Book excerpt

Some Desperate Glory

The First World War the Poets Knew

Max Egremont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1914 POEMS

 

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ – Charles Sorley

‘On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town’ – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Peace’ – Rupert Brooke

‘The Dead’ – Rupert Brooke

‘To Germany’ – Charles Sorley

‘The Soldier’ – Rupert Brooke

‘The Combe’ – Edward Thomas

 

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

 

On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town

Snow is a strange white word.

No ice or frost

Have asked of bud or bird

For Winter’s cost.

 

Yet ice and frost and snow

From earth to sky

This Summer land doth know,

No man knows why.

 

In all men’s hearts it is.

Some spirit old

Hath turned with malign kiss

Our lives to mould.

 

Red fangs have torn His face.

God’s blood is shed.

He mourns from His lone place

His children dead.

 

O! ancient crimson curse!

Corrode, consume.

Give back this universe

Its pristine bloom.

ISAAC ROSENBERG

 

Peace

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,

And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,

And all the little emptiness of love!

 

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,

Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,

Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;

Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there

But only agony, and that has ending;

And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

RUPERT BROOKE

 

The Dead

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!

There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,

But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.

These laid the world away, poured out the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be

Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,

That men call age; and those who would have been,

Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

 

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,

Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,

And paid his subjects with a royal wage;

And Nobleness walks in our ways again;

And we have come into our heritage.

RUPERT BROOKE

 

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

 

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other’s truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm

The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

CHARLES SORLEY

 

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

RUPERT BROOKE

 

The Combe

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.

Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;

And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk

By beech and yew and perishing juniper

Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots

And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,

The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds

Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,

Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark

The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,

Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,

That most ancient Briton of English beasts.

EDWARD THOMAS

 

Copyright © 2014 by Max Egremont

Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied modern history at Oxford University. He is the author of several novels and biographies, including Siegfried Sassoon: A Life (FSG, 2005) and Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia (FSG, 2011). Egremont is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in England.