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“First March” is an autobiographical poem written by Ivor Gurney. It is a war poem that recounts the poet’s own days of being a soldier.
About the Poet:
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was a notable English poet as well as a composer. He was enlisted in the army as a private soldier during World War I. Famous works of his include “A Wish”, “April Gale”, and “Half Dead”.
This poem consists of 3 stanzas of varying lengths. Written in free verse, it does not follow a rhyme scheme.
Explanation of the Stanzas:
It was first marching, hardly we had settled yet To think of England, or escaped body pain – (Cotswold or music — or poetry, the pack to forget) Flat country going leaves but small chance, small hope for The mind to escape to any resort but its vain Own circling grayness and stain; First halt, second halt, and then to spoiled country again. There were unknown kilometres to march, one must settle To play chess, or talk home talk, or think as might happen After three weeks of February frost, few were in fettle, Barely frost bite the most of us Gloucesters had escaped. To move, then, to go onward, at least to be moved – Myself had revived and then dulled down. It was I Who stared for body-ease on the gray sky And watched in grind of pain the monotony Of grit, road metal, slide underneath by dull down by To get there being the one thought under, to get marching done.
The poet begins by narrating how, before “we”, the soldiers, has scarcely settled in, the first march had begun. The “flat country” offered no respite from the dreariness of the march. He further states that their only source of distraction was to “play chess” or “talk” of “home”.
After “three weeks” of this gruelling march in February, the soldiers “Barely” survived “frost bite” – yet, marching on was all they could do, “to go onward”. The poet tried to “revive” himself but was eventually “dulled down”. He tried staring at the “gray sky” to distract himself in vain– it only served as a reminder of the “monotony” they suffered from, of the “grit” and “road metal” they trudged upon. They all marched on with a single thought in mind– “To get there” and “get marching done” and over with.
Suddenly, a road’s turn brought the sweet unexpected Pleasure. Snowdrops bloomed in a ruined garden neglected: Roman the road; as of Birdlip we were on the verge, And this West Country thing so from chaos to emerge (Surely Witcombe with dim water lay under March’s morning-falter?) One gracious touch the whole wilderness corrected.
A tonal shift can be observed in the poem here. A “road’s turn” resulted in a snow-filled garden, bringing him “unexpected” pleasure. He startlingly realises that the “Roman” road they presently saw was akin to the one he had back home. This subtle comparison brings out how humans are, after all, the same. Yet, in the next line, the poet feels that this “West Country thing” had sprung from “chaos” and seemed to have the “whole wilderness corrected”, bringing out his feeling of White Supremacy.
But words are only words and the snowdrops were such Then, as some Bach fugue wonder — or some Winter Tale touch.
Despite the happy imagery of the previous stanza, the poem concludes on a cynical note. The poet dismisses his previous observations to be “only words”, just as they were only snowdrops. Such scenes of beauty were as fleeting as “some Bach’s fugue wonder” which gives pleasure only for some time in the grand picture of war. Or, they were like Shakespeare’s play “Winter Tale” – while the play might end on a happy note, their story wouldn’t.
This is a sad poem. It brings out the futility and hopelessness of war and represents a realistic portrayal of soldiers– not warriors thirsting for glory but ordinary people tired of incessant and meaningless violence.