That Far River:
Selected Poems of
Theodore Goodridge Roberts

Edited by Martin Ware





V: A Billet in
Flanders: Poems of War


 

The Complaint of the “Olivette”


Oh, Captain pull the bell that gives the word,
    For all the other ships are in the bay;
    The “Seneca,” the grunting “Yucatan,”
Can see the gulf, by now, across the spray;
The “Rio Grande” is just a speck of black;
5
    The “Morgan” and the “Gussie” two red stars.
Oh, pull the bell and let us take the track,
    Or we will miss the glory of the wars.

We’ve taken all the ice from Petersburg—
    We’ve coal enough to steam us east to Spain.
10
The “Florida” lies wounded at her dock—
    The sunset wind is puffing up the rain.
Oh, Captain, wake the oily engineers—
    Yank up the rod that jingle-jinks the bell.
The thirty-eight are shouting, through their tears,
15
    “We’ll miss the row, and have no news to tell.”

I see the “Vigilancia,” hull down.
    She’ll jump “the bar” tonight and slip the key—
Pass Egmont and the Cedars, southward ho,
    There go the “Conche” and the “Cherokee”.
20
The “Iroquois” is working in a sweat,
    Reversing, butting; now he has the tide,
While I, the dainty, racing “Olivette,”
    Cling to the dock and batter my port side.

Oh, Captain, pull the bell that gives the word,
25
    For all the other ships are under way.
The “Matteawan” has distanced Quarantine.
    Oh, see her go a-trailing down the bay.
My patient correspondents have gone daft— [Page 69]
    They shake their fists and hang along the rail—
30
They fill me with discomfort fore and aft,
    All shouting, “Why in goodness don’t we sail?”

Steam out to-morrow?  That will do.  Good-night.
My sixteen knots will catch them at the Light.

*Ind.
                                    1898                                           1900, Ind.
 
 

The Master of Fate


It is not the Past I shrink from, sweet, and bitter, and gay;
The pain of the Past has softened to music along the way;
But close at my stirrup, riding when night draws hillward apace
Is the horseman I may challenge, with ever averted face.

Fate has timed him to strike me—yet he is master of Fate.        
5
Hope dies at sound of his gallop—his hands are darkened with             hate.
I ride, and strive to be merry, then feel his knee on my knee.
And cringe lest his sabre be swung for the stroke that I cannot see.

Is there no God to save me, of all the gods that I know?
Does the God of my fathers slumber, where the tall, church            
10
        windows glow?  
The priest and the people worship; the organ cries to the roof;
Outside, mid the snow and shadows, I hear the ring of his hoof.

When the candles burn on the tables and the heart of the room is         gay,
He swings from his tireless saddle and enters to watch my play.
When the old fire wakes my spirit with its dear old promise of        
15
        fame.  
I hear his spurs at the threshold and his thin lips crying a name.

Tomorrow—perhaps—(I care not) he’ll rise in his stirrups to smite,
And I shall sag in my saddle, well rid of the doubt and the flight—
Fame and hope all over, tears and laughter and hate— Cut down, in the outer darkness, by the nameless Master of Fate.
20

K.B.                                                                                  
    1902, K.B.
[Page 70]
 
 

The Torpedo Boat


You were built for the ugly tackle,
For dirty work in the night;
To sneak, and creep, and sink the ships
Too good for you in a fight.

You were forged in the devil’s workshop
5
With many a trick of sin—
A shaft of murder and hatred
Hid in the battle din.

They sank you low in the water
Till the green waves washed your rail;
10
They hid you in cove and river,
Counting the foreign sail.

They said you would send the cruiser
With her turrets and guns, to hell.
They said you would get your range
15
In spite of the plunging shell.

They dreamed you would shatter and sink
The battle-ships one by one—
Sliding along in the night,
Under the twelve-inch gun.
20

You were built for the ugly tackle
But the gun-boats did you to death;
They broke your sides with their shot
And felt no touch of your breath,

And the cruiser, lying at anchor
25
Had her white eye out on the night—
Then the after-turret swung one gun—
And they would not call it a fight. [Page 71]

You were built for the ugly tackle—
For devilish work in the gloom.
30
And tube, and funnel, and armored deck
Have gone to their ugly doom.

