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Poetry: War Machine-Siegfried Sassoon

35 min read

Sassoon

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet, writer, and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a jingoism-fuelled war. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in his admission to a military psychiatric hospital; this resulted in his forming a friendship with Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by him. Sassoon later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the “Sherston trilogy”.

Siegfried Sassoon 

Dreamers

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land

Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.

In the great hour of destiny they stand,

Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win

Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.

Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin

They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

 

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,

And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain

Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,

And going to the office in the train.

 

‘Blighters’

 

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

 

I’d like to see a tank come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

 

Night on the Convoy

(Alexandria-Marseilles)

 

Out in the blustering darkness, on the deck

A gleam of stars looks down. Long blurs of black,

The lean Destroyers, level with our track,

Plunging and stealing, watch the perilous way

Through backward racing seas and caverns of chill spray.

One sentry by the davits, in the gloom

Stands mute: the boat heaves onward through the night.

Shrouded is every chink of cabined light:

And sluiced by floundering waves that hiss and boom

And crash like guns, the troop-ship shudders…doom.

 

Now something at my feet stirs with a sigh;

And slowly growing used to groping dark,

I know that the hurricane-deck, down all its length,

Is heaped and spread with lads in sprawling strength-

Blanketed soldiers sleeping. In the stark

Danger of life at war, they lie so still,

All prostrate and defenceless, head by head…

And I remember Arras, and that hill

Where dumb with pain I stumbled among the dead.

 

We are going home. The troop-ship, in a thrill

Of fiery-chamber’d anguish, throbs and rolls.

We are going home…victims…three thousand souls.

 

Aftermath

 

Have you forgotten yet?…

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at a crossing of city-ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game…

Have you forgotten yet?…

Look down, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget.

 

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop to ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

 

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

 

Have you forgotten yet?…

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

 

The General

 

“Good morning; good morning” the General said

when we met last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

 

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

A Poplar and the Moon

 

There stood a Poplar, tall and straight;

The fair, round moon, uprisen late,

Made the long shadow on the grass

A ghostly bridge ‘twixt heaven and me.

But May, with slumbrous nights, must pass;

And blustering winds will strip the tree.

And I’ve no magic to express

The moment of that loveliness;

So from these words you’ll never guess

The stars and lilies I could see.

 

Sporting Acquaintances

 

I watched old squatting Chimpanzee; he traced

His painful patterns in the dirt: I saw

Red-haired Ourang-Utang, whimsical-faced,

Chewing a sportsman’s meditative straw.

I’d known them years ago, and half-forgotten

They’d come to grief. (But how, I’d never heard,

Poor beggars!) Still, it seemed so rude and rotten

To stand and gape at them with never a word.

 

I ventured ‘Ages since we met,’ and tried

My candid smile of friendship. No success.

One scratched his hairy thigh, while t’other sighed

And glanced away. I saw they liked me less

Than when, on Epsom Downs, in cloudless weather,

We backed The Tetrarch and got drunk together.

 

Suicide in the Trenches

 

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.

 

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain.

No one spoke of him again.

 

 

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.

 

The Rear-Guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

 

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,

He winked his prying torch with patching glare

From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

 

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know;

A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;

And he, exploring fifty feet below

The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

 

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie

Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,

And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.

‘I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.

‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep,)

‘Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’

 

Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,

And flashed his beam across the livid face

Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore

Agony dying hard ten days before;

And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

 

Alone he staggered on until he found

Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair

To the dazed, muttering creatures underground

Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.

At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,

He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,

Unloading hell behind him step by step.

 

Absolution

 

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes

Till beauty shines in all that we can see.

War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,

And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

 

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,

And loss of things desired; all these must pass.

We are the happy legion, for we know

Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

 

There was an hour when we were loth to part

From life we longed to share no less than others.

Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,

What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

 

Absolution was written in 1915 – Sassoon said of it: “People used to feel like this when they ‘joined up’ in 1914 and 1915. No one feels it when they ‘go out again’. They only feel, then, a queer craving for ‘good old times at Givenchy’ etc. But there will always be ‘good old times’, even for people promoted from inferno to paradise!”

 

Wraiths

 

They know not the green leaves;

In whose earth-haunting dream

Dimly the forest heaves,

And voiceless goes the stream.

Strangely they seek a place

In love’s night-memoried hall;

Peering from face to face,

Until some heart shall call

And keep them, for a breath,

Half-mortal….(Hark to the rain!)…

They are dead….(O hear how death gropes on the shutter’d pane!)

 

Banishment

 

I am banished from the patient men who fight

They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.

Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,

They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light.

