The Great War

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



What troglodytes are these,--these men like moles,

Who tunnel in the soil their saps and mines,

Or burrow holes,

Into the rocks under the roots of pines;

Who make their homes

In catacombs,

Or crouch on rotten planks and muddy logs

In desolate obscene Serbonian bogs;

Who in the craters of the riven land

Contrive their hornet-nests with bags of sand,

And mud, and slime,--

Are these weird creatures all alive with lice,

And black with grime

Our sons, our fathers, and our husbands! Yea,

This is the altar of their sacrifice,

This is the price

That for your sakes they pay.


Hour follows barren hour, till heart and brain

Grow stagnant as the water in the trench.

Penned in a aitch upon a muddy plain,

Poisoned and palsied by the sickly stench--

The festering corruption of the slain,

Body and soul seem impotent and vain.

There in a bloody pool

A carrion crow pecks at a bloated horse;

And some poor fool,

Sniped like a frightened rabbit in the gorse,

Has left on No-man's Land his huddled corse;

And there some forty—fifty yards away,

Lusting to slay,

The toe makes caves

And pits, and graves,

In the same mud and clay,

Yet none have hate

Save against Fate

That turns poor simple men into wild beasts of prey.


Can this foul charnel damp,

This spiritual cramp,

This lewd stagnation of the soul be war?

Where are the battle-cries,

The flashing eyes,

The flying banners and the spears of Thor?

Here there are only mud, and filth, and flies,

And foul obscenities men's hearts abhor.

Where are the flaming hope, the fiery cross

That called us to the rampart and the fosse?

Alas, alas, faint, far-away they seem

Like a dim memory of a holy dream.


Now Moloch goes to reap,

Across the sky his search-lights wheel and flash,

His livid lightnings leap,

His thunders crash.

The gobbling howitzers and whinneying guns

Sound like the howling billows of the deep,

Hurled on a rocky steep

By a tornado's ire.

The tumult stupefies and stuns

Spirit and sense, as, like a devil's choir,

Ten thousand mouths of steel give tongue and spit,

In stuttering staccato, lead and fire.

The bullets of the shrapnel hiss and thud,

The star-shells burst in bud,

Orange, and green, and red;

The rockets rise and spread,

Their blossoms overhead;

And every trench and every crater-pit

Is blotched with blood

And dappled with the dead.


The belching mortars with war-drunken breath

Hiccup forth shells, whose entrails--flame and death--

Make every mound and parapet a pyre,

And bloody shards that turn the spirit sick

Lie mangled in the mire,

Or on the barbèd wire

Where the infernal flammenwerfer lick

Shrivel and blacken. E'en the gracious air

That has been wont to tremble into prayer,

To throb and thrill

And vibrate into music at our will,

Is turned to steel and stone, and strikes to kill;

While poisonous and thick,

Out of strange Stygian glooms,

Wreath after yellow wreath,

Rise acrid fumes

That grip and tear the throat like fiery teeth

Of some grim dragon snorting flames of hell,

Yea, grip with grip accurst

Till the blue veins upon the forehead swell

And the blear eyeballs burst.


Above the vapour, loom the monstrous wings

Of fierce uncanny harpy things--

White hawks and kites of hate that whir and fly

Dropping down death from the unheeding sky.

Across the plain with mighty mottled flanks

Waddle reptilian tanks--

Iguanodons and Juggernauts of steel--

These nose their way

Through mud and clay

And crush and mutilate with cloven heel

The fallen and the dying, till the mud

Is like a winepress, purpurate with blood

Of mangled mortals. On the sea afloat

Great Boats of Battle cleave the waves asunder.

Keel after keel.

And stertorously, through the strident throat

Of giant guns, join in the battle thunder.

While deep thereunder

In the blue water's mirk

There slink and lurk

Black submarines, like devils with a dirk.


Now through the forests drives the shrapnel hail;

Great jaggèd flying hatchets hew and hack,

And whirling blazing flambeaus flash and flare,

Flaying the beeches bare,

Burning the birches black.

The woods are threshed as by a flaming flail

The mighty branches splinter, split, and crack,

The growth of twenty centuries, alack,

The patient carpentry of sun and rain,

The moonbeams' and the sunbeams' bivouac,

Becomes a piteous wrack--

A black and bloody shambles of the slain,

A Golgotha of skulls, a hideous house of Pain.


O friendly trees,

O brave brown branches swaying in the breeze

Full of young hopes, full of old memories,

O cool green leaves that whispered to the moon,

Or threw the tune

Of singing thrushes to the evening air,

Or scattered dew upon the thirsty sod

How ye are hacked and hewn

Nought now but shrivelled blackened stumps are there,

As tho' a leprous blasphemous Despair

Uplifted handless arms to heartless God!


The craterous soil bludgeoned, and scalped, and tossed,

Is like a stormy sea congealed by frost,

And every hummocky wave

Of mud and clay

Is like a mighty barrow grave,--

An ossuary of the brave,

Frozen, and still, and grey.

Ah bitter barren sea thy tide devours--

Thy surf and spume

Engulf, entomb

Hamlets, and thorps, and cottages, and towers,

Castles and palaces, and barns and bields,

Orchards and gardens, white and red with flowers,

Arcades of roses, honeysuckle-bowers,

Vineyards, and olive-groves, and harvest-fields!


Ah bitter barren sea!

The quiet home where children used to play

Or kneel and pray

Beside a mother's knee

Huddles a heap of rubble in the mire,

Or, burnt by fire,

Stands like a dead man's dream

Nor light, nor love, nor joyance may redeem--

Stands with black rafters where the blind bats sway

Like little corses on a gibbet beam--

Where the rats climb and scamper night and day,

And carrion-crows

In greedy rows

Wrangle and scream

Above their prey.


