Poems by Siegfried Sassoon
The Old Huntsman
I've never ceased to curse the day I signed
A seven years' bargain for the Golden Fleece.
'Twas a bad deal all round; and dear enough
It cost me what with my daft management
And the mean folk as owed and never paid me 5
And backing losers; and the local bucks
Egging me on with whiskys while I bragged
The man I was when huntsman to the Squire.
I'd have been prosperous if I'd took a farm
Of fifty acres drove my gig and haggled 10
At Monday markets; now I've squandered all
My savings; nigh three hundred pound I got
As testimonial when I'd grown too stiff
And slow to press a beaten fox.
'Twas the damned Fleece that wore my Emily out 15
The wife of thirty years who served me well;
(Not like this beldam clattering in the kitchen
That never trims a lamp nor sweeps the floor
And brings me greasy soup in a foul crock.)
Blast the old harridan! What's fetched her now 20
Leaving me in the dark and short of fire?
And where's my pipe? 'Tis lucky I've a turn
For thinking and remembering all that's past.
And now's my hour before I hobble to bed
To set the works a-wheezing wind the clock 25
That keeps the time of life with feeble tick
Behind my bleared old face that stares and wonders.
. . . .
It's queer how in the dark comes back to mind
Some morning of September. We've been digging
In a steep sandy warren riddled with holes 30
And I've just pulled the terrier out and left
A sharp-nosed cub-face blinking there and snapping
Then in a moment seen him mobbed and torn
To strips in the baying hurly of the pack.
I picture it so clear: the dusty sunshine 35
On bracken and the men with spades that wipe
Red faces: one tilts up a mug of ale.
And having stopped to clean my gory hands
I whistle the jostling beauties out of the wood.
I'm but a daft old fool! I often wish 40
The Squire were back again¡ªah! he was a man!
They don't breed men like him these days; he'd come
For sure and sit and talk and suck his briar
Till the old wife brings up a dish of tea.
Ay those were days when I was serving Squire! 45
I never knowed such sport as '85
The winter afore the one that snowed us silly.
. . . .
Once in a way the parson will drop in
And read a bit o' the Bible if I'm bad
And pray the Lord to make my spirit whole 50
In faith: he leaves some 'baccy on the shelf
And wonders I don't keep a dog to cheer me
Because he knows I'm mortal fond of dogs!
I ask you what's a gent like that to me
As wouldn't know Elijah if I saw him 55
Nor have the wit to keep him on the talk?
'Tis kind of parson to be troubling still
With such as me; but he's a town-bred chap
Full of his college notions and Christmas hymns.
Religion beats me. I'm amazed at folk 60
Drinking the gospels in and never scratching
Their heads for questions. When I was a lad
I learned a bit from mother and never thought
To educate myself for prayers and psalms.
But now I'm old and bald and serious-minded 65
With days to sit and ponder. I'd no chance
When young and gay to get the hang of all
This Hell and Heaven: and when the clergy hoick
And holloa from their pulpits I'm asleep
However hard I listen; and when they pray 70
It seems we're all like children sucking sweets
In school and wondering whether master sees.
I used to dream of Hell when I was first
Promoted to a huntsman's job and scent
Was rotten and all the foxes disappeared 75
And hounds were short of blood; and officers
From barracks over-rode 'em all day long
On weedy whistling nags that knocked a hole
In every fence; good sportsmen to a man
And brigadiers by now but dreadful hard 80
On a young huntsman keen to show some sport.
Ay Hell was thick with captains and I rode
The lumbering brute that's beat in half a mile
And blunders into every blind old ditch.
Hell was the coldest scenting land I've known 85
And both my whips were always lost and hounds
Would never get their heads down; and a man
On a great yawing chestnut trying to cast 'em
While I was in a corner pounded by
The ugliest hog-backed stile you've clapped your eyes on. 90
There was an iron-spiked fence round all the coverts
And civil-spoken keepers I couldn't trust
And the main earth unstopp'd. The fox I found
Was always a three-legged 'un from a bag
Who reeked of aniseed and wouldn't run. 95
The farmers were all ploughing their old pasture
And bellowing at me when I rode their beans
To cast for beaten fox or galloped on
With hounds to a lucky view. I'd lost my voice
Although I shouted fit to burst my guts 100
And couldn't blow my horn.
