Break of Day
There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags,–lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, ‘To-day
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in
Under the freedom of that morning sky!’
And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din.
Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell
Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind,
That sent a happy dream to him in hell?–
Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find
Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie
In outcast immolation, doomed to die
Far from clean things or any hope of cheer,
Cowed anger in their eyes, till darkness brims
And roars into their heads, and they can hear
Old childish talk, and tags of foolish hymns.
He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts),
He’s riding in a dusty Sussex lane
In quiet September; slowly night departs;
And he’s a living soul, absolved from pain.
Beyond the brambled fences where he goes
Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves,
And tree-tops dark against the stars grown pale;
Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows;
And there’s a wall of mist along the vale
Where willows shake their watery-sounding leaves,
He gazes on it all, and scarce believes
That earth is telling its old peaceful tale;
He thanks the blessed world that he was born…
Then, far away, a lonely note of the horn.
They’re drawing the Big Wood! Unlatch the gate,
And set Golumpus going on the grass;
He knows the corner where it’s best to wait
And hear the crashing woodland chorus pass;
The corner where old foxes make their track
To the Long Spinney; that’s the place to be.
The bracken shakes below an ivied tree,
And then a cub looks out; and ‘Tally-o-back!’
He bawls, and swings his thong with volleying crack,–
All the clean thrill of autumn in his blood,
And hunting surging through him like a flood
In joyous welcome from the untroubled past;
While the war drifts away, forgotten at last.
Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
Hark! there’s the horn: they’re drawing the Big Wood.
–Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-Attack and Other Poems, 1918
Oh, I love Sassoon. Have you read Pat Barker's "Regeneration," which is about the time when Robert Graves arranges to have Sassoon sent to a military hospital for "shell shock" as a way to avoid having him court-martialed for treason? It is such a beautiful novel (and the first in an award-winning trilogy) – I teach it all the time in course on epic and war.
(And a marvelous poem for Remembrance Week, by the by…)
Yes, I've read Barker…but I didn't read it until after I'd already read the original sources, so some of the plot tension was lost since I already knew many details!