This 1917 poem by a noted English novelist starts with some friends at a picnic in Surrey in a peaceful wood, but soon the sound of artillery from the Western Front intrudes. At first the group is detached and matter-of-fact about the noise. Gradually, though, the significance of the explosions sinks in.
Dame Emilie Rose Macaulay DBE (1881–1958) is most remembered for her award-winning novel The Towers of Trebizond—the final work of her long literary career—about a small Anglo-Catholic group crossing Turkey by camel. During the First World War, she worked in the British Propaganda Department, also serving as a volunteer nurse and a Land Girl. Later, she became a civil servant in the War Office. After the war, Rose Macaulay concentrated on prose and wrote a series of satirical comic novels emphasizing on the irrationalities of those times. In 1920, her first best seller, Potterism, was published, followed by Dangerous Ages in 1921.
We lay and ate sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.
Behind us climbed the Surrey hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.
And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet…
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.
We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
‘They sound clear today’.
We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, ’If the wind’s from over there
There’ll be rain tonight’.
. . .
Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.
But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away,
Dreams within dreams.
And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.
We are shut about by guarding walls:
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done).
We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.
. . .
Oh, guns of France, oh, guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain…
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain,…
Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain…
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.
Oh, we’ll lie quite still, nor listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break…should break…