These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Follow’d their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandon’d, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
by A.E. Housman (1860-1936)
To me, this poem is evocative of all those who do the dirty work for the rest of us. It is a WW1 poem, but also applies, I feel, to all those who fought in WW2, specifically to my Grandfather who fought in both world wars and his children: my Uncle who defended India, my Godmother who repaired Spitfires under enemy fire and her sister who manned (womanned?) the Barrage Balloons during the London Blitz. Plus my other Aunt’s American fiance who died at D-Day and all the young American boys my teenage mother danced with during the long wait for D-Day, and who she cried for as they left one night to take back Europe.
The mercenaries in this poem are actually the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914— the professional British army before the rush of volunteers. The BEF was sent to France in 1914 to fight against the Germans.
English summers, often damp, can invoke long stifling twilights
Nothing landbound needlessly moves
Contrails crayon across the sky
So many, this close to London’s hub
Distantly, the buzz of a low plane, pleasure rider reaching up
Into the realm of the starlings as they susurrate
A car comes past in the lane droning away round the curves
Here the runway cross remains
The old tower still stands intact
As ponies munch and cattle chew
Larks lurk in the grass where bombers once turned
Occasional ironwork testament to hydrants and gun emplacements
War and weapons layered over by Nature and time
But, as the dark deepens, the lost come home
Tearing blazing incandescent screams rustle up drowsy birds
Look up and the dazzling burning blurs past
Metal screeches as it tears apart, each time the same
One last attempt at landing whole, at bringing the crate home
So wanting to see sweethearts and Blighty again
Then gone, back to oblivion
The burning pilot saluted you as he passed
Copyright © 2017 Kim Whysall-Hammond
This poem first appeared in Peacock Journal earlier this year.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Pt Off. John Gillespie Magee, Jr, RCAF, 1941
John Magee was a Canadian Spitfire pilot in England in World War 2. He died in 1941. This poem is just wonderful and has been quoted again and again —I remember Ronald Reagan quoting it after the Challenger crash.
I wish I could write like this.