent before him into the street.
And lo! ’twas a beautiful sight in the sun;
For first came his foot, all marching like one,
With tranquil faces, and bristling steel,
And the flag full of honour as though it could feel,
And the officers gentle, the sword that hold
‘Gainst the shoulder heavy with trembling gold,
And the massy tread, that in passing is heard,
Though the drums and the music say never a word.

And then came his horse, a clustering sound
Of shapely potency, forward bound,
Glossy black steeds, and riders tall,
Rank after rank, each looking like all,
Midst moving repose and a threatening charm,
With mortal sharpness at each right arm,
And hues that painters and ladies love,
And ever the small flag blush’d above.

And ever and anon the kettle-drums beat
Hasty power midst order meet;
And ever and anon the drums and fifes
Came like motion’s voice, and life’s;
Or into the golden grandeurs fell
Of deeper instruments, mingling well,
Burdens of beauty for winds to bear;
And the cymbals kiss’d in the shining air,
And the trumpets their visible voices rear’d,
Each looking forth with its tapestried beard,
Bidding the heavens and earth make way
For Captain Sword and his battle-array.

He, nevertheless, rode indifferent-eyed,
As if pomp were a toy to his manly pride,
Whilst the ladies lov’d him the more for his scorn,
And thought him the noblest man ever was born,
And tears came into the bravest eyes,
And hearts swell’d after him double their size,
And all that was weak, and all that was strong,
Seem’d to think wrong’s self in him could not be wrong;
Such love, though with bosom about to be gored,
Did sympathy get for brave Captain Sword.

So, half that night, as he stopp’d in the town,
‘Twas all one dance, going merrily down,
With lights in windows and love in eyes,
And a constant feeling of sweet surprise;
But all the next morning ’twas tears and sighs;
For the sound of his drums grew less and less,
Walking like carelessness off from distress;
And Captain Sword went whistling gay,
“Over the hills and far away.”

Canto II.
How Captain Sword won a Great Victory.
Through fair and through foul went Captain Sword,
Pacer of highway and piercer of ford,
Steady of face in rain or sun,
He and his merry men, all as one;
Till they came to a place, where in battle-array
Stood thousands of faces, firm as they,
Waiting to see which could best maintain
Bloody argument, lords of pain;
And down the throats of their fellow-men
Thrust the draught never drunk again.

It was a spot of rural peace,
Ripening with the year’s increase
And singing in the sun with birds,
Like a maiden with happy words –
With happy words which she scarcely hears
In her own contented ears,
Such abundance feeleth she
Of all comfort carelessly,
Throwing round her, as she goes,
Sweet half-thoughts on lily and rose,
Nor guesseth what will soon arouse
All ears – that murder’s in the house;
And that, in some strange wrong of brain,
Her father hath her mother slain.

Steady! steady! The masses of men
Wheel, and fall in, and wheel again,
Softly as circles drawn with pen.

Then a gaze there was, and valour, and fear,
And the jest that died in the jester’s ear,
And preparation, noble to see,
Of all-accepting mortality;
Tranquil Necessity gracing Force;
And the trumpets danc’d with the stirring horse;
And lordly voices, here and there,
Call’d to war through the gentle air;
When suddenly, with its voice of doom,
Spoke the cannon ‘twixt glare and gloom,
Making wider the dreadful room:
On the faces of nations round
Fell the shadow of that sound.

Death for death! The storm begins;
Rush the drums in a torrent of dins;
Crash the muskets, gash the swords;
Shoes grow red in a thousand fords;
Now for the flint, and the cartridge bite;
Darkly gathers the breath of the fight,
Salt to the palate and stinging to sight;
Muskets are pointed they scarce know where,
No matter: Murder is cluttering there.
Reel the hollows: close up! close up!
Death feeds thick, and his food is his cup.
Down go bodies, snap burst eyes;
Trod on the ground are tender cries;
Brains are dash’d against plashing ears;
Hah! no time has battle for tears;
Cursing helps better – cursing, that goes
Slipping through friends’ blood, athirst for foes’.
What have soldiers with tears to do? –
We, who this mad-house must now go through,
This twenty-fold Bedlam, let loose with knives –
To murder, and stab, and grow liquid with lives –
Gasping, staring, treading red mud,
Till the drunkenness’ self makes us steady of blood?

[Oh! shrink not thou, reader! Thy part’s in it too;
Has not thy praise made the thing they go through
Shocking to read of, but noble to do?]

