Wednesday 31 July 2013

The Private of the Buffs

I've mentioned before that boyhood exposure to my father's morning recitations of stirring narrative verse has laid down some curious vintages in the cobwebbed cellars of my memory. Thus it was that, as soon as I heard this story on the news this morning, the opening lines of Sir Francis Hastings Doyle's The Private of the Buffs sprang unbidden into my head. Here it is in its entirety:

LAST night, among his fellow roughs,
  He jested, quaff’d, and swore:
A drunken private of the Buffs,
  Who never look’d before.
To-day, beneath the foeman’s frown,
  He stands in Elgin’s place,
Ambassador from Britain’s crown,
  And type of all her race.
Poor, reckless, rude, lowborn, untaught,
  Bewilder’d, and alone,
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
  He yet can call his own.
Ay, tear his body limb from limb,
  Bring cord, or axe, or flame:
He only knows, that not through him
  Shall England come to shame.
Far Kentish hop-fields round him seem’d,
  Like dreams, to come and go;
Bright leagues of cherry-blossom gleam’d,
  One sheet of living snow;
The smoke, above his father’s door,
  In gray soft eddyings hung:
Must he then watch it rise no more,
  Doom’d by himself, so young?
Yes, honor calls!—with strength like steel
  He put the vision by.
Let dusky Indians whine and kneel;
  An English lad must die.
And thus, with eyes that would not shrink,
  With knee to man unbent,
Unfaltering on its dreadful brink,
  To his red grave he went.
Vain, mightiest fleets, of iron fram’d;
  Vain, those all-shattering guns;
Unless proud England keep, untam’d,
  The strong heart of her sons.
So, let his name through Europe ring—
  A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta’s king,
  Because his soul was great.

Phew. The point being, I suppose, that the very qualities that make the off-duty soldier a troublesome presence - a drunken rough - are those that on the battlefield make him a steadfast fighter and potential hero. Kipling hammers home much the same point in his poem Tommy, contrasting civilians' contempt for the soldier in peacetime with their sentimental, hypocritical fawning on him when his services are needed.
There is a lot in Johnson's saying that 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.'

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