The beating of the guns grows louder.
'Not long, boys, now.'
My heart burns whiter, fearfuller, prouder;
As guns redouble their fire.
Through the shaken periscope peeping
I glimpse their wire:
Black earth, fountains of earth rise, leaping,
Spouting like shocks of meeting waves.
Death's fountains are playing,
Shells like shrieking birds rush over;
Crash and din rises higher.
A stream of lead raves
Over us from the left… (we safe under cover!)
Crash. Reverberation. Crash!
Acrid smoke billowing. Flash upon flash.
Black smoke drifting. The German line
Vanishes in confusion, smoke. Cries, and cry
Of our men, 'Gah! yer swime,
You're for it,' die
In a hurricane of shell….
'We're comin' soon! look out!'
There is opened hell
Over there. Fragments fly,
Rifles and bits of men whirled at the sky:
Dust, smoke, thunder. A sudden bout
Of machine-guns chattering….
And redoubled battering
As if in fury at their daring….
No good staring.
Time soon now… home… house on a sunlit hill….
Gone like a flickered page.
Time soon now… zero… will engage…
A sudden thrill.
Gods! we have our fill
Of fear, hysteria, exultation, rage -
Rage to kill….
My heart burns hot, whiter and whiter,
Contracts tighter and tighter,
Until I stifle with the will
Long forged, now used -
(Though utterly strained)
O pounding heart,
Heart panged, head singing dizzily pained -
To do my part.
Blindness a moment. Sick.
There the men are.
Bayonets ready: click!
Time goes quick;
A stumbled prayer… somehow a blazing star
In a blue night… where?
The tongue trips. Start:
How's time? Soon now. Two minutes or less.
The guns' fury mounting higher.
Their utmost. I lift a silent hand. Unseen I bless
Those hearts will follow me.
Now beautifully my will grips.
Soul calm and round and filmed and white!
A shout! 'Men, no such order as retire!'
The whistle's twixt my lips….
A wan, worn smile at me.
The pale wrist-watch….
The quiet hand ticks on amid the din.
The guns again
Rise to a last fury, to a rage, a lust:
Kill! Pound! Kill! Pound! Pound!
Now comes the thrust,
My part… dizziness… will… but trust
These men. The great guns rise.
Their fury seems to burst the earth and skies!
They - lift!
Gather, heart, all thoughts that drift;
Be steel, soul.
Into a round, bright whole.
I cannot speak.
I hear my whistle shriek
Between teeth set,
I fling an arm up,
Scramble up the grime
Over the parapet!
I'm up. Go on.
Something meets us.
Head down into the storm that greets us.
On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail.
Spatter. Whirr. Whirr.
'Toward that patch of brown,
Direction left.' Bullets: a stream.
Devouring thought crying in a dream;
Men, crumpled, going down….
Go on. Go.
Deafness, Numbness. The loudening tornado.
Bullets. Mud. Stumbling and skating.
My voice's strangled shout:-
'Steady pace, boys!'
The still light: gladness.
'Look, sir, look out!-'
Ha! Ha! Bunched figures waiting.
Revolver levelled: quick!
Red as blood.
Good! Oh, good!
Robert Nichols's Other Poems
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