Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

War - a collection of poems through the centuries

Source for "Wara collection of poems through the centuries", see [1]


The existence of nuclear weapons threatens instantaneous destruction of a massive scale. Even without nuclear weapons, war wreaks environmental havoc, as we saw all too painfully during the Gulf War of 1990. But the habit of war is hard to give up, and more wars were recorded in the 1980’s than in any previous decade.

War has played a large role in our human history. The conquest of territory and the migration of peoples contributed to the flourishing of our species, as different cultures mixed and added to each other’s vitality. War also helped control population growth. Nowadays, more peaceful methods are available to both ends, and war is seen as a sickness and a scourge, the most obvious of ‘those facts of filth and violence/that we’re too dumb to prevent.’ [2]

The first poem is an insight into war as waged by early human peoples, to increase their living space and to attract glory.


Where the Lilies were in Flower


Fish leaping

In fields of cattle;


Easy unplowed sowing

Where the wild boar has rooted;


Big-eyed buffalo herds

Stopped by fields of lilies

Flowering in sugarcane beds;


Ancient cows bending their heads

Over water flowers

Scattered by the busy dancers

Swaying with lifted hands;


Queen’s flower trees full of bird cries,

The rustle of coconut trees,

Canals from flowering pools

In countries

With cities sung in song:


But your anger

Touched them, brought them terror,

Left their beauty in ruins,

Bodies consumed by Death.


The districts are empty, parched;

The waves of sugarcane blossom,

Stalks of dry grass.

The thorny babul of the twisted fruit

Neck to neck with the giant black babul.


The she-devil with the branching crest


Astraddle on her demon,

And the small persistent thorn

Is spread in the moving dust

Of ashen battlefields.


Not a sound, nothing animal,

Not even dung,

In the ruins of public places

That kill the hearts of eager men,

Chill all courage,

And shake those who remember.


But here,

The sages have sought your woods.

In your open spaces, the fighters play

With bright-jewelled women.

The traveler is safe on the highway.

Sellers of grain shelter their kin

Who shelter, in turn, their kin.


The silver star will not go near

The place of the red planet: so it rains

On the thirsty fields.

Hunger has fled

And taken disease with her.


Great one,

Your land blossoms



Kumattur Kannanar, Tamil, 1st C. A.D.? tr. A.K. Ramanujan

Kings courted poets and sages, who bought civilized values to bear on them, as we see in the next poem.



A Poet’s Counsel

To a cruel king when he was about to have his enemy’s children trampled to death by elephants in a public place

You come from the line of a Cola [3] king

Who gave his flesh

For a pigeon in danger,

And for others besides,


And these children also come

From a line of kings

Who in their cool shade

Share all they have

Lest poets,

Those tillers of nothing

But wisdom,

Should suffer hardships.


Look at these children

The crowns of their heads are still soft.


As they watch the elephants,

They even forget to cry,


Stare dumbstruck at the crowd

In some new terror

Of things unknown.


Now that you’ve heard me out,

Do what you will.


Kovur Kilar, Tamil, 1st C. A.D.?, tr. A.K. Ramanujan

As we become more civilized, we accept as ‘kin’ a wider circle of people, and religious or tribal wars seem not glorious but obscene. We recognize that humanity is one species, and that its different races are of value to one another. Our governments are asked to direct their efforts more at avoiding war than planning the next one.

Li Po and Tu Fu, China’s greatest poets, both wrote many poems against war.


The Chariots Go Forth to War


Chariots rumble and roll; horses whinny and neigh;

Men are marching with bows and arrows at their hips.

Their parents and wives hurry to bid farewell,

Raising clouds of dust over Hsien-Yang Bridge.

They pull at the soldiers’ clothes, stamp their feet and cry out.

The sound of their crying soars to the clouds.

A passer-by questions the soldiers;

They shake their heads dumbly and say:

‘Since the age of fifteen we have defended the northern rivers.

Till we are forty we shall serve on the western front.

We leave our homes as youths and return as gray-haired men.

Along the frontier there flows the sea of our blood.

The king hungers for territory – therefore we fight.


‘Have you not heard, sir,

How through the two hundred countries east of the Tai-Yeng


Through thousands of villages and tens of thousands of hamlets

Thorns and nettles run wild?

Sturdy peasant women swing the hoe and drive the plow,

But neither in the east nor west is anything raised or sown.

