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Title: The Searchlights

Date of first publication: 1943

Author: Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)

Date first posted: May 8, 2015

Date last updated: May 8, 2015

Faded Page eBook #20150526

This ebook was produced by: Marcia Brooks, Al Haines, Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net

By the Same Writer



The Alert

Coming and Going

(Oxford University Press)

Collected Poems, 1905-1925

The Golden Room




(Macmillan & Co.)

A Leaping Flame, A Sail!

(Privately Printed)













Oxford University Press


Amen House, E.C.4

London Edinburgh Glasgow New York

Toronto Melbourne Capetown Bombay

Calcutta Madras


Humphrey Milford

Publisher to the University










Edith Sitwell

Cover design by

Michael D. Gibson


The Omen

The Gulls

The Barrow

The Seals

The Yews

In the Cinema

The Refugee

The Watch on the Wall

The Dairy Farm

The Shelter

The Moon

The Dinghy

The Stars

The Parents

The Kites

The Canteen

The Curlew

The Fuse

The Darner

The Hill Farm

In the Cafe Royal

The Floe

The Recluse

The Enemy

The Abbey Tower

The Bells

The Fire Fighter

The Last Shift

All Souls Eve

The Wild Swans

The Harvest

On the Acropolis

The Bomb

The Waterlily

The Break of Day

The Escape

The Starry Skies

The Last Hoop

The Cave

The Snow

The Searchlights

The Bellbuoy

The Sniper

The Red Deer

The Omen

Crouched by the rear-gun, his reluctant mind

Fails to relinquish all he leaves behind,

As through the cloudbank towards Italy

The aircraft flies; and clearly he can see,

Suffusing the blank vapour’s prisoning gloom,

The firelight of the old familiar room

Flicker with lively amber flames that light

The faces round the hearthstone he last night

Dared scarcely glance at, lest those loving eyes,

Meeting his own, should happen to surprise

The fear within his breast, the fear that still

Clutched at his midriff with foreboding, till,

Leaving the tarmac with impatient roar,

The craft took off, and, in the air once more,

Despair fell from him as life raced again

With its old urgency through every vein

And the cold hollow that had been his heart

When he from all he loved had come to part

Once more was charged with courage impetuously

Beating out its old eager rhythm.

And now he

Could look into the firelit room to-night

With confidence and even meet the bright

Eyes of his wife and children. For it seemed

The vision that on the cloudbank glowed and gleamed

With golden fervor was assuredly

An earnest of his safe return, that he

Should make the happy landing once again.


And now from out the muffling mist the plane

Emerges into naked cold moonlight;

And, looking down, he sees the mapped-out white

Ice-lustred Alpine ranges sheer below,

Relieved that into some crevasse’s snow

It will not be his lot to crash, and lie

A frozen corpse through all eternity.

The Gulls

Day after day the sentries keeping guard

Along the ramparts of the embattled strand

See her still pacing the harsh sallow sand,

Stopping at times to stare again with hard

Glazed tearless eyes across the bleak North Sea—

Day after day. And now they try no more

To hold her back from the restricted shore

To which each dawn her heart remorselessly

Draws her at the first glint of Wintry light

To keep her watch by the indifferent tide,

Impelled by hope that will not be denied,

And only fails her at the fall of night,

To be renewed at daybreak by the cry

Of gulls that reaches her on her sleepless bed—

Gulls that all day will wrangle overhead

With white wings glancing sharply against a sky

Of slatey cloud unrestingly, as she

Paces the desolation of the beach—

Fierce gulls whose every beaked and taloned screech

Tears at her vitals, and yet seems to be

The voice of her anger against the sea that keeps

Her love from her so long—her love who went

From her that raw December daybreak, bent

On the risky dredging of the mine-sown deeps,

Three years ago—the sea that keeps him still,

Keeps him in secret and yields her heart no news

Save that which in the skirling of the mews

Stabs her with anguish, and yet cannot kill

The hope within her.

The hope within her.So, day after day

The sentries see her pacing, till one dawn

They note the yelling gulls have all been drawn

Into a yammering flock that in the grey

Light hangs above a bundle on the sand,

Where, at length lapt in peace, with ears and eyes

Mercifully deaf and blind to the birds, she lies,

Harrassed by hope no longer, on the strand.

The Barrow

The soldiers in encampment on the down,

After the nightlong route-march, sprawling lie

With closed lids or eyes staring drowsily

From weary youthful faces, weathered brown,

Into the intense blue of the noonday sky,

From which the lark-notes tinkle pleasantly

Trilling through dazed exhausted minds that still

Keep marching, marching through a thunderous night

Of breathless darkness, marching on, until

The music sprinkled through the quivering light

Lulls them asleep.

Lulls them asleep.And, weary as the rest,

Young Richard on the barrow’s grassy breast

Lies curled, with burning eyes and aching brow,

Longing to fall asleep, too. But, somehow,

No slumber comes to him, as still his mind

Stumbles through sultry darkness, thick and blind—

A darkness that is nigh as dense and deep

As that which closed on the death-dimming eyes

Of the British warrior, who, to him unknown,

With prized utensils and flint weapons lies

Beneath him in his burial kist of stone

Within the bosom of the barrow asleep—

Lies in a slumber of oblivious night,

His death-throes long since over, and knowing not,

Although his ancient wars are long forgot,

That ever in new quarrels men still fight.

The Seals

The still soused body huddled on the strand

Suddenly shivers in the Summer dawn;

And the curious timid seals, who have withdrawn

To a safe distance, watch it from the sand

Lift up its head and slowly look around

With vaguely wondering eyes. And, even when

They see this stranger from the world of men

Sit upright, still they gaze without a sound,

As the lad stares across the creaming tide

And marvels how he ever came to be

Escaped from midnight’s all-devouring sea

Into whose depths he stumbled overside

When the mine struck. He wonders now if all

His mates beneath the curdling waters lie:

And, as the sunrise reddens in the sky,

He listens to the maddening rise and fall

Of mocking waves on that unfriendly shore

With boding heart and spirit desolate,

And almost wishes he had shared the fate

Of those drowned lads whom he will see no more—

Those lads whose names he mumbles in his mind—

Those lads who always jockeyed him and made

Such sport of all his blunders, and who played

Such tricks with all his gear, and yet were kind

Enough when things went badly . . .

Enough when things went badly . . .And he alone,

The youngest and the dumbest, seemingly,

Had been cast up by the rejecting sea

Upon a desert island of sand and stone

To die of slow starvation, likely as not,

Or, anyway, of loneliness, before

He could be rescued—stranded on a shore

Where there was naught to do but sit and rot

Among the rotting weed, cut off from life.


Then all at once he hears behind a stir

As the seals suddenly feeling friendlier

Shuffle towards him; and he draws his knife

In quick alarm. But, when he sees their eyes

Twinkling as though in mischief, he seems to see

His old mates jostling round him mockingly

And, grinning, turns to greet them with surprise.

The Yews

In the dark room from which the unclipt yews

About the window half shut out the light

The old man listens to the evening news

That tells once more how men still fight and fight—

The old man listens, staring at the blaze

Of beechlogs on the hearth, yet hardly hears,

As his mind drops back into earlier days

And he recalls those other evil years—

Those four long years of nightmare when he fought,

Himself, in the war that was to end all war

In a world, already in new conflict caught

And threatened with destruction as never before.

Then, as the news ends, in his chair he turns

And switches off the wireless; when he sees

A picture that again in memory burns

On the windowglass, backed by the dark yewtrees,

Rekindled . . .

Rekindled . . .And, once more, across the mire

Of Flanders floundering to the assault,

He urges on his men through bristling wire;

When he is instantly brought to a halt

And his heart almost stops beating, as his eyes

Light on a body in the deadly strands

Entangled; and his friend before him lies

With his machine-gun still clutched in his hands—

Dead hands, that, living, in old days had wrought

Such beauty, chiselling from stone a rare

Spiritual entity beyond all thought—

Hands that had only dropt their tools, to dare

All hazards in the fight for lasting peace,

Peace that eludes men yet . . .

Peace that eludes men yet . . .Though from his sight

The picture fades, still on the dark yewtrees

He gazes till they merge into the night.

In the Cinema

Her sad eyes on the screen, she tries to keep

Her mind on the story, all about those strange

Americans whose lives would seem to be

So unlike anything she had known. A change

For her, could she enjoy such luxury—

Sure that, in spite of each calamity,

She would come to the happy ending, after all!


The happy ending. . . . Again the shadows creep

Into her mind and even seem to crawl,

Blurring the picture, over the bright screen,

Blacking it out for a moment . . .

Blacking it out for a moment . . .When a scene,

Invisible to those neighbouring staring eyes,

Is flashed before her mind. And now she sees

A soldier stroll towards her down the street,

Whistling, with hands in pockets, at his ease:

And, as they come together, their eyes meet

As if in recognition, although they

Were strangers to each other till to-day.

Startled, they stop; and then he speaks to her;

And in a twinkling they are chattering

Gaily about every blessed thing

That comes into their heads. Soon happily

They turn and side by side they saunter on,

He, doing most of the talking; while dreamily

She knows, and queerly knows without surprise,

That for the first time she has come to life,

And there’s nothing left to wish for . . .

Now a stir

About her in the audience: and she hears

A bored man grumble sourly to his wife

Who sits there dribbling sentimental tears—

And in a flash the happy scene is gone;

And now she gazes with eyes dimmed with pain

At those strange antics on the screen again—

But only for a moment, as once more

Her private vision holds her . . .

And she sees

Herself alone now sheltering under trees,

While through the night the heavens seem to pour

In one vast sheet of rain, awaiting him

After her long day in the factory,

A day in which the shells had seemed to swim

Before her eyes like fishes in a sea

Of bright anticipations. In the wet

She awaits—for, surely, he could not forget!

And still awaits till long beyond the time

He had mentioned to her, promising to be

There without fail. And hour after hour

She awaits, until from the unseen church tower

Suddenly the four quarters tinkling chime

And the great bells booms out midnight . . .

Laughter now

Ripples through all the cinema; and she

Rouses, to see fantastic creatures prance

Across the screen and a crazy Disney cow

Leading an ancient milkmaid a mad dance.

She watches them, unsmiling . . .

She watches them, unsmiling . . .Then again

She sees herself there, waiting in the rain,

Waiting for ever in a steady pour,

Waiting for someone who will come no more,

Waiting till Doomsday strikes . . .

If only she

Could know why he had failed her! whether he

Were faithless to her, or, if hastily

And secretly his regiment had been

Without a warning rushed off to the war—

If only she could know . . .

Again the screen

Catches her eye: and now she sees men fight

And fall in heaps, smashed by a swooping flight

Of devilish dive-bombers. Suddenly,

Reeling in death, one turns towards the light

A white drawn face, like Jim’s, if Jim should be . . .


Blindly she leaves her seat, and blunderingly

Rushes out into the black drenching night.

The Refugee

Beside the friendly and yet alien

Hearthstone he watches the memory-kindling blaze

Of logs from English woodlands, in a daze

Through which he sees his fellowcountrymen

Still struggle in the horror of the night

That closed about them when in a black hour

Their rulers, crazy with the lust of power

And dominance, turned traitor to the light.

He sees his friends and those of his own kind

Caught in the toils, friends who had failed to flee

And in another land seek sanctuary

From the implacable murderers of the mind

And torturers of the body, failed, or scorned,

Scorned to forsake their country in its duress.


And now his heart is searched with bitterness

To think that he, in his despair suborned

By the seductive lure of freedom, fled

And left them to sustain the agony

And carry on the fight stoutheartedly

Without his aid.