No time to be “breather of thoughtful breath”
Has the giver and taker of dreadful death.
See where comes the horse-tempest again,
Visible earthquake, bloody of mane!
Part are upon us, with edges of pain;
Part burst, riderless, over the plain,
Crashing their spurs, and twice slaying the slain.
See, by the living God! see those foot
Charging down hill – hot, hurried, and mute!
They loll their tongues out! Ah-hah! pell-mell!
Horses roll in a human hell;
Horse and man they climb one another –
Which is the beast, and which is the brother?
Mangling, stifling, stopping shrieks
With the tread of torn-out cheeks,
Drinking each other’s bloody breath –
Here’s the fleshliest feast of Death.
An odour, as of a slaughter-house,
The distant raven’s dark eye bows.

Victory! victory! Man flies man;
Cannibal patience hath done what it can –
Carv’d, and been carv’d, drunk the drinkers down,
And now there is one that hath won the crown:
One pale visage stands lord of the board –
Joy to the trumpets of Captain Sword!

His trumpets blow strength, his trumpets neigh,
They and his horse, and waft him away;
They and his foot, with a tir’d proud flow,
Tatter’d escapers and givers of woe.
Open, ye cities! Hats off! hold breath!
To see the man who has been with Death;
To see the man who determineth right
By the virtue-perplexing virtue of might.
Sudden before him have ceas’d the drums,
And lo! in the air of empire he comes!

All things present, in earth and sky,
Seem to look at his looking eye.

Canto III.
Of the Ball that was given to Captain Sword.
But Captain Sword was a man among men,
And he hath become their playmate again:
Boot, nor sword, nor stern look hath he,
But holdeth the hand of a fair ladye,
And floweth the dance a palace within,
Half the night, to a golden din,
Midst lights in windows and love in eyes,
And a constant feeling of sweet surprise;
And ever the look of Captain Sword
Is the look that’s thank’d, and the look that’s ador’d.

There was the country-dance, small of taste;
And the waltz, that loveth the lady’s waist;
And the galopade, strange agreeable tramp,
Made of a scrape, a hobble, and stamp;
And the high-stepping minuet, face to face,
Mutual worship of conscious grace;
And all the shapes in which beauty goes
Weaving motion with blithe repose.

And then a table a feast displayed,
Like a garden of light without a shade,
All of gold, and flowers, and sweets,
With wines of old church-lands, and sylvan meats,
Food that maketh the blood feel choice;
Yet all the face of the feast, and the voice,
And heart, still turn’d to the head of the board;
For ever the look of Captain Sword
Is the look that’s thank’d, and the look that’s ador’d.

Well content was Captain Sword;
At his feet all wealth was pour’d;
On his head all glory set;
For his ease all comfort met;
And around him seem’d entwin’d
All the arms of womankind.

And when he had taken his fill
Thus, of all that pampereth will,
In his down he sunk to rest,
Clasp’d in dreams of all its best.

Canto IV.
On What took place on the Field of Battle the Night after the Victory.
‘Tis a wild night out of doors;
The wind is mad upon the moors,
And comes into the rocking town,
Stabbing all things, up and down,
And then there is a weeping rain
Huddling ‘gainst the window-pane,
And good men bless themselves in bed;
The mother brings her infant’s head
Closer, with a joy like tears,
And thinks of angels in her prayers;
Then sleeps, with his small hand in hers.

Two loving women, lingering yet
Ere the fire is out, are met,
Talking sweetly, time-beguil’d,
One of her bridegroom, one her child,
The bridegroom he. They have receiv’d
Happy letters, more believ’d
For public news, and feel the bliss
The heavenlier on a night like this.
They think him hous’d, they think him blest,
Curtain’d in the core of rest,
Danger distant, all good near;
Why hath their “Good night” a tear?

Behold him! By a ditch he lies
Clutching the wet earth, his eyes
Beginning to be mad. In vain
His tongue still thirsts to lick the rain,
That mock’d but now his homeward tears;
And ever and anon he rears
His legs and knees with all their strength,
And then as strongly thrusts at length.
Rais’d, or stretch’d, he cannot bear
The wound that girds him, weltering there:
And “Water!” he cries, with moonward stare.

[“I will not read it!” with a start,
Burning cries some honest heart;
“I will not read it! Why endure
Pangs which horror cannot cure?
Why – Oh why? and rob the brave
And the bereav’d of all they crave,
A little hope to gild the grave?”

Ask’st thou why, thou honest heart?
‘Tis because thou dost ask, and because thou dost start.
‘Tis because thine own praise and fond outward thought
Have aided the shews which this sorrow have wrought.]