K.B.                     
                   *1898                                   1902, K.B.
 
 

The Calumet of Peace


I see a giant calumet alight,
    Touched with God’s love for fire;
The incense of its smoke across the night,
    Gives us a new desire.

So tired we are of valor in the field,
5
    Of blood and horrid things
That once were men. The maddened fighters yield
    To God, but not to kings.

The fragrance of the calumet of peace
    Comes out to us afar;
10
It brings our angered hearts a soft release,
    And kisses every scar.

Again we hear the sounds we used to know—
    The voice of hearth and home;
Again we see the turning maples glow
15
    Beneath their azure dome.

A comrade sees his cotton-fields again;
    His wife beside the door
Sings softly, and his dreams remember when
    She sang those songs before.
20

“I watch the vultures fade.  The heavy guns
    Are silent for a space. [Page 72]
And Love from God’s great calumet of Peace,
    Has hidden horror’s face.

Ind.                                                                                      
  1898, Ind.
 
 

The Spears of Kan-Mar


    Eyes that we look into—so,
    Hands that we kiss ere we go,
Keep us,—remember us, hold us a night and a day;
    For the white road stretches ahead,
    And our spears have a vision of red,
5
And our horses champ with their bits, and rear at the way.

    The tussocks of grass in the glare
    Are brown as a dream-maiden’s hair,
And over them, white in the sun, the spears of Kan-Mar;
    The curbs, and the froth at the lips—
10
    The bridle chains snapping like whips,
And our plumes tossed red, and scenting the heels of war.

    The eyes that twinkle and burn—
    The wrists like elk-thongs that turn
With the balancing, pausing, slender, murderous spear;
15
    The words that lead us along,
    The thrust, the shriek and the song—
Sights not fit for their eyes, nor sounds for their ears to hear.

    The city gates in the sun,
    The glory of brave deeds done,
20
The clatter of horning hoofs and the song of old Kan-Mar,
    The roar of the narrow street
    Filled with clanging of feet—
The white hands over the balconies, and the kiss on the burning             scar!

T.C.V.                                                                             
   1900, T.C.V.
[Page 73]
 
 

Our Marching


I saw the might of our Empire
In a dream, as the faggots sank;
I heard the heart of a nation
Pulse out from rank to rank;
I felt the weight of their marching
5
And I heard their harness clank;

Clank of the metal traces—
And the heavy guns replied;
Clank of the lilting sabres
Swinging along the side;
10
Foot, and horse and guns,
And my heart was mad with pride.

Highland and Lowland men,
And men from the Outer Seas;
Brave hearts from England’s heart—
15
True hearts from the Colonies;
Shoulder to shoulder they went
With the red dust to their knees.

I saw in the roads before them
Fortress and barricade,
20
And a people who cried defiance—
Sullen and unafraid;
Then I heard the voice of the Empire
Roll back to the last brigade.

I saw the gay, red tunics
25
Swing forward, rank on rank.
I saw the gay, straight Lancers
Spur hillward, neck to flank.
I heard the gunners’ curses
And I heard the harness clank. [Page 74]
30

But nought could I see of them
That had blocked the way and defied
Nought of the sullen people
That had spat at our regal pride,
Save a huddle of shapes in the road,
35
And blood on the mountainside.

Can. Mag.                                     
                           1900, Can. Mag.
 
 

The Last Billet


Some day I’ll come to that still place,
    And bid the old man make my bed.
No hurry of departure then:
    No waking when the dawn is red.

The same kind trees will sing to me,
5
    Day after day, night after night:
The wind that wanders in the grass
    Will bring no tidings of the fight.

In that still hostelry of rest,
    Where time is not, and sleep is long,
10
I’ll clean forget the thing unwon,
    And pain of the unfinished song.

