“Bats have no bankers and they do not drink.” B. was divorced, had child support payments to make, that he struggled to meet, and of course he drank—a lot. Which caused endless embarrassment and problems, though the alcohol addiction did offer the benefit of extended periods of unconscious oblivion, so there’s that. Still, nothing more understandable than to wish oneself into a cave with the bats to just hang there, upside down, lazily producing your ten-times-daily splatter of guano and generally at rest and peace with your other unambitious bat buddies, “crisisless.” Instead of the chilly wet comforting dark cave, of course, we humans are pressured out into the filthy bright lights of the world. This whole wish is a version of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, where you can be unambitious and comfortable, and where bankers, ex-wives, critics, thugs, and murderers do not wait to make your misspent life so damn miserable.
It’s more complex than that though, because Henry can be no comfortable bat, hidden away. He’s forced out into the world to “serve”, but he responds not by embracing the task, but “Instead of the cave? I serve, / inside, my blind term.” Not in the cave, but blind like a bat while out of it, blind bat out in the world. Perhaps it’s even like he takes the cave out there with him, internalizing the retreat it symbolizes. Afraid to think outside of the cave, as it were. But he was also charming, a brilliant teacher, a famous literary figure. He was indeed out there fighting, like everybody else. He didn’t like it, but you don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. It almost seems like the cultivation of this shrinking persona was tied up with the creative process. This was where he wrote from.
The third stanza is more obscure. Obviously, B. has someone specific in mind, a Legionnaire, which refers to someone in the French Foreign Legion, I assume, warriors legendary for a ferocious courage under fire and an utter refusal to ever capitulate—determined to die first—and, completely intolerant of reticence or cowardice. Run from battle and you’ll assuredly be shot for it. At Dien Bien Phu, the Legionnaires fought the Viet Minh until they were out of supplies and exhausted, but they still wouldn’t surrender. They famously held off Rommel at Bir Hacheim in the desert during WWII, until they were overwhelmed and ordered out. The Legionnaire who is both theatrical and tragic is someone who goes out there and fights, and he’ll “cast” you or shoot you and not lose any sleep over it either way. Whoever this person was, B. uses him as counterpoint, an admirable alternative to living in one’s chilly cave.
I wish there was an alternative outside of the opposites of bat on one hand or warrior Legionnaire on the other. There is, and without acknowledging it, B. found it too. Scholar, writer, teacher, critic and man of peace. But this is the dichotomy B. is working with here. Vive la patrie!