A wound unutterable – Oh God!
Mingles his being with the sod.

[“I’ll read no more.” – Thou must, thou must:
In thine own pang doth wisdom trust.]

His nails are in earth, his eyes in air,
And “Water!” he crieth – he may not forbear.
Brave and good was he, yet now he dreams
The moon looks cruel; and he blasphemes.

[“No more! no more!” Nay, this is but one;
Were the whole tale told, it would not be done
From wonderful setting to rising sun.
But God’s good time is at hand – be calm,
Thou reader! and steep thee in all thy balm
Of tears or patience, of thought or good will,
For the field – the field awaiteth us still.]

“Water! water!” all over the field:
To nothing but Death will that wound-voice yield.
One, as he crieth, is sitting half bent;
What holds he so close? – his body is rent.
Another is mouthless, with eyes on cheek;
Unto the raven he may not speak.
One would fain kill him; and one half round
The place where he writhes, hath up beaten the ground.
Like a mad horse hath he beaten the ground,
And the feathers and music that litter it round,
The gore, and the mud, and the golden sound.
Come hither, ye cities! ye ball-rooms, take breath!
See what a floor hath the dance of death!

The floor is alive, though the lights are out;
What are those dark shapes, flitting about?
Flitting about, yet no ravens they,
Not foes, yet not friends – mute creatures of prey;
Their prey is lucre, their claws a knife,
Some say they take the beseeching life.
Horrible pity is theirs for despair,
And they the love-sacred limbs leave bare.
Love will come to-morrow, and sadness,
Patient for the fear of madness,
And shut its eyes for cruelty,
So many pale beds to see.
Turn away, thou Love, and weep
No more in covering his last sleep;
Thou hast him – blessed is thine eye!
Friendless Famine has yet to die.

Canto IV
A shriek! – Great God! what superhuman
Peal was that? Not man, nor woman,
Nor twenty madmen, crush’d, could wreak
Their soul in such a ponderous shriek.
Dumbly, for an instant, stares
The field; and creep men’s dying hairs.

O friend of man! O noble creature!
Patient and brave, and mild by nature,
Mild by nature, and mute as mild,
Why brings he to these passes wild
Thee, gentle horse, thou shape of beauty?
Could he not do his dreadful duty,
(If duty it be, which seems mad folly)
Nor link thee to his melancholy?

Two noble steeds lay side by side,
One cropp’d the meek grass ere it died;
Pang-struck it struck t’ other, already torn,
And out of its bowels that shriek was born.

Now see what crawleth, well as it may,
Out of the ditch, and looketh that way.
What horror all black, in the sick moonlight,
Kneeling, half human, a burdensome sight;
Loathly and liquid, as fly from a dish;
Speak, Horror! thou, for it withereth flesh.

“The grass caught fire; the wounded were by;
Writhing till eve did a remnant lie;
Then feebly this coal abateth his cry;
But he hopeth! he hopeth! joy lighteth his eye,
For gold he possesseth, and Murder is nigh!”

O goodness in horror! O ill not all ill!
In the worst of the worst may be fierce Hope still.
To-morrow with dawn will come many a wain,
And bear away loads of human pain,
Piles of pale beds for the ‘spitals; but some
Again will awake in home-mornings, and some,
Dull herds of the war, again follow the drum.
From others, faint blood shall in families flow,
With wonder at life, and young oldness in woe,
Yet hence may the movers of great earth grow.
Now, even now, I hear them at hand,
Though again Captain Sword is up in the land,
Marching anew for more fields like these
In the health of his flag in the morning breeze.

Sneereth the trumpet, and stampeth the drum,
And again Captain Sword in his pride doth come;
He passeth the fields where his friends lie lorn,
Feeding the flowers and the feeding corn,
Where under the sunshine cold they lie,
And he hasteth a tear from his old grey eye.
Small thinking is his but of work to be done,
And onward he marcheth, using the sun:
He slayeth, he wasteth, he spouteth his fires
On babes at the bosom, and bed-rid sires;
He bursteth pale cities, through smoke and through yell,
And bringeth behind him, hot-blooded, his hell.
Then the weak door is barr’d, and the soul all sore,
And hand-wringing helplessness paceth the floor,
And the lover is slain, and the parents are nigh –

Oh God! let me breathe, and look up at thy sky!
Good is as hundreds, evil as one;
Round about goeth the golden sun.

