Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Sunday poem: Anthony Cronin's personal anthology

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Screen version: Laurence Olivier in Henry V
Screen version: Laurence Olivier in Henry V

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and St George!' Thus Henry V in Olivier's beautiful voice. The battle, we are led to believe, will be won.

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The flimsy cinema curtain falls over 'The End' and we all go home thinking what a jingoistic English so-and-so Shakespeare really was in spite of all else. But it is not the end. And if when we go home and we take down Henry V, we find a different ending.

 Bates, a common soldier, says of another King about to fight a battle for naked self-interest, 'He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and, so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.'

While Williams, another soldier, describes the feelings of his fellows facing death in battle - 'Some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left....'

In the end Shakespeare never lets you down.

From Henry V

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility ;

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger :

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit; and upon this charge

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

William Shakespeare

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