The Great War

from A Treasury of War Poetry, an electronic edition

Edith Cavell

She was binding the wounds of her enemies when they came --

The lint in her hand unrolled.

They battered the door with their rifle-butts, crashed it in:

She faced them gentle and bold.

They haled her before the judges where they sat

In their places, helmet on head.

With question and menace the judges assailed her, "Yes,

I have broken your law," she said.

"I have tended the hurt and hidden the hunted, have done

As a sister does to a brother,

Because of a law that is greater than you have made,

Because I could do none other.

"Deal as you will with me. This is my choice to the end,

To live in the life I vowed."

"She is self-confessed," they cried; "she is self-condemned.

She shall die, that the rest may be cowed."

In the terrible hour of the dawn, when the veins are cold,

They led her forth to the wall.

"I have loved my land," she said, "but it is not enough:

Love requires of me all.

"I will empty my heart of bitterness, hating none."

And sweetness filled her brave

With a vision of understanding beyond the hour

That knelled to the waiting grave.

They bound her eyes, but she stood as if she shone.

The rifles it was that shook

When the hoarse command rang out. They could not endure

That last, that defenceless look.

And the officer strode and pistolled her surely, ashamed

That men, seasoned in blood,

Should quail at a woman, only a woman, --

As a flower stamped in the mud.

And now that the deed was securely done, in the night

When none had known her fate,

They answered those that had striven for her, day by day:

"It is over, you come too late."

And with many words and sorrowful-phrased excuse

Argued their German right

To kill, most legally; hard though the duty be,

The law must assert its might.

Only a woman! yet she had pity on them,

The victim offered slain

To the gods of fear that they worship. Leave them there,

Red hands, to clutch their gain!

She bewailed not herself, and we will bewail her not,

But with tears of pride rejoice

That an English soul was found so crystal-clear

To be the triumphant voice

Of the human heart that dares adventure all

But live to itself untrue,

And beyond all laws sees love as the light in the night,

As the star it must answer to.

The hurts she healed, the thousands comforted -- these

Make a fragrance of her fame.

But because she stept to her star right on through death

It is Victory speaks her name.