A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914-1919/The Wounded
FOOL that I was! my heart was sore,
Yea, sick for the myriad wounded men,
The maim'd in the war: I had grief for each one:
And I came in the gay September sun
To the open smile of Trafalgar Square,
Where many a lad with a limb foredone
Loll'd by the lion-guarded column
That holdeth Nelson statued thereon
Upright in the air.
The Parliament towers, and the Abbey towers,
The white Horseguards and grey Whitehall,
He looketh on all,
Past Somerset House and the river's bend
To the pillar'd dome of St. Paul,
That slumbers, confessing God's solemn blessing
On Britain's glory, to keep it ours—
While children true her prowess renew
And throng from the ends of the earth to defend
Freedom and honour—till Earth shall end.
The gentle unjealous Shakespeare, I trow,
In his country grave of peaceful fame
Must feel exiled from life and glow,
If he thinks of this man with his warrior claim,
Who looketh on London as if 'twere his own,
As he standeth in stone, aloft and alone,
Sailing the sky, with one arm and one eye.
COURAGE came to you with your boyhood's grace
Of ardent life and limb.
Each day new dangers steeled you to the test,
To ride, to climb, to swim.
Your hot blood taught you carelessness of death
With every breath.
So when you went to play another game
You could not but be brave:
An Empire's team, a rougher football field,
The end—perhaps your grave.
What matter? On the winning of a goal
You staked your soul.
Yes, you wore courage as you wore your youth
With carelessness and joy.
But in what Spartan school of discipline
Did you get patience, boy?
How did you learn to bear this long-drawn pain
And not complain?
Restless with throbbing hopes, with thwarted aims,
Impulsive as a colt,
How do you lie here month by weary month
Helpless, and not revolt?
What joy can these monotonous days afford
Here in a ward?
Yet you are merry as the birds in spring,
Or feign the gaiety,
Lest those who dress and tend your wound each day
Should guess the agony.
Lest they should suffer—this is the only fear
You let draw near.
Greybeard philosophy has sought in books
And argument this truth,
That man is greater than his pain, but you
Have learnt it in your youth.
You know the wisdom taught by Calvary
Death would have found you brave, but braver still
You face each lagging day,
A merry Stoic, patient, chivalrous,
Divinely kind and gay.
You bear your knowledge lightly, graduate
Of unkind Fate.
Careless philosopher, the first to laugh,
The latest to complain,
Unmindful that you teach, you taught me this
In your long fight with pain:
Since God made man so good—here stands my creed—
God's good indeed.
WHEN consciousness came back, he found he lay
Between the opposing fires, but could not tell
On which hand were his friends; and either way
For him to turn was chancy—bullet and shell
Whistling and shrieking over him, as the glare
Of searchlights scoured the darkness to blind day.
He scrambled to his hands and knees ascare,
Dragging his wounded foot through puddled clay,
And tumbled in a hole a shell had scooped
At random in a turnip-field between
The unseen trenches where the foes lay cooped
Through that unending battle of unseen,
Dead-locked, league-stretching armies; and quite spent
He rolled upon his back within the pit,
And lay secure, thinking of all it meant
His lying in that little hole, sore hit,
But living, while across the starry sky
Shrapnel and shell went screeching overhead—
Of all it meant that he, Tom Dodd, should lie
Among the Belgian turnips, while his bed . . .
If it were he, indeed, who'd climbed each night,
Fagged with the day's work, up the narrow stair,
And slipt his clothes off in the candle-light,
Too tired to fold them neatly in a chair
The way his mother'd taught him—too dog-tired
After the long day's serving in the shop,
Inquiring what each customer required,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop . . .
And now for fourteen days and nights, at least,
He hadn't had his clothes off, and had lain
In muddy trenches, napping like a beast
With one eye open, under sun and rain
And that unceasing hell-fire . . .