And when I woke
Emily snored and barn-cocks started crowing
And morn was at the window; and I was glad
To be alive because I heard the cry
Of hounds like church-bells chiming on a Sunday. 105
Ay that's the song I'd wish to hear in Heaven!
The cry of hounds was Heaven for me: I know
Parson would call me crazed and wrong to say it
But where's the use of life and being glad
If God's not in your gladness?
I've no brains 110
For book-learned studies; but I've heard men say
There's much in print that clergy have to wink at:
Though many I've met were jolly chaps and rode
To hounds and walked me puppies; and could pick
Good legs and loins and necks and shoulders ay 115
And feet¡ª'twas necks and feet I looked at first.
Some hounds I've known were wise as half your saints
And better hunters. That old dog of the Duke's
Harlequin; what a dog he was to draw!
And what a note he had and what a nose 120
When foxes ran down wind and scent was catchy!
And that light lemon bitch of the Squire's old Dorcas¡ª
She were a marvellous hunter were old Dorcas!
Ay oft I've thought ¡®If there were hounds in Heaven
With God as master taking no subscription; 125
And all His bless¨¨d country farmed by tenants
And a straight-necked old fox in every gorse!'
But when I came to work it out I found
There'd be too many huntsmen wanting places
Though some I've known might get a job with Nick!
. . . . 130
I've come to think of God as something like
The figure of a man the old Duke was
When I was turning hounds to Nimrod King
Before his Grace was took so bad with gout
And had to quit the saddle. Tall and spare 135
Clean-shaved and grey with shrewd kind eyes that twinkled
And easy walk; who when he gave good words
Gave them whole-hearted; and would never blame
Without just cause. Lord God might be like that
Sitting alone in a great room of books 140
Some evening after hunting.
Now I'm tired
With hearkening to the tick-tack on the shelf;
And pondering makes me doubtful.
On a moonless night of cloud that feels like frost
Though stars are hidden (hold your feet up horse!) 145
And thinking what a task I had to draw
A pack with all those lame 'uns and the lot
Wanting a rest from all this open weather;
That's what I'm doing now.
And likely too
The frost'll be a long 'un and the night 150
One sleep. The parsons say we'll wake to find
A country blinding-white with dazzle of snow.
The naked stars make men feel lonely wheeling
And glinting on the puddles in the road.
And then you listen to the wind and wonder 155
If folk are quite such bucks as they appear
When dressed by London tailors looking down
Their boots at covert side and thinking big.
. . . .
This world's a funny place to live in. Soon
I'll need to change my country; but I know 160
'Tis little enough I've understood my life
And a power of sights I've missed and foreign marvels.
I used to feel it riding on spring days
In meadows pied with sun and chasing clouds
And half forget how I was there to catch 165
The foxes; lose the angry eager feeling
A huntsman ought to have that's out for blood
And means his hounds to get it!
Now I know
It's God that speaks to us when we're bewitched
Smelling the hay in June and smiling quiet; 170
Or when there's been a spell of summer drought
Lying awake and listening to the rain.
. . . .
I'd like to be the simpleton I was
In the old days when I was whipping-in
To a little harrier-pack in Worcestershire 175
And loved a dairymaid but never knew it
Until she'd wed another. So I've loved
My life; and when the good years are gone down
Discover what I've lost.
I never broke
Out of my blundering self into the world 180
But let it all go past me like a man
Half asleep in a land that's full of wars.
What a grand thing 'twould be if I could go
Back to the kennels now and take my hounds
For summer exercise; be riding out 185
With forty couple when the quiet skies
Are streaked with sunrise and the silly birds
Grown hoarse with singing; cobwebs on the furze
Up on the hill and all the country strange
With no one stirring; and the horses fresh 190
Sniffing the air I'll never breathe again.
. . . .
You've brought the lamp then Martha? I've no mind
For newspaper to-night nor bread and cheese.
Give me the candle and I'll get to bed.
