The Undying

A poem by John Frederick Freeman

In thin clear light unshadowed shapes go by
Small on green fields beneath the hueless sky.
They do not stay for question, do not hear
Any old human speech: their tongue and ear
Seem only thought, for when I spoke they stirred not
And their bright minds conversing my ear heard not.
--Until I slept or, musing, on a heap
Of warm crisp fern lay between sense and sleep
Drowsy, still clinging to a strand of thought
Spider-like frail and all unconscious wrought.
For thinking of that unforgettable thing,
The war, that spreads a loud and shaggy wing
On things most peaceful, simple, happy and bright,
Until the spirit is blind though the eye is light;
Thinking of all that evil, envy, hate,
The cruelty most dark, most desolate;
Thinking of the English dead--"How can you dead,"
I muttered, "with your life and young joy shed,
How can you but in these new lands of life
Relume the fiery passion of old strife--
Just anger, mortal hate, the natural scorn
Of men true-born for all things foully born?"
For I had thought that not death's touch could still
In man's clean spirit the hate of good for ill.

But now to see their shapes go lightly by
On those vast fields, clear 'neath the hueless sky,
With not one furious gesture, and (when seen
With but the broad dark hedgerow space between)
No eye's disdain, no thin drawn face of grief,
But pondering calm or lightened look and brief
Smile almost gay;--yet all seen in the air
That driv'n mist makes unreal everywhere--
"So strange," I breathed, "How can you English dead
Forget them for whose life your life was shed?"

It was no voice that answered, yet plain word
Less plain is than the unspoken that I heard,
As I lay there on the dry heap of fern
And watched them pass, mix, disappear and return,
And felt their mute speech into empty senses burn:
"Earth's is the strife. The Heavenly Powers that sent
The gray globe spinning in the firmament,
The Heavenly Powers that soon or late will stay
The spinning, as a child that tires of play,
And globe by spent globe put forgot away
In some vast airless hollow: could they see
Or seeing endure immortal misery
Made out of mortal, and undying hate
Earth's perishing agonies perpetuate?
O spirits unhappy, if from earth men brought
The mind's disease, the sickness of mad thought!
Sooner the Heavenly Powers would let them lie
Eternally unrising 'neath a sky
Arctic and lonely, where death's starven wind
Raged full-delighted:--sooner would those kind
Serenities man's generation cast
Back into nothingness, than heaven should waste
With finite anguish infinitely prolonged
Until the Eternal Spring were stained and wronged.
O, even the Heavenly Powers at such a breath
From mortal shores would fade and fade to death."

--Was it a voice or but a thought I heard,
Mine or another's, in my boughs that stirred
Waking the leafy darkness of the mind?
Was it a voice, or but a new-roused wind
That answered--"O, I know, I know, I know!
The oldest rivers into the full sea flow
And there are lost: so everything is lost,
On midnight waves into oblivion tost.
Yet--the high passion, the pity, the joy and pride,
The righteousness for which these men have died,
The courage, the uncounted sacrifice,
The love and beauty, all that's beyond all price;
That this, the immortal heart of mortal man,
Should be--O tell me what, tell me again, again--
Petals lost on the river of the years
When April sweetness pauses, fades and disappears!
That this high Quarrel should be quenched in death
As some vexed petty plaint unworthy breath;
That the blood and the tears should never rise
Renewed, accusing in grave judgment skies ...
Tell me again--O, rather tell me not
Lest that ill telling never be forgot."

And then I rose from that warm ferny heap
And my thoughts climbed from the abyss of sleep.
No more in human guise did cloud-shapes pass,
Nor sighed with sad intelligence the grass.
I saw the hueless sky break into blue,
And I remembered how that heaven I knew
When, a small child, I gazed at the great height,
And thought of nothing but the blue and white,
Pools of sweet blue swimming in fields of light.
And as tired men from mine and stithy turn
While still the midnight fires unslackened burn
Flushing their road, and so reach home and then
Dream of old childhood's days and dream again;
So I forgot those inward fires and found
Old happiness like dew lying all around.
Under the hedge I stood and far below
Saw on the Worcester Plain the swift clouds flow
Like ships on seas no greener than the Plain
That shone between October sun and rain;
And thinking how time's plenteousness would bring
Back and more bright the young delicious Spring,
Between wet brambles thrust my hand, and tasted
Ripe berries on neglected boughs that wasted.

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