Though the general meaning of the poem “Opportunity” can be readily grasped, there are a few things to be aware of. Through a cursory reading, we know a battle is going on. We know a prince is getting the bad end of the deal. And we know that one of his fighters throws in the towel by breaking his sword and throwing it away, then slinks off to find the equivalent of the nearest safe Starbucks or pub. But after that general reading, let’s look more closely at a few distinctive words and lines.
First, the author launches the poem by saying he doesn’t know whether he actually saw this battle or dreamed it in a dream. But he establishes that he personally observed this battle and, therefore, is qualified to narrate the circumstances and events. But his narration deals with more than one person at different times, and in different places on the field, and he sees the battle as a whole. That being the case, he tells the story from an omniscient, or godlike point of view. He knows everything that’s going on.
But his observations are far from detached, as we see in his use of titles and adjectives. A prince is not only a person of royalty, but is a word used to describe a good guy, a “prince” of a fellow. The prince in the story has no name except “prince”, and no emblem except “banner”. He is also established as the underdog, at which point he gains our immediate sympathy. The bad dude is given no name or title, not even soldier or minion. He is simply called “a craven”, which means coward. And the craven’s actions are described by words such as “lowering” (which can mean he stooped over so as not to be seen, but can also mean lowering his self-esteem in his own eyes; I believe this is a double meaning), and “crept”, (to creep along – or slink along – with the body close to the ground), which gives us a very nasty view of this nasty guy.
Now that we’ve established the characters, let’s look at what’s happening. On the surface, we know there is a pitched battle on a sandy plain going on. These armies trampling and struggling cause a dust cloud that hovers over, or obscures all beneath it. (There spread a cloud of dust along a plain, and underneath the cloud, or in it, raged a furious battle). But a cloud can also be a portent of things to come, for good or ill. So the cloud of dust adds to the expectancy.
We know that this was a pitched battle — in other words, both sides were committed to this place and time (it wasn’t just a skirmish) — and men were throwing all they had into taking each other down. The warrior yell that seems to rise up automatically along with battle rage, was heard even through the clash of arms. Swords did not clang, they “shocked”. Meaning the swords were struck with such force and power that the shock could be felt throughout the bodies of both the one giving the blow and the one receiving it. It was a blow that could split a shield or a head with equal ease and the sound of it, along with the warrior yells, was enough to numb the senses. It was a ruthless, savage battle where there could be only one victor — the one who was committed to laying everything on the line, and willing to snatch at the least small advantage.
The craven looked at the horror around him and saw that he was outnumbered and out manned. Then he looked at the inferior quality of his weapon and right then decided everything was hopeless. So he simply gave up. Since he didn’t have the superior quality weapon that the prince had — (That blue blade that the king’s son bears) — in bitterness and envy the craven threw away the one advantage he did have. He broke his sword — (this blunt thing) — and tossed it. Then he threw away his honor and fled the field.
In the meantime, the “king’s son” comes along to that place on the field that the coward has vacated. His army has gotten the worst of the battle. The prince is wounded and weaponless, and it looks like he has been separated from his personal guard, which means they are probably all dead or wounded themselves.
Now let’s pause here a moment to look at an unusual word — bestead. (Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead, and weaponless). Over and over I have read the rendering of this word as “bested”, as in “defeated”, or “he has been bested”. Not once have I ever thought of this word as “bested”, and I see it as a ridiculous interpretation. First of all, no battle is over until the fat lady sings. Battles, as does football, have last second miracle plays — a Hail Mary. So the prince is not “bested” in any sense of the word – yet. He’s still on the move, looking over the trampled ground for any advantage, even though he’s wounded.
A dictionary definition of the archaic word “bestead” is locality or place. In the old days in some countries, farms (places) were called “steadings”. But that definition did not fit the context used here. So I dug a little deeper and found that the word “bestead” is used only once in the Bible in Isaiah 8:21, and is from the Hebrew meaning “to oppress, or be in circumstances of hardship” This was spot on for the prince’s circumstances in this battle.
But, I really had an “Aha!” moment when I researched the author, Edward Rowland Sills. And, yes, this is a big deal when interpreting poetry. To know the author is to know the poem – at least as a big piece of the puzzle. Sills not only lived during the Civil War era, he was briefly a divinity student. He was also an educator who taught Greek and Latin, and I could just about dare say he knew some Hebrew as well, and he most certainly knew the Bible. So. I rest my case. In my opinion, the word is “bestead” as in the Hebrew for oppressed and in circumstances of hardship. Not “bested”, which doesn’t even fit the context, especially in light of what happens next.
The prince finds the broken sword, “hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand”, and snatches it like it’s the last drop of water in the Sahara desert, It may not be the best weapon. It’s certainly not now a whole weapon. But it is a slight advantage that the prince uses to a major advantage. His battle shout rings out across the field, bringing hope to his men who rise up with him. And because the prince immediately saw the broken sword as an opportunity, he took it. And because of his actions, he “saved a great cause that heroic day”.
So the author is telling us here, in the beauty of poetry, that, depending on a person’s attitude, he can either snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or defeat from the jaws of victory.
Opportunity – by Edward Rowland Sills
This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
A craven hung along the battle’s edge,
And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel —
That blue blade that the king’s son bears — but this
Blunt thing—!” He snapped and flung it from his hand,
And lowering crept away and left the field.
Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
Lifted afresh, he hewed his enemy down,
And saved a great cause that heroic day.
Now here is a video I found of a reading by Dave Crenshaw. The poem is not word for word, but close enough. I enjoyed it.