Poets of World War I

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Introduction

The First World War – prelude to World War II and the Holocaust – began 100 years ago, on July 28, 1914, and ended in late 1918. It was the bloodiest war in history up to that time, with approximately seventeen million killed, including ten million combatants. In that war, the German empire (which had wanted it), the Austrian Empire (which started it), and the Ottoman (i.e., Turkish) Empire (which had taken over almost all the countries of eastern Europe in the 1300’s and held them captive for 500 years, until, one by one, they achieved their freedom in the 1800’s), were defeated by the U.S., Britain, and France. (Some smaller countries were also involved, including, notably, Belgium on the Allied side, as well as Italy, Romania, Serbia, Greece, etc.; and, on the Axis side, Bulgaria.) For the Axis powers (Germany, etc.), it was not just a matter of conquest but hateful envy, and the war is infamous for the atrocities committed by the Germans, especially in Belgium and France, and the genocide of the Armenians committed by the Turks. The U.S. actually stayed out of the war until 1917, by which time the public’s attitude had changed from isolationism to an extremely anti-German feeling.

Poets, artists, and musicians were among the great numbers of men who enlisted in the Allied armies to keep the “Huns” from destroying Europe, and the Ottoman Turks from regaining their lost European empire. In this centennial year, nycaesthetic commemorates the English-language poets – those who, to the extent possible, speak for all – who died in the war. We hope that people in other countries will compile similar lists in this year of remembrance.
​T.S.

Notes:​1) Thanks to Nick Hoff of San Francisco for his help in securing out-of-print books and getting out-of-the-way information from the Internet, and to John Maxwell of New York for the beautiful word-processing.
​2) I am very much indebted to various histories of the war and anthologies of poetry, to which I occasionally refer – above all, to “The Lost Voices of World War I” (“L.V.”), “Never Such Innocence” (“N.S.I.”), “The War Poets” (“W.P.”), “A Treasury of War Poetry (“T.W.P.”), Valour and Vision (“V.and V.”), The Muse in Arms (“M. in A.”), Songs of the Fighting Men (“S.F.M.”), The War in Verse and Prose (“W.V.P.”), Up the Line to Death (“U.L.D.”), and the Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry (“O.C.”).
​3) The poets do not appear in alphabetical or any other particular order – simply the order in which I finished writing about them.

* * *

 

 

Rupert Brooke. 1887-1915. Homosexual. A highly-regarded member of the Georgian school of poetry, he enlisted as soon as the war broke out, and fought at Antwerp in 1914. The following year, on the way to Gallipoli, he died of dysentery and blood-poisoning on the island of Scyros, where he is buried. After his death, one of his poems was read aloud in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and his obituary in The Times of London was written by Winston Churchill.

 

THE SOLDIER
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
​        Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England
​           given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

                                    *

 

Alan Seeger. 1886-1916. American, born in New York City. Well-known before the war for his devotion to the ideals of heroism and high art, and his contempt for danger and bourgeois security (L.V., O.C.). The U.S. not entering the war when it broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire. Died at the first battle of the Somme.

RENDEZVOUS

​I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air –
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

​It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath –
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

​God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town.
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

*

 

T.E. Hulme. 1887-1917. Twice expelled from Cambridge University for fighting, he was nonetheless a brilliant logician and a poet whose body of work, though minuscule, is perfect. An influence on Ezra Pound and others, he is considered one of the founders of modern thought, especially in the field of aesthetics. Killed in action on the Belgian front.

 

TRENCHES: ST ELOI
Over the flat slope of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
Night,
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Before the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are
corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but
​keep on.

*

 

Joyce Kilmer. 1886-1918. American, born in Brunswick, New Jersey. A convert to Catholicism. Married and a father. He enlisted as soon as the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Killed at the second battle of the Marne.

 

MIRAGE DU CANTONMENT
Many laughing ladies, leisurely and wise,
Low rich voice, delicate gay cries,
Tea in fragile china cups, ices, macaroons,
Sheraton and Heppelwhite and old thin spoons,
Rather dim paintings on very high walls,
Windows showing lawns whereon the sunlight falls,
Pink and silver gardens and broad kind trees,
And fountains scattering rainbows at the whim of
​a breeze,
Fragrance, mirth and gentleness, a Summer day
In a world that has forgotten everything but play.