The soldiers of Sh’ang will fight to the end,

But they cannot be slain like dogs or like hens.


‘It’s kind of you to ask, sir,

But how dare we express our resentment?

Winter has come and the year is passing away’

The war on the western passes is still going on.

The magistrates are pressing us to pay taxes,

But where shall we get the money?

If only I had known the fate in store for boys,

I would have had my children all girls,

For girls may be married to the neighbours,

But boys are born only to be cut down and buried beneath the



‘Do you not see, sir,

The long dead ancient bones near the Blue Sea bleached by the


And now the lament of those who have just died

Mingles with the voices of those who died long ago,

And darkness falls, and the rain, and the ghostly whimpering of



Tu Fu, Chinese, 713 – 770, tr. Nee Wen-yei

Fighting South of the Ramparts

Last year we were fighting at the source of Sang-kan;

This year we are fighting on the Onion River road.

We have washed our swords in the surf of Parthian seas;

We have pastured our horses among the snows of the T’ien Shan.

The king’s armies have grown grey and old

Fighting ten thousand leagues away from home.

The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage;

They have no fields or ploughlands,

But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands.

Where the House of Chi’n built the great Wall that was to keep

Away the Tartars,

There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war.

The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop.

Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword;

The horse of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven.

Crows and hawks peck for human guts,

Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of

Withered trees.

Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass;

The General schemed in vain.

Know therefore that the sword is a cursed thing,

Which the wise man uses only if he must.


Li Po, Chinese, 701 – 762, tr. Arthur Waley


The next poem, by a contemporary of Li Po and Tu Fu, follows on from the last line of the last one, describing the kind of man society can make use of when it’s under attack. The old commander’s poverty and loneliness are a legacy of the isolating responsibilities of his command and of his memories of slaughter.


The Old Commander


A lad in his teens, he seized

A horse from the enemy and

Rode it; he went into he wild

Mountains, hunted a great tiger

And killed it; over our long

Frontiers he stood, like the Yellow-

Bearded Hero, his one sword

Holding back many.


At times our armies of Han

Would sweep over the plains

Like peals of thunder,

Encircling the tribesmen, as

In a snare; yet the fact

That one general was

Not defeated was sheer good

Luck; while that another

Gained no glory was just

The opposite;


So it came that this commander,

Grey with the worries of human

Affairs, was retired; though when

On service he could pick the eye

Of a bird with an arrow, now

His left arm hangs listlessly, like

A cut saplings; he gains his living

Selling melons by the roadside, or

Learning how to do farmwork around

His hut, stuck away up on a lonely

Path, looking out over cold mountains;

A pitiful end for him who was able,

They say, to find water anywhere

When his men needed I; who never

Wasted his strength on wine.


Now again from behind the frontiers

Tribesmen gather like clouds; dispatches

From the front tell of urgency; from

Out of the heart of our country, youth

Is called up to meet the threat; hurriedly

The old commander is summoned back to arms;

He polishes his armour; his sword with

Its jade hilt dances in delight; his

Great bow is anxious to strike down

The invaders’ chief, so this insult to

His land may be wiped out;

One thinks back on that old leader

In history, who despite his age

Gained victory with one bold stroke.


Wang Wei, Chinese, 699 – 761, tr. Rewi Alley

European civilization has been the most expansionist of all human civilizations. Its culture and its people have taken over most of the earth, depleting and sometimes exterminating other peoples. Not surprisingly, it has held war in high esteem, and many of its poets have praised war. Our male ancestors regarded war as a glorious duty.

Ironically, the greatest long poem of Western civilization, the Iliad, is anti-war. It was performed regularly and with the utmost veneration during the war-filled years of Ancient Greece, and has been held in the highest regard ever since.

In this extract, the Danaans (Achaeans, Greeks) are losing the day’s fighting against the Trojans. Achilles is sulking and won’t fight. His friend Patroclus is begging Achilles’ permission to lead his Myrmidons and fight, and to put on Achilles’ armour to frighten the Trojans. We see in this extract the allure of war as well as its folly.


From ‘The Iliad’


‘…send me forth now at the head of the Myrmidon host,

That I may be a light of hope to the Danaans.

