Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” is a short, occasional poem of eight lines, one of the many poems that Housman wrote to celebrate the extraordinary bravery of soldiers in the face of great odds. In this poem, the poet honors the British mercenaries, professional soldiers who performed with great valor and heroism at the battles of Ypres during the early stages of England’s entry into World War I.
In short, Housman says that these soldiers, although paid for their work, saved a world that was fast crumbling; further, had it not been for these hired soldiers, much, if not all, would have been lost. Unfortunately, despite being paid for their services, many of the soldiers were killed in battle; those who were not were often victims of the harshest criticism. Housman both laments their predicament and celebrates their most important contributions.
Housman’s antireligious sentiments are also revealed in this poem. These sentiments were no secret and had been expressed in many of the poems in A Shropshire Lad. In “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” however, the poet, in the process of applauding the soldiers’ defense, is bitterly critical of a God who would abandon the world, let the heavens fall, and allow the foundations of the world to crumble.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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