[Editor: This article is about “The Blood Vote”, a significant anti-conscription poem of the First World War. Published in The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1919.]
“The Blood Vote.”
The Big War produced very little Great Poetry. True, it gave rise to a great deal of verse, and a still larger quantity of doggerel.
Possibly it was dog-gerell — or ought it be dog-ger-Hell? — because most of it belauded the dogs of war.
It remained for Australia to produce what, in many respects, was probably the finest poem written during those four blood-drenched years.
That poem was “The Blood Vote,” by W. R. Winspear, and which originally appeared in The Worker.
I remember one morning Winspear coming to me in my den to ask what I thought five hundred reprints in dodger form of “The Blood Vote” would cost. I replied to the effect that very probably the anti-conscriptionist organisations would do whatever reprinting seemed necessary.
And those organisations did reprint, but so great was the demand for the poem that not five hundred, but scores and scores of thousands, illustrated by Claude Marquet, were turned out. They went all over Australia. They were pasted up all over the place. And, without a doubt, the poem played a very considerable part in defeating the proposals of those who advocated throat-slitting by compulsion.
* * *
“The Blood Vote” is still being reprinted — and in Tory papers, but papers which recognise a literary gem when they see it.
Recently, “Current Opinion,” one of America’s leading journals, reprinted it, incidentally remarking: “A more powerful appeal has seldom been put into verse in the history of literature, and we say this, too, believing in universal military training for the United States.”
Lest we forget, or have already forgotten, that poem is here reprinted:
THE BLOOD VOTE.
“Why is your face so white, Mother?
Why do you choke for breath?”
“Oh, I have dreamt in the night, my son,
That I doomed a man to death.”
“Why do you hide your head, Mother,
And crouch above it in dread?”
“It beareth a dreadful brand, my son;
With the dead man’s blood ’tis red.
“I hear his widow cry in the night;
I hear his children weep;
And always within my sight, O God!
The dead man’s blood doth leap.
“They put the dagger into my grasp;
It seemed but a pencil then;
I did not know it was a fiend a-gasp
For the priceless blood of men.
“They gave me the ballot paper,
The grim death-warrant of doom,
And I smugly sentenced a man to death
In that dreadful little room.
“I put it inside the Box of Blood,
Nor thought of the man I’d slain,
Till at midnight came like a whelming flood
God’s word — and the Brand of Cain.
“O little son! O my little son!
Pray God for your Mother’s soul,
That the scarlet stain may be white again
In God’s great Judgment Roll.
* * *
The poem has its faults. Its metre slips a cog here and there, but these things are merely details compared with the effect obtained.
Perhaps if it hadn’t such defects it wouldn’t be so great a poem.
The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1919, p. 15
beareth = (archaic) bears
belaud = to praise highly, especially to praise excessively (from “laud”, meaning “to praise”)
brand of Cain = (also known as the “mark of Cain”) an association of public disapproval or public disgrace over a crime or a perceived wrongdoing, sin, personal failing, or controversial action; to have been publicly labelled as an evildoer; a badge of shame, a sign of infamy; the mark of a murderer; derived from the Bible story (in the Book of Genesis) in which Cain (the eldest of the two sons of Adam and Eve) killed his brother Abel, and thus the word “Cain” became associated with murder (in Genesis, chapter 4, Cain is afraid of being killed in retaliation, and God gives him a mark to signify that no-one should kill him, or they would face severe retribution)
dodger = a small handbill, circular, flyer or leaflet (often referring to an advertising leaflet)
doggerel = poorly written poetry; comedic or burlesque poetry, irregular in style; poetry of a trivial nature
doth = (archaic) does
’tis = (archaic) a contraction of “it is”
whelming = (vernacular) overwhelming
score = twenty (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”) (may also refer to an undefined large number)
Tory = someone who is politically conservative (especially used re. Britain, but also in places settled by the British)