It was strange
How things turned out—the chances! You'd just got
To take your luck in life, you couldn't change
And so here he was lying shot
Who just six months ago had thought to spend
His days behind a counter. Still, perhaps . . .
And now, God only knew how he would end!
He'd like to know how many of the chaps
Had won back to the trench alive, when he
Had fallen wounded and been left for dead,
If any! . . .
This was different, certainly,
From selling knots of tape and reels of thread
And knots of tape and reels of thread and knots
Of tape and reels of thread and knots of tape,
Day in, day out, and answering "Have you got" 's
And "Do you keep" 's till there seemed no escape
From everlasting serving in a shop,
Inquiring what each customer required,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop,
With swollen ankles, tired . . .
But he was tired
Now. Every bone was aching, and had ached
For fourteen days and nights in that wet trench—
Just duller when he slept than when he waked—
Crouching for shelter from the steady drench
Of shell and shrapnel . . .
That old trench, it seemed
Almost like home to him. He'd slept and fed
And sung and smoked in it, while shrapnel screamed
And shells went whining harmless overhead—
Harmless, at least, as far as he . . .
Dick hadn't found them harmless yesterday,
At breakfast, when he'd said he couldn't stick
Eating dry bread, and crawled out the back way,
And brought them butter in a lordly dish—
Butter enough for all, and held it high,
Yellow and fresh and clean as you would wish—
When plump upon the plate from out the sky
A shell fell bursting . . . Where the butter went,
God only knew! . . .
And Dick . . . He dared not think
Of what had come to Dick . . . or what it meant—
The shrieking and the whistling and the stink
He'd lived in fourteen days and nights. 'Twas luck
That he still lived . . . And queer how little then
He seemed to care that Dick . . . perhaps 'twas pluck
That hardened him—a man among the men—
Perhaps . . . Yet, only think things out a bit,
And he was rabbit-livered, blue with funk!
And he'd liked Dick . . . and yet when Dick was hit,
He hadn't turned a hair. The meanest skunk
He should have thought would feel it when his mate
Was blown to smithereens—Dick, proud as punch,
Grinning like sin, and holding up the plate—
But he had gone on munching his dry hunch,
Unwinking, till he swallowed the last crumb.
Perhaps 'twas just because he dared not let
His mind run upon Dick, who'd been his chum,
He dared not now, though he could not forget.
Dick took his luck. And, life or death, 'twas luck
From first to last; and you'd just got to trust
Your luck and grin. It wasn't so much pluck
As knowing that you'd got to, when needs must,
And better to die grinning . . .
Had fallen on the night. On either hand
The guns were quiet. Cool upon his brow
The quiet darkness brooded, as he scanned
The starry sky. He'd never seen before
So many stars. Although of course, he'd known
That there were stars, somehow before the war
He'd never realised them—so thick-sown,
Millions and millions. Serving in the shop,
Stars didn't count for much; and then at nights
Strolling the pavements, dull and fit to drop,
You didn't see much but the city lights.
He'd never in his life seen so much sky
As he'd seen this last fortnight. It was queer
The things war taught you. He'd a mind to try
To count the stars—they shone so bright and clear.
One, two, three, four . . . Ah, God, but he was tired . . .
Five, six, seven, eight . . .
Yes, it was number eight.
And what was the next thing that she required?
(Too bad of customers to come so late,
At closing time!) Again within the shop
He handled knots of tape and reels of thread,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop . . .
When once again the whole sky overhead
Flared blind with searchlights, and the shriek of shell
And scream of shrapnel roused him. Drowsily
He stared about him, wondering. Then he fell
Into deep dreamless slumber.
He could see
Two dark eyes peeping at him, ere he knew
He was awake, and it again was day—
An August morning, burning to clear blue.
The frightened rabbit scuttled . . .
A sound of firing . . . Up there, in the sky
Big dragon-flies hung hovering . . . Snowballs burst
About them . . . Flies and snowballs. With a cry
He crouched to watch the airmen pass—the first
That he'd seen under fire. Lord, that was pluck—
Shells bursting all about them—and what nerve!
