The War Correspondent

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The War Correspondent




"The War Correspondent," by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, appears in Carson's collection, Breaking News (2003). It consists of seven poems, all but one of which are set in the Crimea at the time of the Crimean War. This war took place between 1854 and 1856 and pitted a British and French alliance against Russia for influence in the Near East. The Crimea is a region off the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine.

"The War Correspondent" is based on dispatches from the Crimea written by Anglo-Irish war correspondent William Howard Russell for readers of the Times, a London newspaper. In his notes to Breaking News, Carson writes that "The War Correspondent" is "especially indebted to his [Russell's] writing; in many instances I have taken his words verbatim, or have changed them only slightly to accommodate rhyme and rhythm." Taken together, the seven poems in "The War Correspondent" convey a sense of the wastefulness and destruction of war, set against the ever-recurring rhythms of nature.


Ciaran Carson was born on October 9, 1948, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the son of Liam Carson, a postman. He acquired his taste for language and storytelling very early. He recalls that when he was two or three, his father would tell his children stories in Gaelic every evening, and each story would continue (at least it seemed that way to the child) for weeks.

Carson was educated at Queen's University in Belfast, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. From 1974 to 1975, he worked as a schoolteacher in Belfast, after which he became the Traditional Arts officer for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, in Belfast, a position he held until 1998.

Carson's first volume of poetry was The New Estate (1976), followed by The Irish For No (1987). In the latter collection, Carson, who was raised as a Catholic, reflects with humor and satire on the violent situation in Belfast. This book appeared during the civil conflict in Northern Ireland known as "the Troubles," in which the majority Protestants, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, clashed with the minority Catholics, many of whom wanted a united Ireland free of British rule. The conflict, which also involved the terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army, began in 1969 and lasted nearly three decades and resulted in thousands of deaths. Carson's Belfast Confetti (1993), which was highly acclaimed by critics, also examines Belfast and its violent history.

Carson's fourth volume of poetry, First Language (1994), focuses on language, examining how in Belfast, English, Gaelic, and slang intersect, often resulting in a failure of communication. It was awarded the first ever T. S. Eliot Prize for the outstanding book of poetry published in Great Britain in 1994.

Opera Et Cetera (1996) is notable for its puns and other wordplay, as well as its form. Each ten-line poem is written in rhyming couplets. Other poetry collections by Carson are The Alexandrine Plan: Versions of Sonnets by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud (1998), The Twelfth of Never (1998), and Selected Poems (2001). Breaking News (2003) won the prestigious Forward Prize for best collection of poetry. This volume includes the seven poems that make up "The War Correspondent." In 2006, Carson published The Midnight Court, a translation of Brian Merriman's eighteenth-century poem in Irish.

Carson has also published fiction in other genres, including Shamrock Tea (2000), a novel set in 1950s Belfast, and Fishing for Amber: A Long Story (2000). He has also written nonfiction, including The Star Factory (1997), a memoir of his life growing up in Belfast, and Last Night's Fun: A Book about Irish Traditional Music (1996). Carson is an accomplished musician who plays the flute. He also published a translation, The Inferno of Dante Alighieri: A New Translation (2002), which was awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

In 1998, Carson was appointed a professor of English at Queen's University of Belfast. As of 2006, he was director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

Carson married in 1982, and the couple had two sons and a daughter.


1 Gallipoli

Take sheds and stalls from Billingsgate,
glittering with scaling-knives and fish,
the tumbledown outhouses of English farmers'
that reek of dung and straw, and horses
cantering the mewsy lanes of Dublin;                 5
take an Irish landlord's ruinous estate,
elaborate pagodas from a Chinese Delftware
where fishes fly through shrouds and sails and
of leaking ballast-laden junks bound for
in search of bucket-loads of tea as black as tin;   10
take a dirty gutter from a back street in
where shops and houses teeter so their pitched
  roofs meet,
some chimney stacks as tall as those in
or Irish round towers,
smoking like a fleet of British ironclad
  destroyers;                                       15
take the garlic-oregano-tainted arcades of
linguini-twists of souks and smells of rotten
as labyrinthine as the rifle-factories of
or the tenements deployed by bad employers
who sit in parlours doing business drinking
  Power's;                                          20
then populate this slum with Cypriot and Turk,
Armenians and Arabs, British riflemen
and French Zouaves, camel-drivers, officers,
  and sailors,
sappers, miners, Nubian slaves, Greek money-
plus interpreters who do not know the lingo;        25
dress them in turbans, shawls of fancy
fedoras, fezzes, sashes, shirts of fine
boleros, pantaloons designed by jobbing tailors,
knickerbockers of the ostrich and the pink
sans-culottes, and outfits even stranger;           30
requisition slaughter-houses for the troops,
and stalls with sherbet, lemonade, and rancid
  lard for sale,
a temporary hospital or two, a jail,
a stagnant harbour redolent with cholera,
and open sewers running down the streets;           35
let the staple diet be green cantaloupes
swarming with flies washed down with sour wine,
accompanied by the Byzantine
jangly music of the cithara
and the multi-lingual squawks of parakeets—         40
O landscape riddled with the diamond mines of
and all the oubliettes of Trebizond,
where opium-smokers doze among the Persian
and spies and whores in dim-lit snugs
discuss the failing prowess of the superpowers,     45 
where prowling dogs sniff for offal beyond
the stench of pulped plums and apricots,
from which is distilled the brandy they call
and soldiers lie dead or drunk among the
  crushed flowers—
I have not even begun to describe Gallipoli.        50

2 Varna

On the night of August 10th, a great fire broke
destroying utterly a quarter of the town.
A stiff breeze fanned the flames along the
wooden streets. Things were not helped by the
  current drought.
It began in the spirit store of the French
  commissariat.                                     55
The officers in charge immediately broached
  the main vat,
but, as the liquid spouted down the streets, a
was seen to set fire to it in a fit of drunken
He was cut down to the chin by a French
and fell into the blazing torrent. The howls of
  the inhabitants,                                  60
the clamour of women, horses, children, dogs,
  the yells
of prisoners trapped in their cells,
were appalling. Marshal St Arnaud displayed
  great coolness
in supervising the operations of the troops;
but both the French and we were dispossessed        65
of immense quantities of goods—
barrels of biscuit, nails, butter, and bullets,
carpenters' tool-boxes, hat-boxes, cages of live
polo-sticks, Lord Raglan's portable library of
and 19,000 pairs of soldiers' boots.                70
A consignment of cavalry sabres was found
amid the ruins, fused into the most fantastic
looking like an opium-smoker's cityscape
or a crazy oriental fairground—
minarets, cathedral spires of twisted blades,
  blades                                            75
wrought into galleries and elevated
railroad sidings, cul-de-sacs, trolleyways, and
  racing tracks,
gazebos, pergolas, trellises, and colonnades.
Such were the effects of the great fire of Varna.
Next day the cholera broke out in the British
  fleets                                            80
anchored in the bay, then spread into the
and for weeks thousands of souls sailed into

3 Dvno

Once I gazed on these meadows
incandescent with poppies,
buttercups and cornflowers                          85
surrounded by verdant hills
in which lay deep shady dells,
dripping ferns shower-dappled
under the green canopy
of live oaks and wild apples,                       90
aspens, weeping-willow, ash,
maple, plane, rhododendron,
sweet chestnut, spruce, Douglas fir,
and Cedar of Lebanon,
round which vines and acacias                       95
vied with wild clematises
to climb ever on and up
to twine the trunks of the trees,
and I thought I was in Eden,
happily stumbling about                            100
in a green Irish garden
knee-deep in potato flowers.
But at night a fog descends,
as these woods breed miasmas,
and slithering through the brush                   105
are snakes thick as a man's arm;
the vapours rise and fatten
on the damp air, becoming
palpable as mummy shrouds,
creeping up from the valleys                       110
fold after fold in the dark,
to steal into a man's tent,
and wrap him, as he's sleeping,
in their deadly cerements.
One day, down by the sea-shore,                    115
I scraped my name with a stick
on the sand, and discovered
the rotting face of a corpse;
and by night in the harbour
phosphorescent bodies float                        120
up from the murky bottom
to drift moonward past the fleet
like old wooden figureheads,
bobbing torsos bolt upright.
Tiger, Wasp, Bellerophon,                          125
Niger, Arrow, Terrible,
Vulture, Viper, Albion,
Britannia, Trafalgar,
Spitfire, Triton, Oberon:
these are vessels I remember.                      130
As for the choleraic dead,
their names have been unravelled
like their bones, whose whereabouts
remain unknown.

4 Balaklava

The Turks marched in dense columns, bristling
  with steel.                                      135
Sunlight flashed on the polished barrels of their
and on their bayonets, relieving their sombre
for their dark blue uniforms looked quite black
when viewed en masse. The Chasseurs
in light powder-blue jackets, with white car-
  touche belts, scarlet                            140
pantaloons, mounted on white Arabs, caught
  the eye
like a bed of flowers scattered over the valley
Some, indeed, wore poppies red as cochineal,
plucked from the rich soil, which bore an
  abundance of hollyhocks,
dahlias, anemones, wild parsley, mint, white-
  thorn, rue,                                      145
sage, thyme, and countless other plants whose
  names I lack.
As the Turkish infantry advanced, their boots
and crushed the springy flowers, and delicate
perfumes wafted into the air beneath the April
the smell of sweating men and horses smoth-
  ered by flora.                                   150
Waving high above the more natural green
of the meadow were phalanxes of rank grass,
  marking the mounds
where the slain of October 25th had found their
  last repose,
and the snorting horses refused to eat those
  deadly shoots.
As the force moved on, more evidences of that
  fatal day                                        155
came to light. The skeleton of an English
had tatters of scarlet cloth hanging to the bones
  of his arms;
all the buttons had been cut off the jacket.
Round as shot, the bullet-skull had been picked
save for two swatches of red hair. The remains
  of a wolfhound                                   160
sprawled at his feet. From many graves, the
  uncovered bones
of the tenants had started up, all of them lack-
  ing boots.
Tangled with rotted trappings, half-decayed
  horses lay
where they'd fallen. Fifes and drums struck up
  a rataplan;
so we swept on over our fellow men-at-arms         165
under the noon sun in our buttoned-up jackets.