Canto V.
How Captain Sword, in Consequence of his Great Victories, became infirm in his Wits.
But to win at the game, whose moves are death,
It maketh a man draw too proud a breath:
And to see his force taken for reason and right,
It tendeth to unsettle his reason quite.
Never did chief of the line of Sword
Keep his wits whole at that drunken board.
He taketh the size, and the roar, and fate,
Of the field of his action, for soul as great:
He smiteth and stunneth the cheek of mankind,
And saith “Lo! I rule both body and mind.”

Captain Sword forgot his own soul,
Which of aught save itself, resented controul;
Which whatever his deeds, ordained them still,
Bodiless monarch, enthron’d in his will:
He forgot the close thought, and the burning heart,
And pray’rs, and the mild moon hanging apart,
Which lifteth the seas with her gentle looks,
And growth, and death, and immortal books,
And the Infinite Mildness, the soul of souls,
Which layeth earth soft ‘twixt her silver poles;
Which ruleth the stars, and saith not a word;
Whose speed in the hair of no comet is heard;
Which sendeth the soft sun, day by day,
Mighty, and genial, and just alway,
Owning no difference, doing no wrong,
Loving the orbs and the least bird’s song,
The great, sweet, warm angel, with golden rod,
Bright with the smile of the distance of God.

Captain Sword, like a witless thing,
Of all under heaven must needs be king,
King of kings, and lord of lords,
Swayer of souls as well as of swords,
Ruler of speech, and through speech, of thought;
And hence to his brain was a madness brought.
He madden’d in East, he madden’d in West,
Fiercer for sights of men’s unrest,
Fiercer for talk, amongst awful men,
Of their new mighty leader, Captain Pen,
A conqueror strange, who sat in his home
Like the wizard that plagued the ships of Rome,
Noiseless, show-less, dealing no death,
But victories, winged, went forth from his breath.

Three thousand miles across the waves
Did Captain Sword cry, bidding souls be slaves:
Three thousand miles did the echo return
With a laugh and a blow made his old cheeks burn.

Then he call’d to a wrong-maddened people, and swore
Their name in the map should never be more:
Dire came the laugh, and smote worse than before.
Were earthquake a giant, up-thrusting his head
And o’erlooking the nations, not worse were the dread.

Then, lo! was a wonder, and sadness to see;
For with that very people, their leader, stood he,
Incarnate afresh, like a Cæsar of old;
But because he look’d back, and his heart was cold,
Time, hope, and himself for a tale he sold.
Oh largest occasion, by man ever lost!
Oh throne of the world, to the war-dogs tost!

He vanished; and thinly there stood in his place
The new shape of Sword, with an humbler face,
Rebuking his brother, and preaching for right,
Yet aye when it came, standing proud on his might,
And squaring its claims with his old small sight;
Then struck up his drums, with ensign furl’d,
And said, “I will walk through a subject world:
Earth, just as it is, shall for ever endure,
The rich be too rich, and the poor too poor;
And for this I’ll stop knowledge. I’ll say to it, ‘Flow
Thus far; but presume no farther to flow:
For me, as I list, shall the free airs blow.'”

Laugh’d after him loudly that land so fair,
“The king thou set’st over us, by a free air
Is swept away, senseless.” And old Sword then
First knew the might of great Captain Pen.
So strangely it bow’d him, so wilder’d his brain,
That now he stood, hatless, renouncing his reign;
Now mutter’d of dust laid in blood; and now
‘Twixt wonder and patience went lifting his brow.
Then suddenly came he, with gowned men,
And said, “Now observe me – I’m Captain Pen:
I’ll lead all your changes – I’ll write all your books –
I’m every thing – all things – I’m clergymen, cooks,
Clerks, carpenters, hosiers – I’m Pitt – I’m Lord Grey.”

‘Twas painful to see his extravagant way;
But heart ne’er so bold, and hand ne’er so strong,
What are they, when truth and the wits go wrong?

VI.
Of Captain Pen, and how he fought with Captain Sword.
Now tidings of Captain Sword and his state
Were brought to the ears of Pen the Great,
Who rose and said, “His time is come.”
And he sent him, but not by sound of drum,
Nor trumpet, nor other hasty breath,
Hot with questions of life and death,
But only a letter calm and mild;
And Captain Sword he read it, and smil’d,
And said, half in scorn, and nothing in fear,
(Though his wits seem’d restor’d by a danger near,
For brave was he ever) “Let Captain Pen
Bring at his back a million men,
And I’ll talk with his wisdom, and not till then.”
Then replied to his messenger Captain Pen,
“I’ll bring at my back a world of men.”