Night will not find me journeying,
    Where endless roads in dusk are set,
On some fool’s errand down the world,
15
    Hag-ridden by an old regret.

Some evening I shall turn aside
    To that dark hostelry of rest,
And at the threshold loose my spurs,
    And to the wind bequeath my quest.
20

L.B.                                         
               1902, Ind. (as “The Last Inn”)
[Page 75]
 
 

My Comrade


I know him by no mark at all
    On brow, or coat, or varied hands.
No single clan can compass him—
    My comrade out of many lands.

And yet I ken him easily;
5
    Young Dick I met when ways were glad,
And now I pledge a health to him
    For all the joyous days we had.

By fires that smoldered in the rains
    Archie and I were comrades true,
10
And yet his work was not my work—
    His knowledge not of things I knew;

But we, with open hearts, could share
    Tales of our sorrows, and our fun,
And dry our kits at one small fire
15
    When daylight and the march were done.

But wherefore name him?  Here and there
    I find him as the seasons turn—
The man whose laughter does not jar,
    The man whose questions do not burn.
20

No surname holds the magic spell;
    Nor any rank; nor wise degree;
He must be of the seeing eye,
    Quick heart, and the unbending knee.
Maybe he paints—maybe he fights!
25
    All ’round the world I hold his hands,
And pledge a life long health to him—
    My comrade out of many lands.

Ind.
                                                                                         1903, Ind.
[Page 76]
 
 

The Fifes of Valcartier


Thumps the big drum,
‘Come.’
And thin and bitter-sweet the fifes are calling me—
Come up and serve your country in the red fields over-sea.

‘Come up and serve your King, in this his needful day,
5
On the torn fields of the old world, four thousand miles away.’

Rap the little drums,
‘Come.’
And shrill and thin as a child’s cry the black fifes call to me,
And wring my heart, and turn my face to the red fields over-sea—
10
Come up and serve your country, in this her needful day,
‘Where tyrants strike at her great heart, four thousand miles away.’

But soon the drums are silent, the thin fifes cease their cry,
The only sound is the thud of feet as the regiments go by;
And soft and clear and bitter-sweet a dear voice cries to me
15
Of the days of peace and love and ease that are not over-sea.
Oh, slow our feet are tramping, and the bitter dust drifts up.
Oh, slow our hearts are beating, and bitter is the cup.

Then— Thuds the big drum,
20
‘Come.’
And quick and high and sharp and thin the fifes cry out to me.
‘Come out, come up and serve your King in the red fields over-            sea;

‘Stand up, stand out for Freedom, in this distressful day, ‘For they strike at all you have and love, four thousand miles away.’
25

Can.Po. Of Gt. War
                   *(1914)              1915, Winds. Mag.
[Page 77]
 
 

Quebec


Grey city far away, so far removed
From my lost heart by space and time together;
So briefly known by me, so greatly loved;
I see you then, as now, in misty weather,
An hour after lamplight…Here, alone
5
I wonder if you, too, still hold and see,
In your old eyes and rain swept heart of stone
The vision and the time so dear to me.

Between the breaking camp and waiting ships
I went to you, heart weary, to embark,
10
And found my love again, and her dear lips—
Between the bright lights and the misty dark.
Out of the night and emptiness I turned
And found her waiting in that lighted place,
Where laughter rang to hide the fears that burned—      
15
With eyes tear-wet, and white love on her face.

Grey city far away, my thoughts return
To you, and to my longing heart it seems
That love and magic in your windows burn
Forever, set athwart your walls of dream.
20
Because, on that rare night of joy and pain
I found her in your keeping, safe and true.
And so my heart turns back, and turns again—
For one dear woman’s sake—and blesses you.

M/S                                                                                   c. 1914/1923
 
 

Salisbury Plain
(December, 1914)

 

The grey moon at dawn:
    The grey sun at noon:
Dank mists a-crawl,
    Grey as the moon. [Page 78]

Furze in the vale:
5
    A farm on the hill;
Wet, grey flocks
    Roving at will.

