A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914-1919/The Airmen

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A treasury of war poetry, ... 1914-1919
Part 21, The Airmen

THE AIRMEN



IN MEMORIAM A.H.

(Auberon Herbert, Captain Lord Lucas, R.F.C.; killed November 3, 1916)

Νωμᾶται δ' ἐν ἀτρυγέτῳ χάει.

THE wind had blown away the rain
That all day long had soaked the level plain.
Against the horizon's fiery wrack,
The sheds loomed black.
And higher, in their tumultuous concourse met,
The streaming clouds, shot-riddled banners, wet
With the flickering storm,
Drifted and smouldered, warm
With flashes sent
From the lower firmament.
And they concealed—
They only here and there through rifts revealed
A hidden sanctuary of fire and light,
A city of chrysolite.


We looked and laughed and wondered, and I said:
That orange sea, those oriflammes outspread
Were like the fanciful imaginings
That the young painter flings
Upon the canvas bold,
Such as the sage and the old
Make mock at, saying it could never be;
And you assented also, laughingly,
I wondered what they meant,
That flaming firmament,
Those clouds so grey, so cold, so wet, so warm,
So much of glory and so much of storm,
The end of the world, or the end
Of the war—remoter still to me and you, my friend.


Alas! it meant not this, it meant not that:
It meant that now the last time you and I
Should look at the golden sky,
And the dark fields large and flat,
And smell the evening weather,
And laugh and talk and wonder both together.


The last, last time. We nevermore should meet
In France or London street,
Or fields of home. The desolated space
Of life shall nevermore
Be what it was before.
No one shall take your place.
No other face
Can fill that empty frame.
There is no answer when we call your name.
We cannot hear your step upon the stair.
We turn to speak and find a vacant chair.
Something is broken which we cannot mend.
God has done more than take away a friend
In taking you; for all that we have left
Is bruised and irremediably bereft.
There is none like you. Yet not that alone
Do we bemoan;
But this: that you were greater than the rest,
And better than the best.


O liberal heart fast-rooted to the soil,
O lover of ancient freedom and proud toil,
Friend of the gipsies and all wandering song,
The forest's nursling and the favoured child
Of woodlands wild—
O brother to the birds and all things free,
Captain of liberty.
Deep in your heart the restless seed was sown;
The vagrant spirit fretted in your feet;
We wondered could you tarry long,
And brook for long the cramping street,
Or would you one day sail for shores unknown,
And shake from you the dust of towns, and spurn
The crowded market-place—and not return?
You found a sterner guide;
You heard the guns. Then, to their distant fire,
Your dreams were laid aside;
And on that day, you cast your heart's desire
Upon a burning pyre;
You gave your service to the exalted need,
Until at last from bondage freed,
At liberty to serve as you loved best,
You chose the noblest way. God did the rest.


So when the spring of the world shall shrive our stain,
After the winter of war,
When the poor world awakes to peace once more,
After such night of ravage and of rain,
You shall not come again.
You shall not come to taste the old Spring weather,
To gallop through the soft untrampled heather,
To bathe and bake your body on the grass.
We shall be there, alas!
But not with you. When Spring shall wake the earth,
And quicken the scarred fields to the new birth,
Our grief shall grow. For what can Spring renew
More fiercely for us than the need of you?


That night I dreamt they sent for me and said
That you were missing, "missing, missing—dead"
I cried when in the morning I awoke,
And all the world seemed shrouded in a cloak;
But when I saw the sun,
And knew another day had just begun,
I brushed the dream away, and quite forgot
The nightmare's ugly blot.
So was the dream forgot. The dream came true
Before the night I knew
That you had flown away into the air
Forever. Then I cheated my despair.
I said
That you were safe—or wounded—but not dead.
Alas! I knew
Which was the false and true.


And after days of watching, days of lead,
There came the certain news that you were dead;
You had died fighting, fighting against odds,
Such as in war the gods
Æthereal dared when all the world was young,
Such fighting as blind Homer never sung,
Nor Hector nor Achilles ever knew;
High in the empty blue.
High, high, above the clouds, against the setting sun,
The fight was fought, and your great task was done.


Of all your brave adventures this the last
The bravest was and best;
Meet ending to a long embattled past,
This swift, triumphant, fatal quest,
Crowned with the wreath that never perisheth,
And diadem of honourable death;
Swift Death aflame with offering supreme
And mighty sacrifice,
More than all mortal dream;
A soaring death, and near to Heaven's gate;
Beneath the very walls of Paradise,
Surely with soul elate,
You heard the destined bullet as you flew,
And surely your prophetic spirit knew
That you had well deserved that shining fate.


Here is no waste,
No burning Might-have-been,
No bitter after-taste,
None to censure, none to screen,
Nothing awry, nor anything misspent;
Only content, content beyond content,
Which hath not any room for betterment.