Freedom! None but the dead

Who died for honour’s sake and those who yet

In prison or concentration-camp endured,

Still resolute under torture, could be assured

Of freedom in a reeling world, beset

By all the powers of darkness. His body, free,

Had in his own land left his spirit bound

And helpless.

And now in the crackling sound

And blaze of the logs he can only hear and see

Far off the city of his heart’s desire,

His native town, beneath the midnight sky

Flaring to heaven, as over it there fly

Avenging furies scattering cleansing fire.

The Watch on the Wall

From his high station on the Great Whin Sill

In a milecastle of the Roman Wall

Watching the dim fells dreaming in the still

Tender Spring moonshine, now he hears the call

Of courting curlew from a nearby syke

Answered by crake of wild-duck and the scream

Of seagull nesting on far Hallypike.

And, as he listens, still alert to hear

The approach of enemy aircraft, in a half-dream

He gazes at the rippling shimmer and gleam

Of light on Broomlee Lough; and thinks of all

The fighting and the fury and the fear

These Northern wastes have known since time began—

Forgotten tribes of prehistoric man

Warring with wolves and their own wolf-like kind:

The ancient Picts, stemming the Northward sweep

Of Roman cohorts on this very steep,

Storming and harrying year after year,

Until at length the legions were withdrawn

Southward in panic, summoned in headlong haste

Back to the succour of their mother Rome,

Or, battleworn deserters, they strayed to find

And settle in some peaceful British home:

The coming of the Saxons; and the hordes

Of Vikings sallying inland from the coast

Time and again in many a bloody dawn

From their beached longboats, host on murderous host

With wide-winged helms and bitter-biting swords.

The Normans in baulked anger laying waste

The hills and dales of all Northumberland:

The longdrawn civil conflicts breaking out

Through the ensuing centuries till the last

Forlorn adventure of the Jacobites:

And, always, startling the dark Northern nights

With fiery forays, the Border reiving clans.

And, recollecting how these fells have been

Bloodsoaked so often and how these hills have seen

Defeat and victory and foes put to rout

Or vanquished in a last heroic stand

Times out of mind; and wondering at man’s

Insatiable lust for killing, his heart is filled,

As in the haunted night he watches alone,

With dire despair, to think that now the whole

World seethes in insensate slaughter fiercer far

Than even these Border battlefields have known

Through their long history of futile strife;

And every instant under sun and star

Cities are stormed and men in thousands killed,

And all the hardwon ideals of man’s soul

In shattering disaster overthrown;

While, caught in the blind frenzy, such men as he

Who only asked to lead a peaceful life

And be allowed to cultivate and build

For future generations now should be

Compelled, by total annihilation faced,

To join in the destruction, and lay waste

Their best years, waging war with their own kind.


And, even as he stares into the blind

And ominous future, he marks the hostile drone

Of Westward-flying planes from oversea.

The Dairy Farm

Now singlehanded she must run the farm

And keep it going for Tom, if blessedly

Tom should come through the war without much harm

Tom, fighting somewhere far across the sea,

And knowing naught about his father, dead

And buried in a week.

How thoughtless she

Had gone that morning to the milking-shed,

To find Jake lying senseless there, his head

Face-downward in a puddle of spilt milk!

And, as she stood an instant, that had seemed

Time without end, still in their stalls the cows

Kept up their munching, munching placidly;

Their big eyes glinting under quiet brows,

While on their new-brushed hides, as sleek as silk,

Light from the stable-lantern softly gleamed.


She still could hear that munching, as she lay

Wakeful in bed, and see the yellow light

Kindling dark eyes, while slowly the hot night

Dragged onward to another crowded day,

Another Friday . . . And, last Friday, she

So unsuspectingly had risen from bed,

Thinking of nothing much; just busily

Concerned to do her usual jobs, with not

A thought of what she would find within the shed.

Her usual jobs! And she had had, instead,

To carry all alone across the yard

Her husband in her arms and up the stair,

And then to lay him out on his last bed,

This very bed that seemed so big and strange

Without him now. God knows how she had got

The heart to do it by herself! But then

She had always been as hefty as most men.

And she’d need all her strength now: ’twould be hard

To keep things going, she was well aware.


Only last Friday morn—and such a change!

But, in these times, when you could only live

From day to day, not knowing what the next

Might bring, changes came quick, and nothing seemed

Too terrible to happen. Yesternight

In brief uneasy slumber she had dreamed

That she awaked to find her world on fire—

The frightened cows within the blazing byre

Mooing like mad—and she had been only vexed

At being disturbed from sleep, when she awoke!

But that was just a dream; and, in dreams, folk

Seemed unaccountable. And yet, she knew,

Ay, all too certainly, she knew she might

Waken one night to find her dream come true:

For Harefield Farm just over the hillside

Already a heap of rubble and cinder lay,

Bombed one black hour. And what would she not give

To have Tom with her here to carry on,

Now Jake was dead! But Tom was far away,

Far out of reach. Three years he had been gone

To some outlandish place across the tide;

And singlehanded she must see things through

Till he came home. ’Twas fortunate for her

That it was nothing but a dairy-farm

She had to manage: and, even so, she knew

That she should have more than enough to do:

’Twould take her all her time. Still, it was well

To be kept busy in these days with not

An idle hour for thinking. Ay, she had got

Her work set. . . . And, for all that she could tell,

Tom might come through the war without much harm.

Tom might come through . . .

Tom might come through . . .But it was nearly three!

Already from his roost the cock was crowing;

And from the byre there came a noise of lowing.

The cows awaited her impatiently,

Heavy with milk. Yet, they, she knew, when she

Should come to ease them, would stand quietly

About her, munching, each within her stall,

As they had stood last Friday, as though all

The world were still at peace, and Jake, alive—

Munching and munching on, without a care,

Munching and munching. . . . It was hard to bear.

She had best try not to listen. . . .

She had best try not to listen. . . .But she must dress

At once and set about her business

And get the milking done, however hard,

And have the full churns ready in the yard

Before the station-lorry should arrive.

The Shelter

In the air-raid shelter of the Underground

Stretched on the narrow wire racks ranged around

The walls, like corpses in a catacomb

With brows and cheeks cadaverous in the light,

By enemy raiders driven from hearth and home

War-weary workers slumber in the thick

Close atmosphere throughout the Summer night.

But, wakeful in the glitter of glazed white brick,

Dan sees a figure stumble down the stair,

A girl with wide eyes dazzled by the glare

Who pauses near the bottom; then with a moan

Sways helplessly, and, dropping like a stone,

Crumples up at the stairfoot. Hastily

The lad leaps down; then carefully makes his way

Among the sleepers huddled on the ground

To where she lies unconscious with still grey

Eyes staring. Stooping down, Dan hears a sound

Of heavy breathing; and, assured that she

Still lives, he seeks assistance speedily;

And skilfully the nurses bring her round;

When she sits up, bewildered, stroking back

The strands of chestnut hair from her white face.

Then, at a question where room can be found

To make a bed for her in that packed place,

The lad insists that she must have his rack.

So now he helps them as they carry her

And lay her on his berth; where presently,

After a puzzled glance at the unknown lad

Whose kind eyes look on her so anxiously,

Wrapt in Dan’s overcoat she falls asleep,

Wornout by terror and shock, and does not stir;

In a fatigue-drugged slumber, dreamless and deep,

Recovering her vitality; while he

Against the rack leans resting, eager and glad

To think that he should have her in his care—

That he, among the sleepers who toss and groan

And mutter in their dreams, should watch alone

In sole charge of this slumbering unknown

Young creature come to him out of the night.


And, as Dan gazes drowsily at the light

That burnishes the tangles of her hair,

Somehow he does not seem so desolate.

Even for a while he nigh forgets the fate

That crashed upon his home two nights ago

And left him orphaned; of his family

The only one to be dragged senselessly

Out of the blazing ruin of all that life

Held for him: and, though even now the pain

Of loss, returning, stabs again and again

Through his young quivering vitals like a knife,

Something has seemed to lighten his despair.

For the first time he ceases to regret

He had not perished also when the blow

Fell, blasting, and wiped out with sweeping flame

All that he loved; and left none of his name

To care for him; and without warning he

Was forced alone to face his destiny.


And, now regarding her with grave eyes set

Fixedly on her slender form as she

Lies sleeping there, Dan wonders how she came

To be out wandering in that wild night

Of blitz-krieg all alone, so frail and slight

And helpless in the horror; and if she, too,

Had lost her way in life, like him bereft

Of friends and family, with nothing left

Of the old comfortable world she knew

And never doubted till it fell in wreck

And devastation. Gradually the gleam

Of curls that cluster round her slender neck

Dazzles and mesmerises him; and he,

Drooping beside the rack, nods drowsily,

Till he is suddenly startled from a dream

Of home and the old happiness, to see

Her sitting up and glancing down at him

With timid troubled eyes. Dan speaks to her

With quiet reassuring words; but still

She sits, unanswering, her grey eyes dim

With unshed tears of frigid grief; until

One after one the neighbouring sleepers stir,

Rousing from slumber round them; and, awake

To the new day’s new menace, prepare to take

Their traps up and return to homes that may

Have vanished in the night, for all they know.

She watches them as towards the stair they go—

Care-burdened parents, and young children, gay

With youth’s unquenchable curiosity

And lively wonder as to what may be

Awaiting them even now up in the queer

Exciting world in which their life’s now spent,

Where every day brings something different,

Some hazardous delight or thrilling fear

That makes for them seem deadly dull and slow

The old ordinary world of school and play.

Then, roused at last, by a boy’s laughing shout

Released from stupor, now the girl pours out

The tale of her distresses in Dan’s ear—

A tale that is his own story over again;

Yet pierces him with even sharper pain,

Recounted by her quivering girlish lips,

And, as he listens to her, wincing, whips

His soul to a fresh anger at the insane

Outrage that has destroyed their homes and all

They had simply taken for granted. Now once more

Speechless she stops as quietly the tears fall,

Easing her tortured spirit’s strain. Then she,

Startled to sudden awareness, wonderingly

Looks in the face of this strange lad who stands

By her with serious eyes and restless hands,

Sharing her confidences. Timidly

She questions, asking how they came to be

Sheltering together: and Dan answers her

With careful and considerate words; and tells

How out of the night she stumbled down the stair

Into his desolate life; and how they share

Like fate. And, at his story, quieter

She grows as quick assuaging pity wells

Within her bosom; and their young eyes meet

In kindred sympathy.

And now it is time

For them to leave: so, giving her his hand,

Dan helps her down; and for a second they stand

With fingers clasped. Then side by side they climb

Into the morning of the sunlit street.

The Moon

He gazes at the moon that with its light

Seems to have taken possession of the night,

Holding in its enchantment land and sea

In silver somnolence. Yet, even as he

Feels its unearthly influence through his veins

Stealing, he sees the snowy Russian plains

Where that same moon on burning village and town

In icy impotence is staring down,

Powerless with even its cold wizard light

To hold the hate-hot hearts of men from fight

Or stay the senseless slaughter.

And now it seems,

As on that sphere of brilliance he dreams,

That it were well for him if he could be

Rapt to those regions of placidity

Far from the rumour of war and from the ken

Of the outrageous passions of murderous men,

In undissolving icy peace to lie

Under an airless unfamiliar sky

With frozen eyes that, sealed to the lunar night,

Would be untroubled by even a distant sight

Of the passion-tortured and strife-riven earth

That to his sorrow he had known from birth;

And which with every year more frenziedly

Plunged itself into direr misery.


And then, against his old familiar sky,

Cresting a little wooded knoll nearby

He sees the gable in silvered silhouette

Of the house beneath whose roof lie sleeping yet

Those who depend on him and hold his heart

In bonds that only death can wrench apart;

And knows that he could never willingly

Leave them to face alone the tragedy

And sorrow of the times, at least till men,

War-wearied, drop their weapons and again

Take up the tools of peace and for a brief

Season in fruitful labour seek relief.

