Poets of World War I (Part 2)

The Hon. (Gerald) William Grenfell. A younger son of Lord

Desborough, he was killed in action July 30, 1915, two months

after his older brother, Julian, and less than a mile away. The

poem following is addressed to the Hon. John Manners, who had

also died in the war.

*

TO JOHN

O heart-and-soul and careless played

Our little band of brothers,

And never recked the time would come

To change our games for others.

It’s joy for those who played with you

To picture now what grace

Was in your mind and single heart

And in your radiant face.

Your light-foot strength by flood and field

For England keener glowed;

To whatsoever things are fair

We know, through you, the road;

Nor is our grief the less thereby;

O swift and strong and dear, good-bye.

W.H. Littlejohn. 1891-1917. After seeing action at Gallipoli,

he died in France. The poem following is from his time at

Gallipoli.

*

HOLY COMMUNION SERVICE, SUVLA BAY

Behold a table spread!

A battered corned-beef box, a length of twine,

An altar-rail of twigs and shreds of string.

…For the unseen, divine,

Uncomprehended Thing

A hallowed space amid the holy dead.

Behold a table spread!

And on a fair, white cloth the bread and wine,

The symbols of sublime compassioning,

The very outward sign

Of that the nations sing,

The body that He gave, the blood He shed.

Behold a table spread!

And kneeling soldiers in God’s battle-line,

A line of homage to a mightier King:

All-knowing All-benign!

Hearing the prayers they bring,

Grant to them strength to follow where He led.

The Hon. Colwyn Philipps. 1888-1915. Son of the Viscount St

Davids. Killed in action.

*

RELEASE

There is a healing magic in the night,

The breeze blows cleaner than it did by day,

Forgot the fever of the fuller light,

And sorrow sinks insensibly away

As if some saint a cool white hand did lay

Upon the brow, and calm the restless brain.

The moon looks down with pale unpassioned ray –

Sufficient for the hour is its pain.

Be still and feel the night that hides away earth’s stain.

Be still and loose the sense of God in you,

Be still and send your soul into the all,

The vasty distance where the stars shine blue,

No longer antlike on the earth to crawl.

Released from time and sense of great or small,

Float on the pinions of the Night-Queen’s wings;

Soar till the swift inevitable fall

Will drag you back into all the world’s small things;

Yet for an hour be one with all escapèd things.

George U. Robins. 1889-1915. Killed in action.

*

IVINGHOE HILL

Here, where three counties join hands in alliance,

Terrace on terrace and glade upon glade,

Ashridge looms up like a keep of the giants,

Buttressed with beech woods from Aldbury to Gade.

Northwards the vale stretches smiling and spacious,

Spurs of the Chilterns the far distance fill;

Never held dreamland a prospect more gracious:

Sunlight and shadow on Ivinghoe hill.

Here, uneffaced by two thousand years’ weather,

Scarred on the chalk down and stamped in the clay,

Linking the Eastland and Westland together,

Runs the long line of the great Icknield Way.

Here, in the days of the dawning of history,

Marched the Iceni to plunder and kill;

Over it all hangs the glamour of mystery:

Shades of the past under Ivinghoe hill.

Yonder’s the knoll where the beacon was lighted,

Northward and eastward the red message runs:

“Philip’s tall ships in the Channel are sighted;

Arm, for your country hath need of her sons!”

Straightway they rose and flung back the Armada.

Lives the same spirit within our hearts still?

Can England muster such champions to guard her?

Mists of the future round Ivinghoe hill.

Hush! A brown form through the gorse stems is stealing,

Off to the vale with a wave of his brush!

Heedless of aught that the future’s concealing,

Back to the present we come with a rush.

One ringing shout to the horsemen who follow,

Waking the woods till they echo and thrill;

Now the horn answers: Hark holloa! hark holloa!

Huntsman and hound upon Ivinghoe hill.

Robert William Sterling. Scottish. 1889-1915. Killed in

action April 23 (which was remembered, as it is St. George’s

Day, the patron saint of England).

*

LAST LINES

I

Ah! Hate like this would freeze our human tears,

And stab the morning star:

Not it, not it commands and mourns and bears

The storm and bitter glory of red war.

II

To J.H.S.M., killed in action, March 13, 1915

O brother, I have sung no dirge for thee:

Nor for all time to come

Can song reveal my grief’s infinity:

The menace of thy silence made me dumb.

Cyril W. Winterbotham. Killed in action, 1916.

*

A CHRISTMAS PRAYER

FROM THE TRENCHES

Not yet for us may Christmas bring

Good-will to men, and peace;

In our dark sky no angels sing,

Not yet the great release

For men, when war shall cease.

