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William Cowper: Universal soldiership has stabbed the heart of man


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

British writers on peace and war

William Cowper: Selections on peace and war


William Cowper
From The Task

Sure there is need of social intercourse,
Benevolence and peace and mutual aid,
Between the nations, in a world that seems
To toll the death-bell to its own decease;
And by the voice of all its elements
To preach the general doom.


‘Tis universal soldiership has stabb’d
The heart of merit in the meaner class.
Arms through the vanity and brainless rage
Of those that bear them in whatever cause,
Seem most at variance with all moral good,
And incompatible with serious thought.
The clown, the child of nature, without guile,
Blest with an infant’s ignorance of all
But his own ſimple pleaſures, now and then
A wrestling match, a foot-race, or a fair,
Is ballotted, and trembles at the news.
Sheepish he doffs his hat, and mumbling swears
A Bible-oath to be whate’er they please,
To do he knows not what. The task perform’d,
That instant he becomes the sergeant’s care,
His pupil, and his torment, and his jest.
His awkward gait, his introverted toes,
Bent knees, round shoulders, and dejected looks,
Procure him many a curse. By slow degrees,
Unapt to learn and formed of stubborn stuff,
He yet by slow degrees puts off himself,
Grows conscious of a change, and likes it well.
He stands erect, his slouch becomes a walk,
He steps right onward, martial in his air
His form and movement; is as smart above
As meal and larded locks can make him; wears
His hat or his plumed helmet with a grace,
And his three years of heroship expired,
Returns indignant to the slighted plough.
He hates the field in which no fife or drum
Attends him, drives his cattle to a march,
And sighs for the smart comrades he has left.
‘Twere well if his exterior change were all –
But with his clumsy port the wretch has lost
His ignorance and harmless manners too.
To swear, to game, to drink, to show at home
By lewdness, idleness, and sabbath-breach,
The great proficiency he made abroad,
T’ astonish and to grieve his gazing friends,
To break some maiden’s and his mother’s heart,
To be a pest where he was useful once,
Are his sole aim, and all his glory now.

Incorporated, seem at once to Iose
Their nature, and disclaiming all regard
For mercy and the common rights of man,
Build factories with blood, conducting trade
At the sword’s point, and dying the white robe
Of innocent commercial justice red.
Hence too the field of glory, as the world
Misdeems it, dazzled by its bright array,
With all the majesty of its thund’ring pomp,
Enchanting music and immortal wreaths,
Is but a school where thoughtlessness is taught…

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