And let me strap on my shoulders that armours of yours,

That the zealous Trojans may take me for you and quickly

Withdraw from the fighting. Then the battling, war-worn sons

Of Achaeans may have a chance to catch their breath –

Such chances in battle are few – and we who are fresh

May easily drive, with little more than our war-screams,

The exhausted Trojans away from the ships and the shelters

And back toward the city’

Such was his plea, poor childish

Fool that he was, for it was his own hard death

And doom for which he pleaded.


Homer, Greek, ? 9th – 6th C. B.C., from book 16, tr. Ennis Rees

For European civilization, the First World War was a watershed. The idea of war as a good thing grew dim in the slaughter of the males of a generation. From then on, the poetry of war would be represented not so much by this:


The naked earth is warm with spring,

And with green grass and bursting trees

Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,

And quivers in the sunny breeze;

And life is colour and warmth and light,

And a striving evermore for these;

And he is dead who will not fight;

And who dies fighting has increase.


Julian Grenfell, English, 1988-1915; 1st stanza of ‘Into Battle’

As by this


Dulce et Decorum Est *

* sweet it is, and fitting


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.


Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori *


* sweet it is, and fitting, to die for one’s country


Wilfrid Owen, English, 1893 – 1918

In the next poem – of the Second World War – the poet feels for a dead enemy’s beloved.


Vergissmeinnicht *

* forget-me-not


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone

Returning over the nightmare ground

We found the place again, and found

The soldier sprawling in the sun.


The frowning barrel of his gun

Overshadowing. As we came on

That day, he hit my tank with one

Like the entry of a demon.


Look. Here in the gunpit spoil

The dishonoured picture of his girl

Who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht

In a copybook gothic scrpt.


We see him almost with content,

Abased, and seeming to have paid,

And mocked at by his own equipment

That’s hard and good when he’s decayed.


But she would weep to see today

How on his skin the swart flies move;

The dust upon the paper eye

And the burst stomach like a cave.


For here the lover and killer are mingled

Who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

Has done the lover mortal hurt.


Keith Douglas, English, 1920 – 1944

The act of killing a fellow human being is described by the same poet. Empathy for the enemy and a horror of horror make war more difficult to wage.




How to kill

Under the parabola of a ball,

A child turning into a man,

I looked into the air too long.

The ball fell into my hand, it sang

In the closest fist: Open Open

Behold a gift designed to kill.


Now in my dial of glass appears

The soldier who is going to die.

He smiles, and moves about his ways

His mother knows, habits of his.

The wires touch his face; I cry

NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears


And look, has made a man of dust

Of a man of flesh. This sorcery

I do. Being damned, I am amused

To see the centre of love diffused

And the waves of love travel into vacancy.

How easy it is to make a ghost.


The weightless mosquito touches

Her tiny shadow on the stone,

And with how like, how infinite

A lightness, man and shadow meet:

They fuse. A shadow is a man

When the mosquito death approaches.


Keith Douglas, English, 1920 – 1944

The poems of Owen and Douglas were youthful and conventional before they experienced war. There is a terrible sense of war forging their versifying metal into hardened poetic steel, then with its final blow destroying it.

The strange exhilaration of war and the enlivening proximity of death are described in the next poem.


A whole night

Thrown down near a friend

Already butchered

With his mouth

Baring its teeth

Turned to the full moon

With the congestion

Of his hands

Penetrating my silence

I’ve written letters

Full of love.


Never have I been


Attached to life.


Guiseppe Ungaretti, Italian, 1888 – 1970, tr. I.M.

War, though it involves women’s cooperation, is waged largely by men. There are questions around this point. The more society is dominated by men, is it more like to wage aggressive war? Are cultures overseen by male deities more warlike than those overseen by female deities? These questions are explored in thematic areas like Religion’ and ‘Men and Women’, and the answers would seem to be ‘yes’. But there’s no doubt that women are capable of being warlike, as women political leaders of our time have demonstrated. The next poem describes such a woman, and is by a woman poet.


The old woman’s shoulders

Were dry, unfleshed,

With outstanding veins;

Her low belly

Was like a lotus pad.


When people said

Her son had taken fright,

Had turned his back on battle

And died,


She raged

And shouted,


“if he really broke down

In the thick of battle,

I’ll slash these breasts

That gave him suck,”


And went there,

Sword in hand

Turning over body after fallen body,

She rummaged through the blood-red field

Till she found her son,

Quartered, in pieces,


And she rejoiced

More than on the day

She gave him birth.


