John Freeman

(1880-1929 / England)

Presage To Victory - Poem by John Freeman


Then first I knew, seeing that bent grey head,
How England honours all her thousand dead.
Then first I knew how faith through black grief burns,
Until the ruined heart glows while it yearns
For one that never more returns--
Glows in the spent embers of its pride
For one that careless lived and fearless died.
And then I knew, then first,
How everywhere Hope from her prison had burst--
On every hill, wide dale, soft valley's lap,
In lonely cottage clutch'd between huge downs,
And streets confused with streets in clanging towns--
Like spring from winter's jail pouring her sap
Into the idle wood of last year's trees.
Then first I knew how the vast world-disease
Would die away, and England upon her seas
Shake every scab of sickness; toward new skies
Lifting a little holier her head,
With honesty the brighter in her eyes,
And all that urgent horror well forgot,
The dark remembered not;
Only remembered then, with bosom yet hot,
The blood that on how many a far field lies,
The bones enriching not our English earth
That brought them to such splendid birth
And the last sacrifice.


Then first I knew, seeing that head bent low,
How gravely all her days she needs must go,
Bearing an image in her faded breast....

O, the dark unrest
Of thoughts that never cease their flight,
Never vanishing, yet never still,
Like birds that wail round the bewildering nest!
But other nestlings never shall be hers,
Only a painful image his place fill,
Only a memory remain for her thin bosom to nurse
In all that dark unrest
Of sleepless and tormented night.


Yet from _her_ eyes presage of victory
Looked steadfast out at mine.
It is not to be thought of (said her eyes)
That only a foul blotch the sun may shine
On England, through low poisonous thick skies!
Never, O never again
This pain, this pain!
Else from that foreign earth his bones would rise
And thrust in anger at the bitter skies.
It is not to be thought of that such prayer
Should fall unheeded back through heavy air.
But I have heard, in the night I have heard,
When not a leaf in all the orchard stirred,
And even the water of the bourne hung still,
And the old twitching, creaking house was still,
And all was still,
What was it I heard?
It could not be his voice, come from so far;
I know 'twas not a bird.
It _was_ his voice, or that lone watchful star
Creeping above the casement bar,
Saying: Fear thou no ill,
No ill!
Then all the silence was an echoing round,
The water and dumb trees their antique murmur found,
And clear as music came the repeated Sound:
Fear thou no ill, no ill!

Was it her eyes or her tongue told me this?


Yet but sad comfort from such pain is caught....
I went out from the house and climbed the coombe,
And where the first light of sweet morning hung
I found the light I sought.
From somewhere south a bugle's note was flung,
From somewhere north a sombre boom;
On the opposing hills white flecks and grey
Spotted the misty green,
And blue smoke wraiths around the tall trees clung.
Presently rose thick dust clouds from the green:
Came up, or seemed to come, the instant beat
Of marching feet;
Then with the clouds the beating died away,
And nothing was seen
But broken hills and the new flush of day.


All round the folding hills were like green waves,
Tossing awhile together ere they fall
And fling their salt on the steep stony beach.
The sound I heard was sound of Roman feet--
I saw the sparkling light on Roman glaives,
I heard the Roman speech
Answering the wild Iberian battle-call:
They passed from sight on the long street.
And I saw then the Mercian Kings that strode
Proudly from the small city of grey stone
And climbed the folding hills,
Past the full springs that bubbled and flowed
Through the soft valley and on to Avon stream.
They passed--as all things pass and seem
No other than a dream,
All but the shining and the echo gone.
But still I listened and looked. Their voice it was
Blown through the valley grass;
Their dust it was that sprang from the hard road
Where now these English legions flowed,
Waking the quiet like a steady wind.
That ancient soldiery before me passed
With all that followed them, and these the last
Of my own generation, my own mind;
Their strength and courage rooted deep in the earth
That brings men to such splendid birth
And no vain sacrifice ...
It was as when the land all darkness lies,
And shades, nor only shades, move freely out
And through the trees are heard and all about
Their ancient ways, 'neath the old stars and skies.
So now in morning's light I knew them there
Leading the men that marched and marched away,
And mounted up the hill, and down the hill
Passed from my eyes and ears, and left the air
Trembling everywhere,
And then how still!


Then first I knew the joy that yet should be
Ringing from camped hill and guarded sea
With England's victory.
The dust had stirred, the infinite dust had stirred,
It was the courage of the past I heard,
The virtue of those buried bones again
Animate in these marching Englishmen;
And nothing wanted if the dead but nerved
The living hands that the same England served.
With new-washed eyes I saw as I went down
On the hill crest the oak-grove's crown,
With new delighted ear heard the lark sing--
That mad delighted thing;
The very smoke that rose was strangely blue,
But most the orchard brightened wonderfully new,
Where the wild spring, ere winter snow well gone,
Scattered her whiter, briefer snow-cloud down.
And England lovelier looked than when
Her dead roused not her living men.

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Poem Submitted: Friday, September 24, 2010

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