‘Misery’s Sharpest Fang’: Protesting War in Poetry

In 1811, a college student decided to protest war by writing poetry. Britain was fighting Napoleonic France at the time, and the 18-year-old Oxford student mourned the carnage, waste, and poverty he saw as the result, while “cold advisers of yet colder kings” seemed insensitive to these consequences and, moreover, kept their power amid the destruction. He published an anti-war verse, as well as an essay on “the necessity of atheism.” His work got him expelled from Oxford.

The student was the English Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley, and all copies of his protest verse were thought to be lost—perhaps destroyed by a tutor—for nearly two centuries. But on Tuesday night, just before Britain observed Remembrance Day to honor soldiers killed in battle and the United States commemorated Veterans Day in recognition of its armed forces, the poem was posted on the Internet for the first time. It was Oxford’s own Bodleian Library, which acquired Shelley’s lost work after it resurfaced from a private collection in 2006, that published the poem; the resulting visits promptly crashed the library’s server.

Here’s part of Shelley’s 200-year-old message:

Destruction marks thee! o’er the bloodstain’d heath

Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death;

Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die

In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.

The sternly wise, the mildly good, have sped

To the unfruitful mansions of the dead.

Whilst fell Ambition, o’er the wasted plain

Triumphant guides his car—the ensanguin’d rein

Glory directs; fierce brooding o’er the scene,

With hatred glance, with dire unbending mien

Fell Despotism sits by the red glare

Of discord’s torch, kindling the flames of war.


[…]


Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,

To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings

Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,

Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,

Yourselves secure. Your’s is the power to breathe

O’er all the world the infectious blast of death,

To snatch at fame, to reap red murder’s spoil,

Receive the injured with a courtier’s smile

Make a tired nation bless the oppressor’s name

And for injustice snatch the meed of fame.

A century after Shelley wrote this, a similar protest, in the same form, came from another British poet, while his country was again engaged in battle. This time it was Rudyard Kipling, and the context was Britain’s World War I campaign in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, which then as now served as a battlefield for foreign powers. The subject—the target, really—was the leaders who sent soldiers to die there, and Kipling, like Shelley, conveyed a bitter despair that those leaders would keep their comfortable jobs even so.

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain

In sight of help denied from day to day:

But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,

Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—

Never while the bars of sunset hold.

But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,

Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?

When the storm is ended shall we find

How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power

By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Another century later, the United States marks its appreciation of veterans as its leaders slowly escalate yet another conflict, under a leader who promised to end two wars. And again, those who order war seem largely insulated from its consequences, in both a physical and a political sense.

In his Atlantic cover story earlier this year, in which he noted the gulf between “today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops,” James Fallows picked up the theme of “those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going.” The country is different, the wars are different, but Shelley and Kipling would have recognized the decisions and the people—those who “thrust for high employments as of old.” Fallows described this dynamic in the modern context:

It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars. Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in 2008. George W. Bush, who, like most ex-presidents, has grown more popular the longer he’s been out of office, would perhaps be playing a more visible role in public and political life if not for the overhang of Iraq. But those two are the exceptions. Most other public figures, from Dick Cheney and Colin Powell on down, have put Iraq behind them. In part this is because of the Obama administration’s decision from the start to “look forward, not back” about why things had gone so badly wrong with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such willed amnesia would have been harder if more Americans had felt affected by the wars’ outcome. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is a dangerous development—and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists.

The point, in 19th-century England as well as 21st-century America, is the enormous and tragic difference between picking a battle and actually having to fight one.