Haws on the bush;
    A lark in the sky:
10
Old Stonehenge counting
    Ages go by.

Furze black as grief:
    Sward green as Spring
And one grey bird
15
    With heart to sing.

L.B.        
                                1914                                      1934, L.B.
 
 

A Cook-House at Reveillé


Outside, the mud between the huts,
    The heavy murk of mist and night;
The chill, the sullen waking.  Here
    The warmth and stir and crimson light.

Gray steam goes up to misted lamps
5
    From giant caldrons set a-row;
And sleepy cooks stoop to their tasks,
    Satanic in the stove’s red glow.

And here is one who worked, last year,
    With Mitchell’s crew on Beaver Lake,
10
Where the dark spruces lift their spires,
    Where axes flash and white frosts ache,

And snows are dry as desert sands,
    And only the moose-bird stirs a wing [Page 79]
Till April…Here, in mist and murk,
15
    Homesick and grim, he serves his king.

*T/S                                  1914                              1915, Winds. Mag.
 
 

Private North


Hunched in his greatcoat, there he stands,
Sullen of face and hard of hands;
Ready to fight, unready to drill,
Willing to suffer and ready to kill.

What does he offer to you, O King!
5
Himself: a humble and uncouth thing.
What does he offer you, fit to take?
A life to spend; a body to break.

His mouth is sullen; his ways are rough;
But his untamed heart is true enough.    
10

I’ve seen his home, low-set and grey
In black woods thousands of miles away,
Where he lived from the loud, mad world removed,
Masterless, gentle and gladly loved.

Hunched in his greatcoat, here he stands,
15
Offering all with heart and hands.

He offers his life to your needs, O King!
A fearless, humble and steadfast thing;
And with it, for chance to spare or take,
A woman’s spirit to wring and break.   
20

L.B.                                                    
                        1915, Can. Mag.
[Page 80]
 
 

Sunday in a Country Hotel


Out of the dusk, out of the rain,
    I came, mud-spattered, chill and wet,
To take my ease a night and day—
    For one short day-space to forget

The grind and clay and weariness,
5
    The petty cares not all my own,
The doubts that haunt my flimsy hut,
    The fears that I must face alone.

Vain hope!  All day they come and go—
    These other men—and here and there
10
Women whose voices fail, whose eyes
    Flash bright to blind their hearts’ despair.

Can. Mag.                                           
                     1915, Can. Mag.
 
 

Marie’s Farm
(Flanders 1915)


Up near Plug street, at break of dawn,
After a show the Tenth put on,
(Slithered with mud and chilled with sleet;
With empty stomachs and heavy feet
And the weight of a trench-stick cramping the arm)
5
We came to the haven of Marie’s Farm.

The eighteen-pounders were still at work
At the edge of the wood, in the misty murk.
Giving and taking yellow and red—
But Marie was deep in her ancient bed.
10
Ten minutes we pounded and cried her name
Before she showed us a candle flame. [Page 81]

Marie was old and fusty and fat,
And the subject of rumors of this and that
To such an extent that we thought some day
15
The French would come and take her away.
False we guessed her: But this we knew
Her coffee was good and her cognac true.

Her face was soft and her eyes were hard
As she chuckled about the great “bombard”.
20
She chuckled and wheezed, as the stove grew red,
Of blundering valor and senseless dead.
With a leer in her eyes to damn our souls
She poured us coffee in shining bowls.

She poured our coffee, with sugar to spare;
25
She drew the cork of the cognac rare,
Calling us great and brave and wise,
And warming our vitals and damning our eyes
With her eye’s cunning and her lips’ sneer
And a smirk of hate and a flicker of fear.
30

The Division then was before Messines.
With the Petit Douve in the mud between.
We moved next spring and forgot the charm
And timely solace of Marie’s Farm,
Thawing our bones and wetting our clay
35
At the Golden Cat and the Pot au Lait.