They took their chance, and trusted to their luck.
At such a dizzy height to dip and swerve,
Dodging the shell fire . . .
Hell! but one was hit,
And tumbling like a pigeon, plump . . .
It righted, and then turned; and after it
The whole flock followed safe—four, five, six, seven,
Yes, they were all there safe. He hoped they'd win
Back to their lines in safety. They deserved,
Even if they were Germans . . . 'Twas no sin
To wish them luck. Think how that beggar swerved
Just in the nick of time!
He, too, must try
To win back to the lines, though, likely as not,
He'd take the wrong turn: but he couldn't lie
For ever in that hungry hole and rot,
He'd got to take his luck, to take his chance
Of being sniped by foes or friends. He'd be
With any luck, in Germany or France
Or Kingdom-come, next morning . . .
The blazing day burnt over him, shot and shell
Whistling and whining ceaselessly. But light
Faded at last, and as the darkness fell
He rose and crawled away into the night.
FROM out the dragging vastness of the sea,
Wave-fettered, bound in sinuous seaweed strands,
He toils toward the rounding beach, and stands
One moment, white and dripping, silently,
Cut like a cameo in lazuli,
Then falls, betrayed by shifting shells, and lands
Prone in the jeering water, and his hands
Clutch for support where no support can be.
So up, and down, and forward, inch by inch,
He gains upon the shore, where poppies glow
And sandflies dance their little lives away.
The sucking waves retard, and tighter clinch
The weeds about him, but the land-winds blow,
And in the sky there blooms the sun of May.
HE is blind and nevermore
Shall the shining earth entrance
Him, whose life once lay before
Ardour like a bright romance;
But another world is given
Youth thus robbed of half a heaven.
His companions do not speak
When they would accost him: they
Need but touch his hand or cheek,
Then the sightless eyes survey
Love with love, which apprehends
Instantly compassionate friends.
In each several kindly hand
Lies a warm identity:
Blind folk see and understand
Those whom they may never see,
And the deaf may hear Love's word
Uttered, though it be unheard.
When he walks about the streets
Every house means much to him;
Every wayfarer he meets
Modest-faced or proudly prim—
He divines: each rolling wheel's
Movement in the town he feels.
Eden's gates to him are closed,
Yet new portals open wide,
Whence rare prospects are exposed;
These he visions open eyed,
When imagination thrills
As he faces woods and hills.
Every breath of air that stirs
Has a meaning: every leaf,
Touched by him, responds; the firs
Breathe a recompense for grief,
And the grasses whisper, too,
Words he does not misconstrue.
Few can hear the clover's voice
As he hears it: few are those
Who so thrillingly rejoice
When the gillyflowers disclose
Secrets that mean life to one
Robbed of stars, though not of sun.
Touch becomes his very soul,
Giving sense of sound with sight:
He is ravaged yet made whole
Even in black fate's despite:
Look! He carries sad renown
As an emperor wears a crown!
Deaf and blind! Yet he will know
When old enemies cross his path;
For the devil-prompted foe,
Who inspired his quenchless wrath,
With incredible torment, gave
Gifts that make him more than brave.
HE limps along the city street,
Men pass him with a pitying glance;
He is not there, but on the sweet
And troubled plains of France.
Once more he marches with the guns,
Reading the way by merry signs,
His Regent Street through trenches runs,
His Strand among the pines.
For there his comrades jest and fight,
And others sleep in that fair land;
They call him back in dreams of night
To join their dwindling band.
He may not go; on him must lie
The doom, through peaceful years to live,
To have a sword he cannot ply,
A life he cannot give.
UNDER our curtain of fire,
Over the clotted clods,
We charged, to be withered, to reel
And despairingly wheel
When the bugles bade us retire
From the terrible odds.
As we ebbed with the battle-tide,
Fingers of red-hot steel
Suddenly closed on my side.
