Posted by: David Harley | August 14, 2020

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries (revisited)

A setting of Housman’s poem.  I came across an alternative version I’d forgotten. I didn’t like the vocal much, but I did like the synth and guitars, so I’ve done a little splicing and remixing, though the vocal needs redoing. (The alternative version below is better sung.) To be honest, I’m not altogether sure how I feel about the poem, but it does have a certain power, and may fit into another project.

Backup copy:

An older version with much better vocal:

And a backup:

Another of my settings of Housman’s poems, this time one from Last Poems.

This 1917 poem refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916.

A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ takes a very different view, regarding the BEF as ‘professional murderers’.

The setting by Geoffrey Burgon sung by Gillian McPherson on the soundtrack to the Dogs of War is much more dramatic, and very effective (even though some might doubt whether the poem is entirely appropriate in terms of this particular novel and movie). This is much simpler and fits a song cycle I have in mind better. Still, I might rethink that.

Here’s the Housman poem:

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

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.

David Harley


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