5 Kertch

A row of half a mile
across the tideless sea
brought us to a beautiful beach
edged by a green sward                             170
dotted with whitewashed houses
through which the French
were running riot, swords
in hand, breaking in windows
and doors, pursuing hens:                          175
every house we entered
ransacked, every cupboard
with a pair of red breeches
sticking out of it, and a blue
coat inside of it; barrels of lard,                180
bags of sour bread, mattress feathers,
old boots, statues, ikons, strewn
on the floors, the furniture
broken into kindling—
such an awful stench                               185
from the broken jars of fish oil
and the rancid butter,
the hens and ducks cackling,
bundled up by the feet
by Zouaves and Chasseurs,                          190
who, fancied up in old calico
dresses, pranced about
the gardens like princesses.
I was reminded of Palmyra
after we had sacked it:                            195
along the quay a long line
of walls, which once
were the fronts of storehouses,
magazines, mansions, and palaces—
now empty shells,                                  200
hollow and roofless, lit from within
by lurid fires,
as clouds of incense
rose from the battered domes
and ruined spires,                                 205
all deadly silent
save for the infernal noise
of soldiers playing on pianos
with their boot-heels,
and the flames crackling                           210
within the walls
and glassless windows,
the great iconostasis
of the Orthodox cathedral
shot to bits, the golden                           215
images and holy books ablaze
amid the crashed candelabras
and broken votive lamps,
while the Byzantine mosaics
were daubed with excrement.                        220
Thus did we force the straits
of Kertch, and break the Russian forts.
Corn, oil, naval stores,
prodigious quantities of guns,
bullets, grapeshot, brandy of a high degree—       225
all fell into our hands.
And we spread terror and havoc
along the peaceful seaboard
of that tideless sea.

6 Tchernaya

After only two or three days, the soil             230
erupted with multitudes of snowdrops,
crocuses, hyacinths, gladioli,
marigolds, daffodils, and buttercups.
Finches and larks congregated in little flocks.
Buntings, gold-crested wrens, yellowhammers,       235
linnets, wrens, and tomtits formed little claques,
piping, and twittering and shimmering.
Strange to hear them sing about the bushes
in the lulls between the thud of the bombs,
or to see between the cannon-flashes               240
the whole peninsula ignite with blooms,
spring flowers bursting through the crevices
of piles of rusted shot, and peering out
from under the shells and heavy ordnance.
A geranium waved from an old boot.                 245
The insides of our huts became gardens.
Grapes sprouted from the earth in the sills,
the floors, and the fireplace. As in a trance,
we watched the vines crawl slowly up the walls.
Albatrosses, cranes, pelicans, and gulls           250
haunted the harbour. Eagles, vultures, kites
and hawks wheeled over the plateau in squalls,
vanishing for two or three days at a time.
Then they'd return, regular as clockwork,
after feeding behind the Russian lines.            255
I know, for I remember my watch stopped,
and we made a sundial with white stones.
The Tchernaya abounded with wildfowl.
Some of the officers had little hides
of their own where they went at night to kill      260
time. This was deemed highly exciting sport,
for the Russian batteries at Inkerman,
if their sentries were properly alert,
would send two or three shells at the
who took short odds on escaping unhurt.            265
In the daytime, they'd take two or three French
soldiers down with them to act as decoys,
who were only too glad of the break. Hence
we coined the old saying, ‘dead as a duck.’
Then there was betting on how many flies           270
would fill a jar in which lay a dead dove,
and the two-or-three-legged dog races—
little to do? There was never enough.
Thus we spent the time by the Tchernaya,
making it up as we went along, till                275
long before the battle of Tchernaya,
we each had two or three life-stories to tell.

7 Sedan

Cavalry men asleep
on their horses' necks.
In the fields, heaps                               280
of sodden troops,
the countryside charming,
covered with rich crops,
but trampled
underfoot, vines and hops                          285
swept aside by the flood
of battle, the apples blasted
from the trees, scattered
like grape-shot.
Gutted knapsacks, boots,                           290
cavalry caps, jackets, swords,
mess-tins, bayonets,
canteens, firelocks, tunics,
sabres, epaulettes,
overturned baggage cars,                           295
dead horses
with their legs in the air,
scattered everywhere,
dead bodies,
mostly of Turcos and Zouaves,                      300
picked over by pickpockets,
one of them staggering
under a huge load of gold
watches and teeth.
Hands hanging in the trees                         305
in lieu of fruit,
trunkless legs at their feet.
I will never forget one man
whose head rested
on a heap of apples,                               310
his knees drawn up
to his chin, his eyes wide
open, seeming to inspect
the head of a Turco or Zouave
which, blown clean off,                            315
lay like a cannonball in his lap.
What debris a ruined empire
leaves behind it!
By the time I reached Sedan
with my crippled horse,                            320
it was almost impossible
to ride through the streets
without treading on
bayonets and sabres, heaps
of shakos, thousands                               325
of imperial eagles
torn off infantry caps,
or knocking into stooks
of musketry and pikes.
I thought of Sevastopol,                           330
mirrors in fragments
on the floors, beds
ripped open, feathers
in the rooms a foot deep,
chairs, sofas, bedsteads,                          335
bookcases, picture-frames,
images of saints, shoes, boots,
bottles, physic jars,
the walls and doors
hacked with swords,                                340
even the bomb-shelters
ransacked, though in one dug-out
I found a music-book
with a woman's name
in it, and a canary bird,                          345
and a vase of wild flowers.



"Gallipoli" is the first of the seven poems that make up "The War Correspondent." It gives a vivid description of the slum regions of Gallipoli, Turkey, at the time when British and French forces were billeted there on their way to the Crimea. The ten-stanza poem presents Gallipoli as a teeming, cosmopolitan, polyglot city. The first four stanzas all begin with the word "take," as the poet, drawing on the work of the war correspondent William Howard Russell, evokes the sights and smells of various places around the world to give the reader a picture of the impoverished areas of Gallipoli.

The first reference is to Billingsgate, a well-known fish market in London, with its "scalingknives and fish." This is followed by a reference to outhouses in "English farmers yards" that "reek of dung and straw," then horses in Dublin, Ireland. The next three stanzas extend the range of associations almost worldwide, beginning with references to pagodas from a "Chinese Delftware dish." (Delftware is a Dutch imitation of Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty that was first imported into the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century.) The scope of the comparisons then expands to ships bound for Benares, India, to collect massive amounts of tea.

Stanza 3 describes the houses in Gallipoli, introducing them with a reference to a "back street in Boulogne," a city in France, then to chimney stacks in Sheffield, a town in northern England, that belch out smoke like a fleet of British ships. There is another comparison to "Irish round towers." These are early medieval stone towers, still found in Ireland, which may originally have been bell towers or places of refuge. (They are generally found in the vicinity of a church.)

Stanza 4 begins with an evocation of the rich scents in the arcades of Bologna, a city in Italy, including garlic, oregano and "rotten meat." These arcades are "as labyrinthine as the rifle-factories of Springfield." This is a reference to the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has manufactured weapons for the U.S. armed forces since 1835, including the Springfield rifle.

Stanza 5 moves from descriptions of what Gallipoli is like to descriptions of its inhabitants. The heterogeneous nature of the city is emphasized, populated by Cypriots, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Greeks, and "Nubian slaves" (Nubia is a region in the south of Egypt and in northern Sudan), as well as British and French soldiers. Zouaves was the name given to a French infantry corps that was first created in 1831. By 1854, there were four regiments of Zouaves, and the Crimean War was the first time they served outside Algeria.

In stanza 6, the variety of dress worn by all these nationalities that live in Gallipoli is described, from "turbans" to "fedoras," from "pantaloons" to "knickerbockers" and "sans culottes."

Stanza 7 describes the creation of quarters for the troops in a slaughter-house, as well as the presence of a temporary hospital and a jail. The unsanitary nature of the city is clear from the last two lines, which mention that cholera flourishes there and open sewers run down the streets.

Stanza 8 describes what people in Gallipoli eat, the standard diet being green cantaloupe "swarming with flies" and sour wine, which people consume as they listen to music played on the cithara (a stringed instrument) and the squawking of parakeets.

Stanza 9 extends the frame of reference still further, with mention of the diamond mines of Kimberley. Kimberley is a town in South Africa, famous for its diamond mines. It would appear that there are also diamond mines in the regions near Gallipoli, since the poet states that the landscape is "riddled" with them, as well as with "oubliettes of Trebizond." Trebizond was a small Greek state that acquired an empire out of the remains of the Byzantine empire in the thirteenth century. The Trebizond empire fell in the fifteenth century, but it appears that it was known for its oubliettes. An oubliette is a concealed dungeon with a trap door at the top. It was used for people condemned to life imprisonment or those whom the authorities wished to leave to die secretly. The word comes from the French verb, oublier, which means to forget. The second part of this stanza returns to descriptions of the people who can be found in Gallipoli, including opium smokers who "doze among the Persian rugs" and spies and whores who discuss the political situation in "dim-lit snugs."

The last stanza returns to the smells of the city, as dogs sniff for offal, and pulped plums and apricots, ready to be distilled into brandy, give off a stench. The final image, of soldiers lying dead or drunk among crushed flowers, reminds the reader of the reality of war.

But even with all these dense, rich descriptions of the city of Gallipoli, the poet/journalist concludes, in the last line, "I have not even begun to describe Gallipoli," which suggests that no description could ever capture the full flavor of what the war correspondent Russell, in his The British Expedition to the Crimea, called "a wretched place … horribly uncomfortable."


In eight four-line stanzas, "Varna" describes a fire that took place at the port city of Varna, Bulgaria, on the western shores of the Black Sea, on the night of August 10, 1854. The fire destroyed a quarter of the town. It broke out after French officers opened up a vat in the "spirit store" of the French commissariat. The liquid poured into the streets and a drunken Greek deliberately set fire to it. He was immediately killed by a French lieutenant. As the fire raged, there was a great commotion among the inhabitants as they tried to escape. Some prisoners were trapped in their cells. The commander of the French forces, Marshal St. Arnaud, supervised his troops well, although both British and French armies lost considerable amounts of equipment and supplies, including butter, bullets, "Lord Raglan's portable library of books" (Lord Raglan was the commander of the British forces), and nineteen thousand pairs of soldiers' boots.

