The Great War

from A Treasury of War Poetry, an electronic edition

Men of Verdun

There are five men in the moonlight

That by their shadows stand;

Three hobble humped on crutches,

And two lack each a hand.

Frogs somewhere near the roadside

Chorus their chant absorbed:

But a hush breathes out of the dream-light

That far in heaven is orbed.

It is gentle as sleep falling

And wide as thought can span,

The ancient peace and wonder

That brims the heart of man.

Beyond the hills it shines now

On no peace but the dead,

On reek of trenches thunder-shocked,

Tense fury of wills in wrestle locked,

A chaos crumbled red!

The five men in the moonlight

Chat, joke, or gaze apart.

They talk of days and comrades,

But each one hides his heart.

They wear clean cap and tunic,

As when they went to war;

A gleam comes where the medal's pinned:

But they will fight no more.

The shadows, maimed and antic,

Gesture and shape distort,

Like mockery of a demon dumb

Out of the hell-din whence they come

That dogs them for his sport:

But as if dead men were risen

And stood before me there

With a terrible fame about them blown

In beams of spectral air,

I see them, men transfigured

As in a dream, dilate

Fabulous with the Titan-throb

Of battling Europe's fate;

For history 's hushed before them,

And legend flames afresh, --

Verdun, the name of thunder,

Is written on their flesh.