Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Friday, June 6, 2014

Poets who were also wargamers

In this piece we shall look at the work of a number of poets who were closet wargamers. Quite why they kept their interest in wargaming secret we can only speculate, but the evidence of their love of the little tin men is there in the texts for all to see.

We start with a close reading of Good-by by the great American Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).
Before the show

Good-by, proud world, I'm going home,
Thou'rt not my friend, and I'm not thine;
Long through thy weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I've been tossed like the driven foam,
But now, proud world, I'm going home.

This stanza finds the poet dissatisfied after a long day at a wargames show. Sadly, it is now impossible to be sure which show it was, but it is likely to have been put on by prototypical French Symbolists. The essential facts are clear nevertheless: our poet has copped a hiding in the participation game, the overpriced pastry he got for lunch was stale, and he missed out on those nicely painted Gordon Highlanders at the bring-and-buy after Edgar Allen Poe edged in front of him, the magpie.

The remainder of the poem is a passive-aggressive wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the speaker ruminates on a final return to nature after the crowds of sweaty bodies, the dubious air-conditioning and the unfair victory conditions.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also fell hard for the table, with the scene of his epiphany powerfully related in As I Ponder'd in Silence.

As I ponder’d in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me, with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said;
Know’st thou not, there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers?

Wargamer and Poet
Whitman's later career was characterised by extreme hobby confusion and the sense that he could only hint publicly at what he privately felt, yet in this brave, unguarded verse the Phantom represents what is surely Whitman's own True Voice. To paraphase, only tabletop battles, the writing of after action reports and the casting of accurately proportioned, historically authentic but not overly bendable tin soldiers are things truly worthy of a poet's attention.

Wargaming - this whisper roars - is the true Stuff of Life.

With that we turn east to the olympian Irishman William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and his apocalyptic vision, The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The slayer from Sligo
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In an age-old lament prefiguring the great Games Workshop debates by nearly a century, we here find the poet bemoaning a rules change which he clearly felt would have dire repercussions for future tournament play, and probably even for isolated house-ruling cliques. Not only are the rule writers out of touch with the reality of the games table, he charges, but they empower the tournament gamer at the expense of the genuine history enthusiast.

The end results of this particular revision are not recorded, but a reading of the second verse does not give the impression that the cracks could be easily papered over. Exactly who the rough beast of the second stanza is is a contentious question, but Aleister Crowley is surely a prime candidate.

With WRG 1st Edition
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is another famous - if dry - poet who quaffed from the wargaming bucket. Initially a wargame skeptic, his conversion to Anglicanism allowed him to see wargaming in a new light, as an exercise in futile world-creation. This was fertile soil indeed for an inveterate pessimist.

We meet him, appropriately enough, in The Waste Land (V - What the Thunder Said).

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

Here we have a verbatim record of Eliot's narrator in the role of gamesmaster, describing in visceral detail the terrain features of his J.G. Frazer derived "kill the king, devour the queen, spear the children under this red rock" skirmish scenario. Regard his repetitive use of negative forms: "no", "without", "neither" and "not", which combine to lend a mythic quality to the task. As an aside, we have good reason to believe that at this time the players may well have been Gertrude Stein and the enigmatic Alice.

Although publicly austere, W.H. Auden's (1907-1973) work suggests that he was more fantastical in regards to his private wargaming tastes. Witness his August 1968:
Orcs or Goblins?

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

The scene presents itself larger than life. His Men of Eastfold overmatched with a min-maxed 8th edition Ogre army, the narrator is forced to fall back upon racist stereotyping to disguise the hurt and humiliation that attends defeat. It is easier to insult the Ogre than it is to admit his own shortcomings as a commander.

Auden once again shows himself the master of brevity and spareness when presenting underlying psychological truth.

Space precludes us continuing further, but this short study alone makes it abundantly clear that the extensive cabal of wargaming poets has had great influence, dominating both the cannon and the canon.


Looking into a writer's life for clues about the possible meaning of his work is a practice now much frowned upon, yet research has thrown up what I consider to be relevant biographical information, so I shall include it, for those who may be curious.

- Ralph "Wargame" Emerson was a secret devotee of such enthusiasm that he wanted to convert an isolated shack in the woods into a storage / gaming room and call it "Walled In". Thoreau thought he was taking the mickey and forced him to settle for an attic, like everyone else.

- "Whiff" Whitman was so famous for fluffing his artillery rolls that people would stand on desks and recite "Oh Captain, My Captain" if he ever hit. This was the inspiration behind the memorable moment in the later film, Dead Poets Society, featuring "Rob 'em" Williams, who is as well known for stealing battles as he is scenes.

- William Butler "Bleats" was infamous for complaining about his poor dice (game room tradition has it he is a distant relation of the author of this piece).

- "B.S." Eliot had a reputation for constant, critical table talk. During one of Hemingway's famous WWI Italian Front game days Eliot told Papa that it was ludicrous for the ambulance corps to be represented on-table in 1/72 scale. Hemingway whacked him one and dared him to say it again. The situation would have turned ugly if F. Scott Fitzgerald had not chosen that moment to rise from the floor and shout "absinthe makes the heart grow fonder."

- "Warhammer" Auden, it is said, as well as an eye for the fantastic, possessed a penchant for lost causes, always preferring to take the side of the underdog. Funeral Blues, for instance, is rumoured to have been inspired by a singularly traumatic refight of Thermopylae.


  1. Very clever and entertaining post! For whom the bell tolls next?

    1. I dare say there'd be enough for a whole piece or two from the bard alone.

  2. Excellent stuff. Is that what you teach your students!?

    1. Thanks Paul. My students tend to be more on the 'a is for apple' end of the spectrum, but give them time!

  3. Aaron, you outdid yourself on this post! Very well done! Of course, now you have set the bar pretty high for yourself!


    1. hahaha, thanks John. The cheque's in the mail ;-)

  4. Now THAT's what wargames blogging is about! Pure class.

  5. Wow; what are you smoking, Aaron? :-) Very creative.

    1. Yeah, and keep some for me! When's our next game btw? I see there is a long weekend coming up next month...

    2. Maybe I've just quit? ;-) Yes, game day would be great Lu
      ke. Let's look into it...

  6. Very clever, if perhaps somewhat warped, LOL!

  7. Despite being an inveterate 'lurker', I had to join to say how good this is. Well done, Sir!

  8. Classic. I think the name "B.S Eliot" is my favourite :-) (well, that whole paragraph is great, but maybe that's mainly due the involvement of Papa)

    1. Cheers Nige, can never resist a literary joke - as long as I get it, that is! ;-)


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