Christmas In War-Time

A poem by Richard Le Gallienne


This is the year that has no Christmas Day,
Even the little children must be told
That something sad is happening far away -
Or, if you needs must play,
As children must,
Play softly children, underneath your breath!
For over our hearts hangs low the shadow of death,
Those hearts to you mysteriously old,
Grim grown-up hearts that ponder night and day
On the straight lists of broken-hearted dead,
Black narrow lists no tears can wash away,
Reading in which one cries out here and here
And falls into a dream upon a name.
Be happy softly, children, for a woe
Is on us, a great woe for little fame, -
Ah! in the old woods leave the mistletoe,
And leave the holly for another year,
Its berries are too red.


And lovers, like to children, will not you
Cease for a little from your kissing mirth,
Thinking of other lovers that must go
Kissed back with fire into the bosom of earth, -
Ah! in the old woods leave the mistletoe,
Be happy, softly, lovers, for you too
Shall be as sad as they another year,
And then for you the holly be berries of blood,
And mistletoe strange berries of bitter tears.
Ah! lovers, leave you your beatitude,
Give your sad eyes and ears
To the far griefs of neighbour and of friend,
To the great loves that find a little end,
Long loves that in a sudden puff of fire
With a wild thought expire.


And you, ye merchants, you that eat and cheat,
Gold-seeking hucksters in a noble land,
Think, when you lift the wine up in your hand,
Of a fierce vintage tragically red,
Red wine of the hearts of English soldiers dead,
Who ran to a wild death with laughing feet -
That we may sleep and drink and eat and cheat.
Ah! you brave few that fight for all the rest,
And die with smiling faces strangely blest,
Because you die for England - O to do
Something again for you,
In this great deed to have some little part;
To send so great a message from the heart
Of England that one man shall be as ten,
Hearing how England loves her Englishmen!
Ah! think you that a single gun is fired
We do not hear in England. Ah! we hear,
And mothers go with proud unhappy eyes
That say: It is for England that he dies,
England that does the cruel work of God,
And gives her well beloved to save the world.
For this is death like to a woman desired,
For this the wine-press trod.


And you in churches, praying this Christmas morn,
Pray as you never prayed that this may be
The little war that brought the great world peace;
Undazzled with its glorious infamy,
O pray with all your hearts that war may cease,
And who knows but that God may hear the prayer.
So it may come about next Christmas Day
That we shall hear the happy children play
Gladly aloud, unmindful of the dead,
And watch the lovers go
To the old woods to find the mistletoe.
But this year, children, if you needs must play,
Play very softly, underneath your breath;
Be happy softly, lovers, for great Death
Makes England holy with sorrow this Christmas Day;
Yes! in the old woods leave the mistletoe,
And leave the holly for another year -
Its berries are too red.

[Christmas, 1899 - Written during the Boer War.]

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