The Great War

from War: an Ode And Other Poems, an electronic edition

PART I

i

SPINNING in space, a filmy cloudlet shone

Festooned and frayed,

Like a torn braid

Of woven pearls and silver--thin and wan

As tenuous ghosts that in the saffron dawn

Upon the sweltry banks of Acheron

Swither and sway. And ever and anon

Out of the margin of the mist there came

Flurries of flame

And drifts of scarlet scud,

As if of glairy tears, and clotted blood,

Together spun--

Spindrift and spume of the vortiginous surge

Of a sun-shattered sun,

Around whose fiery wrack was furled the cloud,

Like swaddling robes, or bridal veil, or shroud.

ii

So seethed the cloud, and reeling from the gurge,

Smelted and smoothened from the rough débris

By the hot hands of Fire, the Thaumaturge,

The Earth leapt free.

Around it, burned and boomed a plangent sea

That ever by the cruel knotted scourge

Of a wild crashing rain of crimson scree

Was whipped to plashing whirls of purple foam.

And ever lashing from its dædal dome

There hissed a heavy hail of falling stars

Whose flick upon the lava's filigree

Made rosy scars.

And ever from the coastal crust of slag

Slipped candent cliff and burning crag

Into the cauldron of the bubbling ore,

And steamed and wallowed in the red fiords

Like monstrous hordes

Of snorting dragons weltering in gore,

Stabbed in the loins with the long jaggèd swords

Of the livid lightning. Yea, and evermore

Came from volcano-throats the raucous roar

Of lava and of thunder; and the shore

Reverberated with the ponderous tide

As the sun rose in reckless wrath and tore

--Till the astounded stars heard the torn granite gride--

The bossy, slaggy moon from the Earth's riven side.

iii

Still the hoarse thunder bellowed, still the fire

Moulded to its desire

Mountain and swire,

And precipice and dale,

So porphyry pinnacle and granite spire

Guttered and sagged like candles in a gale;

And basalt towers

Wilted like flowers

In scorching showers

Of radiant hail;

And the crust moaned

And groaned

And rose and fell

Like the hot surges in the heart of hell.

But round the planet in ætherial space

There lurked a frost that gripped it like a vice

A frost so fierce could curdle flame to ice--

The frost of nothingness that never knew

A genial flush of warmth come burning through

Its deadly limbus. In its dire embrace

The furnaces of fire forgot to glow;

And from the welkin dun,

Unlighted by the sun,

A clattering clinker fell of iron snow.

iv

And from the white becloudèd skies,

Like scalding tears.

From closèd eyes,

Held shut by fears,

Gripped tight by pain,

There trickled through

A drench of dew,

An ooze of tepid rain,

And down the smouldering hills,

Gather, by slow accrue,

A leash of little rills,

Amber and blue.

v

And rills became a stream,

And streams to rivers grew,

And in a cloud of steam

Plunged madly out of view

Down precipices steep

Into a chasm deep

Trenchèd and torn

In the Earth's wounded side

By the phrenetic tide

When the white moon was born;

Till, lo, in creeks and bights and bays,

Clad in a shining rainbow haze,--

A diapase

Of chrysoprase,

And lapis-lazuli,--

There dreamed and gleamed,

And played and swayed,

And surged and sang the sea!

vi

Thus was our planet wrought by arts of war,

By spear

Of Tyr,

By thunderbolt of Thor;

Thus did granitic isle and iron floe.

Welded and rivetted by hammer blow.

Assume the semblance of a solid Earth,—-

Become a womb,

A cradle and a tomb.

Where wondrous things had burial and birth.

vii

The lustral fires burned low,

The lurid glow

Of the live lava dimmed and died away,

Only betimes an ember, burning slow,

Gleamed in the ashes grey,

Like an eye glazed and dull

In the worm-nibbled skull

Of some dead beast of prey

And softly round the ledges of the land

The surf went fumbling like a lover's hand

Feeling with wistful wonder

A living heart thereunder

That beat and throbbed athro' the silver sand;

Or kneading clay and lime

Into a tawny slime

That in the swaying motion of the tide

Quivered like some sea-monster's wrinkled hide.

viii

And, lo, upon the tawny briny mud

Flickered a smouldering bud--

A spark of green,--

A little speck, a tiny spore,

That on the vast savannahs of the shore

Was hardly to be seen.

Not tinier the dust a zephyr blows

From the new-ripened anther of a rose;

Yet in its core

Were hidden more

Wisdom and love,

Beauty and grace,

Than all the suns and all the stars of space.

ix

Who in the store

Of helpless atoms huddled on the shore

Could have foreseen,

Fore-guessed, foretold

The vastitude of vernal green,

The granaries of autumn gold?--

Who in the voiceless atoms on the beach

Could have foreheard

The singing of a bird

The mighty harmonies of human speech?--

Could have foreknown

The living hands of flesh, and blood, and bone,

That from that little greenery would reach ?--

Who from the past

Could have forecast

The evolution of the future vast,

And guessed that in the tiny cell,

Were love, and hate, and heaven, and hell.

x

Silently was the work of life begun;

Upon the fairy anvil beat the sun;

Into the elfin furnace rushed the air

Forging shapes weak and strong, and foul and fair,

While unseen Death and unsurmisèd Love

Stood watching there

Ready to test and prove,

To kill and spare;

And by and by the green began to move

To breathe and feed, and swim and creep,

To sprawl across the sand, and voyage o'er the deep,

And by and by the sea grew white with swarms

Of flimsy forms.