*

 

Robert Ernest Vernède. 1875-1917. British, of French descent. Before the war, a writer of novels, poetry, short stories, and books of travel. A friend offered him work in the War Office, where he would be safe, but he preferred to fight. Lieutenant in a rifle brigade, he died at the battle of Havrincourt Wood.

 

BEFORE THE ASSAULT
If thro’ this roar o’ the guns one prayer may reach Thee,
Lord of all Life, whose mercies never sleep,
Not in our time, not now, Lord, we beseech Thee
To grant us peace. The sword has bit too deep.

We may not rest. We hear the wail of mothers
Mourning the sons who fill some nameless grave:
Past us, in dreams, the ghosts march of our brothers
Who were most valiant … whom we could not save.

We may not rest. What though our eyes be holden,
In sleep we see dear eyes yet wet with tears,
And locks that once were, oh, so fair and golden,
Grown grey in hours more pitiless than years.

We see all fair things fouled – homes love’s hands builded
Shattered to dust beside their withered vines,
Shattered the towers that once Thy sunsets gilded,
And Christ struck yet again within His shrines.

Over them hangs the dust of death, beside them
The dead lie countless – and the foe laughs still;
We may not rest, while those cruel mouths deride them,
We, who were proud, yet could not work Thy will.

We have failed – we have been more weak than these
betrayers –
In strength or in faith we have failed; our pride was vain.
How can we rest, who have not slain the slayers?
What peace for us, who have seen Thy children slain?

Hark, the roar grows … the thunders reawaken –
We ask one thing, Lord, only one thing now:
Hearts high as theirs, who went to death unshaken,
Courage like theirs to make and keep their vow.

To stay not till these hosts whom mercies harden,
Who know no glory save of sword and fire,
Find in our fire the splendour of Thy pardon,
Meet from our steel the mercy they desire …

Then to our children there shall be no handing
Of fates so vain – of passions so abhorr’d …
But Peace … the Peace which passeth understanding …
Not in our time … but in their time, O Lord.

*

 

Wilfred Owen. 1893-1918. Homosexual. A follower of Jesus, he repudiated the Church of England, which he felt had deviated from Christ’s teachings. (O.C.) His war poems were written in a style so new that, with T.E. Hulme and others, he is considered one of the founders of modern poetry. Awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Died at the battle of the Sambre and Oise Canal.

 

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through
sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

*

 

Edward Thomas. 1878-1917. Born in London. An indefatigable writer. Before the war he had written 30 volumes of short fiction, topography, literary criticism, biography, etc. and also some poetry under the pen-name, Edward Eastaway. (W.P.) Once engaged in the war, he wrote some memorable poems about it, but was chiefly absorbed by memories of the English countryside he had left behind. Thus, during the war, he created a body of work that connects him with the “tradition of pastoral lyricism which runs from Wordsworth, through Hardy and Housman, to Philip Larkin.” (O.C.) Yet, even in these poems, the war is always, in some way, present. Killed at the battle of Arras.

 

ADLESTROP
Yes. I remember Adlestrop–
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hiss’d. Some one clear’d his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop–only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

*

 

John McCrae. 1872-1918. Canadian. Before the war a doctor as well as a poet, he nonetheless chose to fight with the artillery. Later, he was placed in charge of a hospital at Boulogne. During the second battle of Ypres, he wrote “In Flanders Fields,” and sent it anonymously to a British magazine. It at once became the poem of World War I. The tradition of buying and wearing poppies in support of wounded war veterans stems from this poem. Died in France of pneumonia and meningitis.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

*

 

William Noel Hodgson. 1893-1916. A son of the Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, he wrote short stories and poetry under the pseudonym, Edward Melbourne. (L.V.) Joined the war as soon as it broke out. Awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. The following poem was written two days before his death. (W.P.) Died at the first battle of the Somme.

 

BEFORE ACTION
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With the high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

*

 

Charles Hamilton Sorley. 1895-1915. Scottish. Enlisted as soon as the war broke out, and was commissioned a captain. He had been writing poetry since 1912, and was considered by Robert Graves and John Masefield to be the most promising of the younger poets. (L.V.) Died at the battle of Loos, aged twenty.

SONNET
Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.
And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say
‘Come, what was your record when you drew breath?’
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.

12 June 1915

*

 

Ewart Alan Mackintosh. 1893-1917. Though born in England, his father’s roots were in Scotland, and Mackintosh served with the Seaforth Highlanders. Killed in action at the Somme.