So must the guns our carols make,

Our gifts must bullets be,

For us no Christmas bells shall wake;

These ruined homes shall see

No Christmas revelry.

In hardened hearts we fain would greet

The Babe at Christmas born,

But lo, He comes with piercèd feet,

Wearing a crown of thorn, –

His side a spear has torn.

For tired eyes are all too dim,

Our hearts too full of pain,

Our ears too deaf to hear the hymn

Which angels sing in vain,

“The Christ is born again.”

O Jesus, pitiful, draw near,

That even we may see

The Little Child who knew not fear;

Thus would we picture Thee

Unmarred by agony.

O’er death and pain triumphant yet

Bid Thou Thy harpers play,

That we may hear them, and forget

Sorrow and all dismay,

And welcome Thee to stay

With us on Christmas day.

Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson. Awarded the Military Cross. Killed

in action in Belgium, 1917.

*

CIVILIZATION

“God’s in His Heaven,

All’s right with the world.”

– Browning.

There’s a roar like a thousand hells set free,

And the riven, tortured ground

Sways like a tempest-smitten tree;

And the earth shoots up in jets all round

And blows like spray at sea

When the wild white horses chafe and fret

Till the boulders back on the beach are wet

With the wild white horses chafe and fret

Till the boulders back on the beach are wet

With the far-flung foam. But the hollow sound

Of the waves that roar on the shifting shore

Would be lost and drowned in the furious din,

When these fruits of man’s great brain begin

To pound the ditch that we are in.

The trench is soon a hideous mess

Of yawning holes and scattered mud

And tangled wire and splintered wood,

And some poor shapeless things you’d guess

Were once made up of nerves and blood,

But now are no more good

Than the tattered sandbags – nay, far less,

For these can still be used again.

(Heed not the dark-red stain,

For that will quickly disappear

In the sun and wind and rain.)

Above our heads – not very high,

As they fall on the German trenches near –

Our own shells hurtle wailing by,

But the noise cannot deaden the dreadful cry

Of a soul torn out of the shattered form;

While those who are still survivors try

(Like a ship – any port in a storm)

To hide in the holes the shells have made

And blindly, grimly, wait

Till the storm of shot and shell abate,

And it’s “Bayonets up!” and blade to blade,

We can strike for ourselves, and the brave dead

boys,

Who, hiding in holes, have met their fate

Like rats in a trap;

But we perhaps shall have better hap,

For already there is less of the awful noise,

We can hear the machine guns stuttering death

They’re coming at last! And we draw our breath

Through hard-clenched teeth, as our bullets fly

Toward the serried ranks that are drawing nigh;

They stagger and fall, but still press on

To the goal they think they have nearly won.

And we wait and wait till they’re almost here.

Then it’s “Up, lads! Up! Let ‘em have the steel!”

With a wild, hoarse yell that is half a cheer,

We are out and their torn ranks backwards reel.

Then back to the trench to bury and build,

And count our wounded and count our killed;

But out in the front there are many who lie,

Their dead eyes turned to the quiet sky –

We have given our own lads company.

Nowell Oxland. 1890-1915. Killed in action at Suvla Bay,

Gallipoli.

*

OUTWARD BOUND

There’s a waterfall I’m leaving

Running down the rocks in foam,

There’s a pool for which I’m grieving

Near the water-ouzel’s home,

And it’s there that I’d be lying

With the heather close at hand,

And the curlews faintly crying

Mid the wastes of Cumberland.

While the midnight watch is winging

Thoughts of other days arise,

I can hear the river singing

Like the Saints in Paradise;

I can see the water winking

Like the merry eyes of Pan,

And the slow half-pounder sinking

By the bridge’s granite span.

Ah! to win them back and clamber

Braced anew with winds I love,

From the river’s stainless amber

To the morning mist above,

See through cloud-rifts rent asunder

Like a painted scroll unfurled,

Ridge and hollow rolling under

To the fringes of the world.

Now the weary guard are sleeping,

Now the great propellers churn,

Now the harbour lights are creeping

Into emptiness astern,

While the sentry wakes and watches

Plunging triangles of light

Where the water leaps and catches

At our escort in the night.

Great their happiness who seeing

Still with unbenighted eyes

Kin of theirs who gave them being,

Sun and earth that made them wise,

Die and feel their embers quicken

Year by year in summer time,

When the cotton grasses thicken

On the hills they used to climb.

Shall we also be as they be,

Mingled with our mother clay,

Or return no more it may be?

