Kneeshaw goes to War


Ernest Kneeshaw grew
In the forest of his dreams
Like a woodland flower whose anaemic petals
Need the sun.

Life was a far perspective
Of high black columns
Flanking, arching and encircling him.
He never, even vaguely, tried to pierce
The gloom about him,
But was content to contemplate
His finger-nails and wrinkled boots.

He might at least have perceived
A sexual atmosphere;
But even when his body burned and urged
Like the buds and roots around him,
Abash'd by the will-less promptings of his flesh,
He continued to contemplate his feet.


Kneeshaw went to war.
On bleak moors and among harsh fellows
They set about with much painstaking
To straighten his drooping back:

But still his mind reflected things
Like a cold steel mirror — emotionless;
Yet in reflecting he became accomplish'd
And, to some extent,
Divested of ancestral gloom.
Then Kneeshaw crossed the sea.
At Boulogne
He cast a backward glance across the harbours
And saw there a forest of assembled masts and rigging.
Like the sweep from a releas'd dam,
His thoughts flooded unfamiliar paths:

This forest was congregated
From various climates and strange seas:
Hadn't each ship some separate memory
Of sunlit scenes or arduous waters?
Didn't each bring in the high glamour
Of conquering force?
Wasn't the forest-gloom of their assembly
A body built of living cells,
Of personalities and experiences
— A witness of heroism
Co-existent with man?

And that dark forest of his youth —
Couldn't he liberate the black columns
Flanking, arching, encircling him with dread?
Couldn't he let them spread from his vision like a fleet
Taking the open sea,
Disintegrating into light and colour and the fragrance of winds?
And perhaps in some thought they would return
Laden with strange merchandise —
And with the passing thought
Pass unregretted into far horizons.

These were Kneeshaw's musings
Whilst he yet dwelt in the romantic fringes.


Then, with many other men,
He was transported in a cattle-truck
To the scene of war.
For a while chance was kind
Save for an inevitable
Searing of the mind.
But later Kneeshaw's war
Became intense.
The ghastly desolation
Sank into men's hearts and turned them black —
Cankered them with horror.
Kneeshaw felt himself
A cog in some great evil engine,
Unwilling, but revolv'd tempestuously
By unseen springs.
He plunged with listless mind
Into the black horror.


There are a few left who will find it hard to forget
The earth was scarr'd and broken
By torrents of plunging shells;
Then wash'd and sodden with autumnal rains.
And Polygonbeke
(Perhaps a rippling stream
In the days of Kneeshaw's gloom)
Spread itself like a fatal quicksand, —
A sucking, clutching death.
They had to be across the beke
And in their line before dawn.
A man who was marching by Kneeshaw's side
Hesitated in the middle of the mud,
And slowly sank, weighted down by equipment and arms.
He cried for help;
Rifles were stretched to him;
He clutched and they tugged,
But slowly he sank.
His terror grew —
Grew visibly when the viscous ooze
Reached his neck.
And there he seemed to stick,
Sinking no more.
They could not dig him out —
The oozing mud would flow back again.

The dawn was very near.

An officer shot him through the head:
Not a neat job — the revolver
Was too close.


Then the dawn came, silver on the wet brown earth.

Kneeshaw found himself in the second wave:
The unseen springs revolved the cog
Through all the mutations of that storm of death.
He started when he heard them cry " Dig in!"
He had to think and couldn't for a while.
Then he seized a pick from the nearest man
And clawed passionately upon the churned earth.
With satisfaction his pick
Cleft the skull of a buried man.
Kneeshaw tugged the clinging pick,
Saw its burden and shrieked.

For a second or two he was impotent
Vainly trying to recover his will, but his senses prevailing.

Then mercifully
A hot blast and riotous detonation
Hurled his mangled body
Into the beautiful peace of coma.


There came a day when Kneeshaw,
Minus a leg, on crutches,
Stalked the woods and hills of his native land.
And on the hills he would sing this war-song:

The forest gloom breaks:
The wild black masts
Seaward sweep on adventurous ways:
I grip my crutches and keep
A lonely view.

I stand on this hill and accept
The pleasure my flesh dictates
I count not kisses nor take
Too serious a view of tobacco.

Judas no doubt was right
In a mental sort of way:
For he betrayed another and so
With purpose was self-justified.
But I delivered my body to fear —
I was a bloodier fool than he.

I stand on this hill and accept
The flowers at my feet and the deep
Beauty of the still tarn:
Chance that gave me a crutch and a view
Gave me these.

The soul is not a dogmatic affair
Like manliness, colour, and light;
But these essentials there be:
To speak truth and so rule oneself
That other folk may rede.
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