The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition

The Metal Checks

(The scene is a bare room, with two shaded windows at the back, and a fireplace between them with a fire burning low. The room is furnished scantily with a few plain chairs, and a rough wooden table on which are piled a great many small wooden trays. The Counter, who is Death, sits at the table. He wears a loose gray robe, and his face is partly concealed by a gray veil. He does not look at The Bearer, but works mechanically and speaks in a monotonous tone. The Bearer is the World, that bears the burden of War. He wears a soiled robe of brown and green and he carries on his back a gunny-bag with the little metal disks that have been used for the identification of the slain common soldiers.)

The Bearer

Here is a sack, a gunny sack,

A heavy sack I bring.

Here is toll of many a soul --

But not the soul of a king.

This is the toll of common men,

Who lived in the common way;

Lived upon bread and wine and love,

In the light of the common day.

This is the toll of working men,

Blood and brawn and brain.

Who shall render us again

The worth of all the slain?

(As the Counter speaks, the Bearer pours out the disks on the table. The Bearer obeys the Counter.)

The Counter

Pour them out on the table here.

C l i c k e t y - c l i c k e t y - c l a c k !

For every button a man went out,

And who shall call him back?

C l i c k e t y - c l i c k e t y - c l a c k !

One -- two -- three -- four --

Every disk a soul!

Three score -- four score --

So many boys went out to war.

Pick up that one that fell on the floor --

Didn't you see it roll?

That was a man a month ago.

This was a man. Row upon row --

Pile them in tens and count them so.

The Bearer

I have an empty sack.

It is not large. Would you have said

That I could carry on my back

So great an army -- and all dead?

(As the Counter speaks the Bearer lays the sack over his arm and helps count.)

The Counter

Put a hundred in each tray --

We can tally them best that way.

Careful -- do you understand

You have ten men in your hand?

There's another fallen -- there --

Under that chair.

(The Bearer finds it and restores it.)

That was a man a month ago;

He could see and feel and know.

Then, into his throat there sped

A bit of lead.

Blood was salt in his mouth; he fell

And lay amid the battle wreck.

Nothing was left but this metal check --

And a wife and child, perhaps.

(The Bearer finds the bag on his arm troublesome. He holds it up, inspecting it.)

The Bearer

What can one do with a thing like this?

Neither of life nor death it is!

For the dead serve not, though it served the dead.

The wounds it carried were wide and red,

Yet they stained it not. Can a man put food,

Potatoes or wheat, or even wood

That is kind and burns with a flame to warm

Living men who are comforted --

In a thing that has served so many dead?

There is no thrift in a graveyard dress,

It's been shroud for too many men.

I'll burn it and let the dead bless.

(He crosses himself and throws it into the fire. He watches it burn. The Counter continues to pile up the metal checks, and drop them by hundreds into the trays, which he piles one upon another. The Bearer turns from the fire and speaks more slowly than he has before. He indicates the metal checks.

Would not the blood of these make a great sea

For men to sail their ships on? It may be

No fish would swim in it, and the foul smell

Would make the sailors sick. Perhaps in Hell

There's some such lake for men who rush to war

Prating of glory, and upon the shore

Will stand the wives and children and old men

Bereft, to drive them back again

When they seek haven. Some such thing

I thought the while I bore it on my back

And heard the metal pieces clattering.

The Counter

Four score -- five score --

These and many more.

Forward -- march! -- into the tray!

No bugles blow to-day,

No captains lead the way;

But mothers and wives,

Fathers, sisters, little sons,

Count the cost

Of the lost;

And we count the unlived lives,

The forever unborn ones

Who might have been your sons.

The Bearer

Could not the hands of these rebuild

That which has been destroyed?

Oh, the poor hands! that once were strong and filled

With implements of labor whereby they

Served home and country through the peaceful day.

When those who made the war stand face to face

With these slain soldiers in that unknown place

Whither the dead go, what will be the word

By dead lips spoken and by dead ears heard?

Will souls say King or Kaiser? Will souls prate

Of earthly glory in that new estate?

The Counter

One hundred thousand --

One hundred and fifty thousand --

Two hundred --

The Bearer

Can this check plough?

Can it sow? can it reap?

Can we arouse it?

Is it asleep?

Can it hear when a child cries? --

Comfort a wife?

This little metal disk

Stands for a life.

Can this check build,

Laying stone upon stone?

Once it was warm flesh

Folded on bone.

Sinew and muscle firm,

Look at it -- can

This little metal check

Stand for a man?

The Counter

One -- two -- three -- four --

Notes

(The scene is a bare room, with two shaded windows at the back, and a fireplace between them with a fire burning low. The room is furnished scantily with a few plain chairs, and a rough wooden table on which are piled a great many small wooden trays. The Counter, who is Death, sits at the table. He wears a loose gray robe, and his face is partly concealed by a gray veil. He does not look at The Bearer, but works mechanically and speaks in a monotonous tone. The Bearer is the World, that bears the burden of War. He wears a soiled robe of brown and green and he carries on his back a gunny-bag with the little metal disks that have been used for the identification of the slain common soldiers.)(As the Counter speaks, the Bearer pours out the disks on the table. The Bearer obeys the Counter.)(As the Counter speaks the Bearer lays the sack over his arm and helps count.)(The Bearer finds it and restores it.)(The Bearer finds the bag on his arm troublesome. He holds it up, inspecting it.)(He crosses himself and throws it into the fire. He watches it burn. The Counter continues to pile up the metal checks, and drop them by hundreds into the trays, which he piles one upon another. The Bearer turns from the fire and speaks more slowly than he has before. He indicates the metal checks.