First World War Poetry Showcase

Poetry by Heart has compiled this showcase selection of poetry to mark the centenary
of the outbreak of the First World War. There are plenty of anthologies of First World War
poetry in existence.

Ours is different because it contains an unusually wide range of voice: some widely
celebrated, some much less well-known; some from Britain, some from Germany and
elsewhere; some men and some women; some speaking from the trenches, some from
behind the lines or at home; some describing the heat of battle, some reflecting on the
conflict from later in the century.

Taken all together, they create an extraordinary kind of witness – harrowing as well
as humbling and heartening; they present the war as a devastating moment in history,
and remind us its resonances never end.

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Trench Warfare Light and Dark Dreams Birds Fruit Explosion Pain Youth Reflection Goodbyes Music Curse Laughter Pride Pointlessness Thunder Religion Emptiness Escapism Spring Ghosts Home Front Medical Workers Translations

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In Festubert

Now everything that shadowy thought Lets peer with bedlam eyes at me From alleyways and thoroughfares Of cynic and ill memory Lifts a gaunt head, sullenly stares, Shuns me as a child has shunned A whizzing dragonfly that daps Above his mudded pond. Now bitter frosts, muffling the morn In old days, crunch the grass anew; There, where the floods made fields forlorn The glinzy ice grows thicker through, The pollards glower like mummies when Thieves pierce the long-locked pyramid, Inscrutable as those dead men With painted mask and balm-cloth hid: And all the old delight is cursed Redoubling present undelight. Splinter, crystal, splinter and burst; And sear no more with second sight.

Concert party: Busseboom

The stage was set, the house was packed, The famous troop began; Our laughter thundered, act by act; Time light as sunbeams ran. Dance sprang and spun and neared and fled, Jest chirped at gayest pitch, Rhythm dazzled, action sped Most comically rich. With generals and lame privates both Such charms worked wonders, till The show was over - lagging loth We faced the sunset chill; And standing on the sandy way, With the cracked church peering past, We heard another matinée, We heard the maniac blast Of barrage south by Saint Eloi, And the red lights flaming there Called madness: Come, my bonny boy, And dance to the latest air. To this new concert, white we stood; Cold certainty held our breath; While men in tunnels below Larch Wood Were kicking men to death.

Edmund Blunden
1896 - 1974

Rouen

Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning, And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair, And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges, And the empty littered station, and the tired people there. Can you recall those mornings and the hurry of awakening, And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way, And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions, And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day? Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the city, Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies, And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers, And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies. Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee, Heavy-laden nontides with the evening’s peace to win, And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles, And the crushes in the ‘Parlour’, and the letters coming in? Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers, All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth; And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts, And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth. Can I forget the passage from the cool white-bedded Aid Post Past the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter, And ‘Good-bye, and thank you, Sister’, and the empty yards again? Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad, Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string, And the voices of the sergeants who called the Drafts together, And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King? Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving, The little group of people at the doorway of the shed, The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness, And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o’erhead? Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers, Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again, And the shadows on the rail-lines and the all inglorious labour, And the promise of the daylight firing blue the windowpane? Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning, Morning very still and solemn breaking slowly on the town, And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak, And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down? Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles, And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide, And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool of water, And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside? Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island, And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony, And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses, And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea? When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower, My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away; When other men remember I remember our Adventure And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.

May Wedderburn Cannan
1893 - 1973

Into Battle

The naked earth is warm with spring, And with green grass and bursting trees Leans to the sun's kiss glorying, And quivers in the loving breeze; And life is colour and warmth and light, And a striving evermore for these; And he is dead who will not fight; And who dies fighting has increase. The fighting man shall from the sun Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth; Speed with the light-foot winds to run, And with the trees a newer birth; And when his fighting shall be done, Great rest, and fullness after dearth. All the bright company of Heaven Hold him in their high comradeship, The Dog-Star, and the Sisters Seven, Orion's Belt and sworded hip. The woodland trees that stand together, They stand to him each one a friend; They gently speak in the windy weather, They guide to valley and ridge's end. The kestrel hovering by day, And the little owls that call by night, Bid him swift and keen as they, As keen of ear, as swift of sight. The blackbird sings to him 'Brother, brother, If this be the last song you shall sing, Sing well, for you will not sing another; Brother, sing!' In dreary, doubtful, waiting hours, Before the brazen frenzy starts, The horses show him nobler powers; O patient eyes, courageous hearts! And when the burning moment breaks, And all things else are out of mind, And only joy of battle takes Him by the throat, and makes him blind, Through joy and blindness he shall know, Not caring much to know, that still Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so That is be not the Destined Will. The thundering line of battle stands, And in the air death moans and sings; But Day shall clasp him with strong hands, And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Julian Grenfell
1888 - 1915