Stanza 6 reveals that after the fire, a consignment of cavalry sabres was found in the ruins, "fused into the most fantastic shapes." The following six lines elaborate on what those shapes looked like, everything from a "crazy oriental fairground" to "gazebos, pergolas, trellises, and colonnades."

The final stanza records that the day following the fire there was an outbreak of cholera in the British fleet anchored in the bay. It spread to the town, killing thousands of people within weeks.


During the Crimean War, British forces set up a camp in a valley near the village of Dvno, often spelled Devno. In this poem, the first four stanzas form a series of subordinate clauses, before the subject and verb of the sentence ("I thought") appears in stanza 5. In these first four stanzas, the poet (following the journalist Russell) recalls an occasion when he looked out on the beauty of the meadows with their many flowers and trees, and thought he was in the Garden of Eden, which he then illustrates in terms of "a green Irish garden / knee-deep in potato flowers."

The poem takes a turn beginning at stanza 6. After the description of the beautiful, idyllic valley, the poet reveals a darker side to the scene. At night a fog would descend, thick snakes would slither through the brush, and poisonous vapors would arise and creep up from the valleys into the tents of the men, infecting them as they slept.

In stanza 9, the speaker recalls how one day, at the sea shore, he scraped his name on the sand with a stick and laid bare the rotting face of a corpse. The following stanza tells that at night, dead bodies float in the harbor, past the ships of the British fleet. The names of some of the ships are listed. The final stanza reveals an irony. The names of the ships may be known, but the names of those killed by cholera are not, just as their bones have been scattered to whereabouts unknown.


Balaklava is a port city near Sevastopol in the Crimea, in the present-day nation of Ukraine. "Balaklava" begins with a description of Turkish infantry soldiers marching in columns in their dark uniforms. The Chasseurs d'Afrique, in their light blue jackets and mounted on horses also catch the eye. The Chasseurs d'Afrique were a light cavalry corps in the French Armée d'Afrique (Army of Africa), the mounted equivalent of the French Zouave infantry. The Chasseurs d'Afrique wore exactly the colorful uniforms described in the poem, which catch the eye "like a bed of flowers scattered across the valley floor."

Stanza 2 lists some of those flowers and plants, from dahlias to sage and thyme. It is April 1855, and everything is in bloom; the perfume of the flowers fills the air. But as the Turkish infantry marches, the soldiers crush some of the flowers beneath their feet.

Stanza 3 changes the emphasis from the present to the recent past. Above the green of the meadow, tall grass waves in the breeze. This grass marks the burial mounds of the soldiers who died in a battle that took place the previous fall, on October 25, 1854 (in which British forces repelled a Russian attack). The horses of the soldiers refuse to eat this grass.

As the soldiers move on, there are more signs of the battle, including the skeleton of an English horseman. The skull is clean except for two tufts of red hair. The remains of a wolfhound are at the horseman's feet. From the graves, uncovered bones can be seen, all of them without boots. There are also remains of horses. Fife and drums play as the living army sweeps over the remains of the dead soldiers.


The narrator describes an expedition in which he and some unspecified others (probably British troops) row half a mile across the sea to a beach around which are some houses. They find French soldiers, both Zouaves and Chasseurs, with swords drawn, ransacking the houses. Windows and doors are broken, and various items, from barrels of lard to old boots, are strewn all over the place; closets are open and furniture broken. There is a stench from broken jars of fish oil and rancid butter. Hens and ducks cackle. The soldiers even put on dresses and prance around the gardens "like princesses."

In stanza 10, the scene reminds the speaker of what the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria, must have looked like after it had been sacked by the Romans in A.D. 272. Storehouses, mansions, and palaces have been ruined and left as empty shells, and clouds of incense rise from ruined places of worship. Everything is silent except for the noise of pianos being played on by soldiers with the heels of their boots and the sound of crackling flames. The Orthodox cathedral has been destroyed, and holy artifacts set ablaze. The mosaics are smeared with excrement.

In stanza 11, the poet explains that this was the way the Russian forts were broken during the war. All kinds of supplies, from corn to guns and bullets, fell into the hands of the British and French, who spread "terror and havoc" along the otherwise peaceful seaboard. (This poem refers to a British and French expedition to Kertch in May 1855, in which Russian communications and supply lines were successfully disrupted.)


Tchernaya is a river in the Crimean peninsula, and this poem, set in the spring of 1855, tells of incidents that took place in the vicinity of the Tchernaya. These were preludes to the struggle that took place for possession of Sevastopol later that year.

The poem begins by evoking the sudden coming of spring. After just a few warm days, all kinds of flowers and plants, from snowdrops to buttercups, start to spring up from the soil, and many different kinds of birds burst into song. The birds can be heard in the intervals between the sounds of the cannons firing. The flowers bloom among "piles of rusted shot" and from under "shells and heavy ordnance." Even the huts in which the soldiers are billeted show signs of the coming of spring. Grapes sprout through the floors and the fireplace, and vines climb the walls. "Albatrosses, cranes, pelicans, and gulls" can be seen in the harbor, and "eagles, vultures, kites and hawks" can also be spotted in the region. These birds disappear for a few days at a time and then return after feeding behind the Russian lines.

The river Tchernaya is full of wildfowl, as stanza 8 explains. Some of the British officers go out at night and hunt them. This is an exciting and dangerous sport, since the Russian batteries at nearby Inkerman (the site of another great battle in the Crimean War), if their sentries were awake, would fire shells at them. During the daytime, the officers would take some French soldiers with them on these expeditions; the French, who were glad to take a break, would act as decoys.

The men also passed the time with various trivial activities. They would bet "on how many flies would fill a jar in which a dead dove lay," and they would organize races between two- or three-legged dogs. In this way, the men amused themselves long before the actual battle took place, and each man accumulated several stories to tell.


"Sedan" is the only poem in "The War Correspondent" that does not refer entirely to events and places in the Crimean War. Instead, Sedan was the site of a battle that took place in France, on September 2, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. The battle resulted in a catastrophic defeat for the French. The French emperor, Napoleon III, was taken prisoner along with a hundred thousand of his soldiers.

The poem is based on the report made by William Howard Russell of his visit to the scene immediately after the battle. He finds dead cavalry men slumped on their horses' necks and piles of corpses of the troops. The countryside is covered with rich crops that have been trampled underfoot by the tide of battle. Apples have been "blasted from the trees" and lie around "like grape-shot." (Grape-shot consisted of small iron balls connected together and fired from a gun.) Military equipment is lying around everywhere, including knapsacks, boots, swords, bayonets, and sabres. Dead horses are scattered around, "their legs in the air." The dead bodies of the soldiers have been "picked over by pickpockets." One of those pickpockets is seen carrying a load of gold watches and teeth.

There are also dismembered bodies at the scene. Hands hang from trees, and legs lie at the foot of the trees. The speaker says he will never forget the sight of one man in particular, whose head rested on a pile of apples. His eyes were open, and he seemed to be inspecting the severed head of another soldier, which lay in his lap.

The speaker then recalls the sights that greeted him as he first entered Sedan, which cause him to exclaim, "What debris a ruined empire / leaves behind it!" He explains that it was almost impossible to ride through the streets without treading on all kinds of discarded military equipment, from bayonets and sabers to shakos (a shako is a tall, cylindrical cap and was standard military dress during the nineteenth century), musketry and pikes. The sight makes the speaker think back to how Sevastopol in the Crimea was ransacked after the battle. He recalls houses and bomb shelters in chaos, with debris scattered everywhere: shattered mirrors on the floors; beds torn open; furniture, walls, and doors hacked at with swords. He recalls finding in one dug-out "a music book / with a woman's name in it," a canary, and a vase holding wild flowers.


War's Destruction and the Beauty of Nature

A theme that runs through the seven-poem sequence is the juxtaposition of opposites: destruction caused by war and disease and the ever-renewing beauty of nature. This is first hinted at in the last stanza of "Gallipoli"; the final image to describe the reality of that city is "soldiers lie dead or drunk among the crushed flowers." In that image, the beauty of flowering nature is overwhelmed by the folly of men, either through war or the escape from it in drunkenness. The image is echoed in "Balaklava," one of three poems in the series that is set in spring, the time of nature's renewal of life. The speaker first presents the soldiers marching, followed by a description of the manifold flowers that are blooming on that April day, including dahlias, anemones, wild parsley, rue, sage and thyme. The two sets of images come together in the lines, "their boots creaked / and crushed the springy flowers." A similar image occurs in "Sedan," in which the countryside is:

covered with rich crops
but trampled
underfoot, vines and hops
swept aside by the flood
of battle

Similar images occur also in "Tchernaya," but in that poem, flowering nature, instead of being crushed by the onslaught of human conflict, is present within it. When spring suddenly comes, all kinds of flowers appear and the birds break out in song. But their presence cannot be separated from the reality of the war that afflicts the region:

Strange to hear them sing about the bushes
in the lulls between the thud of the bombs,
or to see between the cannon-flashes
the whole peninsula ignite with blooms.

That last image, of the area igniting with blooms, fuses the two realties (the renewal of natural life and the destruction caused by war), since flowers are not usually described as "igniting" with blooms; the word suggests rather the firing of the cannons.

The juxtaposition of opposites continues throughout the following stanza:

spring flowers bursting through the crevices
of piles of rusted shot, and peering out
from under the shells and heavy ordnance.
A geranium waved from an old boot


  • Research the Charge of the Light Brigade and make a class presentation explaining what happened and why. Why was the order to charge given? What did the Light Brigade do? Was the charge a classic military blunder or did it accomplish something?
  • Read "The Indian Mutiny," by Carson, in Breaking News. Like "The War Correspondent," it is based on a report by William Howard Russell. Research and describe the historical event that gave rise to the poem. Does "The Indian Mutiny" resemble any of the poems that make up "The War Correspondent?" How are the themes similar? Write an essay in which you explain your findings.
  • Take any newspaper or magazine article that describes conditions in Baghdad, Iraq, or Kabul, Afghanistan, or any other place in the world where there is a current or recent conflict. Following Carson's example in "The War Correspondent," write a poem based on the article.
  • Write an essay in which you discuss how war reporting has changed from the Crimean War to World War II, the Vietnam War, and the war in Iraq that began in 2003. Examine relations between governments and the press during these wars. Has the press been subject to censorship? Is censorship in war necessary or should the press have complete freedom? How does war reporting by press and television affect government decisions made in times of war?

