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

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Poem from 1917 to Launch Our Coverage of That Year's Centennial

Rose Macaulay

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 (18811958) is most remembered for her award-winning novel The Towers of Trebizondthe final work of her long literary careerabout 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.

Picnic (1917)

Rose Macaulay

July 1917

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…


  1. Always a moving poem - thanks for putting it up.

    The idea that the Home Front is affected, but with a certain apathy attached (that the direction of the wind allowing the sounds coming from Flanders and Picardy not meaning destruction and war but meaning rain) is especially poignant.

    Yet again an example of how 'other' poems (i.e. those not from the Front itself) have an equal standing in helping us to understand the tragedy that was the First World War.

  2. "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."
    Reminds me of most Americans' sense of the war on terror.

  3. A beautiful poem. Thanks for posting it. It reminds me of another poem by A.E. Housemen. It starts, -
    "On an idle hill of summer, sleepy with the sound of streams..." Published cerca 1906.

  4. My wife and I recently watched "Regeneration". I was moved by this poem that ended the movie by Wilfred Owen.


    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him.
    Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns,
    Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

    Wilfred Owen

  5. One of my favorite Wilfred Owen. Damn, that final couplet.