To his love

He's gone, and all our plans Are useless indeed. We'll walk no more on Cotswold Where the sheep feed Quietly and take no heed. His body that was so quick Is not as you Knew it, on Severn river Under the blue Driving our small boat through. You would not know him now... But still he died Nobly, so cover him over With violets of pride Purple from Severn side. Cover him, cover him soon! And with thick-set Masses of memoried flowers - Hide that red wet Thing I must somehow forget.

The silent one

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two - Who for his hours of life had chattered through Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent; Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went, A noble fool, faithful to his stripes - and ended. But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance Of line - to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken Wires, and saw the flashes, and kept unshaken. Till the politest voice - a finicking accent, said: ‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there's a hole;' In the afraid Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied – ‘I'm afraid not, Sir.' There was no hole, no way to be seen. Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing – And thought of music - and swore deep heart's deep oaths. (Polite to God -) and retreated and came on again. Again retreated – and a second time faced the screen.

Strange Hells

There are strange hells within the minds war made Not so often, not so humiliating afraid As one would have expected – the racket and fear guns made. One hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out; Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads, That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune; “Apres la guerre fini” till hell all had come down, Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering hell’s thunders. Where are they now on state-doles, or showing shop patterns Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns. The heart burns – but has to keep out of the face how heart burns.

Ivor Gurney
1890 - 1937

In time of ‘the breaking
of nations’

I Only a man harrowing clods In a slow silent walk With an old horse that stumbles and nods Half asleep as they stalk. II Only thin smoke without flame From the heaps of couch-grass: Yet this will go onward the same Though Dynasties pass. III Yonder a maid and her wight Come whispering by: War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die.

Channel firing

That night your great guns, unawares, Shook all our coffins as we lay, And broke the chancel window-squares, We thought it was the Judgement-day And sat upright. While drearisome Arose the howl of wakened hounds: The mouse let fall the altar-crumb, The worms drew back into the mounds, The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, 'No; It's gunnery practice out at sea Just as before you went below; The world is as it used to be: 'All nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters They do no more for Christés sake Than you who are helpless in such matters. 'That this is not the judgment-hour For some of them's a blessed thing, For if it were they'd have to scour Hell's floor for so much threatening... 'Ha, ha. It will be warmer when I blow the trumpet (if indeed I ever do; for you are men, And rest eternal sorely need).' So down we lay again. 'I wonder, Will the world ever saner be,' Said one, 'than when He sent us under In our indifferent century!' And many a skeleton shook his head. 'Instead of preaching forty year,' My neighbour Parson Thirdly said, 'I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.' Again the guns disturbed the hour, Roaring their readiness to avenge, As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Thomas Hardy
1840 - 1928

Ducks

I From troubles of the world I turn to ducks, Beautiful comical things Sleeping or curled Their heads beneath white wings By water cool, Or finding curious things To eat in various mucks Beneath the pool, Tails uppermost, or waddling Sailor-like on the shores Of ponds, or paddling - Left! Right! - with fanlike feet Which are for steady oars When they (white galleys) float Each bird a boat Rippling at will the sweet Wide waterway... When night is fallen you creep Upstairs, but drakes and dillies Nest with pale water-stars, Moonbeams and shadow bars, And water-lilies: Fearful too much to sleep Since they've no locks To click against the teeth Of weasel and fox. And warm beneath Are eggs of cloudy green Whence hungry rats and lean Would stealthily suck New life, but for the mien The bold ferocious mien Of the mother-duck. II Yes, ducks are valiant things On nests of twigs and straws, And ducks are soothy things And lovely on the lake When that the sunlight draws Thereon their pictures dim In colours cool. And when beneath the pool They dabble, and when they swim And make their rippling rings, 0 ducks are beautiful things! But ducks are comical things:- As comical as you. Quack! They waddle round, they do. They eat all sorts of things, And then they quack. By barn and stable and stack They wander at their will, But if you go too near They look at you through black Small topaz-tinted eyes And wish you ill. Triangular and clear They leave their curious track In mud at the water's edge, And there amid the sedge And slime they gobble and peer Saying 'Quack! quack!' III When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones; Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then He made the comical ones in case the minds of men Should stiffen and become Dull, humourless and glum, And so forgetful of their Maker be As to take even themselves - quite seriously. Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns: All God's jokes are good - even the practical ones! And as for the duck, 1 think God must have smiled a bit Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it. And he's probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill!