Their wrongs were mine, and ever in my sight

They went arrayed in honour. But the died,-

Not one by one: and mutinous I cried

To those who sent them out into the night.

 

The darkness tells how vainly I have striven

To free them from the pit where they must dwell

In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven

By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel.

Loves drives me back to grope with them through hell;

And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.

 

Early Chronology

 

Slowly the daylight left our listening faces.

 

Professor Brown with level baritone

Discoursed into the dusk.

Five thousand years

He guided us through scientific spaces

Of excavated History; till his lone

Roads of research grew blurred; and in our ears

Time was the rumoured tongues of vanished races,

and Thought a chartless Age of Ice and Stone.

 

The story ended: and the darkened air

Flowered while he lit his pipe; an aureole glowed

Unwreathed with smoke; the moment’s match-light showed

His rosy face, broad brow, and smooth grey hair,

Backed by the crowded book-shelves.

In his wake

An archaeologist began to make

Assumptions about aqueducts (he quoted

Professor Sandstorm’s book); and soon they floated

Through desiccated forests; mangled myths;

And argued easily round megaliths.

 

Beyond the college garden something glinted;

A copper moon climbed clear above black trees.

Some Lydian coin?…Professor Brown agrees

That copper coins were in that culture minted.

But, as her whitening way aloft she took,

I thought she had a pre-dynastic look

 

The Dug-Out

 

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,

And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,

Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,

Deep-shadow’d from the candle’s guttering gold;

And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;

Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…

You are too young to fall asleep for ever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

 

Everyone Sang

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark green fields, on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away…O, but everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless, the singing will never be done.

 

Grandeur of Ghosts

 

When I have heard Small talk about great men

I climb to bed; light my two candles; then

Consider what was said; and put aside

What such-a-one remarked and someone-else replied.

 

They have spoken lightly of my deathless friends,

(Lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble,)

Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,

What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered…

 

How can they use such names and be not humble?

I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.

The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said

What these can only memorize and mumble.

 

The Power and the Glory

 

Let there be life, said God. And what He wrought

went past in myriad marching lives, and brought

This hour, this quiet room, and my small thought

Holding invisible vastness in its hands.

 

Let there be God, say I. And what I’ve done

Goes onward like the splendour of the sun

And rises up in rapture and is one

With the white power of conscience that commands.

 

Let life be God…What wail of fiend or wraith

Dare mock my glorious angel where he stands

To fill my dark with fire, my heart with faith?

 

Song-Books of the War

 

In fifty years, when peace outshines

Remembrance of the battle lines,

Adventurous lads will sigh and cast

Proud looks upon the plundered past.

On summer morn or winter’s night,

Their hearts will kindle for the fight,

Reading a snatch of soldier-song,

Savage and jaunty, fierce and strong;

And through the angry marching rhymes

Of blind regret and haggard mirth,

They’ll envy us the dazzling times

When sacrifice absolved our earth.

 

Some ancient man with silver locks

Will lift his weary face to say:

‘War was a fiend who stopped our clocks

Although we met him grim and gay.’

And then he’ll speak of Haig’s last drive,

Marvelling that any came alive

Out of the shambles that men built

And smashed, to cleanse the world of guilt.

But the boys, with grin and sidelong glance,

Will think, ‘Poor grandad’s day is done.’

And dream of lads who fought in France

And lived in time to share the fun.

 

A Last Judgment

 

He heard an angel say now look for love, and look

For lust the burning city of his heart replied.

And the angel, whom his heart had life-time-long denied,

In silence stood apart and watched him while he took

The scarlet and the sceptre and the crown of pride,-

Calling for the masquerade and music of his minions,-

Calling for the loves whose murdered eyes had left him wise

With phantasies of flesh in wind-bewailed dominions.

 

Their tongues were guttering lights, their songs were sated revels;

Their mimicries that sank to whispers and withdrew

Were couriers of corruption. Mocked and maimed he knew,

For scrawls on dungeon walls his priapismic devils.

 

He woke; the sceptre broke; and cast away the crown;

Fought blindly with the strangling of the scarlet gown;

Cried out on hell and heaven, and saw the burning-bright

Angel with eyes inexorable and wings, once white

For mercy, now by storming judgment backward blown;

Saw absolution changed to unrelenting stone;

Shrieked; and aghast his ghost from flesh was whirled away

On roaring gales of gloom…He heard an angel say…

 

Wisdom

 

When wisdom tells me that the world’s a speck

Lost on the shoreless blue of God’s to-day…

I smile, and think, ‘For every man his way:

The world’s my ship, and I’m alone on deck!’

