142. Song of Three Soldiers: Stephen Vincent Benet

Benet is known for his Pulitzer Prize winning narrative poem “John Brown’s Body” and the short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “By the Waters of Babylon”. Written in 1940 as Britain entered WWII, it was later featured in the 1965 BBC production “The War Game”, an hour long film documenting what would happen to a town in the event of a nuclear attack. The website I took this text from said he could find it nowhere and wanted to spread it–so here you go!

On the surface, this poem is pretty straight forward. As such, this is a good poem to focus on the subtleties of language: How does Benet take a pretty straight forward concept and tweak it with each soldier?

I like the back-and-forth nature of the narrative (call and response?), and how each new soldier is greeted with a new, more depressing twist on the first stanza. Try having your students split into two and read as a call and response.

As for the response (italics were in the source I got this from, but they work so I’ll assume they are in the original, too) note how the soldiers’ responses goes from a near-sadness nostalgia to the anger of the third. What words change? Have students identify those specifics. Really, track the words on the board or paper and talk about the subtle change in strength and inflection. This is a good time to talk about bold and weak words, and their power.

I also like the historical piece. It’s 1940. The first soldier is familiar to us today, both those we know ourselves but also the familiar war films and history books we’ve all read. But “ray gun” and “sun bomb”? What, in 1940, could Benet mean? Are these images from the wizz-bang science fiction of the era (i.e., H. G. Wells)? Notice how the third soldier’s weapons cannot be described, yet his awareness of the source of war is more entrenched than the first soldier.

And that third soldier’s accusations! If he knows the source of his anger and pain and suffering, why does he continue? What, in the end, is the soldier’s lot?

If your students are a bunch of thinkers, ask them how the views of the soldiers changed (one might have to take being a soldier as a monolith personality, and not as “fresh meat” with each new war). Focus not that they grew more aware of the futility of war, but how that awareness occurred. Follow this up with: Can a new generation ever learn the lesson, or is experience our only teacher? Is this true with war only, or is love and such also impossible to teach without experience? Are your parents’ warnings for naught? Those teaching Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” can fill a class (or write an essay!) comparing the two ideas.

March on!

Song for Three Soldiers (1940)
Stephen Vincent Benét

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, fine soldier,
In your dandy new uniform, all spick and span,
With your helmeted head and the gun on your shoulder,
Where are you coming from, gallant young man?

I come from the war that was yesterday’s trouble,
I come with the bullet still blunt in my breast;
Though long was the battle and bitter the struggle,
Yet I fought with the bravest, I fought with the best.

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, tall, soldier,
With ray-gun and sun-bomb and everything new,
And a face that might well have been carved from a boulder,
Where are you coming from, now tell me true!

My harness is novel, my uniform other
Than any gay uniform people have seen,
Yet I am your future and I am your brother
And I am the battle that has not yet been.

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?

Stand out of my way and be silent before me!
For none shall come after me, foeman or friend,
Since the seed of your seed called me out to employ me,
And that was the longest, and that was the end.


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