The image of the geranium waving from an old boot is perhaps an answer to the earlier images in which flowers were crushed by soldiers' boots. The theme here is that nature will always spring up in new life, no matter how much destruction and death occurs in the human world. While the

conflict lasts, however, it may produce some strange, even macabre reversals of the natural order of things. This can be seen in "Sedan," in which apples have been blasted prematurely from the trees by the force of the gunfire (stanza 4), and instead of apples, the speaker sees "Hands hanging in the trees / in lieu of fruit / trunkless legs at their feet." The final image of that poem, the vase of wild flowers that remains even though the bomb shelter in which it has been found has been ransacked, returns to the juxtaposition of natural beauty and war.

In "Dvno," there is a similar juxtaposition, the Eden-like environment that the speaker describes in the first five stanzas yields to a darker reality, the presence of the deadly disease cholera, a disease that is aggravated by the unsanitary conditions of war.

Throughout the sequence of poems, images of death (skulls, bones, rotting or floating corpses, both human and animal), are juxtaposed with the upsurging of new life. The eternal rhythms of nature are set against the transience of individual lives.



The seven poems that make up "The War Correspondent" contain a wide variety of form and structure. In "Gallipoli," the entire ten stanzas, each consisting of five lines, consist of a single sentence. Most of the stanzas end in semi-colons; one ends in a dash, and one with a comma; the only period comes after the last word. The most noticeable poetic device in this poem is the rhyme scheme, which operates in units of two stanzas. The stanzas do not for the most part contain end rhymes within themselves. (An end rhyme occurs at the end of a line of verse.) Instead, for example, line 1 of stanza 1 ("Billingsgate") rhymes with line 1 of stanza 2 ("estate"), line 2 in stanza 1 ("fish") rhymes with line 2 in stanza 2 ("dish"), and so on. Stanzas 3 and 4 follow this same structure, although there is one change: the rhyme in the last two lines is reversed, so stanza 3, line 4 ("towers") rhymes with stanza 4, line 5 ("Power's), and vice versa. Stanzas 5 and 6 follow this modified rhyme scheme also. Stanzas 7 and 8, and 9 and 10, follow broadly the same scheme, although they all include one end-rhyme within the stanza: in stanza 7, lines 2 and 3 rhyme ("sale" and "jail"), as do lines 3 and 4 in stanza 9 ("rugs" and "snugs").

Some of the rhymes are masculine; that is, they involve a single, stressed syllable, as in the previous two examples. "Billingsgate" and "estate" (in stanzas 1 and 2) are also considered masculine rhymes, since the rhyme occurs only on the last stressed syllable. This applies also to "streets" and "parakeets," and "troops" and "cantaloupes" in stanzas 7 and 8.

Rhymes that consist of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable are known as feminine rhymes. An example occurs in "sailors" and "tailors" in stanzas 5 and 6. "Lingo" and "flamingo" in those stanzas also use feminine rhyme. This type of feminine rhyme is also referred to as double rhyme, since the rhyme occurs in two syllables.

In one instance, the poet rhymes words identical in spelling and sound but different in meaning. In stanza 2, "yards," used as an unit of measurement, rhymes with "yards" (stanza 1), used in the sense of a piece of land around a house. In stanza 4, "meat" is used to rhyme with "meet." The words are identical in sound but not in meaning or spelling. In both cases, the rhyme is classified as a "rich rhyme."

"Varna" has shorter, four-line stanzas, with three different rhyme schemes: abba (which means that line 1 rhymes with line 4, and line 2 rhymes with line 3) in stanzas 1, 6, 7, and 8; aabb (stanzas 2 and 3); abab (stanza 4); and aabb (stanza 5).

The poet makes use of imperfect rhyme, in "troops" and "goods," since the vowel sounds only approximate each other. The same applies to "books" and "boots" in stanza 5. The latter might qualify as an "eye-rhyme," in which the printed words look as if they should rhyme but in fact do not. Such rhymes can vary according to different regional accents; some English speakers might pronounce the vowels in these two words in a more similar way than others.

"Dvno," like "Kertch" and "Sedan," makes little use of end rhyme, but "Balaklava" has a rhyme scheme similar to "Gallipoli," operating in units of two stanzas.

In "Tchernaya," end rhyme is used only occasionally; the poetic effect is achieved by use of alliteration at the end of the lines. That is, the consonants are repeated but the vowels do not rhyme. In stanza 3, for example, the "b" in the final word of line 1, "bushes," is echoed by "bombs" (end of line 2), and "blooms" (end of line 4). Other examples of this technique, which can also be found frequently in "Dvno," are "sills" and "walls" in stanza 5; "gulls" and "squalls" (stanza 6); "stopped" and "stones" (stanza 7); "decoys" and "duck" (stanza 10), and "till" and "tell" in the final stanza. The poet took some of these words directly from the prose descriptions of William Howard Russell. The following is an example from Russell's dispatches: "The Tchernaya abounded with duck, and some of the officers had little decoys of their own." It is the poet's artful placement of the words at the end of the line that produces the poetic effect.


The Crimean War

In 1853, war broke out between an expansionist Russia and a declining Turkish empire (known as the Ottoman Empire). Russia's initial actions, including the invasion of the Baltic provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia (in present-day Romania) and the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Sinope, aroused opposition in Britain and France. Britain viewed Russian control of the eastern Mediterranean and possible expansion into Afghanistan as a threat to its interests in India. France was an ally of Turkey, and under Emperor Napoleon III (reigned as emperor, 1852-1870) was keen to show its imperial ambitions. Britain and France therefore declared war on Russia in March 1854.

British and French forces camped at Varna in Bulgaria during the spring and summer of 1854 while Turkish forces engaged the Russians a hundred miles to the north. The Russians withdrew from the Balkan provinces, and the British and French forces were ordered to invade the Crimea and take control of the Russian fortress of Sevastopol. (The region known as the Crimea is the peninsula on the Black Sea, situated in present-day Ukraine.)

The British and French allies landed in the Crimea in September 1854, about thirty miles north of Sevastopol. On September 20, they were victorious over the Russians in the battle of the Alma, about fifteen miles from Sevastopol, although they suffered heavy losses. The following month the allies began their siege of Sevastopol. The Russians tried but failed to relieve the siege at the battle of Balaklava, a small port about eight miles from Sevastopol. This was the occasion of the most famous incident of the Crimean War, the heroic but ill-advised charge of the Light Brigade, in which British cavalry charged entrenched positions of Russian artillery. Of the 673 soldiers who took part in the charge, 113 died and 134 were wounded.

On November 5, the Russians were defeated at the Battle of Inkerman. The siege of Sevastopol continued, but military action was suspended during the winter of 1854-1855. The dire conditions the troops endured during the harsh winter, with bad housing, inadequate food, and almost no proper medical care, caused an outcry in England, causing the government to fall and the new government to establish several commissions to report on and alleviate the problems.

In May 1855, as the siege of Sevastopol continued, the allies captured Kertch and Yenikale in a sea expedition. In June, the Malakoff Tower and the Redan, two forts built to defend Sevastopol, were attacked, but the Russians beat back the assault. On August 16,

Russian forces attempting to come to the aid of Sevastopol were defeated by the French and Sardinians (the latter had joined the war in January 1855) in the battle of the Tchernaya. By mid-September the Russians were forced to evacuate Sevastopol. In March 1856, the Treaty of Paris was signed, officially ending the Crimean War.

Sir William Howard Russell

Pioneering war correspondent William Howard Russell was born in Lilyvale, County Dublin, Ireland, in 1820. His introduction to journalism came when he reported on Irish elections in 1841, and in 1845, when he was living in England, he was sent by the Times of London to report on events in Ireland. The Times then sent him as a special correspondent to Denmark to cover the Danes' war with Schleswig-Holstein from 1849 to 1850. On the outbreak of the Crimean War, Russell again went out as special correspondent for the Times. He accompanied the light division to Gallipoli in March 1854, and then he proceeded with the first detachment to Varna, where in August he witnessed the great fire that destroyed one-quarter of the city.

On the embarkation for the Crimea, Russell was attached to the British second division, which landed on September 14, 1854. "Few of those who were with the expedition will forget the night of the 14th of September," he wrote. "Seldom or never were 27,000 Englishmen more miserable." The problem was that no tents had been sent ashore, and torrential rain fell throughout the night on the troops, who had only their coats and blankets to protect them from the storm.

On September 20, Russell was present on horseback at the battle of the Alma, although riding around behind the action he was not able to see much for himself. For his reports to the Times he depended on the accounts given him by the soldiers and officers he questioned. He had a much better view of the battle of Balaklava on October 25 in which he witnessed the calamitous charge of the Light Brigade. His account of the charge was published in the Times on November 14, 1854:

They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses. Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? Alas! It was but too true—their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part—discretion.

Russell also witnessed the battle of Inkerman on November 5, 1854, which he described as "the bloodiest struggle ever witnessed since war cursed the earth. The bayonet was often the only weapon employed in conflicts of the most obstinate and deadly character."

During the winter of 1854-1855, British troops in the Crimea suffered severe privations due to bad weather, poor management, and inadequate supplies. There were no facilities to care for the wounded and not even enough linen for bandages. In his dispatches to the Times, Russell brought attention to the serious situation, claiming that the army had been ruined by mismanagement. Demands from the public for improvements led to the sending of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), a nurse who was to become famous for her care of the troops, to the Crimea. Russell's critical reports were also a factor in the downfall of the British government led by prime minister Lord Aberdeen. According to Philip Knightley, in The First Casualty, Russell's war reporting was "considerably closer the truth than anything the public had previously been permitted to learn, and his influence on the conduct of the Crimean campaign was immense."

In May 1855, Russell accompanied the expedition to Kertch but did not return to the Crimea until August. In September and October he described the attacks on the forts of Malakoff and Redan, and the occupation of Sevastopol.

