On December 12th 2014, this site posted a piece by Christopher Marlowe entitled “Accurs’d be he who first invented war”. Today’s poem goes In the opposite direction, praising the conquering swords and the excitement and exhilaration of victory in a battle fought at close quarters, with the spoils of war awaiting the victorious army.
The poem is short, but intense, taking us into the heat of battle, but fully confident in victory and triumph, capturing in a way the intense experience of being in such an extreme situation. The outcome is never in doubt for the reader, of course, once the title is understood, There is no irony here that I can detect.
Our Conquering Swords
by Christopher Marlowe
Our conquering swords shall marshall us the way
We use to march upon the slaughter’d foe,
Trampling their bowels with our horses’ hoofs,
Brave horses bred on the white Tartarian hills.
My camp is like to Julius Caesar’s host,
That never fought but had the victory;
Nor in Pharsalia was there such hot war
As these, my followers, willingly would have.
Legions of spirits, fleeting in the air,
Direct our bullets and our weapons’ points,
And make your strokes to wound the senseless light;
And when she sees our bloody colours spread,
Then Victory begins to take her flight,
Resting herself upon my milk-white tent–
But come, my lords, to weapons let us fall;
The field is ours, the Turk, his wife, and all.
The air of triumph is established right at the start of the poem as the poet describes he and his fellows already trampling over the corpses of their enemy. He compares his army to that of Julius Caesar. In fact lines five and six are quite interesting – you have t read the word “camp” as meaning “army”, not those who stayed in the camp; and then the sixth line means they won victory in every battle, not that they won without fighting. That reading makes the whole poem more coherent.
And then, what or where is Pharsalia? It turns out that it is not a place, but a book of history, written by Lucan (the Roman historian, not the disappearing Lord), in which, presumably there were many accounts of Roman victory in battle.
So the momentum continues inexorably towards Victory, and, as hinted in the final line, the inevitable rape and pillage that follows.
This is a stirring poem of the glory of war, in stark contrast to other war poetry, such as that of the first world war poets, and also very different in tone from Marlowe’s other poem.
The Poetry Dude