A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914-1919/Oxford
I SAW the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The grey spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-grey sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.
The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay;
The hoary colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded—War!
They put their games away.
They left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod.
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.
God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.
WHAT alters you, familiar lawn and tower,
Arched alley, and garden green to the grey wall
With crumbling crevice and the old wine-red flower,
Solitary in summer sun? for all
Is like a dream: I tread on dreams! No stir
Of footsteps, voices, laughter! Even the chime
Of many memoried bells is lonelier
In this neglected ghostliness of Time.
What stealing touch of separation numb
Absents you? Yet my heart springs up to adore
The shrining of your soul, that is become
Nearer and oh, far dearer than before.
It is as if I looked on the still face
Of a Mother, musing where she sits alone.
She is with her sons, she is not in this place;
She is gone out into far lands unknown.
Because that filled horizon occupies
Her heart with mute prayer and divining fear,
Therefore her hands so calm lie, and her eyes
See nothing; and men wonder at her here:
But far in France; on the torn Flanders plain;
By Sinai; in the Macedonian snows;
The fly-plagued sands of Tigris, heat and rain;
On wandering water, where the black squall blows
Less danger than the bright wave ambushes,
She bears it out. All the long day she bears,
And the sudden hour of instant challenges
To act, that searches all men, no man spares.
She is with her sons, leaving a virtue gone
Out of her sacred places; what she bred
Lives other life than this, that sits alone,
Though still in dream starrily visited!
For O in youth she lives, not in her age.
Her soul is with the springtime and the young;
And she absents her from the learned page,
Studious of high histories yet unsung,
More passionately prized than wisdom's book
Because her own. Her faith is in those eyes
That clear into the gape of hell can look,
Putting to proof ancient philosophies
Such as the virgin Muses would rehearse
Beside the silvery, swallow-haunted stream,
Under the grey towers. But immortal verse
Is now exchanged for its immortal theme—
Victory; proud loss; and the enduring mind;
Youth, that has passed all praises, and has won
More than renown, being that which faith divined,
Reality more radiant than the sun.
She gave, she gives, more than all anchored days
Of dedicated lore, of storied art;
And she resigns her beauty to men's gaze
To mask the riches of her bleeding heart.
OFTEN, on afternoons grey and sombre,
When clouds lie low and dark with rain,
A random bell strikes a chord familiar
And I hear the Oxford chimes again.
Never I see a swift stream running
Cold and full from shore to shore,
But I think of Isis, and remember
The leaping boat and the throbbing oar.
O my brothers, my more than brothers—
Lost and gone are those days indeed:
Where are the bells, the gowns, the voices,
All that made us one blood and breed?
Gone—and in many an unknown pitfall
You have swinked, and died like men—
And here I sit in a quiet chamber
Writing on paper with a pen.
O my brothers, my more than brothers—
Big, intolerant, gallant boys!
Going to war as into a boat-race,
Full of laughter and fond of noise!
I can imagine your smile; how eager,
Nervous for the suspense to be done—
And I remember the Iffley meadows,
The crew alert for the starting gun.
Old grey city, O dear grey city,
How young we were, and how close to Truth!
We envied no one, we hated no one,
All was magical to our youth.
Still, in the hall of the Triple Roses,
The cannel casts its ruddy span,
And still the garden gate discloses
The message Manners Makyth Man.
Then I recall that an Oxford college,
Setting a stone for those who have died,
Nobly remembered all her children—
Even those on the German side.
That was Oxford! and that was England!
Fight your enemy, fight him square;
But in justice, honour, and pity
Even the enemy has his share.
[From Songs for a Little House. Copyright, 1916, by George H. Doran Company.]
AS I went walking up and down
The darkened streets of Oxford town,
I seemed to see them all astir
With ghosts of those who died for her;
I saw the Scholar and the Blue,
The Smug, the Blood, the Slacker too,
Who, different in all beside,
Were like in this—the way they died.
O Oxford men, from Smug to Blue,
My heart was sore, was sore for you!
And then there came across the years
A voice as through a mist of tears:
"And what of us who wore the gown,
Long since with you in Oxford town?
Should we have died as brave and gay
As those who die for her to-day?"
And I made answer: "Even so!
O friends of thirty years ago.
We too, God helping us, had died
As gay, as nobly satisfied!"
These were the ghosts I seemed to see,
These were the ghosts that talked with me,
As I went walking up and down
The darkened streets of Oxford town.
THEY had so much to lose; their radiant laughter
Shook my old walls—how short a time ago!
I hold the echoes of their song hereafter
Among the precious things I used to know.
Their cup of life was full to overflowing.
All earth had laid its tribute at their feet.
What harvest might we hope from such a sowing?
What noonday from a dawning so complete?
And I—I watched them working, dreaming, playing,
Saw their young bodies fit the mind's desire,
Felt them reach outward, upward, still obeying
The passionate dictates of their hidden fire.
Yet here and there some greybeard breathed derision,
"Too much of luxury, too soft an age!
Your careless Galahads will see no vision,
Your knights will make no mark on honour's page."
No mark?—Go ask the broken fields in Flanders,
Ask the great dead who watched in ancient Troy,
Ask the old moon as round the world she wanders
What of the men who were my hope and joy!
They are but fragments of Imperial splendour,
Handfuls of might amid a mighty host,
Yet I, who saw them go with proud surrender,
May surely claim to love them first and most.
They who had all, gave all. Their half-writ story
Lies in the empty halls they knew so well,
But they, the knights of God, shall see His glory,
And find the Grail ev'n in the fire of hell.
BENEATH fair Magdalen's storied towers
I wander in a dream,
And hear the mellow chimes float out
O'er Cherwell's ice-bound stream.
Throstle and blackbird stiff with cold
Hop on the frozen grass;
Among the aged, upright oaks
The dun deer slowly pass.
The chapel organ rolls and swells,
And voices still praise God;
But ah, the thought of youthful friends
Who lie beneath the sod!
Now wounded men with gallant eyes
Go hobbling down the street,
And nurses from the hospitals
Speed by with tireless feet.
The town is full of uniforms,
And through the stormy sky,
Frightening the rooks from the tallest trees,
The aeroplanes roar by.
The older faces still are here,
More grave and true and kind,
Ennobled by the steadfast toil
Of patient heart and mind.
And old-time friends are dearer grown
To fill a double place:
Unshaken faith makes glorious
Each forward-looking face.
Old Oxford walls are grey and worn:
She knows the truth of tears,
But to-day she stands in her ancient pride
Crowned with eternal years.
Gone are her sons; yet her heart is glad
In the glory of their youth,
For she brought them forth to live or die
By freedom, justice, truth.
Cold moonlight falls on silent towers;
The young ghosts walk with the old;
But Oxford dreams of the dawn of May
And her heart is free and bold.
Magdalen College, January, 1917
THE clouds are in the sky, and a light rain falling,
And through the sodden trench splashed figures come and go,
But deep in my heart are the old years calling,
And memory is on me of the things I used to know.
Memory is on me of the warm dim chambers,
And the laughter of my friends in the huge high-ceilinged hall,
Lectures and the voices of the dons deep-droning,
The things that were so common once—O God, I feel them all.
Here there are the great things, life and death and danger,
All I ever dreamed of in the days that used to be,
Comrades and good-fellowship, the soul of an army,
But, oh, it is the little things that take the heart of me.
For all we knew of old, for little things and lovely,
We bow us to the greater life beyond our hope or fear,
To bear its heavy burdens, endure its toil unheeding,
Because of all the little things so distant and so dear.
Becourt , 1915.