 

And when he tells me that the world’s a spark

Lit in the whistling gloom of God’s To-Night…

I look within me to the edge of dark,

And dream, ‘The world’s my field, and I’m the lark,

Alone with upward song, alone with light!’

 

Together

 

Splashing along the boggy woods all day,

And over brambled hedge and holding clay,

I shall not think of him:

But when the watery fields grow brown and dim,

And hounds have lost their fox, and horses tire,

I know that he’ll be with me on my way

Home through the darkness to the evening fire.

 

He’s jumped each stile along the glistening lanes;

His hand will be upon the mud-soaked reins;

Hearing the saddle creak,

He’ll wonder if the frost will come next week.

I shall forget him in the morning light;

And while we gallop on he will not speak:

But at the stable-door he’ll say good-night.

 

A Midnight Interior

 

To-night while I was pondering in my chair

I saw for the first time a circle of brightness

Made by my patient lamp up on the ceiling.

It shone like a strange flower; and then my stare

Discovered an arctic snowstorm in that whiteness;

And then some pastoral vale of rayed revealing.

 

White flowers were in a bowl beside my book;

In midnight’s miracle of light they glowed,

And every petal there in silence showed

My life the way to wonder with a look.

 

O inwardness of trust,- intelligence,-

Release my soul through every door of sense:

Give me new sight; O grant me strength to find

From lamp and flower simplicity of mind.

 

SONG (I Listen For Him)

 

I listen for him through the rain,

And in the dusk of starless hours

I know he will return again;

Loth was he ever to forsake me.

He comes with glimmering of flowers

And stir of music to awake me.

 

Spirit of purity he stands

As once he lived, in charm and grace;

I may not hold him with these hands,

Nor bid him stay to heal my sorrow:

Only his fair unshadowed face

Abides with me until to-morrow.

 

Everyman

 

The weariness of life that has no will

To climb the steepening hill:

The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still.

And then once more the impassioned pigmy fist

Clenched cloudward and defiant;

The pride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist

Grappling the ghostly giant.

Victim and venturer by turn, and then

Set free to be again

Companion in repose with those who once were men.

 

The mind of man environing its thought,

Wherein a world within this world is wrought,-

A shadowed face alone in fields of light.

The lowly growth and long endeavour of will

That waits and watches from its human hill,

A landmark tree looming against the night.

 

World undiscovered within us, radiant-white,

Through miracles of sight unmastered still,

Grant us the power to follow and to fulfill.

 

The Death-Bed

 

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped

Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls;

Aqueous like floating rays of amber light,

Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep.

Silence and safety; and his mortal shore

Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death.

 

someone was holding water to his mouth.

He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped

Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot

The opiate throb and ache that was his wound.

Water – calm, sliding green above the weir.

Water – a sky-lit alley for his boat,

Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers

And shaken hues of summer; drifting down,

He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept.

 

Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward,

Blowing the curtain to a glimmering curve.

Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars

Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud;

Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,

Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.

 

Rain – he could hear it rustling through the dark;

Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;

Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers

That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps

behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,

Gently and slowly washing life away.

 

He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain

Leapt like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore

His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs.

But someone was beside him; soon he lay

Shuddering because that evil thing had passed.

And death, who’d stepped toward him, paused and stared.

 

Light many lamps and gather round his bed.

Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.

Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.

He’s young; he hated war; how should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through?

 

But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,

and there was silence in the summer night;

Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.

Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.

 

Base Details

 

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,

I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,

And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,

Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’

I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;

Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this scrap.’

And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

 

A Flower Has Opened in my Heart

 

A flower has opened in my heart…

What flower is this, what flower of spring,

What simple, secret thing?

It is the peace that shines apart,

The peace of daybreak skies that bring

Clear song and wild swift wing.

 

Heart’s miracle of inward light,

What powers unknown have sown your seed

And your perfection freed?…

O flower within me wondrous white,

I know you only as my need

And my unsealed sight.

 

Sing Bravely

 

Sing bravely in my heart, you patient birds

Who all this weary winter wait for spring;

Sing, till such wonder wakens in my words

As I have known long since, beyond all voicing,-

Strong with the beat of blood, wild on the wing,

Rebellious and rejoicing.

 

Watch with me, inward solemn influence,

Invisible, intangible, unkenned;

Wind of the darkness that shall bear me hence;

O life within my life, flame within flame,

Who mak’st me one with song that has no end,

And with that stillness whence my spirit came.

 

A Premonition

 

A gas-proof ghost, I climbed the stair

To find how priceless paintings fare

When corpses, chemically killed,

Lie hunched and twisted in the stilled

Disaster of Trafalgar Square.

