The Great War

from The Holy War, an electronic edition


With younger men he takes his stand,

To the recruiting-sergeant nigh,

Sees others chosen: lifts a hand

In hopes to catch the unwilling eye,

While his mood turns to black despair

Heedless of those that grin and stare.

Careless of jibe and jeer he waits,

Thrusts himself where the eye must fall,

A voice, indifferent as Fate's,

Orders "Stand back!" and that is all.

"Too old!" He steps down to make room

For younger men more slow to come.

Too old at fifty! But he feels

There's lots of fighting in him yet.

Some hint of glory lifts, reveals,

In the smirched days he would forget.

They might blot out the shameful past

If he fell fighting at the last.

If he could meet them, one poor rag

Of glory cast about his shame --

One rag of glory! England's flag

Wrapping in splendour his poor frame!

And all the people he once knew

Saying "He died as white men do!"

Mirage! Such dreams as come with sleep!

And he is innocent and small,

Running through orchard grasses deep

To his dead mother's tender call;

Before he broke her heart and bowed

His father's comely head and proud.

There's nothing left to hope for more.

Poor fool, to think he might atone!

He sees in a mist a fast-shut door.

Shambling and blear-eyed and alone

He goes, and darkness covers him,

Who saw the glory and the gleam.