After the Crimean War, Russell went on to cover the Indian Mutiny in 1857 (his report on it was adapted by Carson for his poem, "The Indian Mutiny" in Breaking News), the American Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War (including the battle of Sedan), the Paris Commune, and the British expedition to quell a Zulu uprising in 1879.

Russell, who received many honors and awards, was knighted in 1895. He died in 1907.


Breaking News, the collection in which "The War Correspondent" appears, received high praise from critics. Sean O'Brien in the Times Literary Supplement, comments that the collection, which ends with the seven poems that make up "The War Correspondent," "concludes with the teeming plenitude of atmospheric and material detail which has marked Ciaran Carson's work since his poetry came fully to life in the 1980s." O'Brien goes on to describe "The War Correspondent" as "a rich and remarkable piece of work.… the poems never read as antiquarian works of reconstruction." He singles out "Gallipoli" for particular comment, describing it as a characteristic Carson poem, "its thousand details all somehow got on board the poem's sixty-line sentence, only for the poet-correspondent to declare: ‘I have not even begun to describe Gallipoli.’" O'Brien describes this last statement as a "boast, an admission of failure and a profession of faith … [it] means that the world, however terrible, is inexhaustible."

In another favorable review, David Gardiner, in Irish Literary Supplement, comments that "Every poem within Breaking News addresses or alludes to political conflict and its results." He comments in particular on the final images in "Sedan,"—the music-book, the canary, and the vase of wild flowers—seeing them as characterizing the poet's "entire effort." He explains as follows: "Carson presents the poet as effete looter, taking part in none of the barbarity but trying to preserve it for later generations while looking for beauty for himself."

John Taylor, in the Antioch Review, describes "The War Correspondent" as a "richly detailed long poem." He contrasts this with the shorter poems elsewhere in Breaking News which are so "stripped of rhetoric … they resemble mere on-the-scene jottings."

When Breaking News was awarded the Forward Prize, the largest poetry award in the United Kingdom, the chairman of the judges, Sir Peter Stothard, said Carson had written "powerfully about war and politics—taut, truthful poems" (quoted in the Guardian).


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on poetry. In this essay, he discusses the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell and the use Carson made of it in "The War Correspondent."

Ciaran Carson's "The War Correspondent" is a tribute to the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell, whose words written in the mid-nineteenth century come to new life in the work of the Irish poet. Reading Russell's vivid, richly descriptive dispatches from the Crimean War, it is not difficult to see why they have exerted such an influence on the poet, who dedicates the entire volume, Breaking News, in which "The War Correspondent" appears, to Russell. Russell was an Irishman in the days before Irish independence; Carson is an Irish poet from a region of Ireland that remains part of the United Kingdom, who lived through thirty years of sectarian violence that turned his home city of Belfast into a virtual war zone. In Breaking News, Carson becomes a kind of war reporter himself, recording the sights and sounds of Belfast in the years following the uneasy peace settlement of 1998, during which tension and fear still pervade the air, British Army helicopters still fly overhead, and the memory of sudden, deadly violence remains clear. Carson also links the present-day reality of Belfast with the wars that have gone before it, including the Crimean War, an imperial war the traces of which can still be seen in the early 2000s in Belfast in the commemorative names of the streets: Sevastopol, Crimea, Inkerman. As Carson writes in "Exile":

is many
places then
as now


  • Carson's Selected Poems (2001) is a representative selection of Carson's poetry taken from each of his seven books up to The Twelfth of Never (1998). The selection shows how Carson's poetry has progressed and changed over the years.
  • The Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy (new edition, 2003), contains 250 poems from all ages, including Homer's Iliad, poems of World War I and World War II, the Vietnam War, and the later conflicts in Northern Ireland and El Salvador. Poets represented include Lord Byron, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Seamus Heaney.
  • Leo Tolstoy's Sebastopol Sketches contains three sketches by the great Russian writer who served in the Russian army during the Crimean War. The sketches give vivid insight into the lives of the ordinary Russian soldiers, and Tolstoy tells his story with a concern for truth and for his own feelings rather than what the authorities expect him to say. Some parts of the sketches were at the time subjected to censorship by the Russian authorities. The sketches are available in a Penguin Classics edition published in 1986.
  • "The Charge of the Light Brigade," a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, famously records the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Tennyson was inspired to write the poem after reading the description by William Howard Russell of the courageous but ill-fated charge. The poem is available in Tennyson's Selected Poems, published in 2003 by Phoenix Press.

The work of Russell marked the beginning of a new era in war reporting, through which the educated public became more fully informed about current wars than ever before. Although some of Russell's dispatches took nearly three weeks to reach London and get printed in the Times—by contrast to instant satellite communications that enable war correspondents in the early 2000s to be heard and seen live by millions of television viewers—in their accuracy and detail they represented considerable progress over former times. Only sixty years earlier, news of a great English naval victory over the French was conveyed by courier to the British Admiralty, and no less a personage than the Duke of Clarence went personally to the theater at Covent Garden and told the manager to announce the news to the audience. It was common during the French Revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars to make such announcements in streets and theaters. Newspapers were not the sources of such information; without reporters on the spot, they were dependent on the government, which controlled the channels of communication, to tell them what had happened.

In the Crimean War, the first major war in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the dry official dispatches that purported to describe events at the battlefront were eclipsed by the rise of a new type of newspaper reporter, the special correspondent, the greatest of whom was Russell. Russell's reports not only informed the public about the nature and outcome of key battles but also exposed the mismanagement that led to the extreme hardships suffered by British troops in the severe winter of 1854-1855. Working for the Times enhanced Russell's influence, since in the early 1850s it had a circulation of forty thousand, greater than that of all its rivals put together.

Russell's reports give the reader plenty of insight into the brutality of war and the suffering it inflicts. His descriptions of the aftermath of battles are particularly memorable, although they do not make for comfortable reading. After the fall of Sevastopol, Russell entered a hospital to which Russian casualties had been taken. He described what he saw as "the most heartrending and revolting" example of the horrors of war that had ever been presented. Here is part of his description of the wounded Russians:

Many lay, yet alive, with maggots crawling about in their wounds. Many, nearly mad by the scene around them, or seeking escape from it in their extremest agony, had rolled away under the beds and glared out on the heart-stricken spectator. Many, with legs and arms broken and twisted, the jagged splinters sticking through the raw flesh, implored aid, water, food or pity, or, deprived of speech by the approach of death or by dreadful injuries in the head or trunk, pointed to the lethal spot.

Although Russell's horror at sights such as these is entirely genuine, he also had a belief, in keeping with the age in which he lived, in the glory of war. He had his fair share of patriotic fervor regarding the "sublime efforts" of his countrymen in the "great struggle" that was the Crimean War (these words are from a preface he wrote when his account of the war was published as The British Expedition to the Crimea). In this respect, his writing is clearly from another era, as in this stirring account of a moment in the battle of the Alma, which reads almost as if it is from a comic strip designed to inculcate patriotic pride in British schoolboys:

Sir George Brown … rode in front of his Light Division, urging them with voice and gesture. Gallant fellows! they were worthy of such a gallant chief…. Down went Sir George in a cloud of dust in front of the battery. He was soon up and shouted, "23rd, I'm all right. Be sure I'll remember this day," and led them on again.

The poet Carson, however, had little interest in Russell's patriotism or his accounts of the suffering of the wounded. What most caught his eye was the journalist's keen observation, his eye for detail, his gift for the telling image. In "Gallipoli," for example, the first four stanzas, which consist in effect of a series of similes that create a picture of what the city looks like, spring directly from Russell's description of Gallipoli, written when he arrived there with British forces in early April 1854. Russell's first sentence begins "Take the most dilapidated outhouses of farmers' yards in England," which Carson adopts almost word for word in line 3 of stanza 1: "the tumbledown outhouses of English farmers' yards." The very first line of the poem is also taken directly from Russell's "carry off sheds and stalls from Billingsgate," which becomes "Take sheds and stalls from Billingsgate" in "Gallipoli." Russell's "borrow a dirty gutter from a back street in Boulogne—let the houses in parts lean across to each other so that the tiles meet" becomes "take a dirty gutter from a back street in Boulogne, / where shops and houses teeter so their pitched roofs meet" in stanza 3 of the poem.

Sometimes, the poet makes changes in Russell's account simply to create a rhyme. In stanza 3 of "Varna," for example, the French soldier who kills the man who started the fire is a "lieutenant," whereas in Russell's account he is identified only as an "officer." Carson makes the change so he can create at least a partial rhyme between "lieutenant" and "inhabitants" in the next line. In stanza 1, he takes Russell's phrase "fanned the flames as they leapt along the wooden streets" and writes, "fanned the flames along the tumbledown / wooden streets." The poet needed to add "tumbledown" in order to create a rhyme with "town" in the previous line. Similarly, Russell's "casks of spirits" becomes "the main vat" in order to create a rhyme with "commissariat" in the previous line. The "yells of the Turks" become "the yells / of prisoners trapped in their cells," which has the advantage not only of creating a more vivid image but also of providing the necessary rhyme. In stanza 6, Russell's description of the cavalry sabres "fused into the most fantastic shapes" as a result of the fire stimulates the poet to his inventive similes, in which the sabres are "looking like an opium-smoker's city-scape / or a crazy oriental fairground."

The final images in "Sedan," the last poem of "The War Correspondent" are among the most striking of all the images in these poems. Carson has plucked them almost verbatim from Russell's description of the scene he encountered at the site of the Redan fort after it had fallen to the British. Referring to bomb shelters, Russell wrote, "in one of them a music-book was found with a woman's name in it, and a canary bird and vase of flowers were outside the entrance." The only changes Carson makes, other than placing the line breaks appropriately to fit the form of the poem, is to put the journalist's discovery in the active voice ("I found") rather than the passive "was found," to add the adjective "wild" to describe the flowers, and to omit "outside the entrance," so as to create a more compact image of these items all being found in the bomb shelter. Thus does Carson fuse the prose of war reportage with the stuff of poetry to convey the irony of natural beauty and human culture found in the midst of wholesale, man-made destruction.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The War Correspondent," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

David Gardiner

In the following review, Gardiner points out that many of the poems map the city of Belfast, Ireland, while the prose of William Howard Russell gives a distant echo of the British imperial battles which can still be seen in the names of Belfast streets. In "The War Correspondent," "Carson presents the poet as effete looter, taking part in none of the barbarity but trying to preserve it for later generations while looking for beauty for himself."