Kakkaipatiniyar Naccellaiyar, Tamil, ? 1st. C. A.D., tr. A.K. Ramanujan

The next two poems express more familiar sentiments of those left behind when fighting men go to war.


I climb that wooded hill

And look towards where my father is.

My father is saying, ‘Alas, my son is on service;

Day and night he knows no rest.

Grant that he is being careful of himself,

So that he may come back and not be left behind!’


I climb that bare hill

And look to where my mother is.

My mother is saying, ‘Alas, my young one is on service;

Day and night he gets no sleep.

Grant that he is being careful of himself,

So that he may come back, and not be cast away.’


I climb that ridge

And look towards where my elder brother is.

My brother is saying, ‘Alas, my younger brother is on service;

Day and night he toils.

Grant that he is being careful of himself,

So that he may come back and not die.’


Anon, Chinese, 7th C. B.C., Book of Songs 124, tr. A. Waley

May, 1945

Let us remember, Spring will come again

To the scorched, blackened woods, where the wounded trees

Wait, with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,

Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,

Sure of the sun. And even as to these

Surely the Spring, when God shall please,

Will come again like a divine surprise

To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in their hands,

Eyes in their eyes,

At one with love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things

And changing skies.


Charlotte, Mew, English, 1869-1928

War ravages the landscape and destroys the careful work of generations. The aftermath for country people who have survived is described with a touch of wry humour in the next poem.


After the wars

The soldiers have gone, the villagers return

The snows have ceased, the flowers are opening up

Last year’s yellowed grass still stands

Smoke puffs again from the little hamlets

Tired rats squeak among the empty walls

Starving crows peck in the barren fields

I seem to hear people muttering:

‘The taxman’s coming round again’.


Xin Yuan, Chinese, 13th c., tr. John Scott


The millions of lives thrown into ruin by war are represented here by a poem written 1800 years ago by a Chinese noble-woman. She was captured by nomadic tribesmen during of their periodic rampages in China. She was forced to marry a chief, by whom she had two children. When he died, tribal custom forced her to marry his son. After twelve years she was ransomed. She had to return to China and leave her children behind. Back in China, she was scorned for her two marriages to barbarians, the second of which was to their minds incestuous. She remarried a Chinese, but the translator speculates that her new husband was ordered to marry her by the emperor who had ransomed her.


Poem of Sorrow

…Cho’s company came down upon the east,

Their metal armour glinting in the sun.

The men of the plains were weak and cowardly,

The invading soldiers were all Hu and Chi’ang.

Trampling across the fields, they invested the cities;

In the towns they attacked, everything was destroyed.

Heads were lopped off till no one was left to kill,

Just bones and corpses propping each other up.

On their horses’ flanks they hung the heads of men,

On their horses’ back they carried off women and girls.

We galloped for days westwards into the passes,

The endless road was dangerous and steep.

When I looked back, into the mist-hung distance,

I felt as though my very heart was breaking.

In all thy captured over ten thousand women,

Our captors would not let us keep together.

Sometimes when sisters found themselves side by side,

Longing to speak, they dared not utter a word.

If by some trivial fault we angered the soldiers,

At once they’d bawl out ‘Kill these prisoners!

We’d better take knives and finish them off,

Why waste our time on keeping them alive?’

I had no desire to go on living longer,

I could not bear their cursing and reviling.

Sometimes they flogged us with rods as well,

And the pain we felt was mingled with our hatred.

During the day we trudged on weeping and crying,

At night we sat there, groaning to ourselves.

We longed to die, but could not get the chance,

We longed to live, with nothing left to live for.

How could the Blue Above be so unjust

To pour on us such anger and misfortune?

The border wilds are different from China,

And men know little of Righteousness and Truth.

It is a place where frost and snow abound,

And the northern wind blows spring and summer long.

It sent my clothes flapping about as it blew,

And whistled shrilly all around my ears.

Moved by the seasons, I thought of my father and mother,

My grief and sighing never came to an end.

When a strange arrived from the world outside,

I was always overjoyed to hear of it,

I would welcome him, ask what news he had,

Only to find his district was not mine.

But luck my constant wish was gratified,

My relatives sent someone to rescue me.

But now when I was able to escape,

I found I had to leave my children there.

