The Dirge of Riders to Certain Death
James Frederick William Rowe
A standard white
Waved ahead a grim squadron singing
I shuddered from a chill
As piercing the evening still
Came voices through the valley ringing:
Broken and black
The horse's clack
Has trod to ruin the road beneath
In ages past
That passed too fast
And neither upon the trees a leaf
Before us a wall crumbled
The works of men humbled
But mockery we shall not sustain
For what shame can be found
If to death we are bound
For our honour we rather maintain?
Victory is not demanded
Only to fight is commanded
And our choice is to die with our swords
We will not be ashamed
So for glory acclaimed
We will face down the enemy hordes
We ride with spears
Forsaking all fears
We shall charge the enemy dread
And then we will die
And our spirits will fly
As our blood stains the river red
So we smile while we might
For we will strike such a sight
More wondrous than is commonly known
And also we can laugh
For who can bear the wrath
Of men who have no thought for their own?
But enough with the song
We press now along
To make good that which we have boasted in verse
And by dawn's pale light
We will bring such a fight
So that they’ll ‘ever speak our name as a curse
In morning bright
I saw that proof they were right
Was written on corpses on the ground laid
And I openly wept
For they had kept
All the valourous promises they made
Poet's Notes: "The Dirge of Riders to Sudden Death" continues my obsession with cavalry. In some ways, it is a counter-piece to my "Seven Heartbeats and a Hundred Yards," being about the death of a cavalry squadron, rather than a rout. Though not directly inspired by it, this poem further mirrors the theme of death expressed in Tennyson's famous "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but in contrast to Tennyson, does so without the action of their deaths, but rather through the men singing a song concerning their impending deaths (the titular dirge) that is inherent in their mission, rather than their deaths resulting from a blunder of an order.
The theme of courage in the face of certain hopelessness and death is central to the poem. That there is no possibility of victory is reflected via the second and third stanza's emphasis on the ruining of their surroundings, which no doubt has provided the occasion for their dire mission. These men know that they will not be on the victorious side of this conflict. Freed from the concern that all men have for self-preservation and the condition of victory that might otherwise temper their valour, they can now throw themselves entirely into battle and so achieve an unsurpassed level of glory and honour.
I frame the poem as if it were heard by the (presumed) poet. This permits the ghostly opening as well as the concluding stanza to put to rest any doubts concerning their fate, creating a mood of heroic sadness.
The rhyme scheme follows an AABCCB structure. The alternation of short pairs of consecutive rhyming lines with single longer lines provides an interesting rhythm. I am especially pleased with the aural qualities of this scheme, and shall have to revisit this structure in future poetry.
In contrast to the rhyme scheme's regularity, the metre is not strict. The contrast of the shorter rhyming pairs with the longer lines provides a pleasing rhythm, especially as the longer lines' steady count gives the poem structure that a non-metrical rhyme would have lacked.
This poem took a rather long time to compose as a consequence of the rhyme and metrical structures. Only the first stanza came easily--the rest took a great deal more thought and time. I find that this is to be expected when I compose more formal poetry.
Editor's Note: "The Dirge of Riders to Certain Death" first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Big Pulp and was reprinted in Songs of Eretz Poetry E-zine Volume 1, Issue 7 (July 2014). "Seven Heartbeats and a Hundred Yards" appeared in Songs of Eretz Poetry E-zine Volume 1, Issue 2 (November 2013). The text of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" may be found here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174586.
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