Out laugh’d the captains of Captain Sword,
But their chief look’d vex’d, and said not a word,
For thought and trouble had touch’d his ears
Beyond the bullet-like sense of theirs,
And wherever he went, he was ‘ware of a sound
Now heard in the distance, now gathering round,
Which irk’d him to know what the issue might be;
But the soul of the cause of it well guess’d he.

Indestructible souls among men
Were the souls of the line of Captain Pen;
Sages, patriots, martyrs mild,
Going to the stake, as child
Goeth with his prayer to bed;
Dungeon-beams, from quenchless head;
Poets, making earth aware
Of its wealth in good and fair;
And the benders to their intent,
Of metal and of element;
Of flame the enlightener, beauteous,
And steam, that bursteth his iron house;
And adamantine giants blind,
That, without master, have no mind.

Heir to these, and all their store,
Was Pen, the power unknown of yore;
And as their might still created might,
And each work’d for him by day and by night,
In wealth and wondrous means he grew,
Fit to move the earth anew;
Till his fame began to speak
Pause, as when the thunders wake,
Muttering, in the beds of heaven:
Then, to set the globe more even,
Water he call’d, and Fire, and Haste,
Which hath left old Time displac’d –
And Iron, mightiest now for Pen,
Each of his steps like an army of men –
(Sword little knew what was leaving him then)
And out of the witchcraft of their skill,
A creature he call’d, to wait on his will –
Half iron, half vapour, a dread to behold –
Which evermore panted and evermore roll’d,
And uttered his words a million fold.
Forth sprang they in air, down raining like dew,
And men fed upon them, and mighty they grew.

Ears giddy with custom that sound might not hear,
But it woke up the rest, like an earthquake near;
And that same night of the letter, some strange
Compulsion of soul brought a sense of change;
And at midnight the sound grew into a roll
As the sound of all gath’rings from pole to pole,
From pole unto pole, and from clime to clime,
Like the roll of the wheels of the coming of time; –
A sound as of cities, and sound as of swords
Sharpening, and solemn and terrible words,
And laughter as solemn, and thunderous drumming,
A tread as if all the world were coming.
And then was a lull, and soft voices sweet
Call’d into music those terrible feet,
Which rising on wings, lo! the earth went round
To the burn of their speed with a golden sound;
With a golden sound, and a swift repose,
Such as the blood in the young heart knows;
Such as Love knows, when his tumults cease;
When all is quick, and yet all is at peace.

And when Captain Sword got up next morn,
Lo! a new-fac’d world was born;
For not an anger nor pride would it shew,
Nor aught of the loftiness now found low,
Nor would his own men strike a single blow:
Not a blow for their old, unconsidering lord
Would strike the good soldiers of Captain Sword;
But weaponless all, and wise they stood,
In the level dawn, and calm brotherly good;
Yet bowed to him they, and kiss’d his hands,
For such were their new lord’s commands,
Lessons rather, and brotherly plea;
Reverence the past, quoth he;
Reverence the struggle and mystery,
And faces human in their pain;
Nor his the least, that could sustain
Cares of mighty wars, and guide
Calmly where the red deaths ride.

“But how! what now?” cried Captain Sword;
“Not a blow for your gen’ral? not even a word?
What! traitors? deserters?”

“Ah no!” cried they;
“But the ‘game’s’ at an end; the ‘wise’ wont play.”

“And where’s your old spirit?”

“The same, though another;
Man may be strong without maiming his brother.”

“But enemies?”

“Enemies! Whence should they come,
When all interchange what was known but to some?”

“But famine? but plague? worse evils by far.”

“O last mighty rhet’ric to charm us to war!
Look round – what has earth, now it equably speeds,
To do with these foul and calamitous needs?
Now it equably speeds, and thoughtfully glows,
And its heart is open, never to close?

“Still I can govern,” said Captain Sword;
“Fate I respect; and I stick to my word.”
And in truth so he did; but the word was one
He had sworn to all vanities under the sun,
To do, for their conq’rors, the least could be done.
Besides, what had he with his worn-out story,
To do with the cause he had wrong’d, and the glory?

No: Captain Sword a sword was still,
He could not unteach his lordly will;
He could not attemper his single thought;
It might not be bent, nor newly wrought:
And so, like the tool of a disus’d art,
He stood at his wall, and rusted apart.

‘Twas only for many-soul’d Captain Pen
To make a world of swordless men.

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