AN ANTHOLOGY OF WAR POETRY

‘When Can Their Glory Fade?’
 
 

INTRODUCTION

The poets in this section all to a greater or lesser degree accept the need for war and see teh sacrifice of lives as not merely inevitable, but often desriable and even glorious. Nowehere is this more obvious than in Charles Sorley’s poem, which opens this section. He celebrates death in war as something which marching soldiers accept and welcome, seeing a parallel between their sacrifice and that of Christ on Calvary. Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ sees war as an extension of the playing fields of public schools, as, in the heat of battle, 'the voice of a schoolboys rallies the ranks'. Herbert Asquith’s volunteer is a very ordinary man finding his meaning and his destiny in a heroic death. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ speaks for itself: it glosses over the blunder that sent men to an unnecessary death, and stresses only their willing and unquestioning acceptance of their fate. Rupert Brooke’s soldier is equally happy to die for his country, and to lie at rest ‘under an English heaven.’ Finally in this section, Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’, with lines familiar from countless Remembrance Day services, is probably the most powerful and poignant tribute to what this poet also sees simply as fallen heroes
 

  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
 
 
 

Vitai Lampada
 

There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight -
    Ten to make and the match to win:
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
    An hour to play and the last man in.
And it‘s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
    Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote:
    ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

The sand of the desert is sodden red -
    Red with the wreck of a square that broke -
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
    And the regiment blind with dust and smoke,
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
    And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
    ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

This is the word that year by year,
    While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
    And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
    Beat through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
    ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
 

Henry Newbolt
 
 
 

The Volunteer
 

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament.
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied;
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken, but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort;
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to meet the men of Agincourt.
 

Herbert Asquith
 
 
 

The Charge of the Light Brigade
 

 Half a league, half a league,
 Half a league onward,
 All in the valley of Death
 Rode the six hundred.
 ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
 Charge for the guns!’ he said:
 Into the valley of Death
 Rode the six hundred.
 

 ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
 Was there a man dismay’d?
 Not tho’ the soldier knew
 Some one had blunder’d:
 Theirs not to make reply,
 Theirs not to reason why,
 Theirs but to do and die:
 Into the valley of Death
 Rode the six hundred.

 Cannon to right of them,
 Cannon to left of them,
 Cannon in front of them
 Volley’d and thunder’d;
 Storm'd at with shot and shell,
 Boldly they rode and well,
 Into the jaws of Death,
 Into the mouth of Hell
 Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d,
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d,
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
 
 
 

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
 
 
 

For the Fallen
 

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill;  Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when they are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Laurence Binyon 


Back to the Introduction

Go to the first section (‘The Send Off’)

The third section ('Interlude')

The fourth section ('The Old Lie')

The final section ('Aftermath and Remembrance')

Chris Price's poem 'Remembrance'

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