The poets and the world war: "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries" by Alfred Edward Housman

A. E. Housman (1859 - 1936)
In The Oxford Handbook of British & Irish War Poetry the editor Tim Kendall remembers Kipling's letter addressed to James Barry dated 21 Dec. 1935 in which he describes the below poem by Alfred Edward Housman as "the high-water mark of all War verse. […] Only eight lines but absolutely perfect”. This poem first appeared in "The Times" on the 31 October 1917 to accompany an article about the anniversary of the Battle of Ypres. What is particularly interesting is the theme of this poem: not the usual heroism, not great values moving and livening the lines of the poem but simply the fact of being mercenaries and, in other words, it's all about money. But at the same time this is not about money. At the end, this is not a poem about the motivation coming from the money and from the desire of glorification: "What God abandoned, these defended, / And saved the sum of things for pay." Speaking about Tim Kendall we would like to remind you also about the interesting interview that he kindly released to us still available at this link.


These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.