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Bayonet Charge: Power and Conflict Analysis

Bayonet Charge is a poem that was written by Ted Hughes and published in 1957. It is set in World War I and describes a soldier’s experience in trench warfare. As shown in the poem, the soldiers would be ordered to climb out of their trenches and charge at their enemies. They carried bayonets (blades fixed to rifles) to stab their opponents. This was very dangerous and inevitably saw a high number of fatalities.

Many men were persuaded to fight in the war by propaganda (biased and misleading information) about fighting for their king and country. Hughes addresses this in the final stanza.

Poem summary

An unprepared soldier charges towards enemy lines, sweating heavily in his thick uniform. Gunfire shoots across him. He almost stops running as he considers his role in the war. A hare is caught in the crossfire, reminding the soldier of the danger he is in. He runs forward in an attempt to get away from the gunfire.

The poem’s key message:

In a battle, the fear of dying becomes more important for soldiers than bravery or patriotism (love of one’s country).

Language

  • Hughes uses a lot of verbs to show the frantic actions taking place. The man is shown clumsily “running” and “stumbling”. The enemy lines “dazzled with rifle fire” and the hare “rolled like a flame”.
  • Figurative language shows the soldier’s terror in the battle. His rifle has become “numb as a smashed arm”, indicating it is useless to him as he is too scared and overwhelmed to use it. He is also shown “Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest”. Molten iron is heated at a very high temperature, so this simile shows the physical effect of tension and exhaustion.
  • Figurative language is also used when the man questions the point of the war and wonders about the “cold clockwork” of the situation. This gives the impression that all soldiers in war are simply part of an inhumane machine that keeps turning.

Structure

  • The poem begins in media res (in the middle of the narrative): “Suddenly he awoke”. This reflects the soldier’s sense of disorientation in the chaos.
  • The first and third stanzas are fast-paced. They show the soldier running, desperate to get away from the gunfire. The second stanza slows down in pace, with longer lines and less punctuation, to show his moment of contemplation about the point of war.

Form

  • Hughes wrote the poem in free verse (no regular rhythm or rhyme). It has long sentences with enjambment (sentences that run across different lines). This reflects the fast pace and sense of chaos on the battlefield.
  • The poem is written in the third person and follows the thoughts and actions of an individual soldier. The soldier is unnamed, perhaps to show that fear and desperation to survive are common emotions for all soldiers.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The reality of warHughes depicts the sense of chaos and confusion on a battlefield. Rather than having a clear plan of action, we see the unnamed soldier “Stumbling across a field”. This reflects a deeper unpreparedness for the emotional and psychological experience of warfare.

The reader is also shown the senseless violence that comes about because of war. An innocent hare is caught in the gunfire, and its death is described in gory detail. It “rolled like a flame,” showing how it lost all control of its movements. The distressing image is compounded as Hughes describes how it died with “its mouth wide/ Open silent, its eyes standing out”. This shows the pain and needless deaths that take place because of war.  
The experience of soldiersHughes used used sensory language to give the reader a vivid impression of the soldier’s experience.

He feels the “hot khaki” (army uniform) on his skin, which causes him to “sweat heavy”

The bullets sound like they are “smacking the belly out of the air”

He sees the “blue crackling air”

All of these must be overwhelming for the soldier and make it difficult to think clearly about what he must do.  
FearBefore fighting in the war, the soldier had a “patriotic tear that brimmed in his eye”. However, any sense of patriotism he felt before is now pushed aside as fear completely overwhelms him. He is no longer running towards the enemy motivated by “King, honour, human dignity”. Instead, it is because of a desperation to escape the gunfire.

The final line describes his “terror’s touchy dynamite”. This shows that fear has made his actions fraught with danger and unpredictability. Like “dynamite”, he feels his emotions might explode and go completely out of control.  

Key quotes to learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw”This shows the sense of disorientation the soldier feels. “Raw” suggests that he is inexperienced and unprepared for this battle.
“Bullets smacking the belly out of the air”The air is personified to show the danger of these bullets: even the air is damaged by them. It also shows the loud noise the bullets would make as they passed.
“King, honour, human dignity, etcetera / Dropped like luxuries”In his fear, the soldier’s previous motivations for fighting have been forgotten. They are “luxuries”, not anything that will help to keep him alive.

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