Romain Rolland: Ara Pacis and Ave, Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
Ara Pacis (1914)
De profundis clamans, out of the abyss of all the hates,
To thee, Divine Peace, will I lift up my song.
The din of the armies shall not drown it.
Imperturbable, I behold the rising flood incarnadine,
Which bears the beauteous body of mutilated Europe,
And I hear the raging wind which stirs the souls of men.
Though I stand alone, I shall be faithful to thee.
I shall not take my place at the sacrilegious communion of blood.
I shall not eat my share of the Son of Man.
I am brother to all, and I love you all,
Men, ephemerals who rob yourselves of your one brief day.
Above the laurels of glory and above the oaks,
May there spring from my heart upon the Holy Mount,
The olive tree, with the sunlight in its boughs, where the cicadas sing.
Sublime Peace who holdest,
Beneath thy sovran sway,
The turmoil of the world,
And who, from out the hurtling of the waves,
Makest the rhythm of the seas;
Upon the perfect balance of opposing forces;
Where the blood of the sun
Gushes forth in diapered sheaves of flame
Which the harmonising eye of the artist has bound together;
Like to a huge bird
Which soars in the zenith,
Sheltering the plain beneath its wings,
Thy flight embraces,
Beyond what is, that which has been and will be.
Thou art sister to joy and sister to sorrow,
Youngest and wisest of sisters;
Thou holdest them both by the hand.
Thus art thou like a limpid channel linking two rivers,
A channel wherein the skies are mirrored betwixt two rows of pale poplars.
Thou art the divine messenger,
Passing to and fro like the swallow
From bank to bank,
To some saying,
“Weep not, joy will come again”;
“Be not over-confident, happiness is fleeting.”
Thy shapely arms tenderly enfold
Thy froward children,
And thou smilest, gazing on them
As they bite thy swelling breast.
Thou joinest the hands and the hearts
Of those who, while seeking one another, flee one another;
And thou subjectest to the yoke the unruly bulls,
So that instead of wasting
In fights the passion which makes their flanks to smoke,
Thou turnest this passion to account for ploughing in the womb of the land
The furrow long and deep where the seed will germinate.
Thou art the faithful helpmate
Who welcomest the weary wrestlers on their return.
Victors or vanquished, they have an equal share of thy love.
For the prize of battle
Is not a strip of land
Which one day the fat of the victor
Will nourish, mingled with that of his foe.
The prize is, to have been the tool of Destiny,
And not to have bent in her hand.
O my Peace who smilest, thy soft eyes filled with tears,
Summer rainbow, sunny evening,
Who, with thy golden fingers,
Fondlest the besprinkled fields,
Carest for the fallen fruits,
And healest the wounds
Of the trees which the wind and the hail have bruised;
Shed on us thy healing balm, and lull our sorrows to sleep!
They will pass, and we also.
Thou alone endurest for ever.
Brothers, let us unite; and you, too, forces within me,
Which clash one upon another in my riven heart!
Join hands and dance along!
We move forward calmly and without haste,
For Time is not our quarry.
Time is on our side.
With the osiers of the ages my Peace weaves her nest.
I am like the cricket who chirps in the fields.
A storm bursts, rain falls in torrents, drowning
The furrows and the chirping.
But as soon as the flurry is over,
The little musician, undaunted, resumes his song.
In like manner, having heard, in the smoking east, on the devastated earth,
The thunderous charge of the Four Horsemen,
Whose gallop rings still from the distance,
I uplift my head and resume my song,
Puny, but obstinate.
Ave, Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (1917)
Dedicated to the Heroic Onlookers in Safe Places.
In one of the scenes of his terrible and admirable book, Under Fire, a record of experiences in the trenches of Picardy, dedicated “To the memory of the comrades who fell by my side at Crouy and on Hill 119,” Henri Barbusse depicts two privates going on leave to the neighbouring town. They quit the hell of mud and blood; for months they have been suffering unnamable tortures of body and mind; they now find themselves among comfortable bourgeois who, being at a safe distance from the front, are, of course, bursting with warlike enthusiasm. These carpet-heroes welcome the two men as if they had just returned from a wedding feast. No questions are asked concerning what goes on at the front. The soldiers are told all about it. “It must be splendid, an attack! These masses of men marching forward as to a revel; there’s no holding them; they die laughing!” All that our poilus can do is to hold their tongues. One of them says resignedly to his companion: “They know more than you do about war and all that goes on at the front. When you get back, if you ever do, with your little bit of truth you will be quite out of it amid that crowd of chatterers.”
I do not believe that when the war is over, when all the soldiers have returned home, they will so readily submit to being put in their places by these braggarts of the rear. Already the real fighters are beginning to speak in a singularly bitter and vengeful tone. Barbusse’s book bears powerful witness to the fact.
We have other testimonies from the front, less known but no less moving. All of those to which I shall refer have been published. It is my rule, as long as the war lasts, to make no use of personal confidences, oral or written. Things I have been told by friends, known or unknown, are a sacred trust. I shall not use them without special permission, nor until the conditions make it safe. The testimonies I reproduce here have been published in Paris, under a censorship which is extremely strict in the case of the few newspapers that have remained independent. This proves that they describe things that are widely known, things which it is useless or impossible to conceal.
I leave the authors to speak for themselves. Comment is superfluous. The tones are sufficiently clear.
Paul Husson, L’Holocauste (a collection entitled Vers et Prose, published by F. Lacroix, 19 rue de Tournon, Paris, January 10, 1917).