 

To time’s eternities I came;

And found the Virgin of the rocks

Dreaming with downward eyes the same

Apocalypse of peace… The claim

Of Art was disallowed. Past locks

And walls crass war had groped, and gas

Was tarnishing each gilded frame.

 

Asking For It

 

Lord God whose mercy guards the virgin jungle;

Lord God whose fields with dragon’s teeth are farmed;

Lord God of blockheads, bombing-planes, and bungle,

Assist us to be adequately armed.

 

Lord God of cruelties incomprehensible

And randomized damnations indefensible,

Perfect in us thy tyrannous technique

For torturing the innocent and weak.

 

God of the dear old Mastodon’s morasses

Whose love pervaded pre-diluvial mud,

Grant us the power to prove, by poison gases,

The needlessness of shedding human blood.

 

Ex-Service

 

Derision from the dead

Mocks armamental madness.

Redeem (each Ruler said)

  1. Mankind. Men died to do it.

And some with glorying gladness

Bore arms for earth and bled:

But most went glumly through it

Dumbly doomed to rue it.

 

The darkness of their dying

Grows one with war recorded;

Whose swindled ghosts are crying

From shell-holes in the past,

Our deeds with lies are lauded,

Our bones with wrongs rewarded.

Dream voices these – denying

Dud laurels to the last.

 

Metamorphosis

 

Sandys sat translating Ovid. Both his hands

Were busy. Busy with his curious mind.

Each note he wrote was news from fabled lands.

He hob-nobbed with Pythagoras, calm and kind.

In a quaint narrow age, remote from this,

Sat Sandys translating Metamorphosis.

 

The scholarship is obsolete, and the verse

Pedestrian perhaps. Yet, while I turn

His friendly folio pages (none the worse

For emblematic worm-holes) I discern

Not nature preying on itself, but Time

Revealed by rich humanity in rhyme.

 

Morning Express

 

Along the wind-swept platform, pinched and white,

the travellers stand in pools of wintry light,

Offering themselves to morn’s long, slanting arrows.

The train’s due; porters trundle laden barrows.

The train steams in, volleying resplendent clouds

Of sun-blown vapour. Hither and about,

Scared people hurry, storming the doors in crowds.

The officials seem to waken with a shout,

Resolved to hoist and plunder; some to the vans

Leap; others rumble the milk in gleaming cans.

 

Boys, indolent-eyed, from baskets leaning back,

Question each face; a man with a hammer steals

Stooping from coach to coach; with clang and clack,

Touches and tests, and listens to the wheels.

Guard sounds a warning whistle, points to the clock

With brandished flag, and on his folded flock

Claps the last door; the monster grunts: “Enough!”

Tightening his load of links with pant and puff.

Under the arch, then forth into blue day,

Glide the processional windows on their way,

And glimpse the stately folk who sit at ease

To view the world like kings taking the seas

In prosperous weather: drifting banners tell

Their progress to the counties; with them goes

The clamour of their journeying: while those

Who sped them stand to wave a last farewell.

 

Attack

 

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun

In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,

Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud

The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,

Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.

The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed

With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,

Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.

Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,

They leave their trenches, going over the top,

While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,

And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,

Flounders in the mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

 

The Merciful Knight

 

Swift, in a moment’s thought, our lastingness is wrought

From life, the transient wing.

Swift, in a moment’s light, he mercy found, that knight

Who rode alone in spring…

The knight who sleeps in stone with ivy overgrown

Knew this miraculous thing.

In a moment of the years the sun, like love through tears,

Shone where rain went by.

In a world where armoured men made swords their strength and then

Rode darkly out to die,

One heart was there estranged; one heart, one heart was changed

While the cloud crossed the sun…

Mercy from long ago, be mine that I may know

Life’s lastingness begun.

 

Brevities

 

I am that man who with a luminous look

Sits up at night to write a ruminant book.

 

I am that man who with a furrowing frown

Thinks harshly of the world – and corks it down.

 

I am that man who loves to ride alone

When landscapes wear his mind’s autumnal tone.

 

I am that man who, having lived this day,

Looks once on life and goes his wordless way.

 

On Scratchbury Camp

 

Along the grave green downs, this idle afternoon,

Shadows of loitering silver clouds, becalmed in blue,

Bring, like unfoldment of a flower, the best of June.

 

Shadows outspread in spacious movement, always you

Have dappled the downs and valleys at this time of year,

While larks, ascending shrill, praised freedom as they flew.

Now, through that song, a fighter-squadron’s drone I hear

From Scratchbury Camp, whose turfed and cowslip’d rampart seems

More hill than history, ageless and oblivion-blurred.

 

I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint-head spear,

On war’s imperious wing the shafted sun-ray gleams:

One with the warm sweet air of summer stoops the bird.

