Kneeshaw goes to War

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

There are a few left who will find it hard to forget
Polygonveld.
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.

5

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.

6

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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