 

FAREWELL
(To Sergeant H. Fraser and Lance-Sergeant G. M’Kay)

Well, you have gone now, comrades,
And I shall see no more
The gallant friendly faces
Framed in my dug-out door.
I have no words to tell you
The things I longed to say,
But the company is empty
Since you have gone away.

The company is filled now
With faces strange to see,
And scarce a man of the old men
That lived and fought with me.
I know the drafts are good men,
I know they’re doing well,
But they’re not the men I slept with
Those nights at La Boisselle.

Oh, the days of friendship
We shall not see again,
The little winter trenches
And the marches in the rain.
Becourt, Authuille, Thiepval,
Herancourt, Avelay,
These names are keys that open
Remembered doors to me.

Doors that will open never,
Upon this tortured land.
I shall not see you ever,
Or take you by the hand.
Only for ancient friendship,
For all the times we knew,
Maybe you will remember
As I remember you.

*

 

Harold Beckh. Killed in action at the first battle of the Somme, 1916.

 

THE SOLDIER’S CIGARETTE
(October, 1915)
I’m cheap and insignificant,
I’m easy quite to get,
In every place I show my face
They call me cigarette.

They buy me four a penny, throw
Me down without regret,
The elegant, the nonchalant,
The blasé cigarette.

I’m small and nothing much to see,
But men won’t soon forget
How unafraid my part I’ve played,
The dauntless cigarette.

When trenches all are water-logged
I’m thereabouts, you bet,
With cheery smile the hours I while,
The patient cigarette.

I sit within the trenches and
Upon the parapet,
Jack Johnson’s shock with scorn I mock,
The careless cigarette.

If bullets whiz and Bill gets hit,
Don’t hurry for the ‘vet.’,
It’s ‘I’m alright, give us a light,’
And ‘Where’s my cigarette?’

Ubiquitous and agile too,
I’m but a youngster yet,
The debonaire, the savoir faire
Abandoned cigarette.

When meals are few and far between,
When spirit’s ebb has set,
When comrades fall, and Death’s gates call,
Who’s there but cigarette?

I cool the mind and quiet the brain
When danger’s to be met;
When more is vain I ease the pain,
Immortal cigarette!

​ (Note: (1) Jack Johnson was a type of German shell, named after the first black world professional heavyweight boxing champion. (N.S.I.) (2) In line 20, “careless” means “carefree.” (3) In line 28, “Abandoned” means “Loose-living.”)

*

 

H.B.K. Allpass. Killed in action, 1916.

 

AFTERWARDS
‘My King and Country needed me,’ to fight
The Prussian’s tyranny.
I went and fought, till our assembled might
With a wan triumph had dispersed in flight
At least the initial P.

I came back. In a crowded basement now
I scratch, a junior clerk.
Each day my tried experience must bow
Before the callow boy, whose shameless brow
Usurps my oldtime work.

I had not cared – but that my toil was vain,
But that still rage the strong:
I had not cared – did any good remain.
But now I scratch, and wait for War again,
Nor shall I need to wait long.

​ (Notes: (1) The above poem was written in 1915. (N.S.I.) (2) The author uses the subjunctive mood five times. The first three lines of the last stanza mean, “I would not have cared – except that my toil was vain, / Except that the strong still rage: / I would not have cared – if any good remained.”)

*

 

T.P. Cameron Wilson. Scottish. A schoolmaster, Cameron Wilson was commissioned a captain. Since its first publication, the poem following has been one of the best-loved poems of the First World War. Killed in action at the second battle of the Somme, 1918.

 

MAGPIES IN PICARDY

The magpies in Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flicker down the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to Hell.

(The blackbird flies with panic,
The swallow goes like light,
The finches move like ladies,
The owl floats by at night;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as artists might.)

A magpie in Picardy
Told me secret things —
Of the music in white feathers,
And the sunlight that sings
And dances in deep shadows —
He told me with his wings.

(The hawk is cruel and rigid,
He watches from a height;
The rook is slow and sombre,
The robin loves to fight;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as lovers might.)

He told me that in Picardy,
An age ago or more,
While all his fathers were still eggs,
These dusty highways bore
Brown singing soldiers marching out
Through Picardy to war.

He said that still through chaos
Works on the ancient plan,
And two things have altered not
Since first the world began —
The beauty of the wild green earth
And the bravery of man.