Natural bonds tie children to a woman’s heart,

I thought of our parting, never to meet again,

In life and death eternally separated –

I could not bring myself to say goodbye.

My children came and clung around my neck,

Asking their mother where she was going to.

‘They  say that you have got to go away,

How can you ever come back to us again?

Mother, you were always so loving and so kind,

Why have you now become so harsh to us? We have not

even grown into men,

How can you not look back and think of us?

The sight of them destroyed me utterly,

I grew confused, behaved like one run mad.

Weeping and wailing, I fondled and caressed them,

When I had to set out, I turned back time and again.

The women who were taken captive with me

Came to bid me farewell and see me off.

They were glad that I could go back, though alone;

The sound of their crying hurt me grievously.

Because of this the horses stood hesitating,

Because of this the carriage did not move.

All the lookers-on were crying and wailing,

Even the passers-by were crying too.

But I had to go, I had to harden my heart.

Daily our caravan hurried me further away.

On and on we went, three thousand leagues,

When would I ever see those I had left behind?

I brooded on the children of my womb,

The heart in my breast was broken evermore.

I got home to find my family was wiped out,

Nor had I any kin at all alive.

My home town had become a mountain-forest,

In its ruined courts the thorns and mugworts grew,

And all around, white bones of unknown men

Lay scattered with no one to bury them.

Outside the gates I heard no human voices,

Only wolves were howling, barking all around.

I stood alone, facing my lonely shadow,

My cry of anguish battered at my heart.

I climbed a hill and gazed into the distance,

And soul and spirit suddenly fled from me.

A bystander encouraged me to patience,

Kept urging me to try and go on living.

Though I went on living, what had life left for me?

I entrusted my fate to yet another man,

Exhausted my heart to summon strength to go on.

My wanderings have made all men despise me,

I live in fear of being cast aside once more.

How long can a woman’s life go dragging on?

I shall know sorrow till the very end of my days.


Tsai Yen, Chinese, 190 A.D. tr. Frodsham and Cheng His


Displaced victims of war are the subjects of the next poem. The poet notes with irony how the victim’s presence illuminates the limitations of a more normal way of life.



They are ageing now, some dead.

In the third-class suburbs of exile

Their foreign accents

Continue to condemn them. They should

Not have expected more.


They had their time

Of blazing across headlines,

Welcomes, interviews, placings

In jobs that could not fit,

Of being walked round carefully.

One averts the eyes

From horror or miracle equally.


Their faces, common to humankind,

Had eyes, lips, noses.

That in itself was grave,

Sent through such a flame.


The Czech boy, talking

Posturing, desperate to please,

Restless as a spastic trying

To continue his twitches

Into a normal straightjacket –

What could we do with him?


The neighbours asked him

To children’s parties,

Being at sixteen a child;

Gave him small jobs

Having no niche to hold him

Whether as icon, inhabitant

Or memento mori.


He could not be a person

Having once been forced to carry

Other children’s corpses

To the place of burning.


But when we saw him walk

Beside our own children

Darkness rose from that pit.

Quickly but carefully

(he must not notice)

We put our bodies

Between our children and the Victim.


Absit omen [4], you gods –

Avert the doom,

The future’s beckoning flame.


Perhaps he did not notice. At last

He went away.


In what back-street of what city

Does he keep silence, unreadable

Fading graffito of half-

Forgotten obscenity?


Think: such are not to be pitied.

They were already

A coat of ash seared in.

But our children and their children

Have put on, over the years,

A delicate cloak of fat.


Judith Wright, Australian, born 1915


The theme of ash continues in the most famous poem about the Holocaust. Celan’s parents died in an internment camp, his father of typhus, his mother murdered. He himself survived but with a legacy of mental torment. He committed suicide in 1970.


Margarete is a German girl, Shulamith, a Jewish girl. Shulamith is the name traditionally given to the girl in the Song of Songs. In concentraton camps, some inmates were forced to play ‘civilised’ music while others were burnt. The poem is not so much about war itself as about the madness war unleashes.


Death fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown

We drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

We drink and we drink it

We dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

He writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete

He writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing

He whistles his pack out

He whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for grave

He commands us strike up for the dance


Black mild of daybreak we drink you at night

We drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown

We drink and we drink you

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

He writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there

One lies unconfined.