The Dinghy

A stormy sunset over Heligoland,

Black cloudy bastions flushed with amber flared

Behind him as towards the German strand

The dinghy drifted; and, for all he cared,

Might strike a mine, or, on a spit of sand,

Grounding, might spill him out into the sea

On whose unresting welter helplessly,

Wounded and almost senseless, he had tost

So many days and nights that he had lost

All count of time; and even but vaguely knew

By what bad luck he had ever come to be

Floating around in that damned rubber bath.


One moment, he had been steering a clear path

Above the Atlantic through the midnight blue

Of Summer on level wings; the next, it seemed,

He had wakened in the dinghy, coming to,

A burnt and broken carcase. Yet, how he came

To be there, he knew nothing. Though he had dreamed

Of a confused encounter . . . blasts of flame . . .

And falling, felling through infinity,

Falling and falling into a bottomless pit,

How he had found the dinghy and into it

Had managed to drag his half-dead body he

In his woolly-witted state could not recall.

Yet, here he was; and seemingly after all

Had only saved himself from death, to fall

Into the clutches of the enemy,

Unless he should capsize.

He knew that coast—

Had known it well in the old days; and like the ghost

Of his old self he drifted towards it now

With death-dews clammy on his burning brow,

Recalling those good sailing days and nights.

And his heart was with The Tern—this many a day

Laid up in the Helford River near his home

Till war was over—for the flurry of foam

Over her bows and truck-high flying spray

Sousing her sails and spattering her deck

And the free windy world of flashing lights

Eating her heart out in that close dark shed.

For any ship would rather crash, a wreck,

On reef or skerry or founder in deep sea,

Than in dryrotting dark be left half-dead,

Imprisoned, he would wager . . . Ay! and he,

He, too . . .

He, too . . .Well, he could settle that, at worst,

When the time came . . .

When the time came . . .Then with a reviving burst

Like breakers washing over sunbaked sand

His salt-parched soul was flooded with memories

Of his last trip in her. Before the breeze,

Rounding the Foreland, again he steered a course

Up the North Sea; The Tern, like a young horse

Suddenly loosed from stable and made free

Of wide and windy meadows, crazily

Rearing and plunging in uproarious seas

Of rollicking waves hour after exultant hour

Beneath quick bursts of sun and squally shower;

And on and on through the star-convoyed night,

Until that second noon when off the coast

Of Flanders she was tacking, and swathes of white

Fog upon cold airs pouring from the Pole

About her way came wafting, ghost on ghost,

Until she blindly moved like a lost soul,

With bleating foghorn, answered from the land

That lay beyond sandbank and lurking shoal

By lighthouse-horns and by hoarse horns at sea

And clanging bellbuoys tolling ceaselessly

And he recalled how, after an endless time

Of creeping through dense mist, as, slowly they

Approached the mouth of the Elbe, an ominous grey

Shadow from out of the fogbank suddenly loomed;

And for a perilous instant they seemed doomed

To be run down by a German liner; when

The fog by the evening wind was swept away:

And out they sailed into releasing light

And heard the carillons in far steeples chime

And saw in lancing rays the homes of men;

While in the West, over dark Heligoland

A stormy sunset flared—clouds-bastions black

With rainy burden, flushed with amber . . .

With rainy burden, flushed with amber . . .Back

Suddenly to the present he dropt as night

Fell quickly and he neared the German strand:

And he thought again of The Tern, in her dark shed

Imprisoned . . . and of the certain fate, if he

Were taken now—year after year, maybe,

Of brutal soul-destroying drudgery—

Awaiting him, bound in captivity,

Him, who had known the freedom of the sea

And of the air that none may hold or bind.


Then, in an instant making up his mind,

He heaved his broken body painfully

Over the dinghy’s edge; and, plunging deep,

Without a struggle went to his last sleep

Among the ranks of the undefeated dead.

The Stars

Quitting the foyer of the theatre,

With groping hands and numbly fumbling feet

Blundering on sandbags in the pitchy street

He stumbles blindly into the blackout,

His mind still living in the clarity

Of Shakespeare’s visionary Italy

Tranced in Venetian moonlight, sleeping sweet

Upon a bank through love’s illumined night

And with the singing of the stars astir;

That realm wherein his soul had found retreat

From the obsession of mortal dread and doubt

In quenchless poetry’s immortal light.


But now the meaning of the lightless town

Over his troubled spirit closes down:

And in a darkness deeper than the gloom

That holds the city—a corpse within the tomb

Awaiting in cold stupor of numb dismay

The thunder and lightning of the Judgement Day—

He moves on, brooding, under the starless pall

Of clouded night, of night that burdens all

Creation, blacking-out the uncertain gleam

Mankind has followed through the centuries

Of foiled endeavor in a sanguine dream

To escape the chaos and confusion and find

Itself at last in an Hesperides

Of everlasting spiritual day.


But, still a blind man blundering through the blind

Throngs of his fellow-mortals, he makes his way

Haltingly till he reaches the dark square

Where still his home stands, scatheless and intact,

Among raid-shattered houses. And, coming there,

He pauses in amaze by his own door

Rapt in a dreaming trance, relieved to see

The canopy of cloud has suddenly

Rolled back and that the Winter sky is fair

With stars. Now, breathing in the freshening air,

He gazes on the glittering welkin, packed

With the unswerving seraphim of light

In their old order through the ancient night

Moving, unshaken and unshadowed by

The darkness that in its obscurity

Has plunged the war-racked earth. And, as now he

Rejoices in the star-enraptured sky,

On wings of song again he seems to soar

Among the quiring spheres, while calm and bright

Beneath him Belmont dreams in still moonlight.

The Parents

Silent they sit together with eyes that gaze

Intently, yet see nothing of the blaze

And cheerful flicker of the friendly fire,

But only the charred ruin of all their days

And the cold ashes of their life’s desire.


Silent they sit with hearts beyond all speech

That yet, in their dumb anguish, each to each

Yearn, seeking in mute sympathy to impart

Comfort that still eludes the utmost reach

Of either’s sorrow-desolated heart—

Silent, still wife and husband side by side,

But now no longer parents full of pride

In the eager enterprise of young lives they

In mutual love had quickened, lives that died,

Blasted by war, each on its untimely day

Of doom with all its promise unfulfilled.

Three sons, and each in lonely agony killed

Far from the home they loved and fought to save

From the embattled evil that had willed

Their land’s destruction—one upon the wave;

One, in the desert; and one, in the air.


And now the father and mother in despair,

Still parents, though parents only of the dead,

Gaze more intently at the fire; and there

In its now flameless core of glowing red

They see their eldest, David, in the night

Of mid-Atlantic over the threshing white

Wake of The Petrel keeping the lookout;

When suddenly overhead is heard a flight

Of bombers; and, as he turns and with a shout

Signals the bridge, lit with a hellish flare

They see his face . . .

Then, in the desert-glare

At an outflanked outpost, now their second son,

Ronald, with imperturbable nonchalant air

Fires the last shell from the sole unshattered gun,

And turns towards them smiling . . .

Then in a blue sky

Above the North Sea they see Philip fly,

To tackle an enemy fighter; when a burst

Of gunfire smashes the cockpit, and helplessly

His craft dives, blazing . . .

But now neither durst

Meet the stark anguish of his eyes; and so

A moment they shut their own to the dying glow,

While the ultimate horror searches their very souls.


And then the father rises and with a slow

And shaking hand stirs up the blackening coals:

When in the dancing flames again they see

Their three sons, children playing happily

Among the breakers of the Atlantic shore;

And know such bliss, once theirs, could never be

Taken from them even by the terrors of war.

The Kites

Waking at last from interminable nightmare,

Supine upon the sand—the redhot dreams

Of endless furnace-feeding, in which he fed

Himself on a glowing shovel into the red

And roaring mouth that gaped in his own head—

He sees a hovering speck in the blue glare

Of desert sky, a hovering speck that seems

At first to him to be a lonely plane.

But, when with blinking eyes he looks again,

He knows it for a solitary kite

Hanging on tireless wing in the hot sky,

Awaiting patiently the end. And now

In slow succession stringing one by one

About it gathers an unending flight

Of birds, until dark plumes shut out the sun;

And, as he lies there, through his burning brow

The fierce eyes seem to pierce his very brain,

As, slowly wheeling lower, the flock swings

Over him and he hears the flap of wings

And a harsh jangle of sharp yelping cries . . .


And now he sees again with grateful eyes

His old dale-village in the sunset-glow

Beneath its sheltering scarp of heathered fell;

While in his ear there rings the pleasant bell

Calling to evening-service, as in slow

And gossiping groups the usual dalefolk go

Towards the little church on its green hill—

The little church among its ragged firs

That over the green-mounded graveyard throw

Their sleepy shadow as the light wind stirs

Their branches with soft rustling. Then, as the breeze

Fails, with boles gleaming red the ancient trees,

Dark-plumed, above the graveyard now stand still—

The graveyard where in peace his fathers lie,

And where for years he, too, unquestioningly

Had looked to share their quiet company.

Then, as the bell stops, gradually the light

Dies, and with heavy closing cloud the night

Shuts down on the narrow dale; and soon the snow

Falls quietly and covers all below

With white serenity; falls and falls until

In one vast cold oblivion valley and hill

Are merged; and in the laggard chill sunrise

Still slumber on . . .

And under that white pall

It seems, too, that his homing spirit lies

Beside his sleeping fathers, after all.

The Canteen

Smoothing with pocket-combs their towselled hair,

The girls flock chattering into the canteen,

Released awhile from the workshop’s racket and glare

And their strict servitude to the machine

That with its arrogant precision binds,

As slick hands keep the inflexible routine

Of dull monotonous motions, their young minds

In an exacting bondage. And, as they take

Their places at the table, Nelly finds

Herself among a group of friends who break

Into shrill tittering gossip, although she

Can scarcely even manage to keep awake.

Wornout with unaccustomed drudgery,

She swallows unregardingly the meal

That now is set before her; and drowsily

Listens unheeding to the gabble and squeal,

That all at once comes to a welcome pause

As through the canteen’s hubbub slowly steal

The strains of music: when with munching jaws

And eyes fixed on the platform the girls sit,

Breaking at times into boisterous applause

To greet or encore an old favourite

Performer. But soon Nelly falls asleep;

And in her ear the humour and cheap wit

And the sentiment that makes her neighbour weep

With facile tears and snufflings sound in vain . . .


While on the green top of a craggy steep

Above the sea she sits with Dick again

Watching a snowy dazzling dithering flight

Of gulls that follow in the unseen train

Of a herring-shoal within the tide—the light

Glancing and glinting on their flashing wings.

And, as she gazes at those flickering white

Pinions, her heart within her bosom sings

A song of love for which there are no words—

A song that pealing through the clear air rings

Over the ruffling waves that foam like curds.

And, as, in dream, her love-enraptured eyes

Follow the ever-shifting flight of birds

Who on light breezes fluttering fall and rise,

In panic she is suddenly aware

Of fear; and in her bosom the song dies

As, glancing down, she finds in sharp despair

That she is sitting on the turf alone;

And Dick, who but a moment since was there,

Has vanished: and, now mute and cold as stone

Her heart lies in her breast as, still in dream,

She knows that he is fighting . . .

With a moan

She wakes as, thronging towards the canteen door,

The girls about her in shrill chorus scream

The songs their fathers sang in the last war.

The Curlew

Deadbeat at length he sank among the ling

Under the felltop in the morning light,

He, who since midnight had been travelling,

Whither, he scarcely knew—just trudging on

Blindly, with baffled wits, through the black night

Of utter desolation, with no thought

Save only that for him his all was gone,

Gone up in smoke and flaring fury, caught

In the worldwide conflagration.


