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”. BOOK
|Siegfried Sassoon |
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
(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.
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!”
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!)
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.
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
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 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…
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Derision from the dead
Mocks armamental madness.
Redeem (each Ruler said)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.
(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.
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
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
I’d have been prosperous if I’d took a farm
Blast the old harridan! What’s fetched her now,
It’s queer how, in the dark, comes back to mind
I’m but a daft old fool! I often wish
Ay, those were days, when I was serving Squire!
Once in a way the parson will drop in
I ask you, what’s a gent like that to me
Religion beats me. I’m amazed at folk
But now I’m old and bald and serious-minded,
I used to dream of Hell when I was first
Ay, Hell was thick with captains, and I rode
And when I woke,
I’ve no brains
Some hounds I’ve known were wise as half your saints,
I’ve come to think of God as something like
Now I’m tired
And likely, too,
The naked stars make men feel lonely, wheeling
And then you listen to the wind, and wonder
This world’s a funny place to live in. Soon
I used to feel it, riding on spring days
Now I know
I’d like to be the simpleton I was
I never broke
What a grand thing ’twould be if I could go
You’ve brought the lamp, then, Martha? I’ve no mind
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.
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!”