Explain the poem "War Is Kind."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This question is wide open. Explaining a poem could mean any number of things. It could mean explain structure, organization, rhythm, rhyme, meaning, symbols, etc. I'd like to focus a bit on the structure and how the poem moves from setting to setting within the poem's unique structure. Notice that stanzas 2 and 4 are indented. They visually call attention to themselves by standing out from stanzas 1, 3, and 5. Crane isn't doing this on a whim. When a poet changes something in a poem, savvy readers should take special note and look a little deeper. The odd numbered stanzas are all being spoken to a specific person. The person is the loved one of a solider that has died in battle.

Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky

The even numbered stanzas then change the topic and setting. Readers are taken to a battlefield that is filled with thousands of soldiers and a cacophony of violent, booming noises.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

These indented stanzas are much less intimate than the other stanzas. The poem is filled with verbal irony because war is absolutely not kind, and the poem highlights a few of the graphic details from battle that prove the point that nothing about war is kind. I'm not sure what voice Crane wanted his readers to read this poem with, but I always tend to read it out loud to students with a really sarcastic and snarky tone in a lot of places.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poem, published in 1899 by Stephen Crane, speaks ironically and points out the cruelty of war. Stanzas one, three, and five are written in second person, each addressing a different woman who has lost a loved one in battle. In the first stanza, a maiden who has lost her lover is told not to weep because war is kind. The picture of the woman's lover raising his hands and falling off the horse in death depicts war in the era of horse-mounted cavalry. The command to not weep is ironic because, of course, the woman will not be able to stop her tears. The statement that war is kind is verbal irony; it is clear that war has not been kind to the woman or to the fallen soldier.

The third stanza tells a daughter ('babe") not to weep because her father perished in "the yellow trenches." Although this could simply be a reference to the color of the sandy soil soldiers dug their trenches in, it could also allude to yellow fever, which killed more American soldiers during the Spanish Civil War than fighting did. (Crane had covered the war as a journalist and contracted yellow fever himself in Cuba in 1898.) Again, the command not to weep and the statement that war is kind are ironic.

The final stanza tells a mother not to weep for her fallen son. 

The second and fourth stanzas are indented and use a different voice. While the other stanzas seem somewhat sympathetic to the women grieving their lost loved ones, these stanzas seem to fully embrace the military effort and the way it takes advantage of its men. Crane's poetry often used two contrasting voices that taken together produce an overall message. Here the indented stanzas form a type of Chorus that iterates the outlook of the military system, which considers its soldiers "little souls" and "men [who] were born to drill and die." These stanzas use hyperbole to overstate the attitude of the military: "Great is the battle god," and "Point for them the virtue of slaughter, / Make plain to them the excellence of killing." By juxtaposing these stanzas that represent the view of the armed services with the stanzas that focus in on the pain and suffering that war causes to individuals, Crane creates an even stronger negative emotion toward war. 


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team