The morning broke about him as the stars

Paled in the clear dawn over Kestrel Scars

Whose jagged crags reared stark against the red

Flush of the sunrise.

And, watching, in his head

Again those flames raged, roaring—those hellfires

That leapt last night above the city spires

And seemed to scorch the very sky until

It glowed as ruddy as the lid of hell.


And now across the greening miles of fell

There came far flute-notes, rippling rich and clear;

And, as their music quickened in his ear,

He dropt back into boyhood and again

Heard curlew calling through the April rain

As he so often over heath and hill

Had heard them with a swift responsive thrill

That fired his spirit to a wild delight

Of expectation of what life might still

Hold for his winning in the beckoning bright

Future . . . What life might hold! life, that last night

Collapsed for him in fiery ash . . .

Once more

Through hurtling fire-bombs and the havoc and roar

He stumbles through the streets, hoping to reach

His home and be with his own family;

When, coming within sight of his own door,

He hears in that hell-night a wilder screech

And then a shattering burst . . . And now can see

Only a belching crater, deep and black,

Where once had stood his home; and frenziedly

He rushes towards it; but hands hold him back,

A raging madman . . .

And then dazedly

He finds himself just traipsing on and on

From street to burning street, scorched by the glare

And deafened by the uproar, and in his head

Only the thought that everything is gone—

Just traipsing on; not going anywhere,

It seems, until he finds he has left behind

The city, and has stumbled, stunned and blind,

Back to the hills of boyhood’s memory.

“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills” the words

Drift healingly through his mind as once more he

Lies in the heather of his native fells,

Lies listening to the long-familiar birds

As they wing nearer down a rushy slack:

And, as still clearer the liquid piping wells

Rippling from long curved bills enchantingly,

Into his mind yet other words come back—

“The voices of the wind and of the sea

And of the curlew are the oldest voices

In all the world.” And, though his heart rejoices

No more, in its despair, even to hear

Those flute-notes; yet into his bosom steals

A calmer mood, reflecting how time heals

The wounds of time; and, when the war shall cease

And the world wearily lapse into peace,

And when by land or sea or air no more

The fury of destruction and the roar

Of devastation rack men’s souls with fear,

Though he in death alone may win release,

The ancient voices shall bring solace still

To wounded spirits; and over heath and hill

Through twilit dews of dawn and evenfall

Boys’ hearts shall thrill to hear the curlew call.

The Fuse

Crouched by the uncoiled fuse, the last man left

Within the fallen town, in a dark cell

Beneath the ruins of the citadel

He awaits through what seems an eternity

The occupation of the enemy—

A naked soul, of hope and fear bereft,

A smokeless flame that burns with one desire,

To hurl to hell in one last blast of fire

The greatest number of his country’s foes,

A sacrifice to all his friends who fell

Beside him in the last assault, and those,

Nearer and dearer, trapt by treacheries

And done to death by these same enemies

Before the war, when bands of raiders stole

Across the frontier. And, as he breathes the name

Dearest of all, still fiercer burns the flame

Of vengeance in his stark unflinching soul.


And now those conquering hordes as in a spell

Of aching tension he awaits, half-dazed

By the dense silence that has settled down

So strangely on the long-beleaguered town

Since midnight when the twelvemonth seige was raised

And, all the ammunition petered out,

The enemy destroyed the last redoubt

And brought the staunch resistance to a close—

Silence so strange after those battering days

And the inferno of those blasting nights

That, flaring, fired high heaven with hellish lights,

Silence so strange . . .

Silence so strange . . .And in that silence he,

Without relaxing his taut vigilance

An instant, is beset by memory,

Kindling his mind to flame-bright and intense

Visions of earlier days.

Again he sees

The housedoor flapping in the morning breeze,

Unheeded, while his mother, dry-eyed, bends

Over his father’s body stretched in death

On his own hearthstone, by the enemy

His son awaits now, murdered callously

Because he still refused to serve their ends

By turning traitor to his native land . . .

Again he feels his mother’s sobbing breath

Fanning his heart to fury . . .

Then, older now,

A quarryman, who, having fired the fuse

To blast the hanging rockface, quickly turns

To run for safety, he sees Gerda stand,

Bright in the April brilliance that burns

To flame straw-coloured tresses, on the brow

Of a far foothill with her flock of sheep

That crop the greensward silvered yet with dews.

She stands there dreaming, maybe, of the day

They are to wed; when up the grassy steep

A mob of soldiers swarms, and, seizing her,

Carries her struggling down the rocky way

Over the frontier, before he can stir

To rescue her, although he frantically

Plunges into the river’s swollen spate

That swirls between them . . .

For an instant he

Again feels those cold waters close with him

As, caught within their coil, he tries to swim

Against the snowfed torrent’s force in vain:

Till, snatching at a hanging bough, too late,

He scrambles to the bank, too late, too late!


And now his heart of ice is burned again

To a hot coal of murderous desire,

A smokeless fury of avenging fire,

Love’s desolated heart consumed by hate,

As, overhead, he hears the muffled beat

Of soldiers marching down the Market Street;

And then a halt, as, at a raucous shout,

Grounding their arms, they hastily fall out

To search the ruined citadel: and he

Ignites the fatal fuse deliberately.

The Darner

Beside the depot window all the day

She sits, a bent old woman, gaunt and grey,

Darning the socks until the steely gleam

Of sunlight on the needle, in her eyes

Glancing, begins to slowly hypnotise

Her tired mind. And now, as in a dream,

She sees an endless khaki-coloured stream

Of soldiers marching, and the insistant beat

Of multitudinous dogged slogging feet

Monotonously thudding stuns her ears,

Until it seems her own exhausted brain

Is a long dusty road down which that train

Of soldiers marches to unending war—

Soldiers who have worn these socks to rags, and who

May wear them when they have been darned anew,

If they from battle should return. And now,

Shaking the grey locks from her wrinkled brow,

Her dark eyes strained with grief too tense for tears,

She thinks of her own grandsons, for whom she

Had knitted warm socks so industriously,

And now will need to knit or darn no more.


And once again within her head the beat

The neverending thud of young men’s feet

Still marching on to meet unflinchingly

An unknown but imperious destiny

Resounds, as she bends lower in her chair

Over her work, and even more carefully

She darns the socks that other lads shall wear.

The Hill Farm

As he limped home again with riddled tank

And engine firing-short from the night-raid,

He had to bail out quickly as he crossed

The Pennines in thick cloud: and, as he sank,

Borne by his parachute that swung and swayed

With every gust, through the thick vapour-bank

That closed about his body, chill and dank,

It seemed to him that he was like a lost

Soul drifting through oblivion with the glare

Of hellfire, just escaped, still in his eyes.

For still he saw that enemy city flare

Beneath the bomb-loads screaming through the air

That, bursting, seemed to blast the very skies.


And now he wondered where he would come to earth—

Hardly a happy landing it would be,

Unless his luck changed! For already he

Had heard his craft crash on the crags. A shame

It had to go! But he was not to blame!

And, anyhow, they had had their money’s worth

Of dropping death upon the enemy,

The people who had paid for it.

Yet, too bad

’Twould be, should he crash, too, and smash his bones

Upon a felltop pike of jagged stones

Where only the raven or the corbie-crow

Likely would ever find him—though he had had

Not such a lousy time of it, as things go

In these days.

Now the cloud thins, and he hears

A bleating far beneath him, to his ears,

Hillborn, himself, a homely sound and sweet.

More rapidly he drops, till suddenly

He feels a moving mass beneath his feet

And, sprawling on wet fleeces, finds that he

Has landed slap into a flock of ewes,

The little horned blackfaces, that hastily

Across the felltop, bleating out the news,

Scatter, as now he struggles up, to free

His shoulders from the harness; and languidly

The parachute subsides into a brake

Of rusty bracken webbed with silver dews.


Now in the raw-edged morning, free to take

What road he will, he stands and looks around,

While in his ear he hears the welcome sound

Of brown burns tumbling down from the hill-moss.

He stands there, gazing, somewhat at a loss

Which way to turn. For he at first can spy

No dwelling within sight. But presently

His ranging eyes light on a house of stone

That stands stark on the naked fell alone

Beside a wind-wried solitary tree,

An ash, by its sparse leafage, seemingly.

So he sets off towards it, stumbling through

The heavy bents and splashing up the dew

At every step; and slowly blunders on,

Lightheaded with fatigue; yet with an edge

On his sharpset appetite that serves to keep

Him for the time from sinking down to sleep;

Until at length he scrambles over a ledge

Behind the house and sees at the backdoor

A grey old shepherd, lank and quiet-eyed,

Who, as he nears the threshold, steps aside,

That he may enter; yet without a word

Or question to this stranger who at dawn,

And, seemingly, a hungry early bird,

Has suddenly dropt on them from the moor.


Now, coming into the kitchen’s friendly glow

Where on the open hearthstone dry peat burns,

He sees an old wife stooping over a pan

Of frizzling rashers whose savour sharper whets

His hunger. Then, as the old woman turns,

She pauses a moment with astonished stare

To see a stranger accompany her good man.

But, without speaking, now she quietly sets

The Sunday dish of bacon on the bare

Deal table, scrubbed almost as white as snow.

And then the airman notes his host has drawn

A chair up for him, also: and down they sit

To eat, without a word, save now and then

When the old shepherd offers a polite

Remark about the weather or the crops.


And, as the stranger looks round that firelit

And quiet kitchen, his heart almost stops,

To think he may have really died last night

And dropt into an afterworld that knows

No rumour even of a world at war—

The old mad world where men still fight with men

As it collapses round them in death-throes—

To think he may at last have earned release

From service, and be left to live in peace

Among these hills . . . And, seeing again the pyres

Of that demolished city’s funeral fires,

Half hopes he need return to life no more.

In the Cafe Royal

Alone in the Café Royal, among a crowd

Of service men on leave, the painter broods,

His mind plunged in the blackest of black moods;

And hardly hears the chatter and the loud

Laughter of men released from discipline

For a brief while, with leisure to recall

There are other things than fighting, after all:

Though they by brutal means alone can win

The desperate fight against brutality,

Destroying the destroyer, that life can yet

Yield moments of delight, if they forget

Even for an instant the compulsory

Business of dealing, and of defying, death.


Among the servicemen, himself too old

For service; and yet unable to keep hold

Of the urgency that was his very breath

And being, in a universe obsessed

With a passion for destruction and in days

When death blasts every land and all life’s ways

Are blocked with ruin, he mourns for the old zest

Of effortless creation that no more takes

Possession of his spirit, although his will

May keep him drudging at his easel still,

Habitually daubing.

And now he wakes

Suddenly from his brooding as the sound

Of a lively voice beside him pierces through

His glum abstraction; and he stirs anew

To life, as, startled, he turns quickly round

And sees a youth with face deep-scarred by war

And yet alight with eagerness: and he,

On the white tablecloth soon happily

Pencilling, recovers his old touch once more.

The Floe

When coming to in the middle of the night,

He sees the ceiling even in that vague light

Gleam with a hard cold and unfriendly white

That sears sore eyes, it seems the Arctic snow

Is all about him yet—that on the floe

He is still adrift, and evermore shall know

Only this Winter world of ice-choked sea;

That, derelict, throughout eternity,

Beneath snow-mantled bergs stretched helplessly

In a frigid stupor under an icy sky

He, for his sins, has been condemned to lie,

Half-corpse, and yet, half-conscious, while gradually

His limbs congeal to ice, in numb amaze

That he who, since a lad, has spent his days

Feeding the hunger of that hellfire blaze,

Half-naked in the stokehold’s swelter and glare,

Alone on an icefloe with a polar-bear

Should end!