I fell, and began to pray.
I crawled on my hands and lay
Where a shallow crater yawned wide;
Then,—I swooned. . . .
When I woke, it was yet day.
Fierce was the pain of my wound,
But I saw it was death to stir,
For fifty paces away
Their trenches were.
In torture I prayed for the dark
And the stealthy step of my friend
Who, staunch to the very end,
Would creep to the danger zone
And offer his life as a mark
To save my own.
Night fell. I heard his tread,
Not stealthy, but firm and serene,
As if my comrade's head
Were lifted far from that scene
Of passion and pain and dread;
As if my comrade's heart
In carnage took no part;
As if my comrade's feet
Were set on some radiant street
Such as no darkness might haunt;
As if my comrade's eyes
No deluge of flame could surprise,
No death and destruction daunt,
No red-beaked bird dismay,
Nor sight of decay.
Then in the bursting shells' dim light
I saw he was clad in white.
For a moment I thought that I saw the smock
Of a shepherd in search of his flock.
Alert were the enemy, too,
And their bullets flew
Straight at a mark no bullet could fail;
For the seeker was tall and his robe was bright;
But he did not flee nor quail.
Instead, with unhurrying stride
And gathering my tall frame,
Like a child, in his arms. . . .
Again I swooned,
From a blissful dream
In a cave by a stream.
My silent comrade had bound my side.
No pain now was mine, but a wish that I spoke,—
A mastering wish to serve this man
Who had ventured through hell my doom to revoke
As only the truest of comrades can.
I begged him to tell me how best I might aid him,
And urgently prayed him
Never to leave me, whatever betide;
When I saw he was hurt—
Shot through the hands that were clasped in prayer!
Then as the dark drops gathered there
And fell in the dirt,
The wounds of my friend
Seemed to me such as no man might bear.
Those bullet-holes in the patient hands
Seemed to transcend
All horrors that ever these war-drenched lands
Had known or would know till the mad world's end.
Then suddenly I was aware
That his feet had been wounded, too;
And, dimming the white of his side,
A dull stain grew.
"You are hurt, White Comrade!" I cried.
His words I already foreknew:
"These are old wounds," said he,
"But of late they have troubled me."
THE ward is strangely hushed to-day;
The morning nurses sober-eyed
Regard the screened place where, they say,
At midnight, Number Twenty died.
So many weeks of weary hours
He lay and heard our busy tread,
As patient as the wistful flowers
That spent their fragrance near his bed—
So oft we saw in passing by,
His questing glance, his dreamful face,
We shall regard resentfully
The stranger that must fill his place . . .
What vision rapt him through the dim
Slow hours? Like wraiths upon the sight
All common changes seemed to him
Of dawn and day, of eve and night;
Each brought its sounds of whispering feet,
Its faces, glimmering, ghost by ghost—
Yet scarce he left his dream to greet
Those comers who would mourn him most.
For in his sight shone such a star
As, after tempests loud and rude,
To sea-worn eyes foretells some far
Relief—a port of quietude;
And, homing to that bourn, he heard
The call so many wanderers know
From meadows lulled by bee and bird
Where he was happy long ago—
Where simple things were ecstasy,
And life a game among the flowers,
And every hurt and malady
Was healed by gentler hands than ours . . .
Not jacinth wall and golden street
Perchance so rapt his dying gaze;
For him, Heaven's wonder was the sweet
Lost wonder of his childhood's days;
Perchance he sought no blissful shore,
No place with hosts of myriad blest,
But just to lay, a child once more,
His tired head on his mother's breast.
Ah, well, to-day all dreams come true
For those closed eyes where riddles cease;
He leaves the warring world he knew,
And ratifies, ere we, his peace.
God rest him, then . . . but we must turn
To face the same sad tasks again—
To tend new convoys, and discern
The same dream in the eyes of pain.
Alberta Vickridge, V.A.D.