(For the sparrow flies unthinking
And quarrels in his flight;
The heron trails his legs behind,
The lark goes out of sight;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as poets might.)

*

 

Jeffery Day. 1896-1918. Joined the Royal Naval Air Service as soon as the war broke out. A daring pilot, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Killed in action.

 

NORTH SEA
Dawn on the drab North Sea! —
colourless, cold, and depressing,
with the sun that we long to see
refraining from his blessing.
To the westward — sombre as doom:
to the eastward — grey and foreboding:
Comes a low, vibrating boom —
the sound of a mine exploding.

Day on the drear North Sea! —
wearisome, drab, and relentless.
The low clouds swiftly flee;
bitter the sky, and relentless.
Nothing at all in sight
save the mast of a sunken trawler,
fighting her long, last fight
with the waves that mouth and maul her.

Gale on the bleak North Sea! —
howling a dirge in the rigging.
Slowly and toilfully
through the great, grey breakers digging,
thus we make our way,
hungry, wet, and weary,
soaked with the sleet and spray,
desolate, damp, and dreary.

Fog in the dank North Sea! —
silent and clammily dripping.
Slowly and mournfully,
ghostlike, goes the shipping.
Sudden across the swell
come the fog-horns hoarsely blaring
or the clang of a warning bell,
to leave us vainly staring.

Night on the black North Sea! —
black as hell’s darkest hollow.
Peering anxiously,
we search for the ships that follow.
One are the sea and sky,
dim are the figures near us,
with only the sea-bird’s cry
and the swish of the waves to cheer us.

Death on the wild North Sea!—
death from the shell that shatters
(death we will face with glee,
’tis the weary wait that matters):—
death from the guns that roar,
and the splinters weirdly shrieking.
‘Tis fight to the death; ’tis war;
and the North Sea is redly reeking!

​ (Note: The poet’s detailed knowledge of the life of a ship at war derives from the fact that he was a member of the Royal Naval Air Service, not the Royal Flying Corps.)

*

 

Alexander Robertson. Died 1916. Killed in action at the first battle of the Somme.
“WE SHALL DRINK TO THEM THAT SLEEP”​ – Campbell

Yes, you will do it, silently of course;
For after many a toast and much applause,
One is in love with silence, being hoarse,
– Such more than sorrow is your quiet’s cause.

Yes, I can see you at it, in a room
Well-lit and warm, high-roofed and soft to the tread,
Satiate and briefly mindful of the tomb
With its poor victim of Teutonic lead.

Some unknown notability will rise,
Ridiculously solemn, glass abrim,
And say, ‘To our dear brethren in the skies,’ –
Dim are all eyes, all glasses still more dim.

Your pledge of sorrow but a cup of cheer,
Your sole remark some witless platitude,
Such as, ‘Although it does not yet appear,
To suffer is the sole beatitude.

‘Life has, of course, good moments such as this
(A glass of sherry we should never spurn),
But where our brethren are, ’tis perfect bliss;
Still, we are glad our lot was, – to return.’

Yes, I can see you and can see the dead,
Keen-eyed at last for Truth, with gentle mirth
Intent. And having heard, smiling they said:
‘Strange are our little comrades of the earth.’

*

 

Frank S. Brown. Killed in action, 1915.

 

“FALL IN!”

 

Oh! we are a ragged, motley crew,
Each with a tale to tell
Of a life of ease — a life of toil,
A life lived out in hell.
Whate’er befall at the bugle call
We’ll do our business well.

 

The bugle bawls a sharp “Fall In!”
The section sergeants shout;
A stampede on the markers,
And the company turns out.
And now you have us into line,
Just cast your eye within,
And read the tale of these soldiers hale
Who answered the cry “Fall In!”

That guy with the coat split up the back,
And his forage cap aslant,
Is a minister’s son — and a son of a gun.
You should hear the bounder rant
When the rations aren’t quite up to scratch,
Or his rifle jams his thumb.
He slips a cog, and a language fog
Spurts up and begins to hum.

The other, with his mustache trimmed,
And puttees that need a shave,
Is a slum child from Toronto,
But a splendid chap is Dave.
His upper lip is his idol,
Boot dubbin is its pomade;
He’s tried to sup from a mustache cup —
But he knows his work with a spade.

