Wednesday, April 29, 2015

`That Warre Seemes Sweete to Such as Little Knowe'

R.L. Barth takes his epigraph to Battlefield Prayer (Scienter Press, 2003) from the seventy-first stanza of George Gascoigne’s “The Fruits of Warre, written upon this Theame, Dulce Bellum inexpertis (1575):

“Wherfore my worde is still (I change it not)
That Warre seemes sweete to such as raunge it not.”

The unfamiliar word, raunge, is the ancestor of our “range.” The OED cites Gascoigne’s line in its entry. As a transitive verb it means “to traverse (a place or area) in all directions; to roam over or through.” We might say “to know” or “to have first-hand experience or knowledge of,” as Gascoigne (and Barth) had of war. Gascoigne (c. 1539-78) was an English soldier of fortune or, in modern terms, a mercenary. In 1571 he travelled to the Low Countries to serve under the Prince of Orange, William the Silent. Gascoigne was accused of treason and acquitted. The Privy Council dismissed him as “a notorious ruffian.” Yvor Winters is almost alone in his admiration for Gascoigne, calling him “one of the great masters of the short poem in the [sixteenth] century” (Forms of Discovery, 1967). “The Fruits of Warre” is a long poem made up of many short poems. Here is the thirty-fifth stanza, which echoes with the themes and even the words of the passage quoted by Barth:

“My promisse was, and I recorde it so,
To write in verse (God wot though lyttle worth)
That warre seemes sweete to such as little knowe
What commes thereby, what frutes it bringeth forth:
Who knowes none evil his mind no bad abhorth,
But such as once have fealt the skortching fire,
Will seldome (efte) to play with flame desire.”

“Efte” is an old adverb meaning “a second time, again; back.” In common parlance, the final line might be translated as “once bitten, twice shy.” Gascoigne’s understanding of war, at least in this poem, is unromantic and unadorned, in keeping with his plain style as lauded by Winters. A reader understands why Barth, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, senses some affinity with the tough-minded Elizabethan. Here’s the title poem from Battlefield Prayer:

“The dead a-gibbering, and we who ken
Hear `Fuck it! Don’t mean nothin’.’ Yea. Amen.”

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