And now once more he seems aware

Of that great furry bulk that to and fro

Shambles and shuffles through the creaking snow,

Marooned with him on the famishing foodless floe,

Half-frightened and half-angry; and once more

He hears those grunts and growls.

The chance of war!

A chance he had little guessed time held in store

For him, when with his shovel he had fed

The roaring and insatiable red

Ravening of the furnace—to lie dead,

Maybe, by that dead brute—an odd chance, ay!


Heaving the heavy coal incessantly

Into that glowing hellmouth, feverishly

Clutching the shovel with a desperate grip,

Once more he sweats and swears, while the doomed ship

Through midnight Northern seas on her last trip

Shoulders and shoves . . . a shattering shock . . . a bell

Dinning and dinning . . . Then, how, he cannot tell,

He finds that he has scrambled out of that hell

Of cateracting cinders, by a neck

Winning the race with death, and on the deck

Hangs for an instant as the heeling wreck

Settles, and plunges him into the black

And swallowing swirl . . .

And now once more he is back

Where all about him icebergs split and crack

With eldritch yelling, back with that old bear

Adrift on the floe: though how he clambered there,

The Lord alone knows! And yet, anywhere

Seems better to him than that blazing hold

Or those devouring deeps—back with that old

Growler and grunter; though, likely enough, the cold

Will quickly finish the business begun

And bungled by fire and water. It’s poor fun

For death, it seems, to quit a game, unwon—

Death, always a bad loser!

And now his eyes,

Still staring up, begin to realise

With slow and half-incredulous surprise

The ceiling is a ceiling, indeed, and no

Mere overhanging cornice of frozen snow:

And, as the blood of life begins to flow

More strongly in his veins, at length aware

He has been rescued, he lies dreaming there

And wonders what became of that old bear.

The Recluse

Disgust at the folly of his fellowmen,

Their selfishness and levity, had fired

At first his youthful heart to anger. Then,

As the years passed and he grew bitter and old,

Cheated of all it fervently desired,

His heart within his breast turned hard and cold;

And, calloused in austere indifference,

From commerce with his fellows he retired

Within himself: and in his house that stood

Hid in the fastness of an ancient wood

He dwelt alone: and only issued thence

Now and again to buy necessities—

Content with the companionship of trees

That, though in the struggle for existence each

Contended with his neighbours, beech with beech,

Thrusting out roots and branches for more space

To spread themselves, unlike the human race,

In an unconscious undeliberate

Selfishness lived, rejecting no ideal

Of love and knowing neither scorn nor hate.


Thus, when on some unwelcome errand he

Must venture into town, it seemed to him

The folk who thronged the noisy thoroughfares

With silly smirking faces, or, dour and grim,

Led by illusion or obsessed with cares,

Lived out their whole existence in an unreal

And topsy-turvy world of fantasy:

And, with relief, to their futility

He left them, and returned to live at ease

With the unhurrying, unimpassioned trees.


So, even when he chanced to hear that war

Had broken out, it only seemed one more

Instance of man’s outrageous lunacy;

And he resolved to take no part, but leave

Them in their foolish frenzy to the blind

And witless work of murdering their own kind;

And though his sleep was broken in the night

By aircraft ranging with peace-shattering flight,

Above his woodland home, while he must grieve

To think man’s war should violate the fair

Virginal innocence of the free air,

He still felt no desire to join the fight.


Yet, when one dusk he saw the heavens flare

With a pulsating flush of angry light,

And from the distant town heard thud on thud

Of bombs exploding, suddenly his cold blood

Was fired with a strange restlessness. So, ere day,

Still half-reluctantly, he took his way

Towards the city. But, even when he came

Into those streets destroyed by blast and flame,

He still felt something of his old scorn, to see

How man to man brought ruin and misery.


And then his eyes were drawn towards a crowd

About a shattered house, where in a cloud

Of smoke and dust men toiled with fire-scorched hair

And blackened faces—toiled, as in despair

Of rescuing the trapt family who lay

Helpless beneath the rafters and the rubble

Of their crashed home. And, looking on those drawn

And haggard faces in the light of dawn,

His heart was suddenly shaken by a trouble

Of fiery compassion as he gazed;

And, on an instant impulse, undismayed

By the risk of walls collapsing, from a dazed

Exhausted labourer he seized a spade.

The Enemy

Going at dawn to carry up the glen

Provisions for the partisans, she sees

On the hillside a crumpled parachute

Caught in the branches of the hanging trees,

And, lying underneath at the cragfoot,

A huddled body in the enemy’s

Uniform dressed. With quicker step she makes

Towards it through rank grass and brambled brakes,

Soaking her skirt with chilly splashing dew:

Relieved to think that yet another foe

Has met his death before he had time to do

Much mischief, shot down, likely, by the men

Who guard the mountain-pass, and glad to know

One enemy less is left to land and loot

And burn and devastate the countryside.


But, reaching him and from a nearby stone

Scaring a watchful raven, with surprise

She finds he is not dead, although he lies,

A huddle of broken bones, with eyes set wide

In witless stare. For, as she stoops down low

By him, she hears a breathing, heavy and slow,

While twisted lips keep up a muttering,

Repeating over and over an unknown word.

And, shooing off again the hungry bird,

She wonders what it means, that senseless moan.


Standing erect, at him she gazes down

With hard unpitying eyes, remembering all

The sorrow and unspeakable suffering

His kind have brought to her—her husband slain

And her young son, too—and what would befall

Her country if the enemy should win

And all the heroic resistance prove in vain—

Village on village and town after town

Going up in flame, and men and women shot

In cold blood, ranged against a blackened wall,

All of their ravaged homesteads to remain,

Old broken men and women whose only sin

Was to defend their hearths and from the lot

That had already befallen other lands

To try and save their fields, and from the hands

Of brutal soldiers shield their children’s lives.

And, as she thinks of all the many wives

Like her already widowed, she stands there

Regarding him with unrelenting stare,

While in her ear that strange word sounds again

Over and over in a weak refrain,

That unknown word: and yet, she well can guess

Its meaning . . . Ay, but he may die of thirst,

For all she cares, and perish in distress

Without her minding—ay, the devil may die . . .

Then, while she gazes at him, suddenly

As dawnlight glances in his wide blue eyes,

It seems to her it is her own boy who lies

Broken and with the death-sweat on his brow,

Pleading to her in his last agony,

Pleading to her . . . And, in an instant burst

Of pity, she stoops down again, and sets

The waterbottle to his lips and wets

His parching tongue and throat. And quickly now

He stops his anguished mutter when the fresh

Wellwater touches his hot fevered flesh

And, spilling, trickles over his young breast;

And, like a tired lad, he turns to rest

As life goes from him with an easy sigh.

The Abbey Tower

On the parapet of the crenellated tower

He leans, fire-watching in the Summer night:

And, as with clear reverberating chimes

The clock below prepares to strike the hour

Of midnight, he recalls the far off times

When his forefathers from this very height

Kept watch for other enemies, the bands

Of Scottish reivers, bearing fiery brands,

Descending to maraud the market-town;

Hoping to ford the river Tyne and raid

Its merchant-riches and to batter down

The Abbey gates and pillage the Abbot’s store,

Putting all to sack and slaughter. And he once more

Recalls how in an even earlier age

When the town was threatened by the heathen rage

Of Northern hordes all night Saint Wilfrid prayed

Among his monks, invoking the swift aid

Of God to thwart the invaders; when suddenly

The valley of the Tyne was filled with blind

White mist in which the baffled Norsemen strayed

Nightlong in scattered bands that failed to find

A ford; and how next day the river came down

In spate and barred all access to the town.

And now he muses, wondering if, maybe,

Over the town he loved in days gone by

Saint Wilfrid’s spirit hovers protectingly

To shield it from the foreign foes who fly

Threatening it with destruction from the sky.

The Bells

The bells burst out in a rejoicing peal—

The bells that have been mute for two long years;

And at that sudden clangour her senses reel

As, leaning on her garden-gate, she hears

Those senseless bells that ring for victory,

For victory in Libya. And, dimmed by tears,

Although her troubled eyes no longer see

The pale November sun through the crisp air

Glinting on russet leaves that quietly

Fall from the churchyard-beeches, on the glare

Of torrid wastes of blazing desert sand

In a heart-searing agony they stare.


The land of victory—for her, the land

That holds her heart’s defeat, where life lies dead

For her with him she loved, whose supple hand

No more shall slide the rope, while overhead

His well-loved tenor bell keeps tune and time

In the village peal, as in the days now fled,

Days that in her young heart kept up a chime

Of happiness until the threatened pain

Of parting jangled all. Now, like a rhyme,

A witless rhyme that beats a dull refrain,

While still she stares across the glaring sand,

She hears his bell again and yet again

Sound in the peal, rung by another’s hand—

Still blind to the frosty light that pleasantly

Gilds wood and field of their familiar land

With Autumn glory—until no longer she

The burden of victorious bells can bear;

And turns, with fingers in ears, and hastily

Enters the house and stumbles up the stair.

The Fire-Fighter

He had always dreaded fire, or, fire, at least,

Escaped the hearth, that in a twinkling turned

From friend to fiend and, ravening like a beast,

Devoured men’s homes in one ferocious feast

With fangs of flame. And now the whole world burned.


In one vast conflagration all the world

That he throughout his life with love had known

In all its beauty and terror now was hurled

Into destruction’s pit of fire, and whirled

In ashes on the wind of fury blown

Up to the unheeding heavens, to which in vain

Men looked for help, to see in stunned amaze

No merciful release of quenching rain,

But only hordes of hate that in insane

Delirium added fuel to the blaze.


He had always dreaded fire. And now each night,

Not only spiritual fire that burns the mind,

But actual flames he and his mates must fight

With hatchet and hose in hell’s own heat and light

With desperate hearts, choked lungs, and eyes, half-blind

That smart with smoke and scalding steam, to save

The homes of men.

And, even as he lies in

His bath’s cool peace, once more the fierce flames rave

About him, and wave after blasting wave

Sweeps through his head with crackle roar and din . . .


And then in numb fatigue he seems to stand

Once more beside the embers in the dawn,

A trickling hose still in his blistered hand,

Among that hapless hopeless little band

Of homeless men and women, with faces drawn

And empty lightless eyes that stare and stare

On the red smouldering ruin of their lives,

All that through years of ceaseless worry and care

They had managed to gather together, in dumb despair—

Labour-scarred husbands and work-weary wives

With their bewildered children in the rain.


He had dreaded fire. And now in his soul the roar

Raves; and he knows that pity for the pain

Of those poor mortals who have toiled in vain

Must still consume his heart for evermore.

The Last Shift

The gate clangs and the nightshift cage descends;

And, with eyes closed against the dust and grit

That swirl up in the draught, into the pit

Once more he drops, he, with his boyhood’s friends,

Old mates and cronies now this many a year,

Packed close about him; and thinking, too, maybe,

Of their sons serving in the war, as he,

Of his own lad. For, as they drop down sheer,

Down, down and down, a thousand feet or more,

Down, down and down and down into the black

And tortuous entrails of the earth, young Jack,

A pilot since the outbreak of the war,

Happen, even now, is climbing three miles high

Or thrice three miles, up, up into the rare

And icy upper reaches of the air,

Up, up and up into the brilliant night

To tackle enemy squadrons, bearing down

To pound with death some sleepy English town—

Jack, soaring through thin air in flashing flight,

As into the thick closeness of the earth

His father drops, to work nightlong and hew

The coal. Jack, fighting . . .