I met a gunner in ’Seventeen
On a leave-boat England and France between…
“You knew old Marie, near Plugstreet Wood,
Where the shooting was bad and the hitting good?
40
That fat old dame so thrifty and poor
Who spread her washing before the door
When the day was right, and a battery nigh,
And a plane or two were up in the sky?
Her coffee was good.  But one fine day
45
Somebody came and took her away!... [Page 82]
Since then our guns, safe screened from harm,
Shot all day long from Marie’s Farm.”

Can. Mag.                  
            1915                         1922, Can. Mag.
 
 

A Billet in Flanders
(1915)


Within, the frowstiness and gloom;
Without, the chill and sodden dark;
Within, pitiful, pale and small,
Christ crucified on the mildewed wall.

Without, the grind of wheels; the ring
5
Of hoofs and heels on greasy stone:
Within, the old bed, high and damp;
A candle and a smoky lamp.

There I was lonely for sane things:
There I was heartsick for glad days:
10
And there I knew, with dawning near,
That indecision men call fear.

Heated with wine or caked with mud—
(A revel spent or a day’s work done)—
Slowly I turned to that dreary bed
15
And the pale regard of the imaged dead.

I thought of death; and it did not seem
So dull a thing, nor so sad a jest,
As the dismal nights and the weary round
Of keeping alive on the muddy ground.
20

Flat ruins now, that house and room
Where I was caged with my soul’s gloom
And poor Christ languished, pale and small
In agony on the mildewed wall.

L.B.                     
*1915                 1922, Can. Mag. (as “The Billet”)
[Page 83]
 

 

Dawn


Sleep, lie soft on those fairy eyes,
    While I kneel here and pray above her.
Press the white lids down with your breath
    And whisper low of her kneeling lover.

Sleep, hold softly the frightened heart
5
    That flutters for fear of the parting hour…
Dear lips!  Dear, veiled eyes!  Dear face,
    Tender and small as a magic flower!

God, in my dreams let me see her so!—
    Asleep in my arms at the dawn’s gray starting.
10
Dreaming that grief and war are done,
    And life holds never another parting.

Can. Mag.                                             
                   1917, Can. Mag.
 

 

The Stirrup Cup


I gazed at the dark vintage in the cup
And saw strange lights and shadows moving there,
Now on the surface, now half hid and deep—
My love’s eyes bright with love and dark with sleep
Her dear lips red with joy, thrilled with despair.
5

I lifted the great cup and drank the wine
That blund’ring life had pressed me from the years
And forced on me at dawn of my long ride.
I drained the stuff and threw the cup aside
And tasted nothing but a woman’s tears.
10

Can. Mag.                                                                
1917, Can. Mag.
[Page 84]
 

 

To the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey


Unknown, yet known to us: missing, yet found
To be retombed and forgotten here
Amid old kings in precious, holy ground:
    And with you our own trysts with pain and fear
Are buried pridefully,—to fall to dust
5
    With hearts of poets and spent lusts of kings,
With stricken arrogance and knightly rust,
    In England’s glory-heap of wornout things.

Sleep well, O unknown soldier!—known and proved:
    Cold, unabashed, where storied ghosts confer.
10
Sleep well, O myriad-heart, well-beloved!—
    While we forget the splendid dreams that were.

L.B.                                                            
                   1927, Can. Bk.
 

 

Mortality


A little strife—and oh! the long forgetting.
    A gust of cheering—and the frozen breath.
A day of singing—and a night of silence.
    An hour for living—and an age for death.

So go the great; so goes the shining hero;
5
    So go we all, the weak, the strong, the blind,
The proud, the meek, the saint, the mocking sinner,
    Stumbling in front and crowding fast behind.

A little mirth—and oh! the long composure.
    A few swift paces—and the fainting breath.
10
Your day for singing, and God’s time for silence.
    My day for loving, and God’s age for death.

And yet I swear by the Eternal Riddle,
    The Holy Mysteries and the Awful Name, [Page 85]
My care is all for mortal human kindness,
15
    My jealousy for this brief minute’s fame.

L.B.                                                             
1934, L.B.
[Page 86]