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> War Poems, The war seen from a poet's eyes.
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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 06-Feb-2009, 10:56 AM
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Escape

(Report from August 6, 1916. An officer previously reported
dead of wounds sustained in battle - Captain R. Graves,
Royal Welsh Fusiliers - is now reported as wounded.)



But I was dead, an hour or more.
I woke when I'd already passed the door
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.
Above me, on my stretcher swinging by,
I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:
A Cross, a Rose in bloom, a Cage with bars,
And a barbed Arrow feathered in fine stars.
I felt the vapours of forgetfulness
Float in my nostrils. Oh, may Heaven bless
Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake,
And, stooping over me, for Henna's sake
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policeman-ghosts.
"Life! life! I can't be dead! I won't be dead!
Damned if I'll die for any one!" I said....

Cerberus stands and grins above me now,
Wearing three heads - lion, and lynx, and sow.
"Quick, a revolver! But my Webley's gone,
Stolen!... No bombs ... no knife.... The crowd swarms on,
Bellows, hurls stones.... Not even a honeyed sop...
Nothing.... Good Cerberus!... Good dog!... but stop!
Stay!... A great luminous thought ... I do believe
There's still some morphia that I bought on leave."
Then swiftly Cerberus' wide mouths I cram
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam;


And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
With the all-powerful poppy... then a snore,
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun -
Too late! for I've sped through.
O Life! O Sun!



Robert Graves



--------------------
Recte Faciendo Neminem Timeas
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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 07-Feb-2009, 12:10 PM
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Glory of Women


You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops 'retire'
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses-blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.


Siegfried Sassoon

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 09-Feb-2009, 10:59 AM
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Resurrection


Not long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.
We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,
With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain
Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast
Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.
We rose at last under the morning star.
We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.
We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.
With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,
With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,
With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,
With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, "God."
Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,
Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.
And, "What do you call it?" asked one. "I thought I was dead."
"You are," cried another. "We're all of us dead and flat."
"I'm alive as a cricket. There's something wrong with your head."
They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.
And over the wide field friend and foe
Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe
Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.
They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,
And watched the starlight perish in pale flame
Wondering what God would look like when He came.


Hermann Hagedorn

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 10-Feb-2009, 12:58 PM
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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.



Wilfred Owen

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 11-Feb-2009, 04:43 PM
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Rendezvous


I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.


Alan Seeger

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 11-Feb-2009, 07:07 PM
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Before Action


By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening's benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills where day was done,
By beauty lavisghly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a solider, Lord.
By all of man's hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavor that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say goodbye to all of this;-
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.


WN Hodgson

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 12-Feb-2009, 12:58 PM
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Exposure


I

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 gray,
But nothing happens.


Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less dealy 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.


II


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 black-bird 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;
Nor 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, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp,
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.



Wilfred Owen

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 12-Feb-2009, 08:26 PM
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God


In his malodorous brain what slugs and mire,
Lanthorned in his oblique eyes, guttering burned!
His body lodged a rat where men nursed souls.
The world flashed grape-green eyes of a foiled cat
To him. On fragments of an old shrunk power,
On shy and maimed, on women wrung awry,
He lay, a bullying hulk, to crush them more.
But when one, fearless, turned and clawed like bronze,
Cringing was easy to blunt these stern paws,
And he would weigh the heavier on those after.
Who rests in God's mean flattery now? Your wealth
Is but his cunning to make death more hard.
Your iron sinews take more pain in breaking.
And he has made the market for your beauty
Too poor to buy, although you die to sell.
Only that he has never heard of sleep;
And when the cats come out the rats are sly.
Here we are safe till he slinks in at dawn.
But he has gnawed a fibre from strange roots,
And in the morning some pale wonder ceases.
Things are not strange and strange things are forgetful.
Ah! if the day were arid, somehow lost
Out of us, but it is as hair of us,
And only in the hush no wind stirs it.
And in the light vague trouble lifts and breathes,

And restlessness still shadows the lost ways.
The fingers shut on voices that pass through,
Where blind farewells are taken easily...
Ah! this miasma of a rotting God!



Isaac Rosenberg

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 13-Feb-2009, 03:34 PM
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Gone, Gone Again


Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,

Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.


And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees


As when I was young
And when the lost one was here
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.


Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead


Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth. love, age, and pain:


I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:-


I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at -
They have broken every one.



Edward Thomas

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 14-Feb-2009, 01:20 PM
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Between The Lines


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, thinkng 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,
Politiely 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 changes! You'd just got
To take your luck in life, you couln't change
Your luck.


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 haw 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
Harmless, at least, as far as he...


But Dick -
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, will 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...


Quiet now
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...


Far away,
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...


Thank Heaven,
It righted, and then turned; and after it
The whole flock followed safe -- four, five, six, seven,
Yes, they were all there safely. 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
Forever 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...


Drearily
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.



Wilfred Wilson Gibson

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 15-Feb-2009, 12:07 PM
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For All We Have and Are


For all we have and are,
For all our children's fate,
Stand up and meet the war.
The Hun is at the gate!
Our world has passed away
In wantonness o'erthrown.
There is nothing left to-day
But steel and fire and stone.

Though all we knew depart,
The old commandments stand:
"In courage keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand."


Once more we hear the word
That sickened earth of old:
"No law except the sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled,"
Once more it knits mankind,
Once more the nations go
To meet and break and bind
A crazed and driven foe.


Comfort, content, delight -
The ages' slow-bought gain -
They shrivelled in a night,
Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude,
Through perils and dismays
Renewd and re-renewed.


Though all we made depart,
The old commandments stand:
"In patience keep your heart,
In strength lift up your hand."


No easy hopes or lies
Shall bring us to our goal,
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will, and soul.
There is but one task for all -
For each one life to give.
Who stands if freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?



Rudyard Kipling

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 16-Feb-2009, 05:17 PM
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Champagne, 1914-15


In the glad revels, in the happy fetes,
When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
The sunshine and the beauty of the world,

Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth.


Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Beside the crater at the Ferme d'Alger
And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,


And round the city whose cathedral towers
The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.


Under the little crosses where they rise
The soldier rests. Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
At peace beneath the eternal fusillade...


That other generations might possess -
From shame and menace free in years to come -
A richer heritage of happiness,
He marched to that heroic martyrdom.


Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.


Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb,
Bare of the sculptor's art, the poet's lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,
And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.


There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
In the slant sunshine of October days...


I love to think that if my blood should be
So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely,
But when the banquet rings, when healths are drunk,


And faces that the joys of living fill
Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,
In beaming cups some spark of me shall still
Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.


So shall one coveting no higher plane
Than nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put upward to attain
The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known;


And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
From the belovèd shapes it thirsted for.


Alas, how many an adept for whose arms
Life held delicious offerings perished here,
How many in the prime of all that charms,
Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!


Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
But you with whom the sweet fulfilment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,


Rather when music on bright gatherings lays
Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
Your glasses to them in one silent toast.


Drink to them - - amorous of dear Earth as well,
They asked no tribute lovelier than this -
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.



Alan Seeger

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 17-Feb-2009, 10:04 AM
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Greater Love


Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce Love they bear
Cramps them in death's extreme decrepitude.


Your voice sings not so soft, -
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft, -
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.


Heart, you were never hot,
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.



Wilfred Owen

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tallerlacuba 
Posted: 17-Feb-2009, 06:24 PM
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A Private


This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many's a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
'At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush,' said he,
'I slept.' None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond 'The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France - that, too, he secret keeps.


Edward Thomas

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Posted: 17-Feb-2009, 07:31 PM
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OK -- change wars, change themes for a bit.

This is a Spanish Civil War poem with a bit of analysis I did once on it. How many complex and conflicting emotions and motivations can keep a soldier in a flawed, doomed cause awake at night, wishing for the liberty simply to be his true self and live his music unperturbed:


Alès

Daring closely even this urban circle
Nightingales chant, the darkwood night
Is inlaid with ivory song, while
Towards the white air of tomorrow
Rises in slow spiral the sleep of thirty men.
All the floor’s a bed,
The straw, the smell, the kaleidoscopic cockroaches
Never ravel the curtain of their snores.
Lying here, your lovers and your haters
Are not the men, those men, you knew,
The nightingales throw music over the hour’s edge
In falls of ambling volume: they’ll outlive the town
To be for many thousand years the same
As on those thousands of midnights falling
Before Keats heard their enchanted summons.
We, within our short tomorrow,
Will have climbed into the violent ring of powder
Among guns’ stream of venom and saw-edged fighting moods,
There where there’s a new world’s door to knock on.
These men are proud,
Not all the world, though it knows a nightingale,
Knows us who hear above all songs
The steps of an old world going.