Yet, maybe, it’s true

His own work, too, is fighting: for a dearth

Of fuel for the machines, without a doubt,

Would lose the war for us. Ay, sure enough,

Even planes could never soar unless the stuff,

Metal, and coal to smelt it, were dug out

Of earth’s black bowels by such men as he,

The miner-sons of miners, who know the trick

Of handling tools, cutter and wedge and pick,

Almost by instinct.

And now suddenly

At the shaft-foot the cage stops with a jerk

Beside the lamproom, and he takes his lamp,

Burnished and newly-tested against blackdamp;

Then mounts a tub to rattle to his work

Over the jolting trolley-rails and ride

Six miles or so along a gallery,

Long stript of coal, to where, beneath the sea,

Still richly-loaded measures run—the tide

Sweeping and surging in a welter of white

Far overhead, the island-circling deep

Where restless trawlers and destroyers keep

Unwinking watch throughout the livelong night . . .

And, over them, the sky where, full of pluck,

Jack fights!

Nay, he must not let his mind run

On suchlike thoughts! Jack is their only son;

But Jack, as other men must take his luck.

And, even in the pit. . . Where should he be,

Himself, if he let his thoughts loose, sniffing all

The risks, the hundred things that might befall?

Life, at the best, was chancey: though, certainly,

War has increased the hazards: and even his wife,

Lying now snug in bed, God knows what might

Drop down on her from out of the clear night!

But he could not let his thoughts . . . And such was life

For all of us in these days; everywhere

Folk faced such hazards, knowing that each breath

Might be their last: ay, all hobnobbed with death,

Hail-fellow-well-met! by sea or land or air.


’Twas strange to-night, though, how his thoughts had run

On dangers. Ay, and reaching the pithead,

He had felt like turning back again, instead

Of stepping into the cage as he had done

So often without giving it a thought,

As if he fancied he might break his neck!

And, taking his lamp and handing in his check

To the lampman, old Dick Dodd, he had even caught

Himself out, muttering “So long!” to him,

As though he would not see his old mug again,

Or cared much if he didn’t! It was plain,

Plain as Dick’s mug—and that was something grim—

His wits . . .

His wife slept snug—Jack, overhead,

A red-haired guardian angel on the alert!

And, likely enough, neither would come to hurt

To-night: and in the morning from her bed

His wife would rise as usual. For no wars

Could keep down Susan, always game and gay

To get things done. Even the Judgement Day

Would likely find her singing at her chores.

Ay, she would rise as usual to prepare

His breakfast and his tub and set things straight,

Against his coming. She was never late;

And he would always find things fair and square

On his return from the pit.

And, as for Jack—

His folk had been pitfolk time out of mind;

And it took something special to down that kind

Or get them windy, even when things looked black.

Hazard was in their blood. They lived on risk,

And relished it, or, took it as it came.


And now he hears somebody shout his name

Above the racket of the tubs; and brisk

And sharp he turns to answer an old jest—

He, always more than a match for anyone

When it came to ragging—while the trucks still run

Through the low dripping dusk, to come to rest,

Reaching their journey’s end, with squealing brakes.

Then, nimbler yet than any, down he leaps;

And, scrambling over rocks and coaldust heaps,

And splashing through black puddles, now he takes

His way yet further alone the narrow seam;

Stooping yet lower as the roof slopes down,

Rock-studded, threatening to crack his crown,

For all his leather cap; and wades a stream

That trickles from a rift in the coal-face.

Then, nigh on hands and knees, ’twixt closing walls

Into a three-foot seam he slowly crawls

And by his own coalcutter takes his place.


Crouched all night long, he works with aching bones,

Half-blind with dust and sweat: while all around

He hears the pit “talk” as the stresses shift

And cutters grinding with harsh rasping sound,

While now and then a rattle of falling stones

Strikes sharply in his ear. Throughout the night

His thoughts are with his folk—his wife, asleep,

He trusts, in well-earned slumber, snug and deep;

And Jack, above the clouds in reckless flight.

All night he works till, as the shift at last

Draws to an end, the cutter jams; and now,

Stopping to wipe a trickle from his brow,

He hears a long low rumble down the drift

That thunders nearer and nearer . . . Roof and walls

Heave all about him, cracking . . . Blast on blast

Shatters his world for him . . . till gradually

A dreadful quiet settles; and, by falls

Of rock cut off from life, he finds himself,

Together with his old mates, Bill and Joe,

Half-stifled, blind and dazed, as they crouch low,

Huddled in darkness on a narrow shelf.


Speechless they crouch through an eternity;

Then, chuckling brokenly, he mutters “Come, Bill,

Let’s clear our throats and turn a tune, until

They find us—and you, Joe! What shall it be?

Come, lads, pipe up! And, happen, they may hear,

And reach us easier.” Huskily, “The Keel Row”

He starts; then, shyly joined by Bill and Joe,

His voice through the hot dark rings true and clear.

All Souls Eve

Watching her lonely hearthfire dully burn,

On All Souls Eve she sits with haunted eyes.

Then, taking up her work again, she sighs

“If it were only true that they return—

If it were only true!” And, as she sews,

Her needle, twinkling briskly to and fro,

Keeps her mind busy for a while, although

Her heart within her widowed bosom knows

No solace or surcease from grief, but yearns

Again to hear him speak her name and see

Him smiling at her, half-amusedly,

Because of her concern with his concerns.


The fire burns clearer; but still quietly

She keeps on sewing, till her needle stops,

And from her lap the snowy linen drops

Suddenly as a flame shoots suddenly

Out of the crackling coal with a red flare,

Dazzling her eyes; and, searched with hope and fear,

Her heart now quivers, fluttering, to hear

A ghostly rustle close behind her chair.


Yet, knowing her desire has been fulfilled,

She sits transfixed and dare not turn her head,

Afraid to meet the anguish of the dead

Eyes of her love, in bloody battle killed.

The Wild Swans

He stands beside a Highland firth in dream

Watching the first rays touch with kindling gleam

The salty ripples, as the laggard sun,

Nigh to the shadowing ben-tops having won,

Over the saddles of the Eastward hills

Glances and then extravagantly spills

His spendthrift gold across the flooding tide.

And now into the quivering radiance glide

Swans, convoying their cygnets, with curved white

Wings arched above their backs as in the light

They sweep in circles, with a wary eye

For hawks and gulls that hover in the sky;

While those buff balls of fluffy innocence

Venture unconscious into the immense

Dangers of sea and sky, without a care,

Bobbing and cheeping, even unaware

Of their proud parents’ vigilance. With eyes

On the lively brood, and hearing their eager cries,

The lad on leave, after Dunkirk, recalls

His own young days when, even as those downy balls

Of innocent curiosity, he, too,

Launched on these very waters, and scarcely knew

Of any hazard, or cared—so he might float

Through shower and sunshine in his little boat

All the unending Northern Summer day

That only for a few short hours makes way

To twilight—in his boat that buoyantly

Bore him so bravely out upon the sea

Of life’s adventure, life, that in those years

Of boyhood, still unshadowed by war’s fears,

Had seemed to promise all desired delight

While he, scarce conscious how by day and night

The watchful eyes of love that never slept

About his way a constant vigil kept,

Sailed on . . . his boat . . .

And now he sees once more

Another boat that from another shore

Bears him by sandy spits and tricky shoals,

One of the troops of battle-weary souls,

Barely escaped from hell, beneath a sky

Wherein above them still the hell-hawks fly

And swoop in pouncing death . . .

Then he recalls

How, a defeated remnant, from the walls

Of a devastated city they marched out,

By overwhelming forces put to rout,

And struggled towards the low unsheltered coast

Hardpressed by a triumphant armoured host.

Now he can hear again the hammerbeat

Of boots that clatter through the long retreat

On the hard road that leads towards the sea—

Clat-clatter day and night, till suddenly

They stumble in eerie silence through deep sand.

And now again he waits on that bare strand,

With his packed comrades waits, night after night,

Day after day, beneath a dinning flight

Of craft that deluge death or rake the ranks

With fire . . . While out beyond the low seabanks

The little boats of England pitch and toss

On the groundswell, summoned hastily to cross

The enemy-infested seas, to reach

And rescue England’s sons from Hell’s own beach,

He awaits his turn until he, too, may wade

Neckdeep in the cold tide, where, undismayed

By low dive-bombers hurling down their hate,

In their small craft the eager seamen wait

To haul him safe aboard . . .

And so once more

He stands alive on the loved rockbound shore

Of his familiar firth—again a boy

For a brief while sharing the innocent joy

Of those young cygnets in adventuring,

Regardless of the ever-hovering wing

Of death, into the world of Spring’s delight—

For a brief while, until again to fight

Duty recalls him . . . to his death, maybe . . .

Yet, fate has spared him once . . .

And on the sea

The vigilant swans still circle restlessly

Guarding their brood . . .

Guarding their brood . . .to death, maybe . . .

to death, maybe . . .And yet,

In the hour of doom England did not forget.

The Harvest

He looked across the full-eared stand of wheat

Ambered for harvest, in stiff ranks arrayed

In the still light like soldiers on parade;

And thanked his stars it was his job to defeat

The ravaging armies of the enemy

And bring to naught the menace of blockade

By U-boats slinking through the encircling sea.

For he, at least, could follow his own trade

In wartime, even, and serve his country best

By raising up the stuff of life, instead

Of trafficking with death. Assuredly

A godlike task was this of his, to see

That folk each day should have their daily bread!

And he was only called to stand the test

Of labour, labour that he loved, and fight

No foe but those whose every trick he knew

Of old, the weather and disease and pest.

And this year even the weather had seemed a friend

Set only on seeing the harvest safely through,

Working with him to bring a golden end

To his endeavours.

In the evening light

The ripe ears rustled as a brief breath stirred

Among the straws; and in that rustle he heard

The whispers of foreboding that strenuously

By sheer hard labour he had striven to keep mute

Within his heart; so toiling that each night

He should drop, dog-tired, and sleep sound as a brute,

With no chance left for brooding. For, though he

And three sons had been spared to work the land,

His youngest boy was fighting oversea

Where death reaped harvest from the tank-ploughed sand,

Rich harvest of young lives remorselessly.


And, as he looked across the rippling grain,

He stood on the station-platform once again,

As, from the window of the crowded train,

Getting up speed with fussy puffs, Bill leant

With laughing face and waving cheerily—

Bill, in his thoughtless boyhood, only bent

On following adventure to the end,

And even careless of what that end might be;

Just set on squandering all he had to spend.


To-morrow they would be reaping: even now

Scythes were at work round the edges of each field

Cutting a road for the tractors. A bumper yield

It was like to prove: and next year he must plough

The upper pasture, too, and try to win

Even a heavier crop . . .

And Bill, maybe,

Next year would be back home, or . . .


His ears were filled with a dry grinding din;

And for a while he seemed, himself, to stand

Fighting with Bill in scathing baffling sand . . .

And then, back in his homefields once again,

He stared, unseeing, at the amber grain . . .

A bumper yield—and yet, if Bill should fall,

A bitter barren harvest, after all!

On the Acropolis

He had always hoped to see Greece and to stand

Among the ruins of the Acropolis

And look afar to fabled Salamis,

And watch the Aegean washing on the strand

Of the Homeric legendary coast:

And he was here at last! Yet, little he

Had guessed that with a rifle he should be

Crouched among blocks of marble, while a host

Of bombers swarming overhead lunged down

Death and destruction on his land of dream;

And like a raging devastating stream

In spate the Huns swept on from town to town.


He had always hoped to see Greece and explore

The battlefields of freedom, and to look

On the actual scenes that, brooding over his book,

He had envisaged many times before

Through his imagination in the light

Of poetry. And now life’s irony

Had realised his vision mockingly

And rushed him to his land of dream, to fight,

While the hordes of barbarism menaced all

Its chiselled beauty, blasting with bomb and shell

The marble columns about him; and freedom fell

Stricken and bleeding: and he, too, must fall

In hopeless battle . . .