God, who had made you valiant, strong and swift,
And maimed you with a bullet long ago,
And cleft your riotous ardour with a rift,
And checked your youth's tumultuous overflow,
Gave back your youth to you,
And packed in moments rare and few
Achievements manifold
And happiness untold,
And bade you spring to Death as to a bride,
In manhood's ripeness, power and pride,
And on your sandals the strong wings of youth.
He let you leave a name
To shine on the entablatures of truth,
Forever:
To sound forever in answering halls of fame.


For you soared onwards to that world which rags
Of clouds, like tattered flags,
Concealed; you reached the walls of chrysolite,
The mansions white;
And losing all, you gained the civic crown
Of that eternal town,
Wherein you passed a rightful citizen
Of the bright commonwealth ablaze beyond our ken.


Surely you found companions meet for you
In that high place;
You met there face to face
Those you had never known, but whom you knew;
Knights of the Table Round,
And all the very brave, the very true,
With chivalry crowned;
The captains rare,
Courteous and brave beyond our human air;
Those who had loved and suffered overmuch,
Now free from the world's touch.
And with them were the friends of yesterday,
Who went before and pointed you the way;
And in that place of freshness, light and rest,
Where Lancelot and Tristram vigil keep
Over their King's long sleep,
Surely they made a place for you,
Their long-expected guest,
Among the chosen few,
And welcomed you, their brother and their friend,
To that companionship which hath no end.


And in the portals of the sacred hall
You hear the trumpet's call,
At dawn upon the silvery battlement,
Re-echo through the deep
And bid the sons of God to rise from sleep,
And with a shout to hail
The sunrise on the city of the Grail:
The music that proud Lucifer in Hell
Missed more than all the joys that he forewent.
You hear the solemn bell
At vespers, when the oriflammes are furled;
And then you know that somewhere in the world,
That shines far-off beneath you like a gem,
They think of you, and when you think of them
You know that they will wipe away their tears,
And cast aside their fears;
That they will have it so,
And in no otherwise;
That it is well with them because they know,
With faithful eyes,
Fixed forward and turned upwards to the skies,
That it is well with you,
Among the chosen few,
Among the very brave, the very true.


TO THE WINGLESS VICTORY

A Prayer

WINGLESS Victory, whose shrine
 By the Parthenon
Glorified our youth divine,
 Hearken!—they are gone,
  The young eagles of our nest,
  They, the brightest, bravest, best,
   They are flown!


Lilies of France,
 When first they flew,
Led their lone advance
 Great heaven through;
  Now soar they, brood on brood,
  Like stars for multitude,
   To France! France!


Save thou the golden flight
 That wakes the morn,
And dares the azure height,
 The tempests scorn!


Save them o'er land and sea,
 In deeps of air!
Thy grace, where'er they be
 Ensphere them there!


Save them, the country's pride,
 Our wingèd youth!
And where they fall enskied,
 Save thou the truth!
 O Wingless Victory!


LETTER TO AN AVIATOR IN FRANCE

A SLOPE of summer sprinkled over
With sweet tow-headed pigmy clover
Melts suddenly to emerald air
Between the moving leaves: for where
The terrace plunges noiselessly,
A woven wall of appletree
(Bearing instead of apples now
The redwinged blackbird on the bough,)
Enchants the lawn of sun-stained green
To seem as though it had not been.
From where I sit, no roots are there
Nor gnarly trunks show anywhere:
Only the thick-leaved upper boughs
Close-clustered for the robin's house.
And tall above them up the sky
The clear lake quivers like some high
Wind-ruffled huge crystalline tree
Whose roots like theirs are hid from me.
It must have light and air and room,
With clouds for leaves and hills for bloom,
Those pale blue hills that flower along
The living branches wild and strong—
I hear you laugh and say:
 "Why make
A tree of crystal from the lake?
Of course you may if you prefer
Shape forests out of lake-water,
Great stems of sapphire, shedding light!
I understand you. It's all right.
But since you are in fantastic mood,
Build me a shelter in that wood
To keep June sounds and colours in,
And shut out the infernal din
Of war my ears have heard and heard
Until no meaning lights the word!"
Well, when it's done and you come home,
Lift up the latch of gilded foam
And enter the transparent door
And cross the grooved and shining floor
Of a new house I'm building, sir,
Of foam and wind on lake-water,
With walls intangible about
The inner rooms, to keep war out!


But this is nonsense. I have lost
My whim. Your laugh recalled has cost
So many Spanish castles, dear!
And I confess there's no tree here
Heaven-tall, with hills upon its boughs,
No sheltering sunlight-raftered house,
But only water wide and bare,
And distant shore and empty air,
And far away across the world
A proud enduring flag unfurled.


