Two Armies

February 3, 2007 at 1:14 pm 4 comments

Stephen Spender


Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side.

From their numb harvest all would flee, except
For discipline drilled once in an iron school
Which holds them at the point of a revolver.
Yet when they sleep, the images of home
Ride wishing horses of escape
Which herd the plain in a mass unspoken poem.

Finally, they cease to hate: for although hate
Bursts from the air and whips the earth like hail
Or pours it up in fountains to marvel at,
And although hundreds fell, who can connect
The inexhaustible anger of the guns
With the dumb patience of these tormented animals?

Clean silence drops at night when a little walk
Divides the sleeping armies, each
Huddled in linen woven by remote hands.
When the machines are stilled, a common suffering
Whitens the air with breath and makes both one
As though these enemies slept in each other’s arms.

Only the lucid friend to aerial raiders,
The brilliant pilot moon, stares down
Upon the plain she makes a shining bone
Cut by the shadow of many thousand bones.
Where amber clouds scatter on no-man’s-land
She regards death and time throw up
The furious words and minerals which kill life

Reading Spender, I almost always have the sense of something metallic and assembled, a feat of engineering, a poetry of girders and rivets. Spender’s poems do not fly, they remain firmly bolted to the page, their phrases gleaming like true steel, their voice at once greased and rusty. They are exquisite machines, these poems, and they hum with the energy of the earth. And for all their complex gadgetry, there is nothing contrived about them – ugly at first glance, they are models of efficiency, turning out the truth with ruthless precision, every cog necessary, every word tightened to its exact torque. They are poems for a metal landscape, roaring and unadorned.

Today’s poem is a good example [1]. It is a poem crammed with death and despair, conveying perfectly the sense of being trapped and crushed in the giant machine that is war, and yet, just as the apparatus of the poem is beginning to suffocate you, Spender throws in “the images of home / ride wishing horses of escape / that herd the plain in a mass unspoken poem”. It is also, of course, a poem with a message. Spender titles the poem ‘Two Armies’, but his descriptions are ubiquitious and apply equally to both. Facing each other across the plain (a frame that Spender creates in the very first lines with superb skill), the two armies thus become mirror images of each other, indistinguishable but for the trapping of flags and anthems, and we are reminded once again that “When the machines are stilled, a common suffering / whitens the air with breath and makes both one / As though these enemies slept in each other’s arms”. It’s an image that always reminds me of Dali’s Autumn Cannibalism:



[1] On a personal note, my own memories of this poem go back a little over ten years to my first year in college, where the Economics Honours syllabus included a mandatory English course, in which Two Armies was pretty much the only thing remotely worth reading.

Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Stephen Spender, War Poetry.

Lament to The Spirit of War The Soldier

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Revealed  |  February 3, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    As I read it I was just thinking that it was like polished steel. Every word inhumanly perfect, irreplacable.

    Y’know dya think it would be possible to post the poem first and then your interpretation thingy like a week or so later as the next post? Is that a stretch?

  • 2. Equivocal  |  February 4, 2007 at 3:36 am

    Hmm. Thanks for this. A confession: although Spender’s autobiography, “world within world”, a book that sort of just happened into my hand over a decade ago, is absolutely one of my favourite books– i still remember many passages vividly– i have never quite got into Spender’s poetry. There’s a sense of it being laboured, that i just can’t shake. Add to this the fact that Spender is rarely talked about in literary circles these days– Auden towers, then the knowing cats bring up MacNiece, but the conversation never seems to turn to Spender.

    Perhaps this is unfair. I must also confess that I liked this poem a lot– my first Spender-poem liking!– and your sensitive reading and pauses helped quite a bit, thanks. The image of enemies sleeping in each other’s arms is indeed nice;though the other image, of a novice hand in salute being shot by soldiers from the same side, is a bit melodramatic? Maybe it really happened. Sometimes I think the single most important thing that distinguishes male poets in English who wrote before the sixties from those after, is: while they really experienced what war was, we watch it on TV.

  • 3. falstaff  |  February 4, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Revealed: Thanks. I don’t think the comment and poem as separate post will work – partly because we would like to maintain this site as an archive, and partly because if I don’t force myself to write these things as I’m posting the poem I’m also guaranteed to forget to come back later.

    Equivocal: True – and I’ve argued elsewhere (see our previous Spender post) that Spender is unjustly overlooked. Obviously, there’s no comparison with Auden – who is, frankly, in a different league – but I’m not sure that there’s that much to choose between MacNiece and Spender. Spender has a poor ear, it’s true, but perhaps for that reason he sounds more earthy and genuine. Reading MacNiece I’m often left wondering why I’m not just reading Auden instead – reading Spender, by contrast, is an authentically different experience. (Not that I’m trying to do down MacNiece – personally, I find him and Spender comparable, and would pick Larkin over either of them anyway). Spender isn’t a great poet, but he’s a good enough one to deserve to be remembered and discussed more than he is.

    Anyway, glad you liked this poem. Hopefully it’ll convince you to give Spender another try.

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