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The March of the Dead -- Robert Service

(Poem #980) The March of the Dead
 The cruel war was over -- oh, the triumph was so sweet!
     We watched the troops returning, through our tears;
 There was triumph, triumph, triumph down the scarlet glittering street,
     And you scarce could hear the music for the cheers.
 And you scarce could see the house-tops for the flags that flew between;
     The bells were pealing madly to the sky;
 And everyone was shouting for the Soldiers of the Queen,
     And the glory of an age was passing by.

 And then there came a shadow, swift and sudden, dark and drear;
     The bells were silent, not an echo stirred.
 The flags were drooping sullenly, the men forgot to cheer;
     We waited, and we never spoke a word.
 The sky grew darker, darker, till from out the gloomy rack
     There came a voice that checked the heart with dread:
 "Tear down, tear down your bunting now, and hang up sable black;
     They are coming -- it's the Army of the Dead."

 They were coming, they were coming, gaunt and ghastly, sad and slow;
     They were coming, all the crimson wrecks of pride;
 With faces seared, and cheeks red smeared, and haunting eyes of woe,
     And clotted holes the khaki couldn't hide.
 Oh, the clammy brow of anguish! the livid, foam-flecked lips!
     The reeling ranks of ruin swept along!
 The limb that trailed, the hand that failed, the bloody finger tips!
     And oh, the dreary rhythm of their song!

 "They left us on the veldt-side, but we felt we couldn't stop
     On this, our England's crowning festal day;
 We're the men of Magersfontein, we're the men of Spion Kop,
     Colenso -- we're the men who had to pay.
 We're the men who paid the blood-price. Shall the grave be all our gain?
     You owe us. Long and heavy is the score.
 Then cheer us for our glory now, and cheer us for our pain,
     And cheer us as ye never cheered before."

 The folks were white and stricken, and each tongue seemed weighted with lead;
     Each heart was clutched in hollow hand of ice;
 And every eye was staring at the horror of the dead,
     The pity of the men who paid the price.
 They were come, were come to mock us, in the first flush of our peace;
     Through writhing lips their teeth were all agleam;
 They were coming in their thousands -- oh, would they never cease!
     I closed my eyes, and then -- it was a dream.

 There was triumph, triumph, triumph down the scarlet gleaming street;
     The town was mad; a man was like a boy.
 A thousand flags were flaming where the sky and city meet;
     A thousand bells were thundering the joy.
 There was music, mirth and sunshine; but some eyes shone with regret;
     And while we stun with cheers our homing braves,
 O God, in Thy great mercy, let us nevermore forget
     The graves they left behind, the bitter graves.
-- Robert Service
Today's poem offers an interesting perspective on war - its 'message', or,
more accurately, its burden is the complex mixture of joy and pain that
attends a victory celebration - joy for the triumph, and that the war is no
more; pain for all the lives lost. The device Service uses to bring forth
this conflict is chillingly effective; in particular, the lines

  We're the men who paid the blood-price. Shall the grave be all our gain?
  You owe us. Long and heavy is the score.
  Then cheer us for our glory now, and cheer us for our pain,
  And cheer us as ye never cheered before."

have a trenchant streak of truth swirling through the irony - true, dead men
have no need of cheers, but there's the uncomfortable realisation that the
"men who paid the blood-price" are indeed not being adequately honoured.

Unusually enough, the "it was all a dream" twist, which seldom fails to
annoy me, works very well here. The difference, I think, is that the dream
is not laughed off and dismissed - it is, for all its 'dream' nature, very
real, and as such harks back more to the tradition of revelatory dreams than
to the use of a dream as a way of writing off implausible occurrences.

The poem's rhythms, too, are highly pleasing, with the alternating long and
short lines striking just the right balance between regular and varied.
There's a nice 'run on' effect, too, with consecutive lines joining
naturally into pairs, the long line building up a tension that the short one
releases. (And while on the subject of rhythm, can someone with a print copy
of the poem confirm that the first line in verse 5 is indeed 'weighted' and
not 'weighed with lead'?)


  We've run a couple of Service's poems:
    Poem #698, "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
    Poem #781, "The Law of the Yukon"

  The latter contains further links to a biography and stuff[1]

  [1] there - that's your technical term for the day


32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matthew Chanoff said...


Thanks for the moving poem. My dad was a Robert Service fan and I used to hear a lot of his, but for some reason never this one. Just FYI, Magersfonein, Spion Kop, and Colenso were battles of the Boer War in 1899 and 1900, in which large numbers of British soldiers died. The British You can see [broken link] for details.


Jennifer McCabe said...

The line is
" weighed with lead"

as in weighed down. There is no "t" in the word "weighed" as used here.

(Old version of weighted = weighed.)

Mrs. J. McCabe

Blair Colquhoun said...

The poem is very compelling. It should be read as part of any
Memorial Day ceremony. The poem's message is clear. There's a debt
that can't be repaid for our soldiers and veterans.
We should remember that.
Blair Colquhoun

viagra online said...

what a creepy poem, as harsh as a sudden execution. why you post stuff like this?

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