 

Cloud shadows, drifting slow like heedless daylight dreams,

Dwell and dissolve; uncircumstanced they pause and pass.

I watch them go. My horse, contented, crops the grass.

 

At the Grave of Henry Vaughan

 

Above the voiceful windings of a river

An old green slab of simply graven stone

Shuns notice, overshadowed by a yew.

Here Vaughan lies dead, whose name flows on for ever

Through pastures of the spirit washed with dew

And starlit with eternities unknown.

 

Here sleeps the Silurist; the loved physician;

The face that left no portraiture behind;

The skull that housed white angels and had vision

Of daybreak through the gateways of the mind.

Here faith and mercy, wisdom and humility

(Whose influence shall prevail for evermore)

Shine. And this lowly grave tells Heaven’s tranquility.

And here stand I, a suppliant at the door.

 

The Blues at Lords

 

Near-neighboured by a blandly boisterous Dean

Who “hasn’t missed the match since ‘92,”

Proposing to perpetuate the scene

I concentrate my eyesight on the cricket.

The game proceeds, as it is bound to do

Till tea-time or the fall of the next wicket.

 

Agreeable sunshine fosters greensward greener

Than college lawns in June. Tradition-true,

The stalwart teams, capped with contrasted blue,

Exert their skill; adorning the arena

With modest, manly, muscular demeanour,-

Reviving memories in ex-athletes who

Are superannuated from agility-

And (while the five-ounce fetish they pursue)

Admired by gloved and virginal gentility.

 

My intellectual feet approach this function

With tolerance and Public-School compunction;

Aware that, whichsoever side bats best,

Their partisans are equally well-dressed.

For, though the Government has gone vermillion

And, as a whole, is weak in Greek and Latin,

The fogies harboured by the august Pavilion

Sit strangely similar to those who sat in

The edifice when first the Dean went pious,-

For possible preferment sacrificed

His hedonistic and patrician bias,

And offered his complacency to Christ.

 

Meanwhile some Cantab slogs a fast half-volley

Against the ropes. “Good shot sir! O good shot!”

Ejaculates the Dean in accents jolly…

Will Oxford win? Perhaps. Perhaps they’ll not.

Can Cambridge lose? Who knows? One fact seems sure;

That, while the church approves, Lord’s will endure.

 

The Extra Inch

 

O BATSMAN, rise and go and stop the rot,

And go and stop the rot.

(It was indeed a rot,

Six down for twenty-three).

The batsman thought how wretched was his lot,

And all alone went he.

 

The bowler bared his mighty, cunning arm,

His vengeance-wreaking arm,

His large yet wily arm,

With fearful powers endowed.

The batsman took his guard. (A deadly calm

Had fallen on the crowd).

 

O is it half-volley or long-hop,

A seventh-bounce long-hop,

A fast and fierce long-hop,

That the bowler letteth fly?

The ball was straight and bowled him neck and crop.

He knew not how nor why.

 

Full sad and slow pavilionwards he walked.

The careless critics talked;

Some said that he was yorked;

A half-volley at a pinch.

The batsman murmured as he inward stalked,

“It was the extra inch.”

 

Because the Duke is Duke of York

 

Because the Duke is Duke of York,

The Duke of York has shot a huge rhinoceros;

Let’s hope the Prince of Wales will take a walk

Through Africa, and make the Empire talk

By shooting an enormous hippopotamus,

And let us also hope that Lord Lascelles

Will shoot all beasts from gryphons to gazelles

And show the world what sterling stuff we’ve got in us.

 

Memorial Tablet

 

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,

(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –

(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,

And I was hobbling back; and then a shell

Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell

Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

 

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,

He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;

For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;

‘In proud and glorious memory’…that’s my due.

Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:

I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.

Once I came home on leave: and then went west…

What greater glory could a man desire?

 

Neighbours

 

I pictured someone sharpening at a flint

Near where I live, antiquities ago:

Of me he held no neolithic hint;

And what tomorrow meant he could not know.

 

Conjecturing creatures comparable in change

From him to me, futurities ahead,

I thought how prehistorically strange

I should become, distanced among the dead.

 

The Deceiver

 

I saw that smiling conjuror Success –

An impresario in full evening dress –

Advancing toward me from some floodlit place

Where fame resides. I did not like his face.

 

I did not like this too forthcoming chap

Whose programme was to ‘put me on the map.’

Therefore I left his blandishment unheeded,

And told him I was not the man he needed.

 

When I’m Alone

 

‘WHEN I’m alone’ – the words tripped off his tongue

As though to be alone were nothing strange.

