Stanza 1: The title alerts us to the ironic tone of the poem, as it is very difficult to imagine war being kind in any way. The opening stanza confirms that tone, as it addresses the lover of a soldier who has died in battle, telling her not to weep at his death. We are then presented a melodramatic image of that death, with the dying soldier throwing his “wild hands towards the sky/ And … [his] affrighted steed … running on alone.” Since this poem was originally published, the image of the riderless horse galloping away from its fallen owner has become a staple of Western movies.
Stanza 2: The speaker now presents more generalized images and statements about war, as opposed to the close-up image in the opening stanza. These lines convey a sense of the soldiers’ exhaustion, futility, and resignation, as they fight with the flag (“unexplained glory”) flying overhead. The speaker continues with his bitter irony when describing the battlefield “where a thousand corpses lie.” The “great” battle-god alluded to might be Mars, the god of war in Roman mythology. This stanza, along with the fourth, functions as a refrain, as its third and sixth lines are repeated in each, and as a chorus. In Greek tragedies the chorus comments on characters and events, frequently making moral judgements about them. These lines underscore the senselessness of war and also touch on Crane’s attitude towards the stupidity and insidiousness of the military. He adopts a condescending tone towards the soldiers as well, describing them as “little souls.” By saying that “These men were born to drill and die,” the speaker at once draws attention to the soldiers’ (and by extension, all of humanity’s) lack of choice in life, and the futility of the purpose that has been given to them. It is important to note that in this stanza the speaker condemns the military as a whole, while in the first, third, and fifth stanzas, he remains sympathetic to individual victims, themselves part of the military.
(The entire section is 829 words.)