All that Love's labour through long years of toil

Had sorely wrested from the stubborn soil--

The white-washed cottage with the thatchèd eaves

And portico entwined with ivy leaves,

The rugged poplars of the avenue,

The hedges glistening with morning dew

Strung like round pearls upon a gossamer thread,

All these are gone--all these are gone and dead.

The olive-groves, the vines, the wheat, the maize,

The meadows where the kine were wont to graze,

The cosy arbour in the orchard nook,

The rustic bridge across the gurgling brook

To the old mossy drowsy droning mill,--

All these the tides of fire and death erase

And rend, and burn, and blacken.

Yea, and still

The howling havoc sweeps across the land.

Valley and moor, and hill

Are scourged and devastated. Bomb and brand

Murder and maim,

Ravage and rape.

Cathedrals topple, cities fall in flame,

And church-yards yawn and gape.

There in his shrine Christ is re-crucified:

The bullets on the nails like hammers beat:

The bayonets are in his wounded side;

The daggers have transfixed his patient feet.


Behold the tabid tundra-land of Sin

Where like a yellow mist from brackish streams

Drift melancholy ghosts of Hopes and Dreams!

Behold the dreary deadland where the thin

Fingers of Famine rake the garbage heap

Seeking a crust therein,--

Where Pestilence and Plague with jaundiced skin

Shamble and creep--

Where ghastly bundles in the petrol steep,

And flames incredible begin to leap

Robbing the rats and maggots of their prey--

Round pitiful thing in bloody brown and grey,

Where buried in some dug-out like a tomb

Men in the gloom

Despairing lie

And call in vain to Death and cannot die!


Here huddle all the scarred,

The halt, the lame,

Those blinded, broken, marred

By steel and flame.

Here the mad walk apart

With tears in their heart,--

Tears that will not flow

That will not gently rise

To cool their aching eyes

Scalded with tearless woe.

They cannot weep, but sometimes laughter vain

Shrieks on their lips

Where still there drips

The dregs of some red cup of poisoned pain

Whose draught has slain the soul and seared the brain.

Behold the land where men their victories win!

Behold the dreary tundra-land of Sin!


Yet still in Tartaræan glooms,

In muddy pits like fetid tombs,

The thunder-fiends of battle stoke

The lightning fires of tragic dooms,

And woolly wisps of yellow smoke,

And green, and red, and purple fumes,

Like feathery funereal plumes,

Flutter, or on the wind upborne.

Billow and fly

Upon the sky

Like splendid banners slashed and torn.


The planet is all tumult and turmoil,

And madly on the pocked and pitted soil

Drums Death's insane hysterical tattoo--

The carmagnole of guns, la folie des obus.

The whole air cleft asunder

Reverberates in thunder,

Whines, whimpers, whinnies, shudders, shrieks and screams

As though the stars were on the mountains hurled

By demons in demoniac nightmare dreams,

As though the Earth's foundation-stones were riven,

As though by plectron of a bomb, or shell,

Or twitching fingertips of fire, or levin,

Death plucked the nerves and sinews of the world,

Strung on a harp whose pedestal was set

Upon the flaming floor of hell,

And yet

Whose pillars propped the very roof of heaven.


The thunder pauses. With a shriek and roar

"Over the top" surges a line of steel.

Behind cascades of fire that foam before,

The hounds of war go baying at Death's heel,--

Go baying on a trail of human gore.

Out of the broken trenches blink and peer

The beady eyes of muddy human moles

That glitter with alternate hate and fear

Like wind-swept incalescent brazier coals.

Death is upon them, the bright steel grows red,

And greedy Hate is glutted with the dead.


The "Push" is over, and ten thousand things

That once were Nature's lords and Nature's Kings

That once were men, lie writhing in the clay,

Lie with pink bubbles frothing on their lips,

With gaping wounds from which their life-blood drips,

With filmy eyes o'ershadowed by eclipse,

With arms and legs and faces shot away.

O fair white bodies lying in the mud

So stiff and grey,

Once in your hearts there leapt the living blood,

Once your cold lips could love, and sing, and pray,

Once women at your coming knew the kiss

Of husband, father, brother, lover, son.

Alas, alas, how have ye come to this

What have ye done?


Has Fate no pity, and has Hate no ruth?

Did God the Maker blunder

Making your bodies' wonder

Filling your hearts with love your minds with truth?

Did God the Father blunder

Making your bodies' wonder,

Filling your limbs with force your souls with fire

With all the dreams and all the hopes of youth,

To leave you bloody carrion in the mire?


Nay, who can tell what such a death may mean?

To be o'ertaken

By lightning and by thunder:

To feel the keen

Sharp blade divide asunder

Body and soul, the unseen and the seen !

To be reborn

Through the sky rent and torn

And on a sudden waken

Into a peace serene

Into the radiance of eternal morn?

Who, who can guess, what such a birth may mean

To him who goes with body young and clean

To him who goes With spirit pure and fresh,

Unknowing blemish and unwotting blame,

In hot pursuit of some immortal aim

Out of the flesh?


A warrior, a lover

What hopes and dreams will hover

Around his head

What beauty will his spirit

Develop and discover

What glory-land of merit

Inhabit and inherit

There in the starry kingdom of the immortal dead?

Surely he will come forth exultant, whole,

Happy, victorious, and unafraid,

A shining, joyous, liberated soul

Knighted by Death's immortal accolade!