“Five Ways to Kill a Man” by Edwin Brock mocks at the dehumanization of man. The poem describes the various ways that man has used, beginning from the ancient times to the 20th century, to kill other human beings. The methods he has used are crucifixion, lancing, gassing, bombing etc.
The very first stanza of the poem, ‘Five Ways to Kill a Man’ begins with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The method used to torture him and kill him are termed as ‘cumbersome’ by the poet. A whole crowd walks up a hill as they force him to carry the cross upon his back. Earlier, St. Peter had denied thrice to have known him when he was asked whether he was in the company of Jesus. The cock crowed to remind Peter that Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny Christ thrice before the cock would crow. Jesus was nailed to the cross and the cross was then pulled erect. Later on, Christ was asked to remove his cloak, so that he would not be able to have a proper burial and his corpse would be left on top of the hill semi-clad. Christ was tortured in many ways. When Christ asked for water, they gave him sponge soaked in vinegar tied to a rod which they put into his mouth. Eventually, Jesus died and they waited there and watched him die.
The second stanza talks about the medieval age when wars were fought for the sake of crown and honour. This is a reference to the Wars of Roses (1455-1485), a series of dynastic wars fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York, for the throne of England. There, the knights foolishly slaughtered each other with hook axes and hammers which could pierce the armour with ease. They rode and faced the opponents on white horses, attacking them with swords, ready to kill or to be killed. The poet calls this game of jousting as futile because nothing was accomplished, one man always ended up losing his life and the other celebrated his death. Similarly, crowns used to go on conquering sprees, fighting huge wars to annex small kingdoms. Two countries would go to war and thousands o f people would die on both sides, before one prince would emerge as ‘victorious.’ Then the prince would throw a banquet, celebrating his victory and the deaths of the numerous people he killed.
The third stanza of ‘Five Ways to Kill a Man’ is about the First World War. The poet says that this period did not require Princes or loyal knights to kill. They only needed the favourable wind direction to blow the deadly gas towards their opponents. The poet here refers to the poisonous gas warfare that was popular during the World War. In 1915, the British used gas cylinders on the Germans. However, the wind direction changed and the gas came back to the British soldiers and poisoned them. Edwin Brock also describes the horrors of bombs, mud-blackened boots, plague of mice and the miserable living conditions in the ditches. The poet talks about all those patriotic songs that were sung to boost the morale of the soldiers and make them feel proud for killing their enemies.
: The advent of the airplane and the atomic bomb is what the fourth stanza is about. Here in this very stanza, he is referring to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the USA during the Second World War. This horrible act of mass killing was executed by a ‘psychopath’ possibly referring to the then President of the USA, Harry S. Truman who authorized the bombing on Japan. ‘Land that no one needs for several years’ is a reference to regions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were completely destroyed by the effects of radiation.
The final stanza talks about the far simple and more direct methods to kill a man. The poet says that methods described in the first four stanzas were too cumbersome. The simpler and direct method to kill someone is by leaving the victim somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Here, Edwin Brock is referring to the miserable and tragic conditions which were prevalent after the Second World War, which included poverty, hunger, malnutrition, diseases, religious intolerance and joblessness. In such terrible conditions, man was already dying of pain every day in order to survive.
Thus, the poem wants to highlight the fact that though man acquired new methods to discover, create but the basic human tendency to kill remain unchanged.