Usually I’m reluctant to post any discussion or explanation before the poem as I feel it may unduly influence people’s reaction. In this case, though, the poem is deeply historical and specific to a place and time; it also draws on my unusual degree of knowledge about those specifics. So I need to explain.
At Cambridge I studied History and in the third year we had to specialise a bit, selecting one topic for a detailed study. I chose “Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution”. I’ve remained fascinated by the Civil War and Commonwealth (= Republic) period ever since. I found most sympathy with the more radical people on the Parliamentary side and this poem reflects their experience.
A “forlorn hope” was a military term for a small cavalry detachment – but it’s also, of course, a hope with very little chance of success.
The “Good Old Cause” was the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause and it extended well beyond the Civil War. Examples are “Where’s your Good Old Cause now?” (person in the crowd to Major-General Harrison – “regicide” – when he was being taken to be executed after the rstoration of the monarchy. Harrison: “Why, here it is,” (touching his heart) “and I go to seal it with my blood.” Sidney, aristocratic Whig about to be executed for his part in the Rye House plot against Charles II some twenty years later: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…”.
I’ve mixed three political ideas in the first verse: the common Parliamentary one that the King was not outside or standing over the law, but subject to it; the more radical one that the people should be sovereign; and the radical idea held by the Levellers that the English people were a subject people since their conquest by the Normans in 1066 and the Civil War had been a war of liberation. “The Norman yoke” was a phrase commonly used to express this idea.
After the King’s defeat in the war and the taming of Parliament by Cromwell, senior miltary officers (Cromwell the foremost) were widely seen as “the new lords” or “grandees”, though they did strive to limit their own power and find some kind of new political system. “For what, then, did we fight and die?” echoes the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborowe responding to Cromwell’s defence of a social hierarchy of nobles, gentry and yeomen – “If this be true, then for what did we contend?”.
The last verse reflects bitter disappointment after the Restoration and yet (history justified) hope that all would not be lost in the end.
Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause
The King is subject to the Laws
The People are the true sovereign
Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain
The fight is won, the Norman yoke
Is in the dust, the crown is broke
But now the new lords stand on high
For what, then, did we fight and die?
The Cause is down, the free are sheep
The Spirit does not die but sleep
Those who are blind will one day see
And those in chains will soon be free.