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Margaret Sackville: The Pageant of War


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

British writers on peace and war

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Margaret Sackville: Selections on peace and war


Margaret Sackville
The Pageant of War

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down,
Beheld amazed
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town.

It was a day
In early Spring; the cold
Gaunt houses stood enhazed
In a shimmer of pure gold,
And every way
The sun’s suffused heat
Seemed the very breath of May
Filling the street.
Such soft and kindly weather
Was as a magic link – a thread
By which were earth and heaven wed
In holy bonds together.

And down the street, and down the empty street
I heard the slow, monotonous, heavy beat
Of a million and a million feet.

Also I saw how starkly white
The long road gleamed in the sun-light,
And marvelled what had made the road so white.

Then through the roar
Of trumpets, bugles, heralding his name
Came War: –
Magnificently down the white road he came.

The sun was laughing through a golden haze
And all the city
Shone; it was the first of the Spring days.

But in the warm Spring light
The white road shone too white – too white
As though in some unnatural light.

The crowd’s discordant voices shrilled his name,
Then fell, then ceased; down the white road he came.

He was like Death sitting astride
A pale and neighing horse,
Only he swayed from side to side
Like one glutted in every sense;
His lids were coarse
And overhanging eyes glassy with pride;
There was no trace
Of laughter, tears or pity
In his blue-veined, swollen face,
And so perforce
He had to wear a mask, lest seeing
That obscene countenance too near,
The heart of every human being
Should shrink in loathing and in fear,
And turn upon this thing and slay it there.

And after him with measured tread
Came sweeping on in long defile,
Marching together without word or smile,
Gesture or turn of head,
The pitiful, bright army of the dead.
The sun in which they had no share
Fell on their brows, reddened their hair,
Shone in their eyes,
In which was neither memory nor surmise.
Their even feet
Beat without wrath or heat,
As the world’s heart might beat;
Treading their solemn, calm, heroic measure
Of death – even as it were for pleasure;
Whose sight grown dim
With the great splendour of their fate,
Saw not, or saw too late,
The face of him
To whom so willingly they sacrificed,
And who had come to them disguised
In the garb sometimes of Peace, sometimes of Christ.

But sombre, darker,
I saw following after these,
A troop of shadows, silent, pale;
Each, lest her tears should mark her,
Wrapped her head close beneath her veil.
Those others
Had drunk their burning death and left the lees
For the pale lips of their mothers.
But the long line
So shadowy showed in the sunshine,
You only saw War’s panoply displayed
Brighter still against the shade.

And ever to my aching sight
The road shone whiter and more white;
I marvelled how a road might show so white.

And others still there were who followed after,
High-priests of War, crafty and keen,
With greedy hands and heavy-hanging chin,
And down-cast eyes which veiled their laughter.
These underneath
Their arms clasped bursting money-bags,
Hid from the prying eyes
Of those who would disturb their privacies,
In tawdry, many-coloured flags.
For these the sword
Was sign and symbol of a great reward.

These, having gorged their fill,
Strove yet more perfectly to serve the will
And do the business of their lord.
But their chief care
Was evermore that none might see the bare
Face of their master, and their ceaseless task
Was with the form and colour of his mask.

Were here from every land,
Who whilst they made
Equal oblation
To War and kissed his hand,
Yet at the same time paid
All homage and respect to Peace,
Being betrayed,
Unwillingly to follow War – they said
Through the dissimulation
And lust of every other nation.)

Brightly on crest and banner the sun shone,
My eyes were tired.
The panoply flashed on.

I heard the crowd give voice,
They saw the flashing crests and did rejoice.
The crowd exulted with one voice.

And still the pageant trampled on,
Never done – ah! never done!
Once more my eyes, dazed by the sun,
Turned earthwards .
Marvelling at the white
Road, that a road could be so white.

I looked again at the white stones;
I saw.
The dust was trampled bones.
‘Twas they that made the road so white.

There were bones of children, bones of men,
Trampled in since the world began,
Road of triumph – road of glory!
This road conceived by men and then
Built from the ruins of man.

Road which every land has trod
Since the beginning of its story,
And called in turn the road of God;
Road of myriads vowed to rape,
Destruction, mutilation, wrath,
Since there was no escape
And this road their only path!

Behold! since the world began,
This shining road – man’s gift to man.

The bones which make it are so light
(Children’s bones weigh very little)
You would think the surface of this white
Shining road must be too brittle
To bear the heavy loads which go
Trampling upon it to and fro;
But no –

These bones are ground to such fine dust,
So fine, so firm they form a crust
As firm, as thick as the earth’s crust,
Which all who will may safely tread.
They have no ghosts, these dead!
They are but children, peasants of the soil,
And women – ravished, torn
And murdered at their toil.
It is for this that they were born.

Since the crowd shouts in its delight
To see along the road so white
The pageant pass in the sunlight.

I will forget the road, the stones
Are less than nothing – dust and bones:
And what has life to do with bones?

Unless they should rise up, these bones!

They are silent – let them so remain,
These very humble folk, these quiet slain,
And let the living smile –
Until they too shall suffer the same pain.
Whilst the long pageant stretches mile on mile –
As though these innocents had died in vain.

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down
Beheld amazed,
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town.

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