Five Ways to Kill a Man by Edwin Brock: Summary

Five Ways to Kill a Man: About the poem

‘Five Ways to Kill a Man’ (originally published in 1990 ) by Edwin Brock is one of his two most anthologized poems, the other being ‘Song of the Battery Hen’.  This is one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century, as PoetryArchive reckons it. Edwin wrote this poem after hearing a piece of music by Benjamin Britten called The War Requiem.

This is what the poet himself has to say: “It was one of those poems which wrote itself. I can remember distinctly sitting rather stunned at the end of The War Requiem, pulling out a piece of paper and starting to write and within a very short time, perhaps half an hour, the poem was written and I can’t remember that I ever changed a line.”

However, in Five Ways to Kill a Man the poet pretends to tell us five different ways to kill a man (as the title itself too suggests it), four being some cumbersome ways and the last one the easiest. But ironically he recounts four important events of inhuman killings from the history in the first four stanzas. Those are the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the War of Roses from the medieval age, the First World War and the Second World War. And the concluding stanza sums up the poem’s theme by stating that we don’t really need those complicated ways to kill a man. The simplest way is just leaving a man in the middle of the twentieth century and see him die.

The poet actually hints at the war-ridden and poverty-stricken world where one was already dying bit by bit by leading a miserable life full of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, joblessness, political and religious intolerance, diseases and so on. Though Edwin Brock has mentioned the twentieth century explicitly, this poem has not lost its relevance in the twenty first century where we belong. The curses of restlessness and poverty still remain to haunt us. The poem can be broadly categorized as an Anti-war poem.

Edwin Brock: About the poet

Edwin Brock (1927-1997) was a British poet. His poems were published in ten volumes between 1959 and 1997. He is especially famous for his two most anthologized poems including the present poem, as already mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. He is known for the frankness in his writings. Wikipedia mentions him as one of the few British poets of his time to be known in the U.S.

Five Ways to Kill a Man: Stanza wise explanation

There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
to the top of a hill and nail him to it. To do this
properly you require a crowd of people
wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
man to hammer the nails home.

The poem ‘Five Ways to Kill a Man’ starts with the statement that there are many complex ways to kill a man. Then the poet goes on to give us a reference to the Biblical story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as one of the most ‘cumbersome’ ways ever deployed to kill a man.

A whole crowd walked up a hill and made Christ carry the wooden cross upon his back and finally nailed him to it. The cock crowed to remind St. Peter of Jesus’s prediction that Peter would deny Christ thrice before the cock would crow. They even made Christ remove his cloak to stay on top of the hill semi-clad. When he asked for water, they gave him a sponge soaked in vinegar tied to a rod which they put into his mouth. Eventually, Jesus died and they waited there to see him die. Such was the horrific and inhuman nature of the torture and killing.

The use of words like ‘people wearing sandals’, ‘a cock that crows’ and ‘one man to hammer the nails home’ are aimed at some clever touch of satirical humour to mock at people’s cruelty.

Or you can take a length of steel,
shaped and chased in a traditional way,
and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,
at least two flags, a prince, and a
castle to hold your banquet in.

Now the poet takes on the medieval barbarism of the War of Roses (1455-87), a series of war between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. The knights attacked each others riding white horses with sharp swords and axes in hand. They attempted to pierce the protection shields and kill each others. There were bows and arrows too. The English trees, two flags, a prince all refer to those medieval wars in England. The winning side often held a banquet in a castle.

This second way of killing men seems to be an advancement from the earlier way of killing Jesus. Again the tone is ironical and humorous.

Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
and some round hats made of steel.

In the third stanza of the poem, the poet says that we might get rid of the nobilities (knights) of the middle ages. Rather, we may blow the deadly gases by the help of favourable wind to kill our enemies. Here he refers to the gas warfare in the World War I (1914-1918). He talks about the ditches, the black boots, the craters, the rats, round steel hats and the morale boosting patriotic songs associated with the war.

Interesting to note that a popular anti-war poem of that time, Dulce et Decorum Est details almost all of these elements of the War.

However, we see here further improvement in the process of human killing that involves throwing poisonous gases and bombings.

In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
miles above your victim and dispose of him by
pressing one small switch. All you then
require is an ocean to separate you, two
systems of government, a nation’s scientists,
several factories, a psychopath and
land that no-one needs for several years.

Now the killing way shifts to the atomic explosions on Japan in the Second World War (1945, August 6 and 9). All it needed were an aeroplane to carry the bomb and a small switch to press. The Pacific Ocean was there to separate America and Japan, the two different countries with different governments and different cultures. The US scientists and several factories were working hard to create deadly weapons like the atom bomb. ‘A Psychopath’ (a person with mental disorder) probably refers to the then American president Henry S Truman who ordered the bombing on Japan. And ‘the land that no-one needs’ refer to the Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those were completely destroyed and remained unuseful for several years by the effects of radiation.

So the poet continues to be critical of the ways of mass killings that we have seen through the ages. Probably he is of the opinion that the advancement of science has done more harm than good to the humanity.

(And once again there is a poem A Doctor’s Journal Entry for August 6, 1945 that depicts the horrific after-effects of the bombings on Japan.)

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways
to kill a man. Simpler, direct, and much more neat
is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

We have reached the finishing lines where the poet confirms that the ways described in the first four stanzas were cumbersome. But in his opinion there is a simpler, direct and cleaner way for the same purpose. That is to see a man living in the middle of the twentieth century and leave him there to die. The indication is that a man cannot live longer or at least a peaceful and happy life in a twentieth century world where elements like war, hatred, intolerance, poverty, hunger, malnutrition and diseases will gradually lead to his death.

Needless to say, the poet has brilliantly conveyed his message that the use of scientific progress for the wrong cause will ultimately bring the civilization down. The theme of the poem has been the loss of humanity in mankind with every passing era. It is worth mentioning here that some critics have accused him of being pessimistic about the survival of the human race. Still, Brock has certainly earned a great place in the literary sphere with this poem, Five Ways to Kill a Man.