John McCullagh November 1, 2007
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In the Remembrance Month of November it is perhaps appropriate that we recall the poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna, one of those hardy annuals drilled into generations of youth (including your editor, perhaps surprisingly considering the Irish Nationalist fervour of the CBS brothers!).

We have a special reason to choose this martial poem, as it was first published 200 years ago in the Newry Telegraph! The reason is that at the time the poet, Charles Wolfe worked as COI curate at Donaghmore Parish Church just four miles north of Newry! This, you will recall is the same period when John Mitchel and John Martin lived in the vicinity and when the Harshaw Diaries (written about on this site) were first being recorded.

 

 

The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna

 

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,

The sods with our bayonets turning,

By the struggling moonbeams’s misty light

And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest

With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,

And we spoke not a word of sorrow;

But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,

And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed

And smoothed down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,

And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone,

And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him –

But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on

In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done

When the clock struck the hour for retiring;

And we heard the distant and random gun

That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

But we left him alone with his glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interpretation

The poem reflects on the death of a Scottish general in 1809 at the Battle of Corunna during the Peninsular War.  In command, Moore had led a small British army through Portugal and into Spain in order to support a rumoured Spanish uprising against Napoleon and to relieve Madrid. There had been no uprising, so he led the retreat through dangerous and difficult snow-covered mountainous terrain, hotly pursued by Bonaparte and his larger army.  Moore arrived at Corunna harbour, from whence they hoped to escape.  He managed to defeat the French against great odds but was killed at the very moment of victory.  The story, as told through this poem, has been used to inspire the martial spirit of patriotism in the young ever since. 

Many generations of school children have been required to memorise and recite this poem.  Its popularity can be explained by the pride in military glory that was widespread at a time when England was at war with Napoleon, who posed a real threat. Its survival might be explained by the need for following generations to defend the homeland against ambitious invaders. 

The rhythms and rhymes are regular and patterned, which make it quite easy to memorise. They create a sombre and solemn beat reminiscent of a military funeral march.  The hero is buried hastily without fanfare, prayer or ceremony, at dead of night, without coffin or shroud, while the battle continues nearby. 

The emotions are a mixture of pride and admiration for the brave General, fear and anticipation as they think of their own fate, and sorrow that he is being left unceremoniously in a foreign land with nothing to mark his grave.  There are echoes here of later poetry written during WW1 and WW2.  In this regard it is important to remember there was no mass media that could be manipulated into rousing young men to enlist to defend ‘the homeland’. 

However, the poem is rousing rather than depressing to a reader.  The language is simple, the ABAB rhymes are predictable and it is strewn with na

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