F.W. Harvey
1888 - 1957

In memoriam Francis Ledwidge

Killed in France 31 July 1917 The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape That crumples stiffly in imagined wind No matter how the real winds buff and sweep His sudden hunkering run, forever craned Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack, The gun's firm slope from butt to bayonet, The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque -- It all meant little to the worried pet I was in nineteen forty-six or seven, Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand. The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat. Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes. A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins. At night when coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front Country voices rose from a cliff-top shelter With news of a great litter - "We'll pet the runt!" - And barbed wire that had torn a friesian's elder. Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon. Literary, sweet-talking, countrified, You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane. Where you belonged, among the dolorous And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers, Easter water sprinkled in outhouses, Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres. I think of you in your Tommy's uniform, A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave, Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave. It's summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl My aunt was then, herding on the long acre. Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles You suck stones to make your dry mouth water. It's nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows, But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres: 'My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows... My country wears her confirmation dress.' 'To be called a British soldier while my country Has no place among nations...' You were rent By shrapnel six weeks later. 'I am sorry That party politics should divide our tents.' In you, our dead enigma, all the strains Criss-cross in useless equilibrium And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze I hear again the sure confusing drum You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans But miss the twilit note your flute should sound. You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones Though all of you consort now underground.

Seamus Heaney
1939 - 2013

In Parenthesis – Part 2,
pages 23-24

He looked straight at Sergeant Snell enquiringly—whose eyes changed queerly, who ducked in under the low entry. John Ball would have followed, but stood fixed and alone in the little yard—his senses highly alert, his body incapable of movement or response. The exact disposition of small things—the precise shapes of trees, the tilt of a bucket, the movement of a straw, the disappearing right boot of Sergeant Snell—all minute noises, separate and distinct, in a stillness charged through with some approaching violence—registered not by the ear nor any single faculty—an on-rushing pervasion, saturating all existence; with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed, millesimal—of calculated velocity, some mean chemist’s contrivance, a stinking physicist’s destroying toy. He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came—bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howl- ing crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burst- ings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through—all taking-out of vents—all barrier-breaking—all unmaking. Pernitric begetting—the dissolving and splitting of solid things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Ball picked up his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in the dismal straw. Behind ‘E’ Battery, fifty yards down the road, a great many mangolds, uprooted, pulped, congealed with chemical earth, spattered and made slippery the rigid boards leading to the emplacement. The sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun.

In Parenthesis – Part 7,
pages 183-186

It's difficult with the weight of the rifle. Leave it--under the oak. Leave it for a salvage-bloke let it lie bruised for a monument dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful. It's the thunder-besom for us it's the bright bough borne it's the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it's that county-mob back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley for a Silver Dish. It's R.S.M. O'Grady says, it's the soldier's best friend if you care for the working parts and let us be 'av- ing those springs released smartly in Company billets on wet forenoons and clickerty-click and one up the spout and you men must really cultivate the habit of treating this weapon with the very greatest care and there should be a healthy rivalry among you--it should be a matter of very proper pride and Marry it man! Marry it! Cherish her, she's your very own. Coax it man coax it--it's delicately and ingeniously made --it's an instrument of precision--it costs us tax-payers, money--I want you men to remember that. Fondle it like a granny--talk to it--consider it as you would a friend--and when you ground these arms she's not a rooky's gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish. You've known her hot and cold. You would choose her from among many. You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain, above the lower sling-swivel-- but leave it under the oak. Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck like the Mariner's white oblation. You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood Support. It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious tree. It is not to be hidden under your failing body. Slung so, it troubles your painful crawling like a fugitive's irons.

In Parenthesis – Part 7,
pages 165-166

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them – he walked just barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of Private Ball. He makes the conventional sign and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would make response for him, and take it at the double. He sinks on one knee and now on the other, his upper body tilts in rigid inclination this way and back; weighted lanyard runs out to full tether, swings like a pendulum and the clock run down. Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow, clampt unkindly over lip and chin nor no ventaille to this darkening and masked face lifts to grope the air and so disconsolate; enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap— buckle holds, holds him blind against the morning. Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella --where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes over.