Who has knowledge, who shall say?

Yet we hope that from the bosom

Of our shaggy father Pan,

When the earth breaks into blossom

Richer from the dust of man,

Though the high Gods smite and slay us,

Though we come not whence we go,

As the host of Menelaus

Came there many years ago;

Yet the self-same wind shall bear us

From the same departing place

Out across the Gulf of Saros

And the peaks of Samothrace;

We shall pass in summer weather,

We shall come at eventide,

When the fells stand up together

And all quiet things abide;

Mixed with cloud and wind and river,

Sun-distilled in dew and rain,

One with Cumberland for ever

We shall go not forth again.

The Hon. Robert Palmer. A younger son of the Earl of Selborne.

Well-known as a poet before the war. Died in 1916 in a Turkish

prisoner-of-war camp, of wounds received in the battle of the

Tigris.

*

HOW LONG, O LORD?

How long, O Lord, how long, before the flood

Of crimson-welling carnage shall abate?

From sodden plains in West and East, the blood

Of kindly men steams up in mists of hate,

Polluting Thy clean air; and nations great

In reputation of the arts that bind

The world with hopes of heaven, sink to the state

Of brute barbarians, whose ferocious mind

Gloats o’er the bloody havoc of their kind,

Not knowing love or mercy. Lord, how long

Shall Satan in high places lead the blind

To battle for the passions of the strong?

Oh, touch Thy children’s hearts, that they may know

Hate their most hateful, pride their deadliest foe.

R.B. Marriott-Watson. A well-known poet before the war. Killed

at the battle of St Quentin, 1918.

*

KISMET

Opal fires in the Western sky

(For that which is written must ever be),

And a bullet comes droning, whining by,

To the heart of a sentry close to me.

For some go early, and some go late

(A dying scream on the evening air)

And who is there that believes in Fate

As a soul goes out in the sunset flare?

Richard Molesworth Dennys. 1884-1916. Killed at the first

battle of the Somme.

*

BETTER FAR TO PASS AWAY

Better far to pass away

While the limbs are strong and young,

Ere the ending of the day,

Ere youth’s lusty song be sung.

Hot blood pulsing through the veins,

Youth’s high hope a burning fire,

Young men needs must break the chains

That hold them from their hearts’ desire.

My friends the hills, the sea, the sun,

The winds, the woods, the clouds, the trees –

How feebly, if my youth were done,

Could I, an old man, relish these!

With laughter, then, I’ll go to greet

What Fate has still in store for me,

And welcome Death if we should meet,

And bear him willing company.

My share of fourscore years and ten

I’ll gladly yield to any man,

And take no thought of “where” or “when,”

Contented with my shorter span.

For I have learned what love may be,

And found a heart that understands,

And known a comrade’s constancy,

And felt the grip of friendly hands.

Come when it may, the stern decree

For me to leave the cheery throng

And quit the sturdy company

Of brothers that I work among.

No need for me to look askance,

Since no regret my prospect mars.

My day was happy – and perchance

The coming night is full of stars.

John William Streets. Killed in action, 1916.

 *

AT DAWN IN FRANCE

Night on the plains, and the stars unfold

The cycle of night in splendour old;

The winds are hushed, on the fire-swept hill

All is silent, shadowy, still –

Silent, yet tense as a harp high-strung

By a master hand for deeds unsung.

Slowly across the shadowy night

Tremble the shimmering wings of light,

And men with vigil in their eyes

And a fever light that never dies –

Men from the city, hamlet, town,

Once white faces tanned to brown, –

Stand to the watch of the parapet

And watch, with rifles, bayonets set,

For the great unknown that comes to men

Swift as the light: sudden, then ––

Dawn! the light from its shimmering wings

Lights up their faces with strange, strange

things:

Strange thoughts of love, of death and life,

Serenity ‘mid sanguine strife: —

Dreams of life where the feet of youth

Rush to the pinnacles of Truth;

Where early dreams with pinions fleet

Rush to find a love complete;

Of Love and Youth ‘neath rosy bowers

Sensuous, mad with the wine-filled hours,

Flushed with hope and joy’s delight,

Weaving rapture from the night: —

Visions of death where the harp is still

And the sun sets swiftly behind youth’s hill;

Where the song is hushed and the light is dead

And the man lies with the rememberéd;

Where Memory weaves a paradise,

A mother’s face, her tender eyes,

Her suffering for the child she gave,

Her love unbroken by the grave;

Where shadows gather o’er the bliss,

The rapture of a bridal kiss: —

Yet dreams where Youth (sublimity!)

