The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition

The Return

Home across the clover

When the war was over

Came the young men slowly with an air of being old,

On a morning blue and gold

Through the weed-grown meadow-places

Marched young soldiers with old faces,

Marched the columns of the Emperor with dull, bewildered eyes,

And the day was like a rose upon the skies;

But they feared both light and life,

Feared the aftermath of strife.

Slow they came --

Now that it was over --

Silent and sick and lame,

Home across the clover.

A woman knelt in a garden by the road,

Patting a little mound of earth

With aimless hands. Along the highway flowed

The gray tide, while the day was at its birth.

She heard the drums, looked up, half smiled:

"Why do you march," she said, "and play at soldiers?

There's none to laugh at you -- no little child!

Not one. They've all gone back to sleeping."

She fell to awful weeping.

"Why do you play at soldiers?"

Then dropped down

To pat the little grave. The line went on and on into the town.

They saw it first in the city's eyes,

Old men grouped by their fright, ran here and there

In startled herds, with shrill unmeaning cries.

And there was white in every woman's hair,

And when a window yielded them a face

'Twas like a flower blasted by the sun;

Children there were none.

The world seemed robbed of joyousness and grace,

A young girl with a head of snow

Sat weaving garlands in the market-place

With hands unearthly slow,

As though her toil must be

The very measure of eternity.

A boy ran from the ranks, stooped, touched her brow;

"Margot, Margot! Is it thou?"

She did not glance up at the white-faced lad.

Deep in the gray line rang a sudden shout:

"They're mad! They're mad !"

"Silence, you dogs, until you're mustered out.

Forward, to greet the Emperor."

The line

Wavered and moaned and stumbled through the town

Like some dark serpent with a broken spine.

Before the palace gate, in cloak and crown,

A shriveled figure sat with shaking hands,

Forming toy soldiers into various bands.

A figure in a jeweled diadem,

Who, as the swords leaped with a ringing noise,

Lifted his wasted eyes and looked at them.

"Ah !" said the Emperor, and smiled:

"More toys!"