Bits of soft living slime,

Prisoned in shells of lime

Most delicately built.

Went swimming to and fro,

Or, dying, fell like snow.

Luting the ocean floor with oozy silt.

xi

And now on land life was no longer dumb:

Out of the ferns and moss, across the sky,

Insects with gauzy wings began to fly,

And buzz and hum,

And in the grass, crickets began to try

Their scrannel violins of wing and thigh;

Anon, in marshes like the bogs of Styx

Uncanny things half bird, half bat,

And monstrous reptile shapes bloated or gaunt,--

Atlantosaur, and archæopteryx,

And dinothere, and labyrinthodont,

And pterodactyl, monstrous things begat.

And evermore Death came, and laughed, and slew.

And patient Life and Birth bent to their task anew.

xii

Death wrought with divers tools. Unwearièd

Across the warp of life that wimpled red

The lightning flashed, shooting a livid thread

Like signatures of the undying dead--

Through the half-woven tapestries of doom;

And the mephitic breath and mordant fume

Of the hot-throated craters scorched and charred

The living lengthening web; and through the gloom

Some tempest howling shrill, and breathing hard

Frayed Life's unfinished fringes; and disease,

Nibbled the fairy fabric as the seas

Nibble their rocky headlands. Yet, unmarred

Unscathed, unscarred,

Life ever wove in carpel and in womb

Imperishable webs of flesh and bloom.

xiii

Crumpled the cooling crust, and the deep ocean bed

Luted with lime and slime of creatures dead

--That snow of death through the long æons shed--

Was puckered into marble mountain heights

--Himálayas and Alps, and Dolomites--

Where eagles had their eyries, and once more

Subsided and became the ocean floor;

And fire piled high sierras, and the rains

Wore them down inch by inch to desert plains;

And inch by inch the coral islands grew,

Like daisy garlands, in the ocean blue,

And inch by inch the glaciers ground away

The granite boulders into boulder-clay;

Yet never ceased the seethe of life, and still

Birth bore new forms faster than death could kill.

xiv

So the fierce æons ran,

Till with exalted head

Thronèd upon the dead,

There stood immortal man--

Fruitage of all the tilth

And spilth

Of fire--

Following dreams and driven by desire.

Through the gate of breath,

In the arms of Death,

By the path of Love, from the pit of shame,

With a fiery past,

And a future vast,

To the world he came.

xv

Spawn he was in the steamy mire,

Fins he was in a primal sea,

Wings he was in the feathered choir,

Or ever he came a man to be.

Of dead the mountain peaks are built,

Of dead the soil, of dead the silt--

The dead that led the way to him

Through shell and claw to brain and limb.

In every thought, in every part,

Made is he of a million slain,

Blood of the dead is in his heart,

Dreams of the dead are in his brain.

xvi

Made at such infinite and fiery cost,

Wrought with such delicate and deadly art,

--Spirit and heart--

Out of things born, and buried, found and lost--

With all the energies of fire and frost

Of wind and flood

Of life and death

Tempestuous in his tidal blood

Combustive in his burning breath--

With unconsumed Eternity behind,

With unconceived Eternity before,

Man, the custodian of immortal mind,

Stood with bewildered senses at the door

Of darkling wisdom. Round him still was blore

Of tempest and of furnace. From the peak

The purple pennons of volcano-reek,

That the fire tossed and tore

Streamed in the sky an omen and ostent

Of bloody battle, and belligerent

He heard the salvos of the thunder speak

And crash

And roar.

He watched the lightning's white stiletto flash

And stab and gash

The bosom of the darkness as a fiend

Might stab a swarthy woman lying dead;

He saw the forest like a cornfield gleaned

By the white sickles of a surging flood;

And even the gorgeous sky of gold and red

Seemed a God's brazen byrny oozing blood.

Yea and he saw

How talon, tooth, and claw

Waged internecine combat, and he, too.

Seeing that life was war, went forth and slew.

xvii

Naked and weak,

He flaked a flint, and strung a hickory bow,

And struck a spark, and in a mountain gorge

Hammered a spear, upon a granite forge

With cunning blow.

And spoored the mammoth o'er the prairie bleak,

And faced and fought it to its overthrow;

And stabbed the bear upon the glacial peak,

And clubbed the walrus on the drifting floe,

Till the warm blood ran crimson to the creek,

Steaming upon the snow.

xviii

No fear could blear his sight, no woe could blanch

His vivid blood. The glacial avalanche

Like a white Juggernaut rode down the land

Trampling the forests with a madman's lust,

Braying the iron-hearted rocks to dust,

And drift, and sand.

And famine, and fatigue, and cold, and pain

Cramped his fierce heart and froze his fervid breath

Yet still he conquered. At his feet in death

Writhed monsters could have crunched him 'tween their teeth

Like a ripe berry, or a cob of grain,

But there he stood with all the world beneath,

A pigmy creature with a giant brain.

xix

Yet came no peace. Still in his heart was strife;

A far fore-seeing Fate

Using his pride and Hate,

Wrought at the web of life;

And driven still

By his own passionate will

Upon a bloody way,

He seized his sword his brother man to slay.

Nation slew nation: horde abolished horde.

Vengeance and famine swept whole tribes away,

And still there sped the spear and flashed the sword,

Carving the human clay;

And still life came of death, and joy of pain.

And still, as Man his fellow-mortals slew,

Like a red rose, watered with bloody rain,

The human spirit grew,--

Grew in the depth and height of its desire,

Grew as the Earth had grown amid the fire.