Doth thrill to give for Liberty

Its love, its hope, its radiant morn,

Doth thrill to die for the yet unborn,

To die, and pay the utmost price

And save its ideals thro’ the sacrifice.

Thus at dawn do the watchers dream,

Of life and death, of love supreme:

Flushed with the dawn, hope in each breast

Their faces turn to the starless west:

Thus at dawn do the watchers think

Resolute-hearted upon death’s brink

With a strange, proud look on every face –

The SCORN of Death, the PRIDE of race.

Henry William Hutchinson. Son of Sir Sidney Hutchinson. Killed in France in 1917, aged nineteen.

*

SONNET

The falling rain is music overhead,

The dark night, lit by no intruding star,

Fit covering, yields to thoughts that roam afar

And turn again familiar paths to tread,

Where many a laden hour too quickly sped

In happier times, before the dawn of war,

Before the spoiler had whet his sword to mar

The faithful living and the mighty dead.

It is not that my soul is weighed with woe,

But rather wonder, seeing they do but sleep.

As birds that in the sinking summer sweep

Across the heaven to happier climes to go,

So they are gone; and sometimes we must weep,

And sometimes, smiling, murmur, “Be it so!”

A. Victor Ratcliffe. Killed in action at the first battle of the Somme, 1916.

*

OPTIMISM

At last there’ll dawn the last of the long year,

Of the long year that seemed to dream no end,

Whose every dawn but turned the world more drear,

And slew some hope, or led away some friend.

Or be you dark, or buffeting, or blind,

We care not, day, but leave not death behind.

The hours that feed on war go heavy-hearted,

Death is no fare wherewith to make hearts fain.

Oh, we are sick to find that they who started

With glamour in their eyes came not again.

O day, be long and heavy if you will,

But on our hopes set not a bitter heel.

For tiny hopes like tiny flowers of Spring

Will come, though death and ruin hold the land.

Though storms may roar they may not break the wing

Of the earthed lark whose song is ever bland.

Fell year unpitiful, slow days of scorn,

Your kind shall die, and sweeter days be born.

The Hon. Edward Wyndham Tennant. The son of Baron Glenconner. He enlisted as soon as war was declared, though only seventeen years old. Killed at the first battle of the Somme (1916), aged nineteen.

*

HOME THOUGHTS FROM LAVENTIE

Green gardens in Laventie!

Soldiers only know the street

Where the mud is churned and splashed about

By battle-wending feet;

And yet beside one stricken house there is a glimpse

of grass –

Look for it when you pass.

Beyond the church whose pitted spire

Seems balance on a strand

Of swaying stone and tottering brick,

Two roofless ruins stand;

And here, among the wreckage, where the back-wall

should have been

We found a garden green.

The grass was never trodden on,

The little path of gravel

Was overgrown with celandine;

No other folk did travel

Along its weedy surface but the nimble-footed mouse,

Running from house to house.

So all along the tender blades

Of soft and vivid grass

We lay, nor heard the limber wheels

That pass and ever pass

In noisy continuity until their stony rattle

Seems in itself a battle.

At length we rose up from this ease

Of tranquil happy mind,

And searched the garden’s little length

Some new pleasaunce to find;

And there some yellow daffodils, and jasmine hanging

high,

Did rest the tired eye.

The fairest and most fragrant

Of the many sweets we found

Was a little bush of Daphne flower

Upon a mossy mound,

And so thick were the blossoms set and so divine the

scent,

That we were well content.

Hungry for Spring I bent my head,

The perfume fanned my face,

And all my soul was dancing

In that lovely little place,

Dancing with a measured step from wrecked and

shattered towns

Away…upon the Downs.

I saw green banks of daffodil,

Slim poplars in the breeze,

Great tan-brown hares in gusty March

A-courting on the leas.

And meadows, with their glittering streams – and

silver-scurrying dace –

Home, what a perfect place!

Gilbert Waterhouse. Killed in action at the first battle of the Somme (1916).

*

SONNET

Coming in splendor thro’ the golden gate

Of all the days, swift passing, one by one,

Oh, silent planet, thou hast gazed upon

How many harvestings, dispassionate?

Across the many-furrowed fields of Fate,

Wrapt in the mantle of oblivion,

The old, gray, wrinkled Husbandman has gone,

Sowing and reaping, lone and desolate –

The blare of trumpets, rattle of the drum,

Disturb him not at all – He sees,

Between the hedges of the centuries,

A thousand phantom armies go and come,

While Reason whispers as each marches past,

“This is the last of wars, – this is the last!”