When I was young’, he said; ‘when I was young…’

 

I thought of age, and loneliness, and change.

I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,

And how unlike the selves that meet, and talk,

And blow the candles out, and say good-night.

  1. Alone… The word is life endured and known.

It is the stillness where our spirits walk

And all but inmost faith is overthrown.

 

Concert Interpretation

(Le Sacre du Printemps)

 

The Audience pricks an intellectual Ear…

Stravinsky… Quite the Concert of the Year!

 

Forgetting now that none so distant date

When they (of folk facsimilar in state

Of mind) first heard with hisses – hoots – guffaws

This abstract Symphony; (they booed because

Stravinsky jumped their Wagner palisade

With modes that seemed cacophonous and queer;)

Forgetting now the hullabaloo they made,

The Audience pricks an intellectual Ear.

 

Bassoons begin… Sonority envelops

Our auditory innocence; and brings

To me, I must admit, some drift of things

Omnific, seminal, and adolescent.

Polyphone through dissonance develops

A serpent-conscious Eden, crude but pleasant;

While vibro-atmospheric copulations

With mezzo-forte mysteries of noise

Prelude Stravinsky’s statement of the joys

That unify the monkeydom of nations.

 

This matter is most indelicate indeed!

Yet one perceives no symptom of stampede.

The stalls remain unruffled: craniums gleam

Swept by a storm of pizzicato chords:

Elaborate ladies reassure their lords

With lifting brows that signify ‘Supreme’

While orchestrated gallantry of goats

Impugns the astigmatic programme-notes.

 

In the Grand Circle one observes no sign

Of riot: peace prevails along the line.

And in the Gallery, cargoed to capacity

No tremor bodes eruptions and alarms.

They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity

As though it were by someone dead, – like Brahms.

 

But savagery pervades Me; I am frantic

With corybantic rupturing of laws.

Come dance, and seize this clamorous chance to function

Creatively – abandoning compunction

In anti-social rhapsodic applause!

Lynch the conductor! Jugulate the drums!

Butch the brass! Ensanguinate the strings!

Throttle the flutes!… Stravinsky’s April comes

With pitiless pomp and pain of sacred springs…

Incendiarize the Hall with resinous fires

Of sacrificial fiddles scorched and snapping…

Meanwhile the music blazes and expires;

And the delighted Audience is clapping.

 

Counter-Attack

 

We’d gained our first objective hours before

While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,

Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.

Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,

With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,

And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs

High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps

And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,

Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;

And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,

Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

And then the rain began, – the jolly old rain!

 

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,

Staring across the morning blear with fog;

He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;

And then, of course, they started with five-nines

Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.

Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst

Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,

While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.

He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,

Sick for escape, – loathing the strangled horror

And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

 

An officer came blundering down the trench:

‘Stand-to and man the fire step!’ On he went…

Gasping and bawling, ‘Fire-step… counter-attack!’

Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right

Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;

And stumbling figures looming out in front.

‘O Christ, they’re coming at us!’ Bullets spat,

And he remembered his rifle… rapid fire…

And started blazing wildly… then a bang

Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out

To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked

And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,

Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans…

Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,

Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

 

To Any Dead Officer

 

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,

Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.

Tell me, have you found everlasting day,

Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;

I hear you make some cheery old remark –

I can rebuild you in my brain,

Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.

 

You hated tours of trenches; you were proud

Of nothing more than having good years to spend;

Longed to get home and join the careless crowd

Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.

That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:

No earthly chance can send you crawling back;

You’ve finished with machine-gun fire –

Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.

 

Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,

Because you were so desperate keen to live:

you were all out to try and save your skin,

Well knowing how much the world had got to give.

You joked at shells and talked the usual ‘shop,’

Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:

With ‘Jesus Christ! when will it stop?

Three years… It’s hell unless we break their line.’

 

So when they told me you’d been left for dead

I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.

Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said

‘Wounded and missing’ – (That’s the thing to do

When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,

With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,

Moaning for water till they know

It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)

 

Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,

And tell Him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod

Under the Heel of England… Are you there?…

Yes… and the war won’t end for at least two years;

But we’ve got stacks of men… I’m blind with tears,

Staring into the dark. Cheero!

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

 

The Heaven of our Hearts

(To H.R.L.S.)

 

Heaven is a state of which we are not sure.

Beyond this world I dare not hope to endure;

But in my heart and my time-journeying head

There’s heaven on earth for friends beloved and dead.

 

You, and your work for Christ, for whom you died,

In long remembrance live beatified.

And your brave soul, which saw the seraphim,

In hosts of heart-won heavens will speak for him.

