Armistice Day guest poem sent in by Reed C Bowman [We received this a little too late to run it for the 11th, but I felt it was worth posting anyway - martin]
(Poem #939) Channel Firing
That night your great guns, unawares, Shook all our coffins as we lay, And broke the chancel window-squares, We thought it was the Judgment-day And sat upright. While drearisome Arose the howl of wakened hounds: The mouse let fall the altar-crumb, The worms drew back into the mounds, The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, "No; It's gunnery practice out at sea Just as before you went below; The world is as it used to be: "All nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters They do no more for Christés sake Than you who are helpless in such matters. "That this is not the judgment-hour For some of them's a blessed thing, For if it were they'd have to scour Hell's floor for so much threatening .... "Ha, ha. It will be warmer when I blow the trumpet (if indeed I ever do; for you are men, And rest eternal sorely need)." So down we lay again. "I wonder, Will the world ever saner be," Said one, "than when He sent us under In our indifferent century!" And many a skeleton shook his head. "Instead of preaching forty year," My neighbour Parson Thirdly said, "I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer." Again the guns disturbed the hour, Roaring their readiness to avenge, As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
(April 1914) [notes: I got this text from http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/hardy7.html They provide these explanations (among others): glebe cow: cow put out to pasture on church land for the vicar Stourton Tower: in Wiltshire, a tower built to honour Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes ] This poem was written in April 1914, and beautifully expresses the feeling of gloomy foreboding that some, at least, felt in the months before the First World War. Though it's relieved by some oddly light touches, in a time when across Europe huge masses, especially among the young men, were looking forward to the war all knew was coming, Hardy injects a recollection of what war was to those who fought and died in bygone years under the thunder of other guns, and how much worse it might be this time. Probably at the time only by describing the unquiet of the honored dead at the sound of more guns could a message of gloom and hesitation be heard. Hardy (1840-1928) was old enough in 1914 to have perspective on this, was fully adult for the news of the last big European war in 1870, and in his youth might easily have met or seen veterans of the Napoleonic wars. I don't know if the gunfire of the land forces of the Franco-Prussian War was ever heard across the Channel, as most certainly the guns of the Great War would be in coming months and years, but big guns by night communicate their threat effectively both to the young abed in England who've never heard them, and to the future enemies and allies listening upon the continent. The poem effectively evokes the broken quiet of a country churchyard on a dark night. I was going to say it also effectively described the bleak, menacing sound of distant naval gunfire coming far over the water and inland by night, but on rereading it I was surprised to find there's no description of the sound at all - that is supplied by my own recollection (as in this poem, it is only the Navy's practice firing that I've ever heard) and by the description of the reaction of the nocturnal beasts and the buried dead. But that reaction does clearly call up the way you feel the gunnery in your spine and muscles, and the way your body responds to the urgency of its threat, however distant. The last stanza, taken out of context, or with only a vague reading of the rest of the poem, might seem like an affirmation that the guns were being trusted in as guardians, "Roaring their readiness to _avenge_," but the fifth stanza shatters this illusion. Having already said the nations are "striving strong to make/Red war yet redder", he condemns the threatening fire of the gunnery practice just offshore (where the Continental powers are sure to hear as well), going so far as to put words in God's mouth saying that Hell awaits the warriors for their threatening. Overall this is a good poem to remind people, in time of slowly igniting war, that the last time a war was begun to put an end to war and punish warmongers it merely ushered in a new century of bloodier conflicts than any in history. Now it is the dead of that same (the twentieth) century's wars that may stir at the rise of a new century's same old war, and wonder if their descendents for whose future and way of life they fought will ever live in a saner world than theirs. RCB Links: Biography: See Poem #96 Thomas Hardy on Minstrels: [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet_3.html