Yet you and I could never live
But for the respite that dreams give.
Your letters have their intervals,
Their hints of magic: a bird calls
Or a strange cloud goes by. You hear
Music unknown to mortal ear,
And as you said in other days,
"Last night I dreamed" your message says.
So in the end, I scorn your laughter,
Lord of my secret thoughts! And after
War will come peace, you'll not deny,
And wider light for dreaming by.
Now, let's pretend as children do:
It is my way of reaching you.
Blue Vermont hills we'll say, are fruit
Which I may pluck, when it shall suit
My mood, and send like grapes to you,
All honey-rich and webbed with dew,
Packed in their cloudy leaves and cool
Of colour like a twilight pool.
And if you've wandered past the sky
On some new errand, comrade, I
Shall climb the tree the fruit grew on
To see which road it is you've gone.
How shall I plan to overtake
Those wings of yours? And I must make
In time to welcome you, a proud
White castle of some mountain cloud—
But no more now. . . . The old clock clangs
Somewhere within. A veery hangs
Small golden wreaths along the alder,
And mother Robin's babies called her
Just now from their leaf-hidden room,
And sunset roses are in bloom.

Lake Champlain, June, 1918.


TO A CANADIAN AVIATOR WHO DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY IN FRANCE

TOSSED like a falcon from the hunter's wrist, 
A sweeping plunge, a sudden shattering noise,
And thou hast dared, with a long spiral twist,
The elastic stairway to the rising sun.
Peril below thee, and above, peril
Within thy car; but peril cannot daunt
Thy peerless heart: gathering wing and poise,
Thy plane transfigured, and thy motor-chant
Subduèd to a whisper—then a silence,—
And thou art but a disembodied venture
In the void.


But Death, who has learned to fly,
Still matchless when his work is to be done,
Met thee between the armies and the sun;
Thy speck of shadow faltered in the sky;
Then thy dead engine and thy broken wings
Drooped through the arc and passed in fire,
A wreath of smoke—a breathless exhalation.
But ere that came a vision sealed thine eyes,
Lulling thy senses with oblivion;
And from its sliding station in the skies
Thy dauntless soul upward in circles soared
To the sublime and purest radiance whence it sprang.


In all their eyries eagles shall mourn thy fate,
And leaving on the lonely crags and scaurs
Their unprotected young, shall congregate
High in the tenuous heaven and anger the sun
With screams, and with a wild audacity
Dare all the battle danger of thy flight;
Till weary with combat one shall desert the light,
Fall like a bolt of thunder and check his all
On the high ledge, smoky with mist and cloud,
Where his neglected eaglets shriek aloud,
And drawing the film across his sovereign sight
Shall dream of thy swift soul immortal
Mounting in circles, faithful beyond death.


CAPTAIN GUYNEMER

WHAT high adventure, in what world afar,
Follows to-day,
Mid ampler air,
Heroic Guynemer?
What star,
Of all the myriad planets of our night,
Is by his glowing presence made more bright
Who chose the Dangerous way,
Scorning, while brave men died, ignobly safe to stay?


Into the unknown Vast,
Where few could follow him, he passed,—
On to the gate—the shadowy gate—
Of the Forbidden,
Seeking the knowledge jealous Fate
Had still so carefully from mortals hidden.


With vision falcon-keen,
His eyes beheld what others had not seen,
And his soul, with as clear a gaze,
Pierced through each clouded maze
Straight to the burning heart of things, and knew
The lying from the true.


A dweller in Immensity,
Of naught afraid,
He saw the havoc Tyranny had made,—
Saw the relentless tide of War's advance,
And high of heart and free,
Vowed his young life to Liberty—
And France!


O Compiègne! be proud of him—thy son,—
The greatest of the eagle brood,—
Who with intrepid soul the foe withstood,
And rests, his victories won!
Mourn not uncomforted, but rather say:—
His wings were broken, but he led the way
Where myriad stronger wings shall follow;
For Wrong shall not hold lasting sway,
To break the World's heart, nor betray
With cruel pledges hollow!


To us the battle draweth near.
We dedicate ourselves again,
Remembering, O Compiègne!
Thy Charioteer—
Thy peerless one, who died to make men free,
And in Man's grateful heart shall live immortally!


SEARCHLIGHTS

YOU who have seen across the star-decked skies
 The long white arms of searchlights slowly sweep,
 Have you imagined what it is to creep
High in the darkness, cold and terror-wise,
For ever looked for by those cruel eyes
 Which search with far-flung beams the shadowy deep,
 And near the wings unending vigil keep
To haunt the lonely airman as he flies?


Have you imagined what it is to know
 That if one finds you, all their fierce desire
To see you fall will dog you as you go,
 High in a sea of light and bursting fire,
Like some small bird, lit up and blinding white
Which slowly moves across the shell-torn night?