Louder yet the roar

Closed down on him; and something pierced his brow

With fire . . .

With fire . . .He had always hoped to see . . .

He had always hoped to see . . .And now

He knew that he should leave Greece never more.

The Bomb

He only wished he were well out of it,

Back in his workshop, shaping with his knife

The tiny beasts: for he in army life

Could never be much else than a misfit—

He, with his knack of carving cunning toys

To give delight to little girls and boys.


If only he were back, it would be good

To smell once more the scent of new-cut wood

And even the thick odour of hot glue,

Instead of khaki-dye and the foul stench

As the bombs burst, his men in practice threw

So inexpertly . . .

So inexpertly . . .And now another fell

Short of the target and towards the trench

Rolled unexploded: and, before he well

Could realise what he was after, he

Flung himself down on it as shatteringly

It burst; and perished, cursing with his last breath

The fumbling fools he died to save from death.

The Waterlily

He had best not think of it, but keep his brain

From reckoning the risks. So, as the train

Moves cautiously towards the front, sand-blind,

Across the desert, he recalls to mind

The quietest of memories: and again

Under boughs lustred with fresh-fallen rain

He stands beside the still mid-forest pool

And looks into the leaf-reflecting cool

Green lucency on which a lily lies,

The first to open; while two dragonflies

With emerald glitter in the early light

Flicker above it in a dizzy flight,

Whose restlessness, in its rapidity,

The flower’s pelucid immobility

Had seemed to render even more intense.

And as, in dream, he drinks through every sense

Tranquility from the lily’s light-filled bowl

Of alabaster petals, his troubled soul

Recovers itself; and he regards again,

Unmoved, the destination of the train.

The Break of Day

In the chill Winter break of day they labour, unceasing, to shift

The rubble of splintered slate and stone and the fire-charred wood

Of the cottage by bombers demolished, that, unscathed, for so long has withstood

The sapping of time’s decay, frost’s gnawing and seeping of rain

And the onset of Autumn gales and the Winters that time and again

Have buried it over the lintels, smothered in swirling snowdrift—

Withstood three centuries’ weathering, only at length, after all,

In an instant of swift, unforeseen, calamitous night to fall,

Levelled at last by destruction plunging down out of the sky.


And now, as their lifelong neighbour stoops down with the others, to lift

The blackened rafters whereunder deep-buried the old couple lie

Overwhelmed in the ruins of their home, where unapprehensively they

Had lived for full three score of years contentedly day after day,

His heart is heavy within his old bosom and slowly his strength

Seems to fail from his overstrained sinews. But when, uncovered at length

In the harsh wan icy glimmer of the raw and rime-laden air

Of the haggard white daybreak he sees the broken old bodies lie there

In the ultimate peace together so quietly side by side

He stands with grizzled head bowed. Yet, gradually in his sad heart

Consolation wells up, and he thinks how at least they have died

Unsevered, and knows now there’s nothing that ever can tear them apart.

And, bending over them still, he recalls with slow heart-easing tears

A voice from his boyhood’s memories of the early and untroubled years

And he sees in a vision once more that silver-haired reader stand

By the glittering brass eagle lectern with delicate white lifted hand,

As the Summer sunset brilliance from a Western lancet falls

On the wrinkled old upturned face, and, echoing from the walls,

He hears that silver-clear voice in a tender triumph declare

“And in death they were not divided . . .”

“And in death they were not divided . . .”And now the chill morning air

Quickens to glowing gold about them as they lie there.

The Escape

Out from the fiord with muffled oars the boat

Steals through the merciful bank of fog that holds

The land and sea obscured in smothering folds,

So that no sentry or watcher from the sky,

Waiting to pounce on stooping wings, may spy

Anything on the midnight tide afloat.

And, crouched on the wet thwarts, as though in fear

Those unseen enemies might chance to hear

Their very breathing or the beating of their hearts,

The father and mother with their family

Of sons and daughters, fugitives who flee

The conquerors of their homeland, speak no word,

And tremble when a fog-bewildered bird

Suddenly out of the opacity darts

With startling scream, that seems the actual cry

Of their own tortured spirits. And, when the bank

Treacherously for an eternal instant parts,

And the moon stares down on them from the sky

As though in league with all the devils who fly,

Seeking their prey, they curse the very light

They have rejoiced to see on many a night

Of peacetime silvering the fiord. But dank

And cold the friendly fleece enfolds once more

Their little craft; and, though it seems to chill

Their bodies to the bone, they welcome it

With sharp relief: and, bending to the oar,

Each rower rows on with a sturdier will

Through the white swathes with shimmering moonshine lit.


Then, as night ends, they see a warship loom

Out of the fog; and for a moment it seems

That they have but escaped, to meet their doom

Under its bow and perish in midsea:

And, listening to the younger children’s screams,

The parents almost wish that this might be

The end of their tribulations, and that they

Together, an undivided family,

Might swiftly sink to dream-unhaunted sleep

In the absolute oblivion of the deep.


Yet, as, unfoundered, on the wash the boat

Tosses, and through the mist the break of day

Glimmers, they steer once more upon their way,

Marvelling to find their frail craft still afloat,

With lighter hearts and eyes that hope to see,

Together yet, the country of the free.

The Starry Skies

He walked through a strange countryside at night

Where war-dark windows showed no friendly gleam

Of lamplight or companionable firelight,

While in his ear only a flooded stream

Poured its cold music, as he stumbled on

With heart in denser dark, its last hope gone,

And spirit straying in bewildered blind

Distress, as he turned over and over again,

Over and over and over in his mind

The news the day had brought; until his brain

Was but a channel through which incessantly

Reiterated words of tragedy

Poured even colder than the icy spate

Or snowfed hillborn waters. Then, at length,

He stopt to rest against a farmyard gate,

Breathlessly, to recover his wilting strength;

And, leaning on the steady wooden bars,

Lifted his eyes and suddenly saw the stars.


He saw the stars with strangely dazzled sight

As though for the first time, as if his eyes

Never before had kindled to those bright

Celestial scintillations in the skies

Of earlier Decembers. And now he knew

’Twas not his own eyes that he saw them through

But John’s—John’s eyes that never would quicken again

To see stars sparkling in the icy air—

John’s, as a boy . . .

John’s, as a boy . . .And now in that dark lane

On that old Christmas Eve with hoarfrost fair,

John’s fingers warmly clasping his lefthand

In tense delight, once more he seems to stand

And hear again those shrill excited cries

Ring in his ear, as, when, for the first time

The baby-boy looked on the starry skies

Glittering over a world of frosty rime . . .


And even now his dead son seems to be

Beside him, staring in tranced ecstasy.

The Last Hoop

He smells the sawdust, hears the whiplash sing

And crack, and quick hoofs thudding round the ring,

As, in his spangled tights, with steady eyes

On the flaming hoop, he crouches for the spring,

Tense on his hunkers: when, slipping suddenly,

His horse beneath him falls, and, crashing, he

Finds . . .

that in tattered battledress he lies

Pinned under a stranded tank; while furiously

The fight about him rages with a flare

Of hellfire . . . hell . . .

And now sharp talons tear

His guts, as all around him roar and yell

The infernal fiends, while he lies roasting there

On the hot coals, and devils like giant lice

Swarming about his body stab and slice

His wincing flesh . . . when a yet louder shell

Screams in his ear; and to a block of ice

He slowly freezes . . .

Now down a leafy lane

The caravan is jolting; and again

He sees low branches in the early light

Spangled with sparkling beads of April rain,

While on an upper bough somewhere unseen

A blackbird sings, and through the glistening green

The gay notes ripple and tinkle, clear and bright

As the fresh raindrops falling cold and clean

Through the sweet country air that he breathes in

With eager nostril; glad once more to win

Free of the town’s stale atmosphere, at last,

And all the senseless scurry and the din

Of swarming streets. Then, topping a sharp rise,

They leave the shade; and with delighted eyes

He sees a young foal scampering free and fast

With frisking hoofs about its dam who lies

In the green pasture, with adoring stare

Following her offspring: and he knows that there

In that limber curd-white colt at last he has found

The steed of all his dreams, that anywhere

He had scarcely looked to find, alive . . .

Once more

His ears are filled with the racket and uproar

Of battle . . .

And yet, at the same time, around

The ring he is gaily riding, as never before,

On those white haunches lightly balancing . . .

Then, crouching, clears the hoop with easy spring.

The Cave

When, as a boy, he so adventurously

Had sought the long-abandoned Robbers Cave,

He had little thought that, as a refugee,

One day he would seek it hurriedly, to save

His very life from his own countrymen—

That he should need to flee his home and lurk,

Crouched like a hunted creature in its den,

From townsmen, hired to do the butcherwork

Of upstart tyranny, hiding—men he knew,

Lifelong acquaintances with whom it seemed

He would get on easily his whole life through,

As in their childhood. Little had he dreamed

When he was playing among them as a lad,

Quarrelling at times and scrapping harmlessly

Between the games, one day they would go mad,

Bitten by a mad dog’s ferocity,

And turn on friends and neighbours!

It was well

He found the cave alone that Summer day

And never had been tempted even to tell

His closest bosom-friend he knew the way.

Some instinct must have checked him, some strange blind

Presentiment, it would seem; and it might be,

Since no one knew his secret, they would find

Some difficulty, tracing him, till he

Could seek securer sanctuary: although,

With every road stopt and the frontier shut

And those mad hunters ranging to and fro,

Searching for him in every peasant’s hut,

They might pick up the trail. The cave, no doubt,

Would still be known to some old forester

Who would be forced to let the secret out

Under the threat of some vile torturer.


For in these days the world had slipt right back

Into the habit of barbarity,

Bodies and spirits stretched upon the rack,

While murder walked the highway openly.

And even they were murderers, those false friends

Who, though in their own bodies they moved still,

Were dead souls, murdered to serve murder’s ends

And wreak like puppets the arch-murderer’s will—

Murderers and victims, both, or, at the worst,


Soul-suicides.And yet, not all; for some

Had fought for freedom, facing the accurst

Forces of tyranny; and, should it come

That he must die as they died, in the end,

His soul, in exile, would not be alone,

As now his body was, without a friend,

Crouched in a cavern of dank and dripping stone.


And, sure enough, it would end thus, even should

The hunters fail to find him. When he fled

The evil that the faithful had withstood,

He had forgotten hunger, the most dread

Ally of tyrants, and that the cave could be

No final refuge. When men would enslave

Their fellowmen, there is no sanctuary

For any soul, even in the deepest cave.

Better to perish, fighting in the light

For freedom at hope’s forlorn last barricade.


And now he rose and left the cavern’s night

And turned towards the town, no more afraid.

The Snow

Snow falling out of the low tawny sky

And whisked into his face with stinging dry

Crystals, the kind of snow likely to lie

And pile up, flake on flake, into a deep

Obliterating blanket that would keep

The brown earth hapt in undissolving sleep

Week after week, the kind of snow that he

In boyhood always longed so fervently,

As Christmas Day drew slowly near, to see

Transmute the sombre landscape overnight

Into a strange blue-shadowed glistering white

And unfamiliar country of delight.


Snow falling—yet, as on his sentry-beat

He trudges through the hours with numbing feet

And body losing rapidly all heat,

It hardly fills his heart with the old glow

To feel the crisp flakes driving, and to know

That he has got to face a night of snow!


But what, in such a world, could bring the joy

It brought in the old days when, as a boy,

He little dreamt the future would destroy

All that made life worth while, that he should see

The whole world plunged at once in misery

By the black forces of brutality!