This is the notebook of a soldier from the Ile de France. The author “went to the front without enthusiasm, detesting war and devoid of martial ardour. As a soldier he did what all the others did.”
p. 19. “In the name of what superior moral principle are these struggles imposed on us? Is it for the triumph of a race? What remains of the glory of Alexander’s soldiers or of Caesar’s? To fight, one must have faith. A man must have faith that he is fighting in God’s cause, in the cause of some great justice; or else he must love war for its own sake. But we have no faith; we do not love war and we know nothing about it. Yet men fight and die believing neither in the cause of God nor in the great justice; men who do not love war, and who die none the less with their faces to the enemy…Many, unawakened, go to their deaths without thinking; but others die with anguish in their hearts, anguish at the futile sacrifice and at their realisation of the madness of men.”
p. 20. In the trenches. “Everyone was cursing the war, everyone hated it. Some were saying: ‘Frenchmen or Germans, they are men like ourselves, they suffer as we do in body and in mind. Do not they, too, dream of the home-coming?’ Passing through a village and seeing a man unfit for service because he had lost two fingers, the soldiers had said to him: ‘You lucky devil; you needn’t go to the war!’”
p. 21. “I am not one of those who believe in the coming of Beauty, Goodness, and Justice…Nor am I one of those who regild the idols of the past, symbols of obscure forces which it behoves us to worship in silence. I am neither submissive nor a believer.
“I love Pity, for we are unfortunates, and it does us good to be solaced, even if we be executioners and butchers. If we do not need consolation for the ills we are suffering, we need consolation for the ills we have done or shall do. We need solace because we have to make others suffer, to kill and be killed.”
p. 22. “Lying prone, while the shells whistle overhead, I think. Die! Why should we die on this battlefield?…Die for civilisation, for the freedom of the nations? Words, words, words. We are dying because men are wild beasts killing one another. We are dying for bales of merchandise; we are dying for squabbles about money. Art, civilisation, and culture are equally beautiful, be they Romance, Teutonic, or Slav. We should love them all!”
p. 59. “With Baudelaire, we detest the weapons of warriors…The great epoch was the one in which we were living before the war. The flapping of the banners, the long files of soldiers, the roaring of the guns, and the blare of the bugles — these things cannot inspire us with admiration for collective murder and for the monstrous enslavement of the peoples…Young men lying to-day in your graves, they strew flowers on your tombs and proclaim you immortal. What to you are empty words? They will pass even more quickly than you have passed! It is true that, in any case, within a few years you would have ceased to be. But these few years of life would have been your universe and your strength.”
André Delemer, Waiting (leading article in the fourth issue, dated March, 1917, of the review “Vivre,” edited by André Delemer and Marcel Millet, 68 boulevard Rochechouart, Paris).
“If the patriarch of Yasnaya Polyana had been granted a few additional years, superadded to a life already long and full of grief, he would have shuddered before the tragedy of the younger generations. Tolstoi was a man of infinite compassion, and his heart would have been torn with suffering as he contemplated our fate, the fate of those who were suddenly thrust into this colossal war, those who had proclaimed their love for life, those whose faith in the future had seemed an infallible talisman, those who had fervently uttered this great cry of vital affirmation:
“‘To live out our youth’ — how poignant is the irony of these words; what vistas do they suddenly evoke! All the happiness we have failed to secure, the joys of which we have been deprived, because one evening the order came to us to shoulder our rifles! In twenty years’ time people will write about what we have suffered, a suffering which may be compared with the Passion; but we die daily. One galling privilege is ours, that we have lived through a convulsion, that we have been the ransom of past errors and a pledge for the tranquillity of the future. This mission is at once splendid and cruel; simultaneously it exalts and revolts; for the spasm through which we are passing wounds us and immolates us!…To-day the poor quivering refuse raked from the furnace knows all the bitterness of the laurels. Such pride as we retain makes it impossible for us to accept an illusory and transient glory. We know the falsity of attitudinising, and we have probed the emptiness of certain dreams. The fire has licked up the scenery, has reduced the tinsel to ashes. We are now face to face with ourselves, perhaps more fully awakened, certainly more sincere and more disillusioned, for we have secret wounds to heal and great sufferings to lull in the shade! The passing of the days is like wormwood in the mouth…How painful will be the transition, and how numerous will be the waifs! Already a fresh anguish oppresses our minds; it is this that will afflict when the day comes for the return of those who are still fighting. Terrible will be the anguish as we gaze upon the ruins and the dead encumbering the battlefields! How it will cramp the young wills and annihilate the fine courage of their souls! Troubled and confused epoch, wherein men will be doggedly seeking safer roads and less cruel idols!…
“Young man of my generation, it is you of whom I think as I write these lines, you whom I do not know, though I know that you are still fighting or that you have returned broken from the trenches. I have met you in the street, wearing an almost shamefaced air, doing your best to conceal some infirmity; but in your eyes I have read the intensity of your inward agony. I know the terrible hours through which you have lived, and I know that those who have endured like trials end by having like souls…I know your doubts; I share your uneasiness. I know how you are obsessed with the question, ‘What next?’ You, too, are asking what can be seen from the heights, and what is going to happen. I understand your ‘What next?’ — ‘To live!’ You sing this straight to the hearts of all of us. ‘To live!’ You embody the cry of our cruel epoch. I have heard this cry, simple yet tremendous, from the lips of the wounded who were aware of the oncoming footsteps of victorious death. I have heard it in the trenches, murmured low like a prayer. Young man, this is a grievous hour. You are a survivor from the ghastly war; your vitality must affirm itself; you must live. Stripped of all falsehoods, freed from every mirage, you find yourself alone in your nakedness; before you stretches the great white road. Onward, the distance beckons. Leave behind you the old world, and the idols of yesterday. March forward without turning to listen to the outworn voices of the past!”
In the name of these young men and their brothers who have been sacrificed in all the lands of the world engaged in mutual slaughter, I throw these cries of pain in the faces of the sacrificers. May the blood sting their faces!