This continues my previous posting. So today I present more poems from the First World War. All the poems that follow are by poets who died in the trenches, which is why the war-poems by the likes of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon – who did escape being killed - aren’t included. But I may include them in another posting.
All of these poets volunteered for the army, either because they were super-patriotic, or thought the war would be a cakewalk and so would be short and glorious. The guns began firing in August 1914, and most British soldiers thought they’d be home again by Christmas. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that millions of young men joined the army as volunteers, not least the poets.
They were all young, and filled with the bravado, foolishness, and idealism of youth. Had they been older, they may have contemplated that wars only happen because there are soldiers to fight them, and to the extent that men volunteer to fight, they make wars possible. While wars are, admittedly, fought mostly by conscripts, conscription is made respectable because lots of men enlist without being made to.
Wars are brought about by old men for young men to die in. But, to paraphrase the title of a film from around 1970, supposing they – the old men – gave a war and nobody came?
Here, then, are some more poems of The Great War:
Who Made The Law?
Who made the Law that men should die in shadows ?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes ?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards ?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains ?
Who made the Law ?
Who made the Law that Death should stalk the village ?
Who spake the word to kill among the sheaves,
Who gave it forth that death should lurk in hedgerows,
Who flung the dead among the fallen leaves?
Who made the Law ?
Those who return shall find that peace endures,
Find old things old, and know the things they know,
Walk in the garden, slumber by the fireside,
Share the peace of dawn, and dream amid the dew –
Those who return.
Those who return shall till the ancient pastures,
Clean-hearted men shall guide the plough-horse reins,
Some shall grow apples and flowers in the valleys,
Some shall go courting in summer down the lanes –
THOSE WHO RETURN.
But who made the Law? the Trees shall whisper to him:
"See, see the blood - the splashes on our bark !"
Walking the meadows, he shall hear bones crackle,
And fleshless mouths shall gibber in silent lanes at dark.
Who made the Law ? At noon upon the hillside
His ears shall hear a moan, his cheeks shall feel a breath,
And all along the valleys, past gardens, croft, and homesteads,
He who made the Law,
HE who made the Law,
HE who made the Law shall walk along with Death.
WHO made the Law ?
Leslie Coulson (1889 – 1916) was born in Kilburn. Before enlisting he was a well-known Fleet Street journalist. He survived being wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, dying at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917 a collection of his poetry, From an Outpost and Other Poems, became a bestseller in England.
Charles Hamilton Sorley
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen, the son of a university professor. After attending Marlborough College he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but chose to defer entry to enlist in 1914. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a captain. He was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. A collection of verse, Marlborough and Other Poems, was published the year after his death.
Six of us lay in a Dugout
At ease with our limbs astretch,
And worshipped a feminine picture
Cut from a week-old ‘Sketch’.
We gazed at her silken stockings,
We studied her Cupid bow,
And we thought of the suppers we used to buy
And the girls we used to know,
And we all, in our several fashions,
Paid toll to the Lady’s charms,
From the man of a hundred passions
To the Subaltern child-in-arms.
Never the sketch of a master
So jealously kept and prized,
Never a woman of flesh and blood
So truly idealized.
And because of her tender ankle,
And her coiffure – distinctly French –
We called her ‘La Belle Dolores’ –
‘The Vivandiere of the Trench.’
Cyril Horne (1887 – 1916) was born in Scotland and was living in the United States when war was declared. He was killed by a shell while rescuing a wounded soldier near Loos. Songs of the Shrapnel Shell and Other Verse, a collection of his writing, was published in 1920.
Light After Darkness
E. Wyndham Tennant
Once more the Night, like some great dark drop-scene
Eclipsing horrors for a brief entr'acte,
Descends, lead-weighty. Now the space between,
Fringed with the eager eyes of men, is racked
By spark-tailed lights, curvetting far and high,
Swift smoke-flecked coursers, raking the black sky.
And as each sinks in ashes grey, one more
Rises to fall, and so through all the hours
They strive like petty empires by the score,
Each confident of its success and powers,
And, hovering at its zenith, each will show
Pale, rigid faces, lying dead, below.
There shall they lie, tainting the innocent air,
Until the dawn, deep veiled in mournful grey,
Sadly and quietly shall lay them bare,
The broken heralds of a doleful day.
E. Wyndham Tennant (1897 – 1916) was born in Glasgow. The recipient of a scholarship, he was studying in Oxford when war was declared when war was declared. He was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres, an early casualty of the war. His Poems was published by Oxford University Press in 1916.
‘Tis strange to look on a man that is dead
As he lies in the shell-swept hell
And to think that the poor black battered corpse
Once lived like you and was well.
‘Tis stranger far when you come to think
That you may soon be like him…
And it’s Fear that tugs at your trembling soul,
A Fear that is weird and grim!
Hamish Mann (1896 – 1917) was born in Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, and was educated in Edinburgh. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded at Arras and died the following day. A collection of his war poetry, A Subaltern’s Musings, was published posthumously.
Returning, We Hear The Larks
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp-
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy-joy-strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song-
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890 – 1918) was born in Bristol to Russian immigrants. Though a talented poet – his first collection of verse, Night and Day, was published in 1912 – he considered himself a portrait artist. He was in South Africa – an attempt to improve his frail health – when war was declared. He returned to England and enlisted and was killed in close combat near the French village of Fampoux. The first posthumous collection of his verse, Poems, was published in 1922.
Henry Lamont Simpson
All my songs are risen and fled away;
(Only the brave birds stay);
All my beautiful songs are broken or fled.
My poor songs could not stay
Among the filth and the weariness and the dead.
There was bloody grime on their light, white feathery wings,
(Hear how the lark still sings),
And their eyes were the eyes of dead men that I knew.
Only a madman sings
When half of his friends lie asleep for the rain and the dew.
The flowers will grow over the bones of my friends;
(The birds’ song never ends);
Winter and summer, their fair flesh turns to clay.
Perhaps before all ends
My songs will come again that have fled away.
Henry Lamont Simpson (1897 – 1918) was born in Crosby-on-Eden, Carlisle. A student at Cambridge, he became a commissioned officer in 1917. He was killed by a sniper at Strazeele, France. His only collection of poetry, Moods and Tenses, was published the year after the war ended.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls' teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, - but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands' palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness
Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) was born in Ostwestry, Shropshire. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and the University of London, he was teaching abroad when war broke out. In 1915, he returned to England in order to enlist. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion. Diagnosed with shellshock, he was sent to England in order to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On 4th November 1918, he was killed by German machine-gun fire. The first collection of his verse, Poems (1920), was edited by his friend and mentor, fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.