David Jones
1895 - 1974

In memoriam

My father, let no similes eclipse Where crosses like some forest simplified Sink roots into my mind; the slow sands Of your history delay till through your eyes I read you like a book. Before you died, Re-enlisting with all the broken soldiers You bent beneath your rucksack, near collapse, In anecdote rehearsed and summarised These words I write in memory. Let yours And other heartbreaks play into my hands. Now I see close-up, in my mind's eye, The cracked and splintered dead for pity's sake Each dismal evening predecease the sun, You, looking death and nightmare in the face With your kilt, harmonica and gun, Grow older in a flash, but none the wiser (Who, following the wrong queue at The Palace, Have joined the London Scottish by mistake), Your nineteen years uncertain if and why Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser. Between the corpses and the soup canteens You swooned away, watching your future spill. But, as it was, your proper funeral urn Had mercifully smashed to smithereens To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle. That instant I, your most unlikely son, In No Man's Land was surely left for dead, Blotted out from your far horizon. As your voice now is locked inside my head, I yet was held secure, waiting my turn. Finally, that lousy war was over. Stranded in France and in need of proof You hunted down experimental lovers, Persuading chorus girls and countesses: This, father, the last confidence you spoke. In my twentieth year your old wounds woke As cancer. Lodging under the same roof Death was a visitor who hung about, Strewing the house with pills and bandages, Till he chose to put your spirit out. Though they overslept the sequence of events Which ended with the ambulance outside, You lingering in the hall, your bowels on fire, Tears in your eyes, and all your medals spent, I summon girls who packed at last and went Underground with you. Their souls again on hire, Now those lost wives as recreated brides Take shape before me, materialise On the verge of light and happy legend They lift their skirts like blinds across your eyes.

Michael Longley
1939 -

Picnic

July 1917 We lay and ate sweet hurt-berries In the bracken of Hurt Wood. Like a quire of singers singing low The dark pines stood. Behind us climbed the Surrey hills, Wild, wild in greenery; At our feet the downs of Sussex broke To an unseen sea. And life was bound in a still ring, Drowsy, and quiet and sweet... When heavily up the south-east wind The great guns beat. We did not wince, we did not weep, We did not curse or pray; We drowsily heard, and someone said, ‘They sound clear today’. We did not shake with pity and pain, Or sicken and blanch white. We said, ’If the wind’s from over there There’ll be rain tonight’. .                .                 . Once pity we knew, and rage we knew, And pain we knew, too well, As we stared and peered dizzily Through the gates of hell. But now hell’s gates are an old tale; Remote the anguish seems; The guns are muffled and far away, Dreams within dreams. And far and far are Flanders mud, And the pain of Picardy; And the blood that runs there runs beyond The wide waste sea. We are shut about by guarding walls: (We have built them lest we run Mad from dreaming of naked fear And of black things done). We are ringed all round by guarding walls, So high, they shut the view. Not all the guns that shatter the world Can quite break through. .                 .                   . Oh, guns of France, oh, guns of France, Be still, you crash in vain... Heavily up the south wind throb Dull dreams of pain,... Be still, be still, south wind, lest your Blowing should bring the rain... We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill, And sleep once again. Oh, we’ll lie quite still, nor listen nor look, While the earth’s bounds reel and shake, Lest, battered too long, our walls and we Should break...should break...

Rose Macaulay
1881 - 1958

Train

Will the train never start? God, make the train start. She cannot bear it, keeping up so long; and he, he no more tries to laugh at her. He is going. She holds his two hands now. Now, she has touch of him and sight of him. And then he will be gone. He will be gone. They are so young. She stands under the window of his carriage, and he stands in the window. They hold each other’s hands across the window ledge. And look and look, and know that they may never look again. The great clock of the station, - how strange it is. Terrible that the minutes go, terrible that the minutes never go. They had walked the platform for so long, up and down, and up and down- the platform, in the rainy morning, up and down, and up and down. The guard came by, calling, “Take your places, take your places.” She stands under the window of his carriage, and he stands in the window. God, make the train start! Before they cannot bear it, make the train start! God, make the train start! The three children, there, in black, with the old nurse, standing together, and looking, and looking, up at their father in the carriage window, they are so forlorn and silent. The little girl will not cry, but her chin trembles. She throws back her head, with its stiff little braid, and will not cry. Her father leans down, out over the ledge of the window, and kisses her, and kisses her. She must be like her mother, and it must be the mother who is dead. The nurse lifts up the smallest boy, and his father kisses him, leaning through the carriage window. The big boy stands very straight, and looks at his father, and looks, and never takes his eyes from him. And knows that he may never look again. Will the train never start? God, make the train start! The father reaches his hand down from the window, and grips the boy’s hand, and does not speak at all. Will the train never start? He lets the boy’s hand go. Will the train never start? He takes the boy’s chin in his hand, leaning out through the window, and lifts the face that is so young, to his. They look and look, and know that they may never look again. Will the train never start? God, make the train start!

