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Dana Burnet: Christmas in the Trenches

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

American writers on peace and against war

Dana Burnett: Selections on war

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Dana Burnet
Christmas in the Trenches
(An incident)

I

Still the guns!
There’s a ragged music on the air,
A priest has climbed the ruined temple’s stair,
Ah, still the guns!
It’s Christmas morning.
Had ye all forgot?
Peace for a little while, ye battle-scarred –
Or do ye fear to cool those minds grown hot?
Up the great lovely tower, wracked and marred,
An old priest toils –
Men of the scattered soils,
Men of the British mists,
Men of France!
Put by the lance.
Men of Irish fists,
Men of heather,
Kneel together –
Men of Prussia,
Great dark men of Russia,
Kneel, kneel!
Hark how the slow bells peal.
A thousand leagues the faltered music runs,
Ah, still the wasting thunder of the guns,
Still the guns!

II

Out of the trenches lifts a half-shamed song,
“Holy Night!”
Here, where the sappers burrowed all night long
To bring the trench up for the morrow’s fight,
A British lad, with face unwonted white,
Looks at the sky and sings a carol through,
“God rest you merry, gentlemen!”
It was the only Christmas thing he knew.
And there were tears wrung out of hard-lipped men,
Tears in the strangest places,
Tears on troopers’ faces!

III

They had forgotten what a life was for,
They had been long at suffering and war,
They had forgot old visions, one by one,
But now they heard the tolling bell of Rheims,
Tolling bell of Rheims;
They saw the bent priest, white-haired in the sun,
Climb to the hazard of the weakened spire,
They saw, and in them stirred their hearts’ desire
For Streets and Cities, Shops and Homes and Farms,
They only wanted space to love and live;
They felt warm arms about them – women’s arms,
And such caresses as a child might give
Coming all rosy in the early day
To kiss his world awake….
The British lad
Broke off his carol with a sob. The play
Of churchly musics, solemn, strange, and sad,
Fluttered in silver tatters down the wind,
Flung from the tower where the guns had sinned
Across the black and wounded fields….The bell
Sang on – a feeble protest to the skies,
Until the world stood like a halted hell,
And men with their dead brothers at their feet
Drew dirty sleeves across their tired eyes,
Finding the cracked chimes overwhelming sweet.

IV

Aye, still the guns!
And heed the Christmas bell,
Ye who have done Death’s work so well,
Ye worn embattled ones, Kneel, kneel!
Put by the blood-stained steel,
Men from the far soils and the scattered seas,
Go down upon your knees,
While there is one with faith enough to dare
The wracked cathedral’s crumbled broken stair –
While there lives one with peace upon his eyes,
While hope’s faint song is fluttered to the skies,
In that brief space between the Christmas suns,
Still the guns!

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