In Soldier, Rest! Scott paints an attractive picture of death to the weary and battered soldier/hunter. Death is presented as a restful sleep where all the stresses and strains of martial life drift off to nothingness.
The opening stanza sets up this scene of comfort that death represents, before we move onto a description of the disharmony and discord of warfare. The final stanza is quite a forceful argument that the soldier/hunter should give up his fight.
strewing – spreading untidily;
slumber – a deep, restful sleep;
toil – tiring work;
war-steed – a horse;
pibroch – Scottish bagpipe music typically used in the military;
reveillé – a bugle call used to wake soldiers.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle’s enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Dream of fighting fields no more;
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.
No rude sound shall reach thine ear,
Armour’s clang, or war-steed champing,
Trump nor pibroch summon here
Mustering clan or squadron tramping.
Yet the lark’s shrill fife may come
At the daybreak from the fallow,
And the bittern sound his drum,
Booming from the sedgy shallow.
Ruder sounds shall none be near,
Guards nor warders challenge here,
Here’s no war-steed’s neigh and champing,
Shouting clans or squadrons stamping.
Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done;
While our slumberous spells assail ye,
Dream not, with the rising sun,
Bugles here shall sound reveillé.
Sleep! the deer is in his den;
Sleep! thy hounds are by thee lying:
Sleep! nor dream in yonder glen
How thy gallant steed lay dying.
Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done;
Think not of the rising sun,
For at dawning to assail ye
Here no bugles sound reveillé.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Scott was the son of a lawyer who would follow his father’s footsteps, until his writing made him a bit of a superstar who had the ear of the King. Although he had an interesting life, I won’t prattle about it here and just get to the juicy, important stuff here.
This is in fact a poem within a poem. Or more accurately it is a song within a poem. The larger poem is called The Lady of the Lake and was about an historically inspired poem about the feud between the King of Scotland (James V) and the powerful Douglas clan. The Douglas clan are exiled by the King, only to hide in a castle on an island. The King decides to go and check out what they are up to by coming up with a clever pseudonym, calling himself Fitz-James -you’d think he could’ve dropped the James bit completely and I hope he wore some sort of false moustache and nose to make his disguise convincing!.
Anyway, after being invited into the castle, with the hosts thinking he is just a lost hunter, he ends up falling for the daughter of the Earl of Douglas. She prefers some other chap, but Fitz-James gives her a ring and tells her to present it at the royal court if she is ever in any bother. Needless to say, she ends up in bother, arrives at court and discovers he’s the King and then marries… the other chap! Sensational! Somehow this helps the King reconcile with the Douglas’.
Our song is sung by this daughter, Ellen, and doesn’t really concern any of that. She thinks Fitz-James is a weary hunter and so addresses that, but clearly it comments more widely on the nature of life as a soldier or in the military.
War, sleep and death! Unbelievably this poem hits all the major themes mentioned in the title of this part of the anthology.
If we took it simply at face value and misinterpreted a few bits, you could argue that it is only really talking about sleep and its restorative effect. However, it is only a small step to see the definitive sleep represented in the poem as being the lasting slumber of death. The trials and tribulations of warfare are presented as being such that death is something that is not feared, but rather welcomed.
We begin with a firm order to a soldier to rest. It is an order as that is what soldiers are used to doing: obeying orders. However, everything that comes after is gentle and soothing.
The soldier is promised an end to his war and he will be allowed to have lie ins every day as his sleep ‘knows not breaking’ 😉 . An endless sleep clearly means death, but death isn’t represented as being something to fear as it frees the soldier’s mind of fighting and danger that are presumed to dominate his life. She likens death to the hall they are in with everything suggesting comfort, peace and relaxation.
In the second stanza we open with a riot of onomatopoeia presenting the chaos and violence of a soldier’s life. This is then contrasted with the gentle songs of the birds on the island, which represents the more peaceful existence he is promised in death.
In the final stanza, we seem to move away from the more generalised focus on the arduous existence of a soldier at war and refocus on the huntsman protagonist of the larger poem (although the message continues along the same grounds as before). He is told his sleep is not going to be disturbed and persuaded that as he now has no chance of finding his prey that he must give in to sleep.
Language and techniques
You’ve got to tackle the title/opening line here as it is really interesting.
The tone and nature of this line contrast with almost the entirety of the rest of the poem. It is in imperative form and ends with an exclamation mark (‘Soldier, rest!’). In one sense we can see this as reflecting the life of a solider, following orders and being barked at or treated somewhat with disdain. However, I think it is presented as a forceful order as it is meant to represent death trying to convince the soldier. A soldier follows orders and so death is here convincing the soldier to give in and end their suffering.
