The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Dead Soldiers” is James Fenton’s narrative of his memory of a luncheon engagement in 1973 on the edge of a jungle battlefield with a member of the Cambodian royal family—Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey—during that country’s long-running civil war. The poem’s ten stanzas contain varying numbers of lines of free verse that are deliberately conversational, straightforward, and nonpoetic in the traditional sense. This is poetry as news report, a deceptively simple account that gains power from the total impact of the poem rather than from the individual lines or words.

In the first five stanzas, the poem simply recounts the events of the lunch: It was hot and the poet was “glad of [his] white suit for the first time that day.” The meal was an elaborate one: Dishes of frogs’ legs, pregnant turtles and their eggs, marsh irises in fish sauce, and banana salad were served on the “dazzling tablecloth” and were accompanied by crates of brandy and soda, which were brought in by bicycles. During the lunch, armored personnel carriers (APCs—military vehicles similar to tanks) were spread out along the roadside to fire into the jungle at the unseen and perhaps absent enemy. Despite the elaborate menu, the meal was largely a liquid one during which many bottles of Napoleon brandy were steadily consumed. These empty bottles, known in slang as “dead soldiers,” give the poem its title. While drinking and dining, the poet talked with the prince....

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In form and presentation, “Dead Soldiers” is often closer to a prose news story than a traditional poem. Fenton has chosen to use irregular free verse without rhyme or other familiar devices, most likely because these obvious devices might come between his story and the reader. The purpose seems clear: to present the incidents of the poem and their meaning without any interpretation (except that of irony). The major poetic devices Fenton employs in “Dead Soldiers” are deceptively straightforward narrative coupled with a devastatingly dry use of irony. The narrative allows him to load the poem with a number of details that, innocent enough in themselves, coalesce to present the image of a murderous civil war waged with the incongruous juxtaposition of brutal savagery and elaborate luxury. The irony permits Fenton to comment upon people and events without overtly taking a moral position, a most useful device when writing about a situation so stained with confusion and ambiguity. Perhaps only deadpan narrative such as that employed in “Dead Soldiers” could successfully present the surreal scene of the poem: an elaborate luncheon, held on the edge of a jungle battlefield, complete with ice, brandy, soda, and almost decadent dishes. While the diners ate frogs’ legs and the eggs of pregnant turtles (“boiled in the carapace”), troops and military vehicles advanced around them, firing into the sugar palms.

The narrative of the poem dissolves into irony. The site was not a true battlefield at all. The APCs fired into the jungle but “met no resistance.” This supposedly military event was actually nothing but a drunken picnic, and the only “dead...

(The entire section is 685 words.)