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Conrad Aiken: Vast symphonic dance of death

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Conrad Aiken: The history of war is the history of mankind, seven thousand million dead on the field of battle

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Conrad Aiken
1915: The Trenches

I

All night long, it has seemed for many years,
We have heard the terrible sound of guns,
All night long we have lain and watched the calm stars.
We cannot sleep, though we are tired,
The sound of guns is in our ears,
We are growing old and grey,
We have forgotten many simple things.
Is this you? Is this I?
Will the word come to charge today?…
All night long, all night long,
We listen and cannot close our eyes,
We see the ring of violet flashes
Endlessly darting against the skies,
We feel the firm earth shake beneath us,
And all the world we have walked upon
Crumbles to nothing, crumbles to chaos,
Crumbles to incoherent dust;
Till it seems we can never walk again,
That it is foolish to have feet, foolish to be men,
Foolish to think, foolish to have such brains,
And useless to remember
The world we came from,
The world we never shall see again…
All night long we lie this way,
We cannot talk, I look to see what you are thinking,
And you, and you,–
We are all thinking, ‘Will it come to-day?’
Get your bayonets ready, then–
See that they are sharp and bright,
See that they have thirsty edges,
Remember that we are savage men,
Motherless men who have no past…
Nothing of beauty to call to mind,
No tenderness to stay our hands…
…We are tired, we have thought all this before,
We have seen it all and thought it all,
Our thumbs are calloused with feeling the bayonet’s edge,
We have known it all and felt it all
Till we can know no more.

II

All night long we lie
Stupidly watching the smoke puff over the sky,
Stupidly watching the interminable stars
Come out again, peaceful and cold and high,
Swim into the smoke again, or melt in a flare of red…
All night long, all night long,
Hearing the terrible battle of guns,
We think we shall soon be dead,
We sleep for a second, and wake again,
We dream we are filling pans and baking bread,
Or hoeing the witch-grass out of the wheat,
We dream we are turning lathes,
Or open our shops, in the early morning,
And look for a moment along the quiet street…
And we do not laugh, though it is strange
In a harrowing second of time
To traverse so many worlds, so many ages,
And come to this chaos again,
This vast symphonic dance of death,
This incoherent dust.

III

We are growing old, we are older than the stars:
You whom I knew a moment ago
Have walked through ages of silence since then,
Memory is forsaking me,
I no longer know
If we are one or two or the blades of grass…
All night long, lying together,
We think in caverns of dreadful sound,
We grope among falling boulders,
We are overtaken and crushed, we rise once more,
Performing, wearily,
The senseless things we have performed so often before.
Yesterday is coming again,
Yesterday and the day before,
And a million others, all alike, one by one,
Sulphurous clouds and a red sun,
Sulphurous clouds and a yellow moon,
And a cold drizzle of endless rain
Driving across them, wetting the barrels of guns,
Dripping, soaking, pattering, slipping,
Chilling our hands, numbing our feet,
Glistening on our chins.
And then, all over again, after grey ages,
Sulphurous clouds and a red sun,
Sulphurous clouds and a yellow moon…
I had my childhood once, now I have children,
A boy who is learning to read, a girl who is learning to sew,
And my wife has brown hair and blue eyes…
Our parapet is blown away,
Blown away by a gust of sound,
Dust is falling upon us, blood is dripping upon us,
We are standing somewhere between earth and stars,
Not knowing if we are alive or dead…
All night long it is so,
All night long we hear the guns, and do not know
If the word will come to charge to-day.

IV

It will be like that other charge–
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising.
I will not remember, then,
How I walked by a hedge of wild roses,
And shook the dew off, with my sleeve,
I will not remember
The shape of my sweetheart’s mouth, but with other things
Ringing like anvils in my brain
I will run, I will die, I will forget.
I will hear nothing, and forget…
I will remember that we are savage men,
Motherless men who have no past,
Nothing of beauty to call to mind
No tenderness to stay our hands…

V

We are tired, we have thought all this before,
We have seen it all, and thought it all.
We have tried to forget, we have tried to change,
We have struggled to climb an invisible wall,
But if we should climb it, could we ever return?
We have known it all, and felt it all
Till we can know no more…
Let us climb out and end it, then,
Lest it become immortal.
Let us climb out and end it, then,
Just for the change…
This is the same night, still, and you, and I,
Struggling to keep our feet in a chaos of sound.
And the same puff of smoke
Passes, to leave the same stars in the sky.

VI

Out there, in the moonlight,
How still in the grass they lie,
Those who panted beside us, or stumbled before us,
Those who yelled like madmen and ran at the sun,
Flinging their guns before them.
One of them stares all day at the sky
As if he had seen some strange thing there,
One of them tightly holds his gun
As if he dreaded a danger there,
One of them stoops above his friend,
By moon and sun we see him there.
One of them saw white cottage walls
With purple clematis flowers and leaves,
And heard through trees his waterfalls
And whistled under the eaves;
One of them walked on yellow sand
And watched a young girl gathering shells–
Once, a white wave caught her hand…
One of them heard how certain bells
Chimed in a valley, mellow and slow,
Just as he turned to go…

VII

All night long, all night long,
We see them and do not remember them,
We hear the terrible sounds of guns,
We see the white rays darting and darting,
We are beaten down and crawl to our feet,
We wipe the dirt from mouths and eyes,
Dust-coloured animals creeping in dust,
Animals stupefied by sound;
We are beaten down, and some of us rise,
And some become a part of the ground,
But what do we care? We never knew them,
Or if we did it was long ago…
Night will end in a year or so,
We look at each other as if to say,
Across the void of time between us,
‘Will the word come to-day?’

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    All the dreams of peace and living in human harmony are gone
    Yes, we are tired, cause nearly nobody is interested for the future…

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