Helen Mackay
1876 - 1961

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Exposure

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . . Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . . Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, But nothing happens. Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire, Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles. Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles, Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war. What are we doing here? The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . . We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy. Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey, But nothing happens. Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence. Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow, With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew, We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance, But nothing happens. Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces— We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed, Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed, Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses. —Is it that we are dying? Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there; For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs; Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,— We turn back to our dying. Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn; Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit. For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid; Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born, For love of God seems dying. Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp. The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, But nothing happens.

The send-off

Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way To the siding-shed, And lined the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray As men's are, dead. Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp Stood staring hard, Sorry to miss them from the upland camp. Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp Winked to the guard. So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went. They were not ours: We never heard to which front these were sent; Nor there if they yet mock what women meant Who gave them flowers. Shall they return to beating of great bells In wild train-loads? A few, a few, too few for drums and yells, May creep back, silent, to village wells, Up half-known roads.

Arms and the boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood; Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash; And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh. Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads. Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth, Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death. For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple. There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple; And God will grow no talons at his heels, Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Wilfred Owen
1893 - 1918

The Soldier Addresses His Body

I shall be mad if you get smashed about, we've had good times together, you and I; although you groused a bit when luck was out, say a girl turned us down, or we went dry. But there's a world of things we haven't done, countries not seen, where people do strange things; eat fish alive, and mimic in the sun the solemn gestures of their stone-grey kings. I've heard of forests that are dim at noon where snakes and creepers wrestle all day long; where vivid beasts grow pale with the full moon, gibber and cry, and wail a mad old song; because at the full moon the Hippogriff with crinkled ivory snout and agate feet, with his green eye will glare them cold and stiff for the coward Wyvern to come down and eat. Vodka and kvass, and bitter mountain wines we've never drunk; nor snatched the bursting grapes to pelt slim girls among Sicilian vines, who'd flicker through the leaves, faint frolic shapes. Yes, there's a world of things we've never done, but it's a sweat to knock them into rhyme, let's have a drink, and give the cards a run and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.

Trench Poets

I knew a man, he was my chum, but he grew darker day by day, and would not brush the flies away, nor blanch however fierce the hum of passing shells; I used to read, to rouse him, random things from Donne - like 'Get with child a mandrake-root.' But you can tell he was far gone, for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed, and stiff and senseless as a post even when that old poet cried 'I long to talk with some old lover's ghost.' I tried the Elegies one day, but he, because he heard me say: 'What needst thou have more covering than a man?' grinned nastily, so then I knew the worms had got his brains at last. There was one thing I still might do to starve those worms; I racked my head for wholesome lines and quoted Maud. His grin got worse and I could see he sneered at passion's purity. He stank so badly, though we were great chums I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.

Edgell Rickword
1898 - 1982

Break of day in the trenches

The darkness crumbles away. It is the same old Druid Time as ever. Only a live thing leaps my hand, A queer sardonic rat, As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear. Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew Your cosmopolitan sympathies. Now you have touched this English hand You will do the same to a German Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure To cross the sleeping green between. It seems, odd thing, you grin as you pass Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, Less chanced than you for life, Bonds to the whims of murder, Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, The torn fields of France. What do you see in our eyes At the shrieking iron and flame Hurled through still heavens? What quaver—what heart aghast? Poppies whose roots are in man's veins Drop, and are ever dropping, But mine in my ear is safe - Just a little white with the dust.

