A Famous Victory

A Famous Victory

This week’s choice is another anti-war poem to mark the continuing invasion of Ukraine. It is After Blenheim by Robert Southey.

“But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Robert Southey (1774—1843)

Poem 205. After Blenheim

It was a summer's evening;
    Old Kaspar's work was done,
And he before his cottage-door
    Was sitting in the sun;
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
She saw her brother Peterkin
    Roll something large and round,
That he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found.
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
    Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
    And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.”
“I find them in the garden, for
    There's many here about;
And often, when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out;
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in the great victory.”
“Now tell us what ‘twas all about,”
    Young Peterkin he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up,
    With wonder-waiting eyes:
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they kill’d each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
    “That put the French to rout;
But what they kill’d each other for,
    I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ‘twas a famous victory.”
“My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
    And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.”
“With fire and sword the country round,
    Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then
    And new-born infant died.
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.”
“They say it was a shocking sight,
    After the field was won,
For many a thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun.
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.”
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ‘twas a very wicked thing!”
    Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay, nay, my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory;”

“And everybody praised the duke,
    Who such a fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Old Kaspar lives near the site of the Battle of Blenheim, a bloody encounter in the War of the Spanish Succession between the Grand Alliance on one side and France and Bavaria on the other.

He is sitting at leisure one day watching his granddaughter when his grandson Peterkin brings an object he has been playing with to the old man. Kaspar recognises it as a human skull and says it must belong to one of the soldiers who fought in the battle: he often discovers human remains when he works in the garden or on the farm.

The children ask him for the story, and he tells them that a great battle was fought nearby and that the English, under the Duke of Marlborough, defeated the French—he does not know why they were fighting, but has always believed it was a famous victory—this he repeats throughout the poem as if to underline the pointlessness of the conflict: his father’s cottage was burned to the ground, his parents forced to flee for their lives, the country laid waste for miles around, innocent civilians killed and maimed, and bodies left in piles to rot.

When his granddaughter exclaims that it was a wicked act, he simply repeats his belief that it was a famous victory as if that excuses the dreadful things he has described. In the last stanza, Peterkin asks him what benefit the people derived from the battle, and he is only able to say “‘Twas a famous victory”.

The Battle of Blenheim made the Duke of Marlborough famous in England and led to the building of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire but for 27,000 French soldiers that were killed, wounded or captured and for the 12,500 killed and wounded Alliance soldiers, it was not such a famous victory. Nor was it a victory for the people of Blenheim who lost their homes and their livelihoods.

The repeated assertion “‘Twas a famous victory” is a counterpoint to the shocking and bloody scenes the old man describes and even if Vladimir Putin chooses to describe his war on another country as a famous victory, the corpses, refugees and gutted buildings of Ukraine will demonstrate the hollowness of that victory and just as little Peterkin’s question at the end of the poem implies, no good will ever come of it.