May 1937
Miles Tomalin

In: Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders on the Spanish Civil War, Jim Jump, ed.




Miles Tomalin was a virtuoso performer on the vertical Baroque flute, a music teacher, and a writer of books for young readers about the development of mechanical power. An avowed communist, he went to Spain in the spring of 1937, and as a member of the International Brigades he saw his heaviest combat in the calamitous Battle of Brunete in the summer of that year. As Valentine Cunningham noted in his essay “Saville’s Row with the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse,” Tomalin was one who, like Orwell, Auden, Spender and others, was disillusioned with the conduct of the war, and who in time became pessimistic about its prospects and its greater purpose. This ambivalence was often one of the strongest elements in his poetic expression. Those of Tomalin’s poems that focus on the validity of the war effort are permeated with a relativity of viewpoint more genuine than in other of his verses that attempt to make an undiluted statement in support of the cause.


This poem, “Alès,” dates from May of 1937. It predates by a few months his great lyric “After Brunete,” in which a weary, almost stunned dissociation from ideals is the prevalent mood. Here, in “Alès,” it seems that Tomalin’s poetic perspective has not yet been irrevocably disconnected from his conviction that the cause has a chance to prevail, or that the enormous effort and sacrifice to bring it off are justified. His sense of relativity, of the division of reality into numberless particulars that tends to undermine any idea of the universal, is captured in a comparison of nightingales and sleeping soldiers. At this moment, he perceives the nightingales and the soldiers as having been separated by prevailing conditions into different frames of time:


The nightingales throw music over the hour’s edge
In falls of ambling volume: they’ll outlive the town
To be for many thousand years the same
As on those thousands of midnights falling
Before Keats heard their enchanted summons.
We, within our short tomorrow,
Will have climbed into the violent ring of powder
Among guns’ stream of venom and saw-edged fighting moods,
There where there’s a new world’s door to knock on.



The nightingales persist as they always have, in a repetitive frame that takes no notice of either poets or soldiers and enjoys its own sort of unchanging, circular immortality; the poet recognizes that for them change is neither characteristic nor necessary. But there is an urgent paradigm, seen by the poet as radically new, that is imminently, even violently, approaching the men and that will carry them out of the repetitions of their history into a new frame of time and existence. The idealism of the communist Tomalin is at its clearest in the poem here.


But his ambivalence concerning his own place in the cause is present nonetheless. The images and sound-forms chosen for the expression of nightingales are soft and sensual:


Nightingales chant, the darkwood night
Is inlaid with ivory song . . .



The poet identifies the songbirds and the surrounding night with the musical instruments, “darkwood” and “inlaid with ivory,” that he loves and of which he is a master; the image is thus personalized with great tenderness, and marks a tension in himself between the musician who knows no other purpose for all time – nor needs to – and the idealist who must tear himself away from the repetitions of history to knock, harshly as may be, on “a new world’s door.” (In fact the Dolmetsch museum contains one of Tomalin’s Baroque flutes that he carried with him into Spain: the names of all his battles are carved into it.)


But the poet will not permit himself to be lulled. Even before violent acts of battle overtake the penultimate passage of the poem, the sleeping men are characterized, in images and sound-forms, neither by their political ideals, the nobility of their sacrifice nor the pity of their vulnerability, but rather in realistic physical terms more repellant than anything:


All the floor’s a bed,
The straw, the smell, the kaleidoscopic cockroaches
Never ravel the curtain of their snores.
The last pass of this slender lyric echoes again the quality of ambivalence or uncertainty that this poet, at his most uncompromisingly candid, lets through:
These men are proud,
Not all the world, though it knows a nightingale,
Knows us who hear above all songs
The steps of an old world going.



The idealistic assurance of the final line – the final turning away from the deceptively sweet, ultimately mindless sound of blind history’s repetitions – does not ring so much as sigh. It is the loneliness of the one soldier who lies awake in reflection among sleeping comrades, and out of mind of an unknowing world; and there is a fair measure of melancholy isolation underlining his ideals.


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