Study Guide

The War Correspondent

by Ciaran Carson

The War Correspondent Summary

Introduction

“The War Correspondent,” by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, appears in Carson’s collection, Breaking News (2003). It consists of seven poems, all but one of which are set in the Crimea at the time of the Crimean War. This war took place between 1854 and 1856 and pitted a British and French alliance against Russia for influence in the Near East. The Crimea is a region off the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine.

“The War Correspondent” is based on dispatches from the Crimea written by Anglo-Irish war correspondent William Howard Russell for readers of the Times, a London newspaper. In his notes to Breaking News, Carson writes that “The War Correspondent” is “especially indebted to his [Russell’s] writing; in many instances I have taken his words verbatim, or have changed them only slightly to accommodate rhyme and rhythm.” Taken together, the seven poems in “The War Correspondent” convey a sense of the wastefulness and destruction of war, set against the ever-recurring rhythms of nature.

The War Correspondent Summary

Gallipoli

“Gallipoli” is the first of the seven poems that make up “The War Correspondent.” It gives a vivid description of the slum regions of Gallipoli, Turkey, at the time when British and French forces were billeted there on their way to the Crimea. The ten-stanza poem presents Gallipoli as a teeming, cosmopolitan, polyglot city. The first four stanzas all begin with the word “take,” as the poet, drawing on the work of the war correspondent William Howard Russell, evokes the sights and smells of various places around the world to give the reader a picture of the impoverished areas of Gallipoli.

The first reference is to Billingsgate, a well-known fish market in London, with its “scaling-knives and fish.” This is followed by a reference to outhouses in “English farmers’ yards” that “reek of dung and straw,” then horses in Dublin, Ireland. The next three stanzas extend the range of associations almost worldwide, beginning with references to pagodas from a “Chinese Delftware dish.” (Delftware is a Dutch imitation of Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty that was first imported into the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century.) The scope of the comparisons then expands to ships bound for Benares, India, to collect massive amounts of tea.

Stanza 3 describes the houses in Gallipoli, introducing them with a reference to a “back street in Boulogne,” a city in France, then to chimney stacks in Sheffield, a town in northern England, that belch out smoke like a fleet of British ships. There is another comparison to “Irish round towers.” These are early medieval stone towers, still found in Ireland, which may originally have been bell towers or places of refuge. (They are generally found in the vicinity of a church.)

Stanza 4 begins with an evocation of the rich scents in the arcades of Bologna, a city in Italy, including garlic, oregano and “rotten meat.” These arcades are “as labyrinthine as the rifle-factories of Springfield.” This is a reference to the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has manufactured weapons for the U.S. armed forces since 1835, including the Springfield rifle.

Stanza 5 moves from descriptions of what Gallipoli is like to descriptions of its inhabitants. The heterogeneous nature of the city is emphasized, populated by Cypriots, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Greeks, and “Nubian slaves” (Nubia is a region in the south of Egypt and in northern Sudan), as well as British and French soldiers. Zouaves was the name given to a French infantry corps that was first created in 1831. By 1854, there were four regiments of Zouaves, and the Crimean War was the first time they served outside Algeria.

In stanza 6, the variety of dress worn by all these nationalities that live in Gallipoli is described, from “turbans” to “fedoras,” from “pantaloons” to “knickerbockers” and “sans culottes.”

Stanza 7 describes the creation of quarters for the troops in a slaughter-house, as well as the presence of a temporary hospital and a jail. The unsanitary nature of the city is clear from the last two lines, which mention that cholera flourishes there and open sewers run down the streets.

Stanza 8 describes what people in Gallipoli eat, the standard diet being green cantaloupe “swarming with flies” and sour wine, which people consume as they listen to music played on the cithara (a stringed instrument) and the squawking of parakeets.

Stanza 9 extends the frame of reference still further, with mention of the diamond mines of Kimberley. Kimberley is a town in South Africa, famous for its diamond mines. It would appear that there are also diamond mines in the regions near Gallipoli, since the poet states that the landscape is “riddled” with them, as well as with “oubliettes of Trebizond.” Trebizond was a small Greek state that acquired an empire out of the remains of the Byzantine empire in the thirteenth century. The Trebizond empire fell in the fifteenth century, but it appears that it was known for its oubliettes. An oubliette is a concealed dungeon with a trap door at the top. It was used for people condemned to life imprisonment or those whom the authorities wished to leave to die secretly. The word comes from the French verb, oublier, which means to forget. The second part of this stanza returns to descriptions of the people who can be found in Gallipoli, including opium smokers who “doze among the Persian rugs” and spies and whores who discuss the political situation in “dim-lit snugs.”

The last stanza returns to the smells of the city, as dogs sniff for offal, and pulped plums and apricots, ready to be distilled into brandy, give off a stench. The final image, of soldiers lying dead or drunk among crushed flowers, reminds the reader of the reality of war.

But even with all these dense, rich descriptions of the city of Gallipoli, the poet/journalist concludes, in the last line, “I have not even begun to describe Gallipoli,” which suggests that no description could ever capture the full flavor of what the war correspondent Russell, in his The British Expedition to the Crimea, called “a wretched place . . . horribly uncomfortable.”

Varna

In eight four-line stanzas, “Varna” describes a fire that took place at the port city of Varna, Bulgaria, on the western shores of the Black Sea, on the night of August 10, 1854. The fire destroyed a quarter of the town. It broke out after French officers opened up a vat in the “spirit store” of the French commissariat. The liquid poured into the streets and a drunken Greek deliberately set fire to it. He was immediately killed by a French lieutenant. As the fire raged, there was a great commotion among the inhabitants as they tried to escape. Some prisoners were trapped in their cells. The commander of the French forces, Marshal St. Arnaud, supervised his troops well, although both British and French armies lost considerable amounts of equipment and supplies, including butter, bullets, “Lord Raglan’s portable library of books” (Lord Raglan was the commander of the British forces), and nineteen thousand pairs of soldiers’ boots.

Stanza 6 reveals that after the fire, a consignment of cavalry sabres was found in the ruins, “fused into the most fantastic shapes.” The following six lines...

(The entire section is 2631 words.)