Poems for the war dead

November 11, 2009

Today is commemorated the ending of the First World War, at 11:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, what in Europe is still called Armistice Day, and, in the United States, is now called Veterans’ Day. In memory of the 16 million people who died in this war, and to bring to mind those who are dying in wars at present, I present here a couple of poems, taken from the collection, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2nd ed., 1981), edited by Jon Silkin.

F. S. Flint : Lament

The young men of the world
Are condemned to death.
They have been called up to die
For the crime of their fathers.

The young men of the world,
The growing, the ripening fruit,
Have been torn from their branches,
While the memory of the blossom
Is sweet in women’s hearts;
They have been cast for a cruel purpose
Into the mashing-press and furnace.

The young men of the world
Look into each other’s eyes,
And read there the same words:
Not yet! Not yet!
But soon perhaps, and perhaps certain.

The young men of the world
No longer possess the road:
The road possesses them.
They no longer inherit the earth:
The earth inherits them.
They are no longer the masters of fire:
Fire is their master;
They serve him, he destroys them.
They no longer rule the waters:
The genius of the seas
Has invented a new monster,
And they fly from its teeth.
They no longer breathe freely:
The genius of the air
Has contrived a new terror
That rends them into pieces.

The young men of the world
Are encompassed with death
He is all about them
In a circle of fire and bayonets.

Weep, weep, o women,
And old men break your hearts.

Georg Trakl : In the East

Like the wild organs of the winter storm
Is the people’s gloomy rage,
The purple billow of battle
Of stars leaf-stripped.
With broken brows, silvery arms
The night beckons to dying soldiers.
In the autumnal ash-tree’s shade
The ghosts of the killed are sighing.

Thorny wilderness surrounds the town.
From steps that bleed the moon
Drives off dumbfounded women.
Wild wolves have burst through the gate.

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger.

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