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Things I Like #2: St Crispin’s Day Speeches

The eve of the battle of Agincourt. The English army, exhausted, disease ridden and demoralised faces a vastly superior French force. All looks lost, until Henry V delivers a speech and inspires his troops to a famous victory. In the original St Crispin’s Day speech, Henry inspires his troops with a careful mixture of patriotism, brotherhood, courage, and the promise of future glory. At least, that’s what he says in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In real life, he apparently took the somewhat more prosaic and honest line of telling his men that as commoners they were unlikely to ransomed,  so they had better fight to the death or win.

Take a look at Kenneth Branagh making a decent fist of Shakespeare’s version…

The stirring eve of a battle speech is now a cliche repeated across hundreds of books and films, from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings. St Crispin’s Day speeches even crops up in the real world from time to time – here’s Branagh again, this time recreating the famous speech made by Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the second Gulf War…

When they are bad, they are an embarrassing limp mess of cliche. When they are good, they are very, very good. It is hard not to watch Branagh in the two speeches above and not feel that here is a man and a cause worth fighting and dying for. Even though the original St Crispin’s Day speech offers little more motivation than glory and bragging rights for the few who will survive, it is still stirring stuff. The speech by Tim Collins seems to lay out the template for a just war and the way to prosecute it – the ultimate moral bankruptcy of the Iraq escapade just serves to give the it an additional degree of poignant potency.

At the same time, there is a deeply manipulative, unpleasant quality to St Crispin’s Day speeches. Those that make the speeches and give the orders are rarely the ones that have to do the dying (or indeed the killing). That task falls to those deemed disposable, the ones who can’t make pretty speeches but can die well enough to serve a purpose.

In The History of the Peloponnesian Wars and The Travels of Marco Polo, before major battles generals on both sides are often described as giving speeches to their men. Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their cause, whether they have started a war to defend the liberty of the people or to enlarge their personal empires, these speeches usually make for stirring reading. As the poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death shows, the death drive in many men is significant (I generalise hugely by saying men, but I think the love of a violent death is more of a masculine trait). All it takes is a little push, a little speech, and many will be willing to die for the cause you have put to them.

And yet, and yet…manipulative as they may be, they offer up a wondrous vision, allow a soldier to step out of a world of pain and glimpse something greater than themselves, something that is worth the risk, pain and struggle. Those of us who live in less heightened circumstances, who face no great physical dangers, can’t help but feel a longing for the clarity of purpose offered by a St Crispin’s Day speech. Listening to one of these speeches, the sense of self fades away. All the worries and concerns and selfishness that dominate day to day life become irrelevant. Self-sacrifice can be one of the most admirable qualities –  it seems to go against all natural interests of self-preservation. This is the true beauty of a great St Crispin’s day speech; not that it inspires people to fight and kill, but that it takes them beyond their own selfish cares, not for the stirring rhetoric, but for its awakening of this spirit of willing self sacrifice, one of the most beautiful facets of the human personality.

P.S. Apologies for the somewhat martial tone of the blog so far this week. I’ve been wrestling with my Tax Return for the past few days, and am thus in the mood for killing (or dying). Finally got it off yesterday, so perhaps will be able to write about something more cuddly in the near future.

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