The Great War

from Great Poems of the World War, an electronic edition

Swan Songs

MORE than all the others put together the war poems of Alan Seeger, Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, and Lieut. Rupert Brooke, have touched and thrilled the heart of America. They are quiet, earnest, yet more powerful than trumpet blasts, for they rise triumphant from great depths, and as they sing, exalt.

Most familiar is our own Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." He was studying in Paris when the war broke out. In the third week he enlisted in the Foreign Legion. Two arduous years later he was called on higher service. July 4, 1916, his squad was caught in an assault on the village of Belloy-en-Santerre, where the Germans received them with the fire of six machine guns. Seeger was severely wounded, but went forward with the others, and helped take the place. Next morning he died. He had kept the tryst.

Alan Seeger was a New York boy. He was born in that city June 22, 1888. In his short life he had written some twenty poems. This was his last. It was written in camp, shortly before his call came:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death*

I HAVE a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple blossoms fill the air.

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair

It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath;

It may be I shall pass him, still,

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear.

But I've a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true.

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Lieut. Col. John McCrae was a Canadian physician who served in the South African war as an artilleryman. He was on his way to Canada when the war began in 1914, and immediately upon landing he entered the Val Cartier training camp and was commissioned a Captain. Later he joined the McGill Hospital corps and went with it to France, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and died in service, January 28, 1918.

His poem, "In Flanders' Fields," was written on the Flanders front in the Spring of 1915. Its inspiration is thus explained by Sergeant Charles F. Bisset, of the 19th Battlion, 1st Brigade, Canadian Infantry:

"On the Flanders front in the early Spring of 1915, when the war had settled down to trench fighting, two of the most noticeable features of the field were, first, the luxuriant growth of red poppies appearing among the graves of the fallen soldiers, and second, that only one species of bird--the larks--remained on the field during the fighting. As soon as the cannonading ceased, they would rise in the air, singing."

In Flanders' Fields

IN Flanders' fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead! Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The Torch. Be yours to hold it high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,

In Flanders' fields.

Rupert Brooke, a brilliant, impassioned young Englishman, was one of the first to take arms when Great Britain went to war. He died in the Dardanelles expe-dition, April 23 , 1915. A few days before, he had sent from the Aegean Sea to the English--speaking peoples the poem by which he is best known.

The Soldier*

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed,

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware.

Gave once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England's breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Lieutenant Brooke was a rare poet, having a serene faith, a knowledge of life as continuous. His bent of thought, the manner of his feeling, shine most clearly in this sonnet

Not with Vain Tears

NOT with vain tears, when we're beyond the sun,

We'll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread

Those dusty highroads of the aimless dead,

Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run

Down some close-covered byway of the air,

Some low, sweet alley between wind and wind,

Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find

Some whispering, ghost-forgotten nook, and there

Spend in pure converse our eternal day;

Think each in each, immediately wise;

Learn all we lacked before; hear, know and say

What this tumultuous body now denies;

And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;

And see, no longer blinded by our eyes.

All of Rupert Brooke's work has been collected and issued, a rich though slender sheaf. The book is fervently commended to people whose own souls are in the key that responds to notes so spiritually fine and clear as those he sounds in all his lines.

"But a Short Time to Live" was written by Serg't Leslie Coulson, whose "little hour" came to an end at Arras, in France, October 7, 1916:

But a Short Time to Live

OUR little hour--how swift it flies--

When poppies flare and lilies smile;

How soon the fleeting minute dies,

Leaving us but a little while

To dream our dreams, to sing our song,

To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower.

The gods--they do not give us long

One little hour.

Our little hour--how soon it dies

How short a time to tell our beads,

To chant our feeble litanies,

To think sweet thoughts, to do good deeds.

The altar lights grow pale and dim,

The bells hang silent in the tower--

So passes with the dying hymn

Our little hour.

These songs, with others that have lilted so bravely, gravely, through the world's most bitter years of travail, will live long in literature, with many more as strong or as sweet. Had all the writers lived, we would have had a wealth of splendid gifts from them, especially, maybe, from that "poor bird--hearted singer of a day," Francis Ledwidge, who fell in battle in Flanders, July 31, 1917. Ledwidge was discovered by Lord Dunsany, himself a soldier-poet and a patron of poets. He was lance corporal in Lord Dunsany's company in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskillen Fusileers. He wrote quite touchingly to a friend shortly before the end, "I mean to do something great if I am spared, but out here one may at any moment be hurled out of life." There is no doubt he would have done "something great," for here is a swan song not unworthy to bear his name to later times:

The Lost Ones

SOMEWHERE is music from the linnets' bills,

And through the sunny flowers the bee wings drone,

And white bells of convolvulus on hills

Of quiet May make silent ringing blown

Hither and thither by the wind of showers,

And somewhere all the wandering bird, have flown;

And the brown breath of Autumn chills the flowers.

But where are all the loves of long ago?

O little twilight ship blown up the tide,

Where are the faces laughing in the glow

Of morning years, the lost ones scattered wide?

Give me your hand, O brother; let us go

Crying about the dark for those who died.


*. From "Poems," by Alan Seeger, Copyright, 1916, by Charles Scribner's Son's, Publishers, New York. Permission to reproduce in this book.

*. "The Soldier," and "Not With Vain Tears" are from "The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke," published and copyright, 1915, by John Lane Company, New York. Special permission to reproduce in this book.