As the third generation of poets after Yeats has entered mid-career, their mature works turn towards questions and topics which may quickly make generational classifications more obsolete than useful. This is, we are told, the first truly European generation of Irish poets, as comfortable in Moscow, Barcelona, or Omaha, as they are in Montenotte, Balldoyle, or Oughteraard. (Well, perhaps not Omaha.) As a poet whose work has remained imaginatively rooted in Belfast, Ciaran Carson easily commutes between the richness of his native city and wider reading publics. Evidence of this is presented by the awarding of the Forward Prize, poetry's version of the Booker Prize, in October to Carson's Breaking News.

The award is well deserved but comes as no surprise. Since the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award (1987) for The Irish For No, Carson's work has been recognized with the Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry (1990), the T. S. Eliot Prize (l993), and the Yorkshire Post Book Award (1997), among others. Throughout his career, Carson has been one of the Irish poets most willing to challenge himself publicly and aesthetically. The decade-long break from poetry between his firm collection and The Irish ForNo saw Carson's devotion to, and mastery of, traditional music and scholarship yield results within his newly-fashioned long line. Then again, his continued work in experimental prose forms as varied as, and in some sense similar to, the music which his prose first addressed, moved over the course of the next decade from occasional pieces into novels. Accompanying this work; there was also a logical expansion of his translation work from Irish to include Latin, French, and even Dante's Inferno itself, which is likely material for a writer who has plumbed the history and topography of his own city as intimately and imaginatively as did that of the exiled Florentine.

Most recently, certainly since First Language, it has become commonplace to propose that Carson's subject is language itself. Breaking News does subject language to this continuing interrogation, but it might also be seen as another of Carson's very public departures from his previous techniques. In many ways, the collection indicates not only Carson's place among the continuing generations of Irish writers, but also his place apart. It presents Carson as a poet fully capable of simultaneously challenging and building upon his body of work while engaging in some of the most difficult questions poetry itself has to face.

The tired conversation about the relationship between poetry and politics, or more specifically, poetry and war, might continue academic pronouncements but it is a damning clicheé for poets to face head on. The more tendentious the critical or creative approach the less likely it is to succeed, or simply to last. In Breaking News, Carson leaps directly into this lion's den and potential dead-end and comes out (relatively) unscathed. Comprised of 34 poems and dedicated to William Howard Russell, the nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish war correspondent, in both form and content the work marks a break, if not changing direction, from Carson's previous work. In Breaking News, conflict is no longer addressed obliquely, through the nod and wink poetics of The Irish For No (1987) or Belfast Confetti (1990). Perhaps building upon the hallucinogenic revisions of Irish political ballad in The Twelfth of Never (1999) and The Ballad of HMS Belfast (1999), Carson directly depicts and details the events and occasions of war.

Every poem within Breaking News addresses or alludes to political conflict and its results. The state of war which permeates the volume even creates a background pulse for poems such as the seven line, "Shop Fronts":

Cheek by jowl
Wilkinson Sword

This is an example where context is all. Without the backdrop of the other poems in the collection and Carson's other collections, this seems to be a spare poem indeed. One of the strengths of Breaking News though is the attention with which this has been shaped as a collection, a poetic sequence, addressing the relation between past and present conflict and language's role within them. Other reviewers have pointed to the eerie silences of the collection which resemble the same state of post-cease fire Belfast. Within the collection itself, Carson economically uses line length and allusion to create a dialogue with the reader that is at once familiar and alienating, thus encouraging such echos.

Readers of Carson have become used to the long lines since The Irish For No. That collection marked Carson's recognition and use of his backgrounds in traditional Irish music that has since—with a healthy dose of MacNeice, Whitman, C. K. Williams, Rimbaud, inter alia—marked his work. Not entirely unexpected, the short poems of Breaking News resemble the Basho haiku which demarcated Belfast Confetti. Except for the poems, "The War Correspondent," "The Indian Mutiny," and "The Forgotten City," there are few lines longer than a mere four syllables. In the three longer-lined poems, all depend upon others' lines for their length: "The Forgotten City" is after William Carlos Williams, and the other two poems borrow heavily from the prose of William Howard Russell.

Considered one of the founding fathers of war journalism, W. H. Russell's accounts of the disastrously led Crimean War (1845-46) almost single-handedly swayed public opinion against that war. In his notes to Breaking News, Carson writes that his poems are "especially indebted to his [W. H. Russell's] writing; in many instances I have taken his words verbatim, or have changed them only slightly to accommodate rhyme and rhythm" (59). Always surprising in his juxtapositions and location of sources, Carson looks back to not only the founder of war journalism—the way in which the reading public learns to speak about war—but to one of the first people to share with the English reading public the locations that would later become the street names and neighborhoods of many late Victorian cities, including Belfast. In this way, Breaking News continues to map the city of Belfast while Russell's prose provides the distant echo of the imperial battles which named Inkerman, Crimea, Odessa, and Balaklava as streets in Belfast.

In "The Indian Mutiny," Carson moves to the later, desperate battles in India. The translation, or adaptation, of the Anglo-Irishman's prose to poetry is truly remarkable. The full effect of both Carson's work on the original and its potential can be seen in a juxtaposition of just one of Russell's complete excerpts against this poem from Breaking News. In his original account of the siege, Russell writes:

I was looking through my glass at the time, and I distantly saw the gunners laying the piece for our humble selves just as he finished speaking. It is an unpleasant thing to look down the muzzle of a hostile gun with a glass. "I think," said I, modestly, ‘they are going to fire at us.’ As I spoke, pluff came a spurt of smoke with a red tongue in it—a second of suspense, and whi-s-s-s-h, right for us came the round shot within a foot of our heads, plumped into the ground, with a storm of dust and small stones, beyond us, then rising rushed over the wall into the chief's camp…. Just some twelve inches lower, and where had been the brains of some of us, or the subtler part? Of all horrid sights, I know none so bad as seeing a man's brains dashed out like froth from a canon-ball! One would never feel it one's self—for the time is come, when brains are out, that men will die. ‘My telegraph wires will be exposed to fire,’ said Stewart; and so we sauntered over to the Dilkusha, which was filled with Highlanders [93rd Highlanders who Russell earlier famously termed "a thin red line tipped with steel"]. No one asked us for our passes—we crossed the courtyard, ascended the flight of steps of the hall, and thence, through heaps of ruin, broken mirror-frames, crystals of chandeliers, tapestries, pictures, beds of furniture, mounted to the flat roof. A vision, indeed!

A vision of palaces, minars, domes azure and golden, cupolas, colonnades, long facades of fair perspective in pillar and column, terraced roofs—all rising up amid of calm still ocean of the brightest verdure. Look for miles and miles away, and still the ocean spreads, and the towers of the fairy-city gleam in its midst. Spires of gold glitter in the sun. Turrets and gilded spheres shine like constellations. There is nothing mean or squalid to be seen. There is a city more vast than Paris, as it seems, and more brilliant, lying before us. Is this a city in Oudh? Is this the capital of a semi-barbarous race, erected by a corrupt, effete, and degraded dynasty? I confess I felt inclined to rub my eyes again and again.

A reader of Russell may be struck with the exoticism, but the poetry may not normally be apparent. In his poem, "The Indian Mutiny," Carson simply adapts the lines from Russell:

There I was
looking down the muzzle
of a hostile gun
with a spyglass—
I think, said I, they're
going to fire at us,
and as I spoke, pluff
came a spurt of smoke
with a red tongue in it—
a second of
suspense, when whi-s-s-h, right
for us came the round-shot
within a foot
of our heads, and plumped
into the ground a storm
of dust and grit
with which we upped and away
and into the courtyard.
No one asked us
for our passes
as we climbed the staircase
to the upper room through
heaps of glass and broken mirrors,
tapestries and beds of silk,
to stare into the blue beyond
of palaces and azure minarets,
domes, temples, colonnades
and long facades
of fair perspective. Look for miles
away, and still
the ocean spreads,
the towers of the city
gleam amidst it,
spires of gold
and constellated spheres
so bright
I had to rub my eyes
before this vision
vaster and more beautiful
than Paris … (ln. 1-40)

What is included in the poem is clear, but it's what is left out that provides the real echo. Within Russell's accounts, we learn that this Siege of Lucknow was relieved largely through the efforts of Henry Kavanagh, an Irish civilian employed in India who volunteered to slip out from the besieged 33 acre colonial compound. Dressed as a sepoy, Kavanagh eventually made his way to the British forces. In a sort of perverse echo of the Siege of Derry, this troop of 1700 trapped Europeans and loyal sepoys fought their way out and abandoned the city with the help of the 93rd Highlanders. Carson's very careful identification of source materials leads the readers towards such background information while distinctly letting the materials literally speak for themselves.

It is a dangerous project to let what we would call if not yellow journalism outright propaganda speak for itself. This assumes a wry knowledge on the readers' part, but it also challenges the reader to draw their own distinctions between the changed significations of the writing which lie beneath what they represent of war. In Carson's 1996 reflection Last Night's Fun, Carson wrote in "Ask My Father":

‘Last Night's Fun’, to take an example, is a name or a label for a tune: it does not describe its musical activity nor impute experience to it. It is not about frolics reveled in on some particular night, although the name might put you in mind of them. In other words, the tune, by any other name, would sound as sweet; or as rough, for that matter, depending on who plays it, or what shape they're in. So, the names of tunes are not the tunes: they are tags, referents, snippets of speech which find themselves attached to musical encounters."

As Carson has moved forward from music to language itself, he has now focused on the language through which the vast majority of the english-speaking world now gets its "news," those tags, referents, and snippets of speech which portray war and impact poetry.