There’s another chap down on the left
Who tacks M.A. to his name;
He’ll talk of art or the price of wheat —
To him it’s all the same.
His looks are insignificant,
In a battered pair of jeans,
No one would think that such a gink
Was a graduate of Queen’s.

The sergeant of our section is
A most peculiar cuss;
He wears a serge sans chevrons, —
No need of them with us.
His rifle’s carefully curried,
He’s a voice like Kingdom Come;
He was a clod who carried a hod,
But can talk a drill book dumb.

The corporal with the greasy clothes,
And an eye of ebony black
(He got it in an argument
With the thief who stole his pack);

His office-pallored face is now
Red dyed with honest tan;
A lawyer he that was to be
A city’s coming man.

Down in the motor transport lines
You will find a goggled runt
Who drives an ammunition van
Thro’ mud lakes at the front.
He always has a life-sized grouch;
He grumbles at his fare;
His van floor ain’t a feather bed —
And he’s a millionaire.

That fellow in the ulster,
Which has seen most cruel use,
And a pair of squelching rubber boots
Which leak without excuse,
He used to be a Civil clerk,
Perched high upon a stool,
But dropped his tome to learn to comb
An ammunition mule.

Yon bulldog face with the deep-cleft chin
Is owned by a miner old,
Who has roasted in California
And frozen in Klondike cold.
His thirst is a thing to conjure with;
He shoots like the bolt of Fate;
The dug-out roars with his husky snores
When he’s back from patrolling late.

 

Oh! we are a jolly, motley crew,
With many a tale to tell
Of a life of love, a life of hate,
A life lived out in hell.
Whate’er we’ve been, wipe out the sin —
We’ll do our business well.

 

Isaac Rosenberg. 1890-1918. Born to a poor Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia, he grew up in the East End of London. When the war broke out, he was in South Africa, where he had been sent by his doctors in hopes of improving his health. He at once returned to England and enlisted. Remembered for his “great capacity for self-detachment.” (O.C.) killed at Arras- St Quentin.
*

UNTITLED
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,

While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again —
For Lebanon’s summer slope.

They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread;
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.

​1918

 

Leslie Coulson. 1889-1916. A well-known London journalist and short-story writer, famous for his love of the English countryside. Killed at the first battle of the Somme.

 

JUDGMENT
So be it, God, I take what Thou dost give,
And gladly give what Thou dost take away.
For me Thy choice is barren days and grey.
Unquestioning Thy ordered days I live,
I do not seek to sift in Reason’s sieve –
Thou rangest far beyond our Reason’s sway.
We are but poor, uncomprehending clay,
For Thou to mould as Thou dost well conceive.

But when my blanchéd days of sorrow end,
And this poor clay for funeral is drest,
Then shall my soul to Thy Gold Gate ascend,
Then shall my soul soar up and summon Thee
To tell me why. And as Thou answerest,
So shall I judge Thee, God, not Thou judge me.

*

 

Francis Ledwidge. 1887-1917. Irish. Active in the Irish struggle against English domination, he nonetheless enlisted in the British army when war was declared. He wrote from the front in a letter, “I…feel that by joining I am helping to bring about peace and the old sublimity of which the world has been robbed.” (L.V.) Died in the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).

​Note to the following poem: Ledwidge was something of a rowdy type, and, at one point, after “a bit of a night out” while on furlough in Ireland, he was court-martialed and stripped of his lance-corporal’s stripes. He nonetheless returned to the front.

AFTER COURT MARTIAL

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say,
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The Present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.

And though men called me a vile name,
And all my dream companions gone,
‘Tis I the soldier bears the shame,
Not I the king of Babylon.

*

 

The Hon. Julian Grenfell. 1888-1915. The eldest son of Lord Desborough. A commanding officer said of him that he “set an example of light-hearted courage which is famous all through the Army in France.” (T.W.P.) He was twice mentioned in dispatches, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The poem that follows has been characterized as “almost perfectly [expressing] the warrior spirit which has persisted in poetry from Homer onwards.” (O.C.) Killed at the second battle of Ypres.

 

INTO BATTLE
The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;

And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship,
The Dog-Star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, “Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing.”

In dreary, doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of Battle takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

*

 

Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn). 1887-1917. Welsh. Went to the war so that his younger brother would not have to do so. Wrote in Welsh, using the bardic name, Hedd Wyn, meaning “Blessed Peace.” The poem below is a translation from the Welsh. Died in the battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).

 

WAR
Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.

*