Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: Cold death sits brooding, great and sumptuous bird of prey is in the act of taking wing

Henri Barbusse: Cold death sits brooding, great and sumptuous bird of prey is in the act of taking wing


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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


Am I going to die, yes or no? Where can I be wounded? I have managed to look at my hands, one by one; they are not dead, and I saw nothing in their dark trickling. It is extraordinary to be made motionless like this, without knowing where or how. I can do no more on earth than lift my eyes a little to the edge of the world where I have rolled.

Suddenly I am pushed by a movement of the horse on which I am lying. I see that he has turned his great head aside; he is mournfully eating grass. I saw this horse but lately in the middle of the regiment — I know him by the white in his mane — rearing and whinnying like the true battle-chargers; and now, broken somewhere, he is silent as the truly unhappy are. Once again, I recall the red deer’s little one, mutilated on its carpet of fresh crimson, and the emotion which I had not on that bygone day rises into my throat. Animals are innocence incarnate. This horse is like an enormous child, and if one wanted to point out life’s innocence face to face, one would have to typify, not a little child, but a horse. My neck gives way, I utter a groan, and my face gropes upon the ground.

The animal’s start has altered my place and shot me on my side, nearer still to the man who was talking. He has unbent, and is lying on his back. Thus he offers his face like a mirror to the moon’s pallor, and shows hideously that he is wounded in the neck. I feel that he is going to die. His words are hardly more now than the rustle of wings. He has said some unintelligible things about a Spanish painter, and some motionless portraits in the palaces — the Escurial, Spain, Europe. Suddenly he is repelling with violence some beings who are in his past:

“Begone, you dreamers!” he says, louder than the stormy sky where the flames are red as blood, louder than the falling flashes and the harrowing wind, louder than all the night which enshrouds us and yet continues to stone us.

He is seized with a frenzy which bares his soul as naked as his neck:

“The truth is revolutionary,” gasps the nocturnal voice; “get you gone, you men of truth, you who cast disorder among ignorance, you who strew words and sow the wind; you contrivers, begone! You bring in the reign of men! But the multitude hates you and mocks you!”

He laughs, as if he heard the multitude’s laughter.


Heavy night is implanted everywhere around us. My hands are bathed in black blood. On my neck and cheeks, rain, which is also black, bleeds.

The funeral procession of silver-fringed clouds goes by once more, and again a ray of moonlight besilvers the swamp that has sunk us soldiers; it lays winding-sheets on the prone.

All at once a swelling lamentation comes to life, one knows not where, and glides over the plain:

“Help! Help!”

“Now then! They’re not coming to look for us! What about it?”

And I see a stirring and movement, very gentle, as at the bottom of the sea.

Amid the glut of noises, upon that still tepid and unsubmissive expanse where cold death sits brooding, that sharp profile has fallen back. The cloak is quivering. The great and sumptuous bird of prey is in the act of taking wing.

The horse has not stopped bleeding. Its blood falls on me drop by drop with the regularity of a clock, — as though all the blood that is filtering through the strata of the field and all the punishment of the wounded came to a head in him and through him. Ah, it seems that truth goes farther in all directions than one thought! We bend over the wrong that animals suffer, for them we wholly understand.

Men, men! Everywhere the plain has a mangled outline. Below that horizon, sometimes blue-black and sometimes red-black, the plain is monumental!

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