This poem is about the personal appeal of death to a soldier, rather than the wider appeal of a war ending for all, as it is ‘thy warfare o’er’. Both this phrase and that of the following line, ‘the sleep that knows not breaking’ emphasise the finality of this rest. The repetition and expansion on the type of ‘sleep’ that is seducing our soldier serve to make it sound especially pleasing or desirable, setting it apart from a normal snooze. This desirability is enhanced further with the promise of dreams that have ‘no more’ of the ‘danger’. However, notice here that death is not promises the glamour and splendour of a fancy heaven or any of that old jazz, but is simply a release and a relief from the struggles of this life.
In the fifth line in the first stanza, the ‘isle’s enchanted hall’ refers to the castle of the lake that the larger poem revolves around or in, but should also be seen as representing death once more. The fact it is ‘enchanted’ suggests the mystical powers of death, which are further revealed to enable the deep and peaceful sleep that ‘slumber’ describes. We have the massage of ‘unseen hands’ taking away his aches and pains, while the gentle ‘fairy strains of music’ sooth the mind from the disharmonious sounds of war that we will hear later.
Scott has a chorus quatrain in each stanza that roughly repeats at the beginning and end. In the first stanza, the ideas are precisely the same, but reworded. The impact of this repetition of these ideas is to provide a familiar and lulling element to the song, which should sooth the mind towards sleep.
This is my favourite bit of the poem/song. We are bombarded with aural imagery that is summed up as ‘rude sound’ – this doesn’t mean a sound like a fart or burp that is considered bad manner, but a sound that is offensive to the ear. We have the ‘clang’ of steel on steel; the ‘champing’ of eager or impatient horses; the distinctive sound of the bagpipe ‘pibroch’ summoning soldiers; and the cacophony of sounds created by the ‘mustering clan’ and the ‘squadron tramping’ its way to battle. The song promises an end to these sounds, which is a relief because all of these sounds are disharmonic (we can argue about bagpipes if you like, but whenever I have heard them they haven’t created a sound anyone would describe as harmonic). Scott positions all these onomatopoeic ideas together in order to allow the reader to consider the chaos of war, these sounds mesh together in something we can imagine is between deafening and being so disharmonic it would leave you on the verge of madness.
After hitting us with this, Scott contrasts these sounds with the beautiful and peaceful natural songs of the lark and bittern. As the rest promised will end the clashing noises of war, discussed above, the poetic voice does not go so far as to suggest there will be no noise. However, to make the contrast clear the lark’s song is referred to as a ‘shrill fife’ and the bittern has his ‘drum’. The way they are referred to links them again to the idea of warfare, but the association is almost sarcastic in tone as the songs are the very essence of harmony.
Again the stanza ends with the repetitive chorus that merely plays with the words, while representing the same clash sounds of warfare. While in the first stanza the purpose was to be soothing, this chorus serves to once again stress the stresses of war.
In the third stanza, we return to the imperatives. Now the singer addresses the ‘huntsman’ who is the guest on the island presumed to be a hunter. The language is less suggestive of permanent rest here and may link the idea of this song back to the wider story pursued in the rest of the poem. His strains are presented as wearisome as a ‘chase’ by its very nature is tiring, but it is not on the same level as the soldier’s war. The ‘slumberous spells’ refer to the hospitality of his host, providing him food, comfort and even a lovely little song! He is promised peace and a lie in as the fact he is on a small island means he cannot get up ‘with the rising of the sun’ and the ‘reveillé’ of the bugle calling him to hunt.
His host forcefully commands him to relax with the repetition of a fresh imperative ‘Sleep!’, but this is not intended to be fierce, rather it is meant to compel him to feel welcome and relax as their guest. The argument is enhanced by the suggestion that his prey is ‘in his den’ and his hunting dogs are already comfortable. The line about his gallant horse reflects the reason he has ended up at the island in the first place as his horse died from the exhaustion of their chase.
Make sure you mention the impact of the repeating chorus-like quatrains that straddle each stanza. In the first and third they stand to sooth us and emphasise the relaxation death or sleep will bring, while in the second they serve to reemphasise the stress and bother we are escaping.
You may also want to touch upon the rhyme scheme and the use of iambic pentameter throughout. The regularity lends a soothing calmness to the poem that reflects its message.
Don’t be confused by the opening line. This is meant to be sung as a welcome and thus is meant to be soothing and promise comfort and relaxation. We only experience brief disharmony as the poet touches upon the troubles that promise to be avoided.