 

The Old Huntsman

[To Norman Loder]

I’ve never ceased to curse the day I signed
A seven years’ bargain for the Golden Fleece.
’Twas a bad deal all round; and dear enough
It cost me, what with my daft management,
And the mean folk as owed and never paid me,
And backing losers; and the local bucks
Egging me on with whiskeys while I bragged
The man I was when huntsman to the Squire.

I’d have been prosperous if I’d took a farm
Of fifty acres, drove my gig and haggled
At Monday markets; now I’ve squandered all
My savings; nigh three hundred pound I got
As testimonial when I’d grown too stiff
And slow to press a beaten fox.

The Fleece!
’Twas the damned Fleece that wore my Emily out,
The wife of thirty years who served me well;
(Not like this bedlam clattering in the kitchen,
That never trims a lamp nor sweeps the floor,
And brings me greasy soup in a foul crock.)

Blast the old harridan! What’s fetched her now,
Leaving me in the dark, and short of fire?
And where’s my pipe? ’Tis lucky I’ve a turn
For thinking, and remembering all that’s past.
And now’s my hour, before I hobble to bed,
To set the works a-wheezing, wind the clock
That keeps the time of life with feeble tick
Behind my bleared old face that stares and wonders.

It’s queer how, in the dark, comes back to mind
Some morning of September. We’ve been digging
In a steep sandy warren, riddled with holes,
And I’ve just pulled the terrier out and left
A sharp-nosed cub-face blinking there and snapping,
Then in a moment seen him mobbed and torn
To strips in the baying hurly of the pack.
I picture it so clear: the dusty sunshine
On bracken, and the men with spades, that wipe
Red faces: one tilts up a mug of ale.
And, having stopped to clean my gory hands,
I whistle the jostling beauties out of the wood.

I’m but a daft old fool! I often wish
The Squire were back again—ah! he was a man!
They don’t breed men like him these days; he’d come
For sure, and sit and talk and suck his briar
Till the old wife brings up a dish of tea.

Ay, those were days, when I was serving Squire!
I never knowed such sport as ’85,
The winter afore the one that snowed us silly.

Once in a way the parson will drop in
And read a bit o’ the Bible, if I’m bad,
And pray the Lord to make my spirit whole
In faith: he leaves some ’baccy on the shelf,
And wonders I don’t keep a dog to cheer me
Because he knows I’m mortal fond of dogs!

I ask you, what’s a gent like that to me
As wouldn’t know Elijah if I saw him,
Nor have the wit to keep him on the talk?
’Tis kind of parson to be troubling still
With such as me; but he’s a town-bred chap,
Full of his college notions and Christmas hymns.

Religion beats me. I’m amazed at folk
Drinking the gospels in and never scratching
Their heads for questions. When I was a lad
I learned a bit from mother, and never thought
To educate myself for prayers and psalms.

But now I’m old and bald and serious-minded,
With days to sit and ponder. I’d no chance
When young and gay to get the hang of all
This Hell and Heaven: and when the clergy hoick
And holloa from their pulpits, I’m asleep,
However hard I listen; and when they pray
It seems we’re all like children sucking sweets
In school, and wondering whether master sees.

I used to dream of Hell when I was first
Promoted to a huntsman’s job, and scent
Was rotten, and all the foxes disappeared,
And hounds were short of blood; and officers
From barracks over-rode ’em all day long
On weedy, whistling nags that knocked a hole
In every fence; good sportsmen to a man
And brigadiers by now, but dreadful hard
On a young huntsman keen to show some sport.

Ay, Hell was thick with captains, and I rode
The lumbering brute that’s beat in half a mile,
And blunders into every blind old ditch.
Hell was the coldest scenting land I’ve known,
And both my whips were always lost, and hounds
Would never get their heads down; and a man
On a great yawing chestnut trying to cast ’em
While I was in a corner pounded by
The ugliest hog-backed stile you’ve clapped your eyes on.
There was an iron-spiked fence round all the coverts,
And civil-spoken keepers I couldn’t trust,
And the main earth unstopp’d. The fox I found
Was always a three-legged ’un from a bag,
Who reeked of aniseed and wouldn’t run.
The farmers were all ploughing their old pasture
And bellowing at me when I rode their beans
To cast for beaten fox, or galloped on
With hounds to a lucky view. I’d lost my voice
Although I shouted fit to burst my guts,
And couldn’t blow my horn.

And when I woke,
Emily snored, and barn-cocks started crowing,
And morn was at the window; and I was glad
To be alive because I heard the cry
Of hounds like church-bells chiming on a Sunday.
Ay, that’s the song I’d wish to hear in Heaven!
The cry of hounds was Heaven for me: I know
Parson would call me crazed and wrong to say it,
But where’s the use of life and being glad
If God’s not in your gladness?