He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play

He grabs the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue

Jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

We drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown

We drink and we drink you

A man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents


He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany

He calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will

Rise into air

Then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

We drink you at noon death is a master from Germany

We drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you

Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue

He strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

A man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

He sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air

He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany


Your golden hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith


Paul Celan, Geman, 1920 – 70, tr. Michael Hamburger


Long ago there was a saying, ‘The god of war is just, killing only those who kill’. That was never wholly accurate, but now those who kill are remote from those they kill. Those who get killed are for the most part poor and uneducated, conscripts or civilians, the least privileged and least influential of the populations involved. Technology allows war o be waged from a distance and vastly increases its potential of destruction.

The politics of war have also changed. Second- and third-world tyrants are befriended and used by the democratic powers, who profitably supply them with arms in return for the right to strip the land of oil, minerals and timber. The tyrants may use their armaments to slaughter and oppress their own populations, but if they upset the Western powers they are slapped down. [5] In this way, armaments and warfare contribute to the asset-stripping of the earth.

The proliferation of armaments is described in the next poem, published in 1953. Great powers, too frightened of each others’ armaments to go to war with each other (especially when the leaders themselves would be incinerated in such a conflict), conduct wars that are sporadic and continuing but far from home, while the threat – or promise – of mass destruction hangs over us all.


Every day by Ingeborg Bachmann, Austrian, 1926 – 73, tr. I.M.

War will no more be declared,

Just continued. The unheard-of

Has become the commonplace. The hero

Stays far from the fighting. The weakling

Is moved to the zone of fire.

The uniform of the day is patience;

The decoration, the shabby star

Of hope above the heart.


It will be awarded

When nothing more is happening,

When the barrage falls silent,

When the enemy has become invisible,

And the shadow of eternal armament

Fills the sky.


It will be awarded

For flight from banners

For bravery in front of friends

For the treachery of unworthy secrets,

And the non-action

Of very briefing.

As nuclear weapons proliferate, the overcast skies of the last poem threaten to break and engulf us in storm. Looking ahead, a new reason for warfare presents itself. Environmental disasters in one country increasingly affect the welfare of neighbour states. Deforestation in Tibet causes flooding in Bangladesh. Industrial pollution in England and Germany cause acid rain across Northern Europe. Accidents in nuclear power stations affect whole continents. As environmental degradation becomes more acute, and living standards impossible to maintain, war over such issues is an ugly possibility. More than ever, it’s in our interest to look to our common interests as a species.

In light of this emphasis we must not forget the sacrifice many people have made in defence of their right to freedom under familiar skies. Slavery, extermination or the yoke of foreign domination are examples of things worth fighting against, and the last poem celebrates sacrifice made in war.


Behold, O Earth, how wasteful we have been

Spreading our seed in your secret sacred lap;

Not shining barley seed, nor heavy wheat,

Nor gold-streaked grain of rye, nor tasseled corn;

Behold, O Earth, how wasteful we have been!

The fairest of our flowers are in your dust,

Flowers that hardly witnessed the morning sun,

Some half in bud, some full in fragrant bloom,

Before life’s noon, their innocence our grief;

Their dew not dry, they met a light that was new.

Accept these best, youth of the purest dream,

Whole in heart, not stained by the guilt of the world,

The weave of their days to be finished in life yet to be.

These are our best: what better have you seen?

Cover them over; the corn will soon be green,

Strong with their strength; the sanctity of earth

Increased by sacrifice; in death’s mystery

May they make splendid amends for us that live.

Behold, O Earth, how wasteful we have been!


Saul Tchernikhovsky, 1875 – 1943, Hebrew; version I.M. from translation by

H. Auerbach


[1] From: The Green Book of Poetry, ed. Ivo Mosley, Frontier Publishing, UK  ISBN 1 – 872914-05-5

[2] W.H. Auden, from “Thank You, Fog”

[3] Translator’s note: ‘The Cola ancestor was famous in legend for an act of extreme generosity. When a pigeon, hunted by a hawk, sought his protection, he satisfied the hawk’s hunger by offering the predator his own flesh in place of the pigeon’s.

[4] May this omen keep its distance

[5] This paragraph follows closely the ideas and some of the wording of C.D. Darlington in ‘The Little Universe of Man’, pp. 265-6

^ Top

« Poets | Poets and Kids’ Guernica in Kastelli, Crete 2006 »