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 . 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:
 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.