Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

A. E. Housman

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.

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3 thoughts on “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

  1. Gee, I don’t know Philip . . . maybe I’m not reading it right. But in these days of hi-tech proxy wars a lot of collateral misery is spread around.
    I think the poem should have read:

    Epitaph to an Army of Mercenaries

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

    Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood: earth’s foundations wilted away;
    What God abandoned, these destroyed,
    And we lost our souls to the simplicity of pay.

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    • A pretty trenchant update Mick, and relevant to our times. For context, Houseman’s original poem, written a century ago, was defending Britain’s small standing army of paid professionals, who suffered incredible losses as they held the breach against the Germans in WWI until a larger volunteer army could be created. The German propaganda of the time jeered at them, mocking them as mercenaries; Houseman deliberately uses the same language as the Germans to throw it back in their faces.

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  2. Ah, Houseman was being facetious but also apt by referring to them as mercenaries. I’ll have to read the history to understand it better:
    I take it back, A. E.!

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