Henry’s Greatest Hits: Once More

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble luster in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

The speech opens with a two line sense of urgency. Henry the Fifth needs the troops to head back into the breached wall of the city; if they won’t he says that they will have to close the hole with the bodies of their dead comrades. They are on the offensive now, but if they don’t continue, he hints, they will be on the defensive, with the enemy spilling out of the town.  Kenneth Branagh does a good job of showing this in his 1989 film by having Henry at the wall itself yelling these two lines, then having to retreat to his soldiers when an explosion goes off within the breach.

Henry then has to rally his troops. But as if to play off the immediate danger, he begins to make a logical argument: “In peace … But when the blast of war …” We’ve been in peace, he says, and there modest stillness and humility rule; his words are filled with lilting Ls–“stiLLness … humiLity.” But we’re no longer in peace now, but in a time of war, and the language he uses play upon the plosives that correspond to the concussions of the cannons: “BLast … BLows.” If humility marks peace, then something more evil marks war, and Henry subtly conjures visions of the Garden of Eden’s serpent with the sounds of a following line: “Stiffen … SinewS, Summon.” We’re men in peace, but we must be something else in war: we must “imitate…the tiger” and “disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage” (and this second line even breaks down the dichotomy between “fair” and “hard-favored” with those consonant Fs, and between “nature” and “rage” with those assonant long As).

But imitation and disguising aren’t enough; the soldier must “lend the eye a terrible aspect,” an unnatural one. That eye is not just an eye now, but a killer look, a thousand-yard stare that must “pry through” the skull under the “o’erwhelm(ing)” “brow” above it. Think of that look: head not upright like a human, but dipped ominously, with the tiger’s killer gaze looking up at its victim. The soldier’s not human now, but a force of nature, like the wind: listen to all the Ws and Ss–“SWilled With the Wild and WaSteful oCean.”

Henry needs them to be men, though, so he has them grow again to their “full height,” but he knows being just a man isn’t enough, not in a war with other men: he needs them to be the “noblest English.” And so Henry makes that change in argument mid-line. He pounds home the concept of forefathers with the repeated Fs in the following line (“Fet From Fathers of war-prooF!”) before comparing those fathers to conquering “Alexanders.” Not forgetting the parent who bore them, Henry orders them to “dishonor not (their) mothers,” before bringing it back to the male parent, the soldiering parent, the one who could “teach them how to war.”

But it’s just not their biological father, but their national father as well (“made in England…mettle of your pasture…worth your breeding”). The nation has given them that “noble luster in (their) eyes.” And who is the personification of that national father? Harry. And the nation? England. And the saint to protect them? Saint George.

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Stirring stuff, no?

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