Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 16, 2015

Command As a Form of Love: Herbert Read's "My Company"

By James S. Robbins

Some poets addressed the relationships that developed on the battlefield between the men who fought together. The relationship of the commander to his men, which in its finest expression is a sacred and indefinable bond, a form of love that will allow, even compel soldiers to follow officers into the maw of deathly peril, and do so willingly, happily, was the topic of many stirring poems. Herbert Read's "My Company" expresses the many moods of command, at times somber, other times manic. Read survived the war and became a pacifist in the 1930s.

My Company


You became 
In many acts and quiet observances 
A body and soul, entire. 

I cannot tell 
What time your life became mine: 
Perhaps when one summer night 
We halted on the roadside 
In the starlight only, 
And you sang your sad home-songs, 
Dirges which I standing outside you 
Coldly condemned. 

Perhaps, one night, descending cold, 
When rum was mighty acceptable, 
And my doling gave birth to sensual gratitude. 

And then our fights: we've fought together 
Compact, unanimous; 
And I have felt the pride of leadership. 

In many acts and quiet observances 
You absorbed me: 
Until one day I stood eminent 
And I saw you gathered round me, 
And about you a radiance that seemed to beat 
With variant glow and to give 
Grace to our unity. 

But, God! I know that I'll stand 
Someday in the loneliest wilderness, 
Someday my heart will cry 
For the soul that has been, but that now 
Is scatter'd with the winds, 
Deceased and devoid. 

I know that I'll wander with a cry: 
"O beautiful men, O men I loved, 
O whither are you gone, my company?' 


My men go wearily 
With their monstrous burdens. 
They bear wooden planks 
And iron sheeting 
Through the area of death. 

When a flare curves through the sky 
They rest immobile. 

Then on again, 
Sweating and blaspheming —
"Oh, bloody Christ!" 

My men, my modern Christs, 
Your bloody agony confronts the world. 


A man of mine 
          lies on the wire. 
It is death to fetch his soulless corpse. 

A man of mine 
          lies on the wire; And he will rot 
And first his lips 
The worms will eat. 

It is not thus I would have him kiss'd, 
But with the warm passionate lips 
Of his comrade here. 


I can assume 
A giant attitude and godlike mood, 
And then detachedly regard 
All riots, conflicts and collisions. 

The men I've lived with 
Lurch suddenly into a far perspective; 
They distantly gather like a dark cloud of birds 
In the autumn sky. 

Urged by some unanimous 
Volition or fate, 
Clouds clash in opposition; 
The sky quivers, the dead descend; 
Earth yawns. 

They are all of one species. 

From my giant attitude, 
In a godlike mood, 
I laugh till space is filled 
With hellish merriment. 

Then again I resume 
My human docility, 
Bow my head 
And share their doom. 

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