Yet, as he paces briskly to and fro,

He sees in dream a shining hill of snow

Flushed by the tardy Winter dawn’s red glow,

And himself trudging up—the wind’s keen edge

Tingling his cheek—dragging a squeaky sledge;

And then from the steep summit’s frozen ledge

He launches down the slope of stainless white,

Bedazzled in the full clear morning light.


And now he almost wishes that he might

In that far day’s delirious ecstasy

Of heady speed have shot unknowingly

Into the oblivion of infinity.


He almost wishes he had never grown

To find himself in an alien world alone,

Stript of delight and all that he had known

Of home and happiness, too good to last,

Caught in a whirlwind and before the blast

Into the maelstrom of destruction cast.


Snow falling—and now he longs that it might fall

And fall till in white death it buries all

His ravaged world beneath its icy pall.

The Searchlights

After her long shift in the factory

Exhausted by the gruelling heat and din,

Ready for bed, she switches off the light

And draws the blackout curtains, to let in

The Summer airs: then stands spellbound, to see

The searchlights sweep the star-encrystalled night

With wheeling rays that, over the dark town

Describing each its zenith-ranging arc,

Cross and recross, weaving incessantly

Fantastic patterns in the sky, that seem

The occult silver symbols of some strange

Unhuman and celestial mystery.


And, by her attic window that looks far

Over the silent spaces of the park,

With elbows on the sill she crouches down

To watch the slowly-swivelled beams that range

The heavens, unmindful of their sinister

Significance, held in a quiet dream

By the cold fascination of the bright

Blades that outflash the brightest burning star,

Moving in ceremonial ritual

Of beauty that brings healing to her mind,

Which but a moment since had seemed to her

In its fatigue to reel in dizzy blind

And utter helplessness. Now she forgets

For a brief blest oblivious interval

The factory’s ceaseless racket and the frets

And worries of the daytime, when she stands,

Her body all one ache, and her deft hands,

Minding her tyrannous machine, must move

Machinelike in an everlasting round

Of automatic action, that still lets

Her fancy in distracted frenzy rove

The hazard-haunted spaces of the sea,

Where, in a tanker, bearing in its hold

A freight of high-flash petrol, over a tide

Within whose depth sharklike the U-boats glide,

And under the constant menace of a sky

Through which the dread dive-bombers hawklike fly,

Steve, even now, maybe, sails homewardbound:

Until her heart with him in one fierce flare

Consumes to ash, one instant, and the next,

Is plunged into the green devouring cold

Death of the ocean.

Death of the ocean.But, as the freshening air

Of midnight breathes on her flushed aching brow

With soothing solace, into her soul, perplexed

Beyond endurance by the world’s distress

And harassed by the hazards that beset

Their innocent love on every hand, there steals

A sense of beauty in the terror, as now

She watches a broad ray that, even yet

Brighter, serenely sweeps the starry sky,

Dazzling her drowsy sight, and gradually

She droops in slumber’s kind forgetfulness.

The Bellbuoy

Just as his strength was petering out, he reached

The clanging bellbuoy, and his fingers clutched

An iron rib of the great cage that swung

On the slow-surging swell: though, as he touched

The crusted vibrant metal, quivering

As the bell’s hammer struck at every swing,

Jarring and jangling, a gull, passing, screeched

Into his ear so startingly he nigh

Let go his hold. But, in an agony

Of drowning desperation, now he clung

With stubborn barnacle-like tenacity

To the last chance of life; till he, at length

Recovering by a miracle his strength,

As though by superhuman power possessed,

Could hoist himself from the cold clinging sea,

Reluctant to release him from her clasp

Of fathomless malevolence, and could grasp

The ring that topped the buoy with rusty crest;

And with his belt to the swinging cage contrived

To lash himself securely. And, now slung

To that uneasy perch, he slowly swung

With the buoy’s motion, deafened by the clamour

Of the bell’s strident and nerve-shattering hammer

That rasped each fibre of his frame, till he,

Racked on vibrating iron, swayed helplessly

In a stunned stupor drowsed above the tide—

The solitary soul who had survived

The striking of the mine. Throughout the night

Still helpless on the dipping cage he hung

As, in the waste of waters wallowing,

The rolling tolling buoy unceasing swung

With iron clangour, through the cold starlight

Reverberating harshly far and wide,

Knelling his shipmates’ death . . .

Yet, in the blind

Unconsciousness of his sound-battered mind

A feeble flame of life kept flickering,

Fed by remembrances of early days.

Though, limp as a drowned corpse soused in the chill

Of death, his body drooped inertly, still

In spirit he was rambling stony braes

Above his highland home; and from a height

Caught in a sudden dazzle of stormy light

His earliest glimpse of far alluring seas

Silvering the horizon; and first felt

The tug of tidal waters in his breast

That nevermore would leave his heart at ease

Nor let his venturous spirit ever rest

Shut in its native strath beneath a belt

Of gloomy prisoning pine . . .

And then again

On glittering waters slashed with squally rain

In his first craft, the Jenny, that led the fleet

Of herring-drifters, a lighthearted boy,

He put out from the firth into a West

Of sunset brilliance, tingling with the joy

Of salt and lusty living; while in tune

And time with slapping waves his pulses beat

And through his veins the blood raced headily

With the swift swirling rhythms of the sea;

Until, the strong air drugging him, he drowsed.

Then suddenly a yell of “Herring!” roused

His startled wits to action; and again

He hauled hard on the nets, a man with men;

While over the low bulwarks silver cold

Bright shoals of herring slithered down the hold

In flickering torrent, till the Jenny rode

Low in the water with her precious load

Of deepsea wealth, three hundred cran or more,

As slowly back they steamed towards the shore . . .

And then at dawn, his senses clogged with sleep,

Unsteadily he stumbled with bowed head

Beneath the burden of the heavy creel

Along the quay towards the gutting-shed

Where wives and lasses awaited him, and laughed

To see him stagger dizzily, and chaffed

When his foot tripped and with a sudden reel

He slumped full-length beneath a clammy heap

Of slippery herring . . .

that changed suddenly

To a great bell of iron in which he swung

Backwards and forwards, a cold clashing tongue

Of jangling metal, shattering the black

And hollow plangent night that seemed to be

Somehow in his own head. And, at each swing,

The clanging of the clapper seemed to crack

His brittle skull, that shivered, splintering

In flying fragments, like a bursting shell,

Whose flinders, flaring through the darkness, fell

Sizzling into the tide, a scarlet-scaled

And flame-finned shoal of herring that singed the mesh

Of the dragnet to tinder . . .

And now he sailed

Once more the waters of a darker sea

With other shipmates, trawling other fish

With nets of saw-toothed wire, instead of string,

Sweeping the deep for mines amid the thresh

Of slashing sleet and the stinging icy swish

Of scudding spray through an unending night . . .

When, caught in a sudden squall, the trawler struck

A mine that by some devilish ill-luck

Had dodged the nets and bobbed against the bow . . .

A blinding heaven-shattering burst . . . and now,

By crashing waters overwhelmed, he drank

The ocean at a gulp and swiftly sank,

Dragged down by his logged seaboots through a dense

Uproarious darkness of unfathomed night—

Down, down and down . . . Then, as his waking sense

Became aware of the first sullen light

Of Winter daybreak, he discovered he

Was swimming all alone in a wide sea

With numb and feeble strokes, until a bell

Tolled faintly in his ear across the swell,

And towards the buoy he struck out desperately . . .


And, as he hung now, swaying with the slow

And circling motion of the cage, again

Through half-recovered consciousness the clang

Of iron striking sharp on iron rang,

Griding his very bones with icy pain,

Till it was drowned in the swift furious roar,

As a chance friendly reconnoitering plane,

Spotting the buoy’s strange burden, swept down low;

And, seeing him marooned there, soared again

And S.O.S.’d a message to the shore.

The Sniper

Crouched in the covert of the reeds he lay,

Vigilant lest it chance the enemy

Should in his desperation choose to take

The risk of crossing the deep-frozen lake

To outflank the defenders of the town,

Now that the ice was thick enough to bear

Even the weight of the artillery

And lumbering tanks . . .

He crouched as he’d crouched there

Of old, so often on a Winter’s day,

Alert, but bent on quite a different sport,

And, with the best luck, counting to bring down

Only a brace or so of mallard or teal

Or pochard; and with quite a different sort

Of gun, too!

In the moon like burnished steel

The grey ice glinted; but no sound he heard,

Save now and then the rustle of a bird

Roosted among the reeds. Well, they could sleep

Secure to-night without a fear that he

Were after them, now he had other game:

And he had no dog to flush them into flight;

And, even should they rise up in the night

So thickly that their wings shut out the light,

He would not risk a shot. Ay, they could keep

Their heads tucked in and slumber peacefully,

As far as it concerned him, now it came

To shooting other fowl, and fowl that fought,

Instead of flying. Almost now he caught

Himself deploring his old skill and all

The seasons he had spent in slaughtering

The harmless creatures who could not fight back.

He had always liked to see them in the Spring

Nesting among the reeds, or, in the light

Flashing and flirting in their courting-flight

With lustrous plumage, bronze and green and black,

In all its Springtide brilliance royal and rich,

Reflecting golden gleams of April sun.

And even he, somehow, without a gun

At hand to tempt him, rarely felt the itch

To kill. But there were always mouths to feed;

And, in the Winter when a heavy fall

Blocked every road and all the world around

Under a stringent frost was held snowbound,

He had had to slaughter birds from utter need.


And now in every land, on every sea

And in the very air men killed and killed

Their fellowmen; and, even had he willed

To keep his hand from slaying, there would be

A bitter price to pay if his home fell

Before the invader, and his family,

Into the clutches of the enemy,

A bitter price to pay, a bitter price.


And now he hears across the level ice

A distant roar of engines and the clank

And clatter as tank after armoured tank

Out of the covert of the further bank

Ventures upon the surface of the lake,

That quivers, buckling, under the great weight

Creaking and rumbling as the tanks roll on.


Well, when they come, they will not find him gone;

And his luck will be out, if he should not

Send at the least one driver to his fate:

And, happen, he’ll not need to fire a shot,

If, roused by all the racket, God should wake

From his long slumber, and the ice should break!

The Red Deer

Down the steep braeside of the island ben

The red-stag scrambles into the deep glen,

Leading his troop of does and fawns; and then,

Snuffing the seabreeze, tosses his head and shakes

The lingering films of sleep away; and takes,

Now lightly trotting through dew-darkened brakes

Of russet bracken, his way towards the strand

To graze the machair. And soon the little band

Of mild-eyed followers about him stand

Hock-deep in saffron weed and, wondering, stare

Across the waves that in the morning air

Flourish their foam like shocks of snowy hair

About their gleaming shoulders. Then, quietly

Turning their backs upon the restive sea,

They leave the weedy tangle, and eagerly

Browse the green juicy turf with teeth that crop

The wet blades crisply, till they reach the top

Of a low howe; when all at once they stop,

Startled, with pricking ears, and round once more

Towards the kyle, over which with desperate roar

A plane swerves drunkenly; then, to the shore

Crashing in clouds of smoke, bursts into a blaze

Of petrol. One long moment the deer gaze

Upon the flames in paralysed amaze,

Dark eyes reflecting with red flicker the fire

And rampant fury of that roaring pyre:

Then all together, moved by one desire

To quit for evermore the haunts of men,

They scamper in panic back towards the ben

And seek the peaceful shelter of the glen.



Mis-spelled words and printer errors have been fixed.

Inconsistency in hyphenation has been retained.

Inconsistency in accents has been retained.

It was hard to determine across page breaks whether there was a stanza break or not.

With some offset lines, it was hard to determine if the intent was to be relative to the previous line, or right justified, or simply a consequence of the original typography.

[The end of The Searchlights by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson]