A Selection of War Poetry

Thomas Hardy

The Departure

(Southampton Docks: October 1899)

Here, where Vespasian’s legions struck the sands,

And Cedric with his Saxons entered in,

And Henry’s army leapt afloat to win

Convincing triumphs over neighbour lands,

Vaster battalions press for further strands,

To argue in the selfsame bloody mode

Which this late age of thought, and pact, and code,

Still fails to mend. – Now deckward tramp the bands,

Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring;

And as each host draws out upon the sea

Beyond which lies the tragical To-be,

None dubious of the cause, none murmuring,

Wives, sisters, parents, wave white hands and smile,

As if they knew not that they weep the while.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
The thick lids of Night closed upon me
Alone at the Bill
Of the Isle by the Race –
Many-caverned, bald, wrinkled of face –
And with darkness and silence the spirit was on me
To brood and be still.
No wind fanned the flats of the ocean,
Or promontory sides,
Or the ooze by the strand,
Or the bent-bearded slope of the land,
Whose base took its rest amid the everlong motion
Of criss-crossing tides.
Soon from out of the Southward seemed nearing
A whirr, as of wings
Waved by mighty-vanned flies,
Or by night-moths of measureless size,
And in softness and smoothness well-nigh beyond hearing
Of corporal things.
And they bore to the bluff, and alighted –
A dim-discerned train
Of sprites without mould,
Frameless souls none might touch or might hold –
On the ledge by the turreted lantern, far-sighted
By men of the main.
And I heard them say “Home!” and I knew them
For souls of the felled
On the earth’s nether bord
Under Capricorn, whither they’d warred,
And I neared in my awe, and gave heedfulness to them
With breathings inheld.
Then, it seemed, there approached from the northward
A senior soul-flame
Of the like filmy hue:
And he met them and spake: “Is it you,
O my men?” Said they, “Aye! We bear homeward and hearthward
To feast on our fame!”
“I’ve flown there before you,” he said then:
“Your households are well;
But – your kin linger less
On your glory and war-mightiness
Than on dearer things” – “Dearer?” cried these from the dead then,
“Of what do they tell?”
“Some mothers muse sadly, and murmur
Your doings as boys –
Recall the quaint ways
Of your babyhoods innocent days.
Some pray that, ere dying, your faith had grown firmer,
And higher your joys.
“A father broods: ‘Would I had set him
To some humble trade,
And so slacked his high fire,
And his passionate martial desire;
And told him no stories to woo him and whet him
To this dire crusade!”
“And, General, how hold out our sweethearts,
Sworn loyal as doves?”
“Many mourn; many think
It is not unattractive to prink
Them in sables for heroes. Some fickle and fleet hearts
Have found them new loves.”
“And our wives?” quoth another resignedly,
“Dwell they on our deeds?”
“Deeds of home; that they live yet
Fresh as new – deeds of fondness or fret;
Ancient words that were kindly expressed or unkindly,
These, these have their heeds.”
“Alas! then it seems that our glory
Weighs less in their thought
Than our old homely acts,
And the long-ago commonplace facts
Of our lives – held by us as scarce part of our story,
And rated as nought!”
Then bitterly some: “Was it wise now
To raise the tomb-door
For such knowledge? Away!”
But the rest: “Fame we prized till to-day;
Yet that hearts keep us green for old kindness we prize now
A thousand times more!”
Thus speaking, the trooped apparitions
Began to disband
And resolve them in two:
Those whose record was lovely and true
Bore to northward for home: those of bitter traditions
Again left the land,
And, towering to seaward in legions,
They paused at a spot
Overbending the Race –
That engulphing, ghast, sinister place –
Whither headlong they plunged, to the fathomless regions
Of myriads forgot.
And the spirits of those that were homing
Passed on, rushingly,
Like the Pentecost Wind;
And the whirr of their wayfaring thinned
And surceased on the sky, and but left in the gloaming
Sea-mutterings and me.
South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies – your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-Gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.”
Christmas Eve 1899

[Note – First published with lines 2-3 reading “There lies – be he or not your countryman – / A fellow-mortal. Riddled are his bones…” The last four lines were missing.]

Algernon Charles Swinburne


Patience, long sick to death, is dead. Too long

Have sloth and doubt and treason bidden us be

What Cromwell’s England was not, when the sea

To him bore witness given of Blake how strong

She stood, a commonweal that brooked no wrong

From foes less vile than men like wolves set free

Whose war is waged where none may fight or flee-

With women and with weanlings. Speech and song

Lack utterance now for loathing. Scarce we hear

Foul tongues that blacken God’s dishonest name

With prayers turned curses and with praise found shame

Defy the truth whose witness now draws near

To scourge these dogs agape with jaws afoam,

Down out of life. Strike, England, and strike home.


The Turning of the Tide

(February 27 1900)

Storm, strong with all the bitter heart of hate,

Smote England, now ninteen dark years ago,

As when the tide’s full wrath in seaward flow

Smites and bears back the swimmer. Fraud and fate

Were leagued against her: fear was fain to prate

Of honour in dishonour, pride brought low,

And humbleness whence holiness must grow,

And greatness born of shame to be so great.

The winter day that withered hope and pride

Shines now triumphal on the turning tide

That sets once more our trust in freedom free

That leaves a ruthless and a truthless foe

And all base hopes that hailed his cause laid low,

And England’s name a shining light on land and sea.


Extract from The Song of the Sword (dedicated to Rudyard Kipling)

Sifting the nations,

The slag from the metal,

The waste and the weak

From the fit and the strong;

Fighting the brute,

The abysmal Fecundity;

Checking the gross,

Multitudinous blunders,

The groping, the purblind

Excesses in service

Of the Womb universal,

The absolute drudge;


Clear singing, clean slicing;

Sweet spoken, soft finishing;

Making death beautiful,

Life but a coin

To be staked in the pastime

Whose playing is more

Than the transfer of being;

Arch-anarch, chief builder,

Prince and evangelist,

I am the Will of God:

I am the Sword.

Rudyard Kipling

The Absent Minded Beggar

(First stanza)

When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia’, when you’ve sung ‘God Save the Queen’,

When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth,

Will you kindly drop a shilling in my tambourine

For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?

He’s an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are great-

But we and Paul must take him as we find him-

He is out on active service, wiping something off a slate-

And he’s left a lot of things behind him!

Duke’s son – cook’s son – son of a hundred kings-

(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)

Each of ’em doing his country’s work

(And who’s to look after his things?)

Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay – pay – pay!

Alfred Austin

Alfred’s Song (1900)

In the Beginning when out of darkness,

The Earth, the Heaven,

The stars, the seasons,

The mighty mainland,

And whale-ploughed water,

By God the Maker

Were formed and fashioned,

Then God made England.


T.W.H. Crosland


Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

You who are still and white

And cold like stone;

For whom the unfailing light

Is spent and done;

For whom no more the breath

Of dawn, nor evenfall,

Nor Spring nor love or death

Matter at all;

Who were so strong and young,

And brave and wise,

And on the dark are flung

With darkened eyes;

Who roystered and caroused

But yesterday,

And now are dumbly housed

In stranger clay;

Who valiantly led,

Who followed valiantly,

Who knew no touch of dread

Of that which was to be;

Children that were nought

Ere ye were tried,

How have ye dared and fought,

Triumphed and died!

Yea, it is very sweet

And decorous

The omnipotent Shade to meet

And flatter thus.


A.E. Housman


The Wain upon the northern steep

Descends and lifts away.

Oh I will sit me down and weep

For bones in Africa.

For pay and medals, name and rank,

Things that he has not found,

He hove the cross to heaven and sank

The pole-star underground.

And now he does not even see

Signs of the nadir roll

At night over the ground where he

Is buried with the pole.