1 Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us …
2 Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent …
3 Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient …
4 Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
5 But nothing happens.
6 Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire.
7 Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
8 Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
9 Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
10 What are we doing here?
11 The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow …
12 We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
13 Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
14 Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
15 But nothing happens.
16 Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
17 Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
18 With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,
19 We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
20 But nothing happens.
21 Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces–
22 We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
23 Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
24 Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
25 Is it that we are dying?
26 Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
27 With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
28 For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
29 Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed–
30 We turn back to our dying.
31 Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
32 Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
33 For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
34 Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
35 For love of God seems dying.
36 To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
37 Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
38 The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
39 Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
40 But nothing happens.
The stagnancy and frozenness of this poem are a painful and ironic commentary on the constant, exhausting threat of death in combat. There is also a double meaning to nothing happens – that nothing is effected, that nothing arrives and happens.
|He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ’em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that AREN’T dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”
Obviously about the backwards joy and dehumanization of watching the enemy die.
“DULCE ET DECORUM EST, 1918”
1 Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
2 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
3 Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
4 And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
5 Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
6 But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
7 Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
8 Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
The first stanza paints in lurid and visceral detail the sights and sounds of war after battle.
9 Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
10 Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
11 But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
12 And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
13 Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
14 As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
15 In all my dreams before my helpless sight
16 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
This is interrupted by the frenzy to prevent death by gas, but one man fails to get his mask on and dies a terrible death before the speaker.
17 If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
18 Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
19 And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
20 His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
21 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
22 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
23 Bitter as the cud
24 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
25 My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
26 To children ardent for some desperate glory,
27 The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
28 Pro patria mori
The speaker’s dreams themselves become like gas, smothering him, and his mind is haunted with images of many deaths, of which this one man becomes a prime example. The poem ends with the bitter overturning of Horace’s line, “Sweet and fitting is it to die for one’s country.”
“STRANGE MEETING,” 1918