The poem ‘The Happy Warrior’ by Sir Herbert Read
His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strin’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.
He cannot shriek.
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.
I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.
This is the happy warrior,
This is he…
In 1805, after hearing the news of Lord Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, William Wordsworth began work on a poem that he entitled “Character of the Happy Warrior.”
A century later, the Imagist poet Herbert Read wrote a bitterly ironic reply to Wordsworth that has been deservedly praised. Read’s poem, “The Happy Warrior” contracts the reality of fear directly against the literary myth of Wordsworth’s “Character pf the Happy Warrior.” This prototype of what “every man in arms should wish to be” is governed by reason, and even in “the head of conflict” he controls and subdues those necessary companions of the soldier, pain and fear. “This is the happy warrior” it concludes; “this is he/ Whom every man in arms should wish to be.”
Read shows instead a man driven by fear far beyond the reach of reason: “I saw him stab, and stab again. A well-killed Boche.” To reinforce his point, Read ends his poem with Wordsworth’s own words- “This is the Happy Warrior,/ This is he.”