The Great War

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

In Memoriam: John Davidson

i

WE watched thy spirit flickering in the dark,

Like a phantasmal lark

Fluttering on the moon;

We knew thine ire

Like lightning on a lyre,

Like thunder in the lily throat of June.

We saw thy discontent like lambent fire,

Purple and red,

Smoking and smouldering beneath the pyre

Of Beauty widowed, and of Joyance dead,

Thou with a rapier didst reap the rose

That on Parnassus grows;

Thou the white brow of Poesie didst scar,

Lopping her laurels with a scimitar.

So strange, so fierce, so various, so bright

Thy wrath, thy woe, thy melody, thy light.

ii

Sweet-bitter was thy life, and bitter-sweet,

Blown with success, and bloody with defeat,

Beloved by beauty, and oppressed by care,

Fevered by passion, frozen by despair.

Thy fervour would not wait

The seed within the sod,

The ripening of Fate,

The harvesting of God.

Thy zeal to right the wrong

Both right and wrong down hurled,

Wert fain by dint of song

To build a better world.

iii

But mortised well, and founded deep,

The world's divine foundations are;

The briny tears that mortals weep

May water lilies on a star,

And what we sow our souls may reap

Eternities afar.

To none our final doom is known,

As none our primal birth foresaw;

Yet all things would be overthrown

By any fault, by any flaw,

By loosening of a little stone

In the great Temple of the Law.

We cannot guess, who cannot see

Eternity's entelechy;

And all thy discontent and wrath

Were but a cobweb in God's path;

Still moves the Mighty Purpose on

Through pain to joy, through dusk to dawn.

iv

Wert thou a rebel grappling with the stars

That swing their swords before the Gate of God;

How clashed and clanged the bolts and bars,

With hurtling of thy shoulders broad!

The round sky shuddered, and the sea

Plangent reverberated thee!

Nay, but a bird,

With futile rage,

Shrilling a tune,

Upon the moon,

Bruising thy wings against a cage,

Or a wild moth,

Most vainly wroth,

That war against the world would wage.

v

Life took some dust within his hands,

And made it hear and made it see;

Love rent thy narrow swaddling bands

And bore thee over seas and lands

To the Pisgah of Infinity;

Yet thou art but putrescent dust,

Blown in creation's frolic breath--

The fool of love, the toy of lust,

The dupe of Death.

Dust on a bit of spinning slag,

Belched from the furnace of the sun,

Wouldst dare to raise a rebel flag

Against the Wise and Mighty One!

Why doubtest what he has decreed?

What man can know

What He may sow

Who brings a forest from a seed?

vi

So soon or late the fiercest rebel breath

Is subjugate to Death.

Although we would escape

The grisly shape,

The visage proud and pale,

The grey forefinger with the purple nail

Pointing into the darkness, gross and thick,

Making the senses sick,

And the courage quail,

Yet, be we foolish, be we wise,

Death in the end will look us in the eyes.

This is the test

Of triumph or defeat,

Of worst and best,

Of bitter and of sweet;

This is God's arbiter we all must meet.

vii

And yet, perchance, it was this thought, like flame

Moved thee too soon to call upon Death's name,

To call upon his might to save or slay;

When thou with load of glory and of shame,

With crowns of rankling thorn, and withered bay,

Thou with half-finished work, half-ripened fame,

Went forth and cursed and called him, till he came

In a swirl of surging waves, in a cloud of spray,

And in the deep

Gave thy hot sorrow sleep,

And in his arms carried thy soul away.

viii

Who, who will blame thee for thy broken sword.

Or scorn thee for the discords of thy lyre?

Thou wert a noble singer, and the Lord,

For a reward,

Filled thy wild heart with fire.

It was not strange the cold world should discord

With thy desire;

It was not strange a soul so full of woes

Should seek repose.

We blame thee not, thy failures we forget,

Forget the seeming-weak, the seeming-wrong;

But in our hearts there blooms and blossoms yet

The sweet, wild, poignant passion of thy song.