In Breaking News, Carson sketches out new demarcations that have yet another, unrecognized model—John Montague. In A New Siege, which would later become the tenth canto of The Rough Field (1972), Montague wrote in the same two-beat lines as he incorporated verbatim the words of Rev. Seth Whittle from during the Siege of Derry. There too, Montague carefully reworked the referents of this staunch defender of the loyal city so as to refer to the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association during the late 1960s. Montague sought to trace the "seismic lines" of Paris, Berkeley, Belfast, and Derry during the summer of 1968.

Breaking News ends with the seven poem sequence, "The War Correspondent," which could just have easily been titled, "Meditations in Times of Equally Trumped Up Imperial War." In the first poem, "Gallipoli," the previously careful abbca rhyme scheme breaks down as the narrative voice describes a place

where opium-smokers doze among the
  Persian rugs,
and spies and whores in dim-lit snugs discuss
  the failing prowess of sugarpowers."

These contemporary resonances coexist with echoes of Yeats's "Stare's Nest" from "Meditations in Times of Civil War," as Carson continues:

The insides of our huts became gardens. Grapes sprouted from the earth in sills, the floors, and the fireplace. As in a trance, We watched the vines crawl slowly up the wall.

Finally, Carson provides the image which may characterize his entire effort as it concludes the work:

… even the bomb-shelters
ransacked, though in one dug-out
I found a music-book
with a woman's name
in it, and a canary bird,
and a vase of wild flowers.

Carson presents the poet as effete looter, taking part in none of the barbarity but trying to preserve it for later generations while looking for beauty for himself.

In a sense, Carson may be affirming that as an artist, or reader, you can't "make" anything out of the subject of war which destroys. John Montague's experiment with his public meter resulted in a search for the rhythm which united the entire world. Retrospectively, there might be an air of late-1960s, or simply republican, triumphalism in Montague's work. In Breaking News, Carson's "I" is gone. In "Home," he writes:

Hurtling from
The airport down
The mountain road
Past barbed wire
Snagged with
Plastic bags
Fields of scrap
And thistle
From the edge
Of the plateau
My eye zooms
Into the clarity
Of Belfast
British army
At last
I see everything

Like so many poems of Breaking News, this poem moves on without an end stop. Juxtaposing these spare lines and images with some of the most loaded words in the English language, this poem joins the others of the collection in questioning not just the conditional nature of "home," but the need to fill in those equations. Breaking News does indeed continue Carson's explorations of language and war but in a uniquely challenging way by addressing not the literary utterance—the typical traffic of the poets—but what Eliot called "the language of the tribe." Other than Russell, there is little of the sophisticated wordplay of recent collections or the contemporaries with whom Carson is often compared. This collection starts humbly enough—a poem entitled "Belfast" is followed by "Home." With his translation of Dante's Inferno behind him, no structural aspect of Carson's work can be taken as accidental. Breaking News is an important installment in the divine comedy that Carson is writing of Belfast. In engaging the beginnings of empire through Russell, it is also an important contribution to the linguistic forces that have not only shaped Belfast, but much of the globe that continues to wrestle with the inheritance of empire.

Source: David Gardiner, "The Effete Looter," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 27-28.

Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Carson's work.

A poet and storyteller from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ciaran Carson is a gifted teller of tales who won a T. S. Elliot for his poetry and has been nominated for the Booker Prize. He inherited his love of storytelling from his father, Liam, who would tell his children stories in Gaelic. "As far back as I remember, the age of two or three I think," Carson said on the Radio Netherlands Web site, "every evening, my father would sit us down and say, ‘Now, here's a story for you.’ And the story would appear to go on night after night for weeks. Whether in fact he did tell us stories each night, for weeks and months and years on end, I'm not sure, but in my imagination it was that way."

Carson's poems, essays, and fiction are all infused with a distinctive, Irish style of tale telling. A common motif is his native Belfast, which is a living landscape to the author, scarred and worn by its violent recent history, yet alive with its people, culture, and history.

Carson's poetry reflects the pain that natives of Belfast stubbornly endure. "Reading Carson's poetry is a vicarious experience," commented William Pratt in a World Literature Today review of Selected Poems, "a bloodbath that is bloodless but thoroughly convincing, and for such a testimony to human endurance one has to be grateful despite the misery." John Kerrigan observed in an Essays in Criticism article comparing and contrasting Carson with fellow poet Seamus Heaney, "Carson writes with Proustian intensity about the elusiveness of memory in poems which thickly describe the fashions, songs, and smells of vanished Belfast." Kerrigan also noted the poet's fascination with cartography in his imagery about Belfast. Drawing a parallel between Carson and other Irish poets, the critic explained that "Carson is interested in the dubiety of maps which seem authoritative: no more permanent than place, they keep changing along with the city, and shape perceptions of the territory through censorship and velleity."

The sense of the transitoriness and mutability of Belfast, as in his poetry, is seen in Carson's autobiographical novel The Star Factory, in which he recaptures images of his youth before the time of terrorism between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland began. Compared by some critics to James Joyce's writing about Dublin and Seamus Heaney's memories of Ulster, The Star Factory reconstructs the poet's childhood memories in what New Statesman contributor Terry Eagleton called a "wonderfully evocative book" in which Carson "ransack[s] his Belfast boyhood for gleaming, sensuous treasures." In the book, the poet reflects on subjects ranging from school and his father to his boyhood friends and remembered objects. There is no real plot, and the book is not faithful autobiography, as it is tinged with Carson's artful eye. However, "Carson does not seek to fictionalise his history," wrote Sunday Times critic Walter Ellis. "Instead, he allows his finely honed mind to wander, unfettered, through the labyrinths of memory." Ellis concluded, "The funny thing is that The Star Factory is a splendid, easy read, packed, however obliquely, with wonderful reminiscences of old Belfast, a city much maligned."

In addition to capturing the past in The Star Factory, Carson also captures the musical essence of Ireland in Last Night's Fun: A Book about Irish Traditional Music, which was published in the United States as Last Night's Fun: In and out of Time with Irish Music. Less direct than his earlier Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music, which is more of an encyclopedia on the subject, Last Night's Fun seeks to convey the feeling of Irish music through thoughtful essays and poetry. Carson, a musician himself who plays the flute, touches not only on music, however, but also on such subjects as Irish cooking, homemade whiskey, the Gaelic language, history, and other subjects that one might hear spoken about while in an Irish pub. As one Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book, "It is an endless pub crawl in the labyrinthine soul of a remarkable writer who dares to play unfamiliar tunes." Alix Madrigal, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, called it an "impressionistic meditation on Irish traditional music." Madrigal continued, "Carson is full of asides and digressions, funny and learned both," concluding that the book "is a joy to read."

Carson's works of fiction are similarly quirky pieces. Fishing for Amber: A Long Story, for example, is unconventional and difficult to categorize. "I hesitate to call it a novel," said Erica Wagner in the London Times, "… it is a leitmotif." Divided into twenty-six chapters that are connected by several literary devices: the narratives are told by Jack the Lad, who is, in turn, telling stories from Irish mythology to a fairy audience; they are, furthermore, tales that were originally told to him by his father. "Another loose connection comes from the narrator's father's fascination with Holland, and his correspondence—in Esperanto—with a Dutchman," said Wagner. This part of the book comes right out of Carson's own life; his father had a similar correspondence with a Dutchman whom the family called Uncle Are. Carson then uses this device to write about such subjects as Dutch art and science, but he also touches on such diverse topics as stamp collecting and microscopes, among other seemingly unrelated things. "This is a strange work," Wagner concluded, "multifaceted, not entirely satisfying. But it is consistently intriguing, consistently original."

The troubles in Northern Ireland come to the center of Carson's fiction in his Shamrock Tea, another odd tale involving a magical tea that allows its main character, Carson, and his cousin Berenice to enter the painting "The Arnolfini Wedding" by Jan van Eyck, where they meet interesting people from history and have various adventures. But there is a serious side to the tale, for the fictional Carson has been sent into the painting by his Uncle Celestine, who wants his nephew to locate more shamrock tea, which is concealed in the painting. The tea has the additional quality of allowing those who use it to see the world more clearly and understand the oneness of all people. Carson's uncle plans to pour the tea into Belfast's drinking water, thus putting an end to the Protestant-Catholic fighting. This strange tale is a challenging but potentially rewarding read, according to critics. Nancy Pearl called it "maddening, entrancing, and mysterious" in a Booklist review, while a Publishers Weekly contributor warned that "because the disparate tales do not coalesce until late in this work, readers may lose patience, especially as the characters are ‘allowed no inner thoughts.’" However, Ian Sansom, writing in the Guardian, felt that Shamrock Tea is "perhaps [Carson's] most potent blend to date."

Source: Thomson Gale, "Ciaran Carson," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.

William Howard Russell

In the following excerpt, Russell describes the three places Carson presents in "The War Correspondent": Gallipoli, Varna, and Kertch.

… When morning came we only felt sorry that nature had made Gallipoli, a desirable place for us to land at. The tricolor was floating right and left, and the blue coats of the French were well marked on shore, the long lines of bullockcarts stealing along the strand towards their camp making it evident that they were taking care of themselves.

Take some hundreds of dilapidated farms, outhouses, a lot of rickety tenements of Holywell-street, Wych-street, and the Borough—catch up, wherever you can, any of the seedy, cracked, shutterless structures of planks and tiles to be seen in our cathedral towns—carry off odd sheds and stalls from Billingsgate, add to them a selection of the huts along the Thames between London-bridge and Greenwich—bring them, then, all together to the European side of the Straits of the Dardanelles, and having pitched on a bare round hill sloping away to the water's edge, on the most exposed portion of the coast, with scarcely tree or shrub, tumble them "higgledy piggledy" on its declivity, in such wise that the lines of the streets may follow on a large scale the lines of bookworm through some old tome—let the roadways be very narrow, of irregular breadth, varying according to the bulgings and projections of the houses, and paved with large round slippery stones, painful and hazardous to walk upon—here and there borrow a dirty gutter from a back street in Boulogne—let the houses lean across to each other so that the tiles meet, or a plank thrown across forms a sort of "passage" or arcade—steal some of the popular monuments of London, the shafts of national testimonials, a half dozen of Irish Round Towers—surround these with a light gallery about twelve feet from the top, put on a large extinguisher-shaped roof, paint them white, and having thus made them into minarets, clap them down into the maze of buildings—then let fall big stones all over the place—plant little windmills with odd-looking sails on the crests of the hill over the town—transport the ruins of a feudal fortress from Northern Italy, and put it into the centre of the town, with a flanking tower at the water's edge—erect a few wooden cribs by the waterside to serve as cafeé, custom-house, and government stores—and, when you have done this, you have to all appearance imitated the process by which Gallipoli was created. The receipt, if tried, will be found to answer beyond belief.