Returning we hear the larks

Sombre the night is. And though we have our lives, we know What sinister threat lurks there. Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know This poison-blasted track opens on our camp— On a little safe sleep. But hark! joy—joy—strange joy. Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks. Music showering our upturned list'ning faces. Death could drop from the dark As easily as song— But song only dropped, Like a blind man's dream on the sand By dangerous tides, Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there, Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

August 1914

What in our lives is burnt In the fire of this? The heart’s dear granary? The much we shall miss? Three lives hath one life – Iron, honey, gold. The gold, the honey gone – Left is the hard and cold. Iron are our lives Molten right through our youth. A burnt space through ripe fields, A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Isaac Rosenberg
1890 - 1918

The death bed

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls; Aqueous like floating rays of amber light, Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep. Silence and safety; and his mortal shore Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death. Someone was holding water to his mouth. He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot The opiate throb and ache that was his wound. Water-calm, sliding green above the weir. Water-a sky-lit alley for his boat, Bird- voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers And shaken hues of summer; drifting down, He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept. Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward, Blowing the curtain to a glimmering curve. Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud; Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green, Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes. Rain-he could hear it rustling through the dark; Fragrance and passionless music woven as one; Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace, Gently and slowly washing life away. He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain Leapt like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs. But someone was beside him; soon he lay Shuddering because that evil thing had passed. And death, who'd stepped toward him, paused and stared. Light many lamps and gather round his bed. Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live. Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet. He's young; he hated War; how should he die When cruel old campaigners win safe through? But death replied: 'I choose him.' So he went, And there was silence in the summer night; Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep. Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.

The counter-attack

We'd gained our first objective hours before While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes, Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke. Things seemed all right at first. We held their line, With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed, And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench. The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud, Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled; And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair, Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime. And then the rain began,- the jolly old rain! A yawning soldier knelt against the bank, Staring across the morning blear with fog; He wondered when the Allemands would get busy; And then, of course, they started with five-nines Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud. Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell, While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke. He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear, Sick for escape,- loathing the strangled horror And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead. An officer came blundering down the trench: 'Stand-to and man the fire-step!’ On he went... Gasping and bawling, 'Fire- step...counter-attack!' Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left; And stumbling figures looming out in front. 'O Christ, they're coming at us!' Bullets spat, And he remembered his rifle...rapid fire... And started blazing wildly...then a bang Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom, Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans... Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned, Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

Siegfried Sassoon
1886 - 1967

Field ambulance in retreat

Via Dolorosa, Via Sacra I A straight flagged road, laid on the rough earth, A causeway of stone from beautiful city to city, Between the tall trees, the slender, delicate trees, Through the flat green land, by plots of flowers, by black canals thick with heat. II The road-makers made it well Of fine stone, strong for the feet of the oxen and of the great Flemish horses, And for the high waggons piled with corn from the harvest. But the labourers are few; They and their quiet oxen stand aside and wait By the long road loud with the passing of the guns, the rush of armoured cars and the tramp of an army on the march forward to battle; And, where the piled corn-wagons went, our dripping Ambulance carries home Its red and white harvest from the fields. III The straight flagged road breaks into dust, into a thin white cloud, About the feet of a regiment driven back league by league, Rifles at trail, and standards wrapped in black funeral cloths. Unhasting, proud in retreat, They smile as the Red Cross Ambulance rushes by. (You know nothing of beauty and of desolation who have not seen That smile of an army in retreat.) They go: and our shining, beckoning danger goes with them, And our joy in the harvests that we gathered in at nightfall in the fields; And like an unloved hand laid on a beating heart Our safety weighs us down. Safety hard and strange; stranger and yet more hard As, league after dying league, the beautiful, desolate Land, Falls back from the intolerable speed of an Ambulance in retreat On the sacred, dolorous Way.

May Sinclair
1863 - 1946

When you see millions
of the mouthless dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead Across your dreams in pale battalions go, Say not soft things as other men have said, That you'll remember. For you need not so. Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, ‘Yet many a better one has died before.' Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.

All the hills and vales along

All the hills and vales along Earth is bursting into song, And the singers are the chaps Who are going to die perhaps. O sing, marching men, Till the valleys ring again, Give your gladness to earth's keeping, So be glad, when you are sleeping. Cast away regret and rue, Think what you are marching to. Little live, great pass. Jesus Christ and Barabbas Were found the same day. This died, that went his way. So sing with joyful breath, For why, you are going to death. Teeming earth will surely store All the gladness that you pour. Earth that never doubts nor fears, Earth that knows of death, not tears, Earth that bore with joyful ease Hemlock for Socrates, Earth that blossomed and was glad 'Neath the cross that Christ had, Shall rejoice and blossom too When the bullet reaches you. Wherefore, men marching, On the road to death, sing! Pour your gladness on earth's head, So be merry, so be dead. From the hills and valleys earth Shouts back the sound of mirth, Tramp of feet and lilt of song Ringing all the road along. All the music of their going, Ringing swinging glad song-throwing, Earth will echo still, when foot Lies numb and voice mute. On, marching men, on To the gates of death with song. Sow your gladness for earth's reaping, So you may be glad, though sleeping. Strew your gladness on earth's bed, So be merry, so be dead.

Charles Sorley
1895 - 1915

Mary Symon
1863 - 1938

Lights Out

I have come to the borders of sleep, The unfathomable deep Forest where all must lose Their way, however straight, Or winding, soon or late; They cannot choose. Many a road and track That, since the dawn's first crack, Up to the forest brink, Deceived the travellers, Suddenly now blurs, And in they sink. Here love ends, Despair, ambition ends; All pleasure and all trouble, Although most sweet or bitter, Here ends in sleep that is sweeter Than tasks most noble. There is not any book Or face of dearest look That I would not turn from now To go into the unknown I must enter and leave, alone, I know not how. The tall forest towers; Its cloudy foliage lowers Ahead, shelf above shelf; Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.

Rain

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me Remembering again that I shall die And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks For washing me cleaner than I have been Since I was born into this solitude. Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: But here I pray that none whom once I loved Is dying tonight or lying still awake Solitary, listening to the rain, Either in pain or thus in sympathy Helpless among the living and the dead, Like a cold water among broken reeds, Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, Like me who have no love which this wild rain Has not dissolved except the love of death, If love it be towards what is perfect and Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Roads

I love roads: The goddesses that dwell Far along invisible Are my favourite gods. Roads go on While we forget, and are Forgotten like a star That shoots and is gone. On this earth 'tis sure We men have not made Anything that doth fade So soon, so long endure: The hill road wet with rain In the sun would not gleam Like a winding stream If we trod it not again. They are lonely While we sleep, lonelier For lack of the traveller Who is now a dream only. From dawn's twilight And all the clouds like sheep On the mountains of sleep They wind into the night. The next turn may reveal Heaven: upon the crest The close pine clump, at rest And black, may Hell conceal. Often footsore, never Yet of the road I weary, Though long and steep and dreary As it winds on for ever. Helen of the roads, The mountain ways of Wales And the Mabinogion tales Is one of the true gods, Abiding in the trees, The threes and fours so wise, The larger companies, That by the roadside be, And beneath the rafter Else uninhabited Excepting by the dead: And it is her laughter At morn and night I hear When the thrush cock sings Bright irrelevant things, And when the chanticleer Calls back to their own night Troops that make loneliness With their light footsteps' press, As Helen's own are light. Now all roads lead to France And heavy is the tread Of the living; but the dead Returning lightly dance: Whatever the road bring To me or take from me, They keep me company With their pattering, Crowding the solitude Of the loops over the downs, Hushing the roar of towns And their brief multitude.

Edward Thomas
1878 - 1917

The night patrol

France, March 1916.   Over the top! The wire’s thin here, unbarbed Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough: Full of old tins, though — “When you’re through, all three, Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so, Then straight for that new piece of German wire; See if it’s thick, and listen for a while For sounds of working; don’t run any risks; About an hour; now, over!” And we placed Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire, Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped. The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools, And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old, No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass. Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn With the wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers, Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks, Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells Shot fruitlessly — and everywhere the dead. Only the dead were always present — present As a vile sickly smell of rottenness; The rustling stubble and the early grass, The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all, Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before, And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away To that vague fœtor, all encompassing, Infecting earth and air. They lay, all clothed, Each in some new and piteous attitude That we well marked to guide us back: as he, Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed His legs Crusader-wise; I smiled at that, And thought on Elia and his Temple Church. From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse, Down in a hollow, huddled as in bed, That one of us put his hand on unawares. Next was a bunch of half a dozen men All blown to bits, an archipelago Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three, Who had no light to see by, save the flares. On such a trail, so lit, for ninety yards We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes, The stakes and crosslines of the German wire. We lay in shelter of the last dead man, Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times. A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat; They shot a glare above us, when it fell And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land, We turned and crawled past the remembered dead: Past him and him, and them and him, until, For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent Of the Crusader and slid past his legs, And through the wire and home, and got our rum.

Arthur Graeme West
1891 - 1917