I’ve no brains
For book-learned studies; but I’ve heard men say
There’s much in print that clergy have to wink at:
Though many I’ve met were jolly chaps, and rode
To hounds, and walked me puppies; and could pick
Good legs and loins and necks and shoulders, ay,
And feet—’twas necks and feet I looked at first.

Some hounds I’ve known were wise as half your saints,
And better hunters. That old dog of the Duke’s,
Harlequin; what a dog he was to draw!
And what a note he had, and what a nose
When foxes ran down wind and scent was catchy!
And that light lemon bitch of the Squire’s, old Dorcas—
She were a marvellous hunter, were old Dorcas!
Ay, oft I’ve thought, ‘If there were hounds in Heaven,
With God as master, taking no subscription;
And all His blessèd country farmed by tenants,
And a straight-necked old fox in every gorse!’
But when I came to work it out, I found
There’d be too many huntsmen wanting places,
Though some I’ve known might get a job with Nick!

I’ve come to think of God as something like
The figure of a man the old Duke was
When I was turning hounds to Nimrod King,
Before his Grace was took so bad with gout
And had to quit the saddle. Tall and spare,
Clean-shaved and grey, with shrewd, kind eyes, that twinkled,
And easy walk; who, when he gave good words,
Gave them whole-hearted; and would never blame
Without just cause. Lord God might be like that,
Sitting alone in a great room of books
Some evening after hunting.

Now I’m tired
With hearkening to the tick-tack on the shelf;
And pondering makes me doubtful.

Riding home
On a moonless night of cloud that feels like frost
Though stars are hidden (hold your feet up, horse!)
And thinking what a task I had to draw
A pack with all those lame ’uns, and the lot
Wanting a rest from all this open weather;
That’s what I’m doing now.

And likely, too,
The frost’ll be a long ’un, and the night
One sleep. The parsons say we’ll wake to find
A country blinding-white with dazzle of snow.

The naked stars make men feel lonely, wheeling
And glinting on the puddles in the road.

And then you listen to the wind, and wonder
If folk are quite such bucks as they appear
When dressed by London tailors, looking down
Their boots at covert side, and thinking big.

This world’s a funny place to live in. Soon
I’ll need to change my country; but I know
’Tis little enough I’ve understood my life,
And a power of sights I’ve missed, and foreign marvels.

I used to feel it, riding on spring days
In meadows pied with sun and chasing clouds,
And half forget how I was there to catch
The foxes; lose the angry, eager feeling
A huntsman ought to have, that’s out for blood,
And means his hounds to get it!

Now I know
It’s God that speaks to us when we’re bewitched,
Smelling the hay in June and smiling quiet;
Or when there’s been a spell of summer drought,
Lying awake and listening to the rain.

I’d like to be the simpleton I was
In the old days when I was whipping-in
To a little harrier-pack in Worcestershire,
And loved a dairymaid, but never knew it
Until she’d wed another. So I’ve loved
My life; and when the good years are gone down,
Discover what I’ve lost.

I never broke
Out of my blundering self into the world,
But let it all go past me, like a man
Half asleep in a land that’s full of wars.

What a grand thing ’twould be if I could go
Back to the kennels now and take my hounds
For summer exercise; be riding out
With forty couple when the quiet skies
Are streaked with sunrise, and the silly birds
Grown hoarse with singing; cobwebs on the furze
Up on the hill, and all the country strange,
With no one stirring; and the horses fresh,
Sniffing the air I’ll never breathe again.

You’ve brought the lamp, then, Martha? I’ve no mind
For newspaper to-night, nor bread and cheese.
Give me the candle, and I’ll get to bed.

On Passing the New Menin Gate

Who will remember, passing through this gate,

The unheroic dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.

Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;

Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,

The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

 

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth ever,’ the Gateway claims.

Was ever an immolation so belied

As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

 

Prelude: The Troops

 

Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom

Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals

Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots

And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky

Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down

The stale despair of night, must now renew

Their desolation in the truce of dawn,

Murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.

 

Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,

Can grin through storms of death and find a gap

In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.

They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy

Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all

Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky

That hastens over them where they endure

Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,

And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.

 

On my brave brown companions, when your souls

Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead

Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,

Death will stand grieving in that field of war

Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.

And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass

Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;

The unreturning army that was youth;

The legions who have suffered and are dust.

 

They

 

The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back

They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought

In a just cause: they lead the last attack

On Anti-Christ; their comrade’s blood has bought

New right to breed an honourable race,

They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply,

“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;

Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;

And Bert’s gone syphilitic; and you’ll not find

A chaps who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”

And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”

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