To fill up the scene, however, you must catch a number of the biggest breeched, longest bearded, dirtiest, and stateliest old Turks to be had at any price in the Ottoman empire; provide them with pipes, keep them smoking all day on wooden stages or platforms about two feet from the ground, everywhere by the water's edge or up the main streets, in the shops of the bazaar which is one of the "passages" or arcades already described; see that they have no slippers on, nothing but stout woollen hose, their foot gear being left on the ground, shawl turbans (one or two being green, for the real descendant of the Prophet), flowing fur-lined coats, and bright-hued sashes, in which are to be stuck silver-sheathed yataghans and ornamented Damascus pistols; don't let them move more than their eyes, or express any emotion at the sight of anything except an English lady; then gather a noisy crowd of fez-capped Greeks in baggy blue breeches, smart jackets, sashes, and rich vests—of soberly-dressed Armenians—of keen-looking Jews, with flashing eyes—of Chasseurs de Vincennes, Zouaves, British riflemen, vivandières, Sappers and Miners, Nubian slaves, Camel-drivers, Commissaries and Sailors, and direct them in streams round the little islets on which the smoking Turks are harboured, and you will populate the place.

It will be observed that women are not mentioned in this description, but children were not by any means wanting—on the contrary, there was a glut of them, in the Greek quarter particularly, and now and then a bundle of clothes, in yellow leather boots, covered at the top with a piece of white linen, might be seen moving about, which you will do well to believe contained a woman neither young nor pretty. Dogs, so large, savage, tailless, hairy, and curiously-shaped, that Wombwell could make a fortune out of them if aided by any clever zoological nomenclator, prowled along the shore and walked through the shallow water, in which stood bullocks and buffaloes, French steamers and transports, with the tricolor flying, and the paddlebox boats full of troops on their way to land—a solitary English steamer, with the red ensign, at anchor in the bay—and Greek polaceas, with their beautiful white sails and trim rig, flying down the straits, which are here about three and a half miles broad, so that the villages on the rich swelling hills of the Asia Minor side are plainly visible,—must be added, and then the picture will be tolerably complete.

In truth, Gallipoli is a wretched place—picturesque to a degree, but, like all picturesque things or places, horribly uncomfortable. The breadth of the Dardanelles is about five miles opposite the town, but the Asiatic and the European coasts run towards each other just ere the Straits expand into the Sea of Marmora. The country behind the town is hilly, and at the time of our arrival had not recovered from the effects of the late very severe weather, being covered with patches of snow. Gallipoli is situated on the narrowest portion of the tongue of land or peninsula which, running between the Gulf of Saros on the west and the Dardanelles on the east, forms the western side of the strait. An army eucamped here commands the Ægean and the Sea of Marmora, and can be marched northwards to the Balkan, or sent across to Asia or up to Constantinople with equal facility….

On the night of Tuesday (Aug. 10th) a great fire broke out at Varna, which utterly destroyed more than a quarter of the town. The sailors of the ships, and the French and English soldiery stationed near the town, worked for the ten hours during which the fire lasted with the greatest energy; but as a brisk wind prevailed, which fanned the flames as they leapt along the wooden streets, their efforts were not as successful as they deserved. The fire broke out near the French commissariat stores, in a spirit shop. The officers in charge broached many casks of spirits, and as the liquid ran down the streets, a Greek was seen to set fire to it. He was cut down to the chin by a French officer, and fell into the fiery torrent. The howling of the inhabitants, the yells of the Turks, the clamour of the women, children, dogs, and horses, were appalling. Marshal St. Arnaud displayed great vigour and coolness in superintending the operations of the troops, and by his exertions aggravated the symptoms of the malady from which he had long been suffering. The French lost great quantities of provisions, and we had many thousand rations of biscuit utterly consumed. In addition to the bread (biscuit) which was lost, immense quantities of stores were destroyed. 19,000 pairs of soldiers' shoes and an immense quantity of cavalry sabres, which were found amid the ruins, fused into the most fantastic shapes, were burnt. The soldiers plundered a good deal, and outrages of a grave character were attributed to the Zouaves during the fire. Tongues and potted meats, most probably abstracted from sutlers' stores, were to be had in the outskirts of the camp for very little money soon after the occurrence, and some of the camp canteen keepers were completely ruined by their losses. To add to our misfortunes, the cholera broke out in the fleets in Varna Bay and at Baltschik with extraordinary virulence. The Friedland and Montebello suffered in particular—in the latter upwards of 100 died in twenty-four hours. The depression of the army was increased by this event. They "supped full of horrors," and listened greedily to tales of death, which served to weaken and terrify….

Highlanders, in little parties, sought about for water, or took a stray peep after a "bit keepsake" in the houses on their way to the wells, but the French were always before them, and great was the grumbling at the comparative license allowed to our allies. The houses were clean outside and in—whitewashed neatly, and provided with small well-glazed windows, which were barely adequate, however, to light up the two rooms of which each dwelling consisted, but the heavy sour smell inside was most oppressive and disagreeable; it seemed to proceed from the bags of black bread and vessels of fish oil which were found in every cabin. Each dwelling had outhouses, stables for cattle, pens, bakeries, and rude agricultural implements outside. The ploughs were admirably described by Virgil, and a reference to Adams's Antiquities will save me a world of trouble in satisfying the curiosity of the farming interest at home. Notwithstanding the great richness of the land, little had been done by man to avail himself of its productiveness. I never in my life saw such quantities of weeds or productions of such inexorable ferocity towards pantaloons, or such eccentric flowers of huge dimensions, as the ground outside these cottages bore. The inhabitants were evidently graziers rather than agriculturists. Around every house were piles of a substance like peat, which is made, we were informed, from the dung of cattle, and is used as fuel. The cattle, however, had been all driven away. None were taken that I saw, though the quantity which fed in the fields around must have been very great. Poultry and ducks were, however, captured in abundance, and a party of Chasseurs, who had taken a huge wild-looking boar, were in high delight at their fortune, and soon despatched and cut him up into junks with their swords. The furniture was all smashed to pieces; the hens and ducks, captives to the bow and spear of the Gaul, were cackling and quacking piteously as they were carried off in bundles from their homes by Zouaves and Chasseurs. Every house we entered was ransacked, and every cupboard had a pair of red breeches sticking out of it, and a blue coat inside of it. Vessels of stinking oil, bags of sour bread, casks of flour or ham, wretched clothing, old boots, beds ripped up for treasure, the hideous pictures of saints on panelling or paper which adorned every cottage, with lamps suspended before them, were lying on the floors. Droles dressed themselves in faded pieces of calico dresses or aged finery lying hid in old drawers, and danced about the gardens. One house, which had been occupied as a guardhouse, and was marked on a board over the door "No. 7 Kardone," was a scene of especial confusion. Its inmates had evidently fled in great disorder, for their greatcoats and uniform jackets strewed the floors, and bags of the black bread filled every corner, as well as an incredible quantity of old boots. A French soldier, who, in his indignation at not finding anything of value, had with great wrath devastated the scanty and nasty-looking furniture, was informing his comrades outside of the atrocities which had been committed, and added, with the most amusing air of virtue in the world, "Ah, Messieurs, Messieurs! ces brigands! ils ont voleés tout!" No doubt he had settled honourably with the proprietor of a large bundle of living poultry which hung panting over his shoulders, and which were offered to us upon very reasonable terms. We were glad to return from a place which a soldier of the 71st said "A Glasgae beggar wad na tak a gift o'."…

Source: William Howard Russell, "Excerpts," in The British Expedition to the Crimea, George Routledge and Sons, 1877, pp. 13-14, 61-62, 269-70.


Carson, Ciaran, "The War Correspondent," in Breaking News, Wake Forest University Press, 2003, pp. 42, 45-57, 59.

Gardiner, David, "The Effete Looter," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 27-28.

Gibbons, Fiachra, "Triumph for ‘Breakfast’ Poet and a Comic Rival for Blake's Jerusalem," in Guardian, October 9, 2003,, ,1059043,00.html (accessed December 2, 2006).

Knightley, Phillip, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, p. 5.

Mathews, Joseph J., Reporting the Wars, University of Minnesota Press, 1957, p. 71.

O'Brien, Sean, "Belfast and Beyond," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5228, June 13, 2003, p. 10.

Russell, William Howard, The British Expedition to the Crimea, New and Revised Edition, George Routledge and Sons, 1877, p. v.

———, Russell's Despatches from the Crimea, 1854-1856, edited by Nicolas Bentley, Hill and Wang, 1966, pp. 28, 29, 30, 54, 67, 88, 127, 132, 176, 263, 264, 265.

Taylor, John, Review of Breaking News, in Antioch Review, Vol. 62, No. 2, Spring 2004, p. 372.


Crotty, Patrick, Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, Blackstaff Press, 1995.

This anthology of Irish poetry includes selections from the work of established poets such as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and Paul Muldoon, as well as some new and less well-known voices.

Lewis, Jon E., ed. Mammoth Book of War Correspondents, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.

This book highlights 150 years of war reportage in the reporters' own words, beginning with Russell's coverage of the Crimean War and concluding with the 1990s conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya. The one hundred pieces of war correspondence, which are arranged chronologically, include work by Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Edward R. Murrow, Seymour Hersh, Peter Arnett, and Ernie Pyle.

Royle, Trevor, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856, Palgrave Macmillan, reprint edition, 2004.

Royle is an expert on military history, and this book is widely considered the definitive work on the Crimean War. It describes in detail the causes of the war, the military action and diplomatic maneuvering, and the long-term consequences.

Warner, Philip, The Crimean War: A Reappraisal, Taplinger Publishing, 1973.

Warner provides a fresh examination of the Crimean War, suggesting that the traditional view, that the war was a classic model of military and medical incompetence, may not be the complete truth.