The Great War

from November: Poems in War Time, an electronic edition

A Schoolmaster in Picardy

MOONLESS, republican, an April night

That the south-west wind burnishes until

Thick-set, the stars blaze in it with the world's

Purposeful thought, which Zoroaster learned

And Abraham was wise in. This, entrenched

In Picardy, he spells and understands.

Over him circle the Great Seven, sign

Of Labour and Promise. Through a luminous field

Of stars unspelled, dips the Sun's pathway; now

It leaves the Lion and the King behind

To enter on Astraea's realm of promise.

Justice, the Virgin, rules here: in her lap

Sits the world's hope: and shine in either hand

The Scales of Judgment and the Spear that is

A golden spear of corn, a Spike of Peace.

A peasant and a village schoolmaster,

Patiently he had tuned his little world

Scholar by scholar, daily into accord

With Peace, the music that he knew within him.

Rumour of foes designing war against France

Was bygone folly afar-off that he heard

Smiling amid the garden of his school.

Far-off, till on that sudden First of August,

France calling him with her trumpets, his spirit rang

Out like a trumpet answering hers. Within him

Sang a strange music that he heard amazed

And knew the old happiness was at an end.

He hated war, as though somewhere he had been

A mother, matched a body with a soul

And made them one together magically,

To know the cost and meaning of a man.

Peace was dearer to him than to another.

Gave him her heart, and like a bride demanded

What most he longed to give her, that she might

Transform his ardours into life. But War

Out of that happiness he was at home in,

Like a pre-destined passion snatched him away.

Transplanted in the miry field of death,

He and the stars night-long kept company.

Often of her he loved War minded him:

Different, yet with the same divine denial

Of the great dreamy idols men bow down to

With less than the whole passion of their being.

She was a sister to his lady, Peace:

And when her masterful accompaniment

Challenged the singer in him with its strange

Rhythms, his exulting spirit answering cried

New p├Žans against it in the praise of Peace.

Through all this visionary April night

He sees her face in memories. At Leipzig,

He knows again how verily it was she

Fanning the passion that swept Bonaparte

Back over Rhine. At Strasburg, it was she

Consenting not to a conquest that denied

The only meaning common to the world.

For as, when fond peace-makers intervene

With "Recollect, the man is now your husband!"

The white-faced woman, answering nothing, sets

Her clear stern eyes aloof--again he saw

Alsace joined to the Stranger. Faithful she,

Silent, implacable, France in her heart.

Fed there upon such puissant love as nation

Knew never, France became Joan's holy

France,

Country of Freedom. And the emperor

For whom she was the pledge of his dominion,

Who upon her subjection had built up

Towery dreams, would he but look, might see

The real world reflected in her gaze

Hateless, mockingly patient of his might.

As Alsace, weariless through the long hours--

The Plough driving its furrow to the zenith

Earthward again turning, descending slow--

He grapples with that false spirit who is

The discord among men, and cries against

Truth, in the name of some obedience it

Would tune the whole world to--and cannot while

Justice endure. He strives, and through the hours

Peace urges and upholds him, striving: Peace

That of all spirits is the only one

That can, to every soul and tribe of Man,

Give that to which his passionate spirit aspires--

For it is in her eyes. Pitilessly

They demand all the irrevocable whole

Of worship..which long since he gave to her.

Fighting, he fashions what the peace-mongers

Had made impossible. Dismayed they heard

The name of Justice, for they knew the price

Was not in their white hands. The price slips not

His bloody hands, nor his embattled brain

That being sworn-in against injustice, dares

Take the inane days and the nightmare nights

When there are no stars in the monstrous dark

That is too full of strange presences, bred

Of horror and corruption.

But to-night

Is one great fellowship of stars. Already

Justice commences. The whole world is flung

Open as never yet to the indomitable

Creators! Now they labour all its stuff

With hands nor false nor blind, with thinking hands

Spirit-imbued: they put themselves to it

And it responds to them, and it becomes

Human, and brings forth beauty to their touch:

No here-and-there fantastic joy, but all

A consummation and accomplishing!

Out of the love-dream of the adolescent

Youth of Democracy a passion ripens,

No more the formless shadow of Humanity,

A fond vague aspiration cosmopolitan,

But now the emerging purpose, whole and final,

The Will to Justice, to begin together

The complete life of Man not yet attempted!

Long had we dreamed, too long had dallied dreaming.

Almost content with hopes we had not realised--

Embrace of bodiless joys--our immature

Manhood spent for the barren behest of vain

Visions, worshipping them in our folly, till

Suddenly Death with hoarse voice shouting our names

We awoke to the grim guns of the adversary.

Only then, will against will, sprang into passionate

Purpose effectual, Freedom, the lad's fancy,

Freedom, youth's romance, now manhood's sworn

Oath to accomplish or to perish doing it.

German folk, in whom as in one strong man

The despot's will to power is all embodied,

Now rebuffed, as you shock yourselves against our

Liberty-making will, another purpose

Shall you espouse! This greater, this incredible

Promise, to which we are now pledged, believing it--

Freedom, a commonwealth built up of nations

Bound together in faithfulness to uphold

Justice against dissension and oppressors

Sovereign over themselves and over the earth.

Now together, we shall achieve what long syne

England, France, America, each proposing

Severally began and accomplished not! . . .

The upholding Presences depart. The stars

Pale: the rhythm flags: he is wrapped in loneliness.

Now at its coming the drab daylight proves

The night's promise inane with what a world--

What an unroofed charnel-house of a world!

But up above the horror on little wings,

The larks, Franciscan-clad, sing canticles

To the sun and praise him. Leaps this peasant heart

With praise for the light of the sun returning:--

"Praise for the earth-born spirit of Justice!

Praise

For whoso is at home in poverty:

Puts wealth away: success for himself abandons

To be the enabling tool of that Prometheus

Who, Titan though he be, requires a man

To effect justice, without which the world

Fails of its hope and still remains a dream.

"Carol the larks above the cannon!--Praise,

Praise for the justice that doth undismayed

Its dread Augean labour in the stables

Of massacre. Praise for the comrade-love

Of men devoted who, having forgot

To bargain, on the sill of battle are

Clear prophecies of the peace that shall come after

Builded upon their fear-forgetting gladness,

Their surety of each other and the living

Presence among them of Our Lady France.

Praise, praise for these and Thee, O sun uprising,

And for the day wherein we perish, praise!"