Nimrod in September
WHEN half the drowsy world¡¯s a-bed
And misty morning rises red
With jollity of horn and lusty cheer
Young Nimrod urges on his dwindling rout;
Along the blueing coverts we can hear 5
His horse¡¯s hoofs thud hither and about:
In mulberry coat he rides and makes
Huge clamour in the sultry brakes.
ALONG the wind-swept platform pinched and white
The travellers stand in pools of wintry light
Offering themselves to morn¡¯s long slanting arrows.
The train¡¯s due; porters trundle laden barrows.
The train steams in volleying resplendent clouds 5
Of sun-blown vapour. Hither and about
Scared people hurry storming the doors in crowds.
The officials seem to waken with a shout
Resolved to hoist and plunder; some to the vans
Leap; others rumble the milk in gleaming cans. 10
Boys indolent-eyed from baskets leaning back
Question each face; a man with a hammer steals
Stooping from coach to coach; with clang and clack
Touches and tests and listens to the wheels.
Guard sounds a warning whistle points to the clock 15
With brandished flag and on his folded flock
Claps the last door: the monster grunts: ¡®Enough!¡¯
Tightening his load of links with pant and puff.
Under the arch then forth into blue day
Glide the processional windows on their way 20
And glimpse the stately folk who sit at ease
To view the world like kings taking the seas
in prosperous weather: drifting banners tell
Their progress to the counties; with them goes
The clamour of their journeying; while those 25
Who sped them stand to wave a last farewell.
WHEN old Noah stared across the floods
Sky and water melted into one
Looking-glass of shifting tides and sun.
Mountain-tops were few: the ship was foul:
All the morn old Noah marvelled greatly 5
At this weltering world that shone so stately
Drowning deep the rivers and the plains.
Through the stillness came a rippling breeze;
Noah sighed remembering the green trees.
Clear along the morning stooped a bird ¡ª 10
Lit beside him with a blossomed sprig.
Earth was saved; and Noah danced a jig.
I CANNOT think that Death will press his claim
To snuff you out or put you off your game:
You¡¯ll still contrive to play your steady round
Though hurricanes may sweep the dismal ground
And darkness blur the sandy-skirted green 5
Where silence gulfs the shot you strike so clean.
Saint Andrew guard your ghost old David Cleek
And send you home to Fifeshire once a week!
Good fortune speed your ball upon its way
When Heaven decrees its mightiest Medal Day; 10
Till saints and angels hymn for evermore
The miracle of your astounding score;
And He who keeps all players in His sight
Walking the royal and ancient hills of light
Standing benignant at the eighteenth hole 15
To everlasting Golf consigns your soul.
BEHOLD these jewelled merchant Ancestors
Foregathered in some chancellery of death;
Calm provident discreet they stroke their beards
And move their faces slowly in the gloom
And barter monstrous wealth with speech subdued 5
Lustreless eyes and acquiescent lids.
And oft in pauses of their conference
They listen to the measured breath of night¡¯s
Hushed sweep of wind aloft the swaying trees
In dimly gesturing gardens; then a voice 10
Climbs with clear mortal song half-sad for heaven.
A silent-footed message flits and brings
The ghostly Sultan from his glimmering halls;
A shadow at the window turbaned vast
He leans; and pondering the sweet influence 15
That steals around him in remembered flowers
Hears the frail music wind along the slopes
Put forth and fade across the whispering sea.
EVENING was in the wood, louring with storm.
A time of drought had sucked the weedy pool
And baked the channels; birds had done with song.
Thirst was a dream of fountains in the moon,
Or willow-music blown across the water 5
Leisurely sliding on by weir and mill.
Uneasy was the man who wandered, brooding,
His face a little whiter than the dusk.
A drone of sultry wings flicker¡¯d in his head.
The end of sunset burning thro¡¯ the boughs 10
Died in a smear of red; exhausted hours
Cumber¡¯d, and ugly sorrows hemmed him in.
He thought: ¡®Somewhere there¡¯s thunder,¡¯ as he strove
To shake off dread; he dared not look behind him,
But stood, the sweat of horror on his face. 15
He blunder¡¯d down a path, trampling on thistles,
In sudden race to leave the ghostly trees.
And: ¡®Soon I¡¯ll be in open fields,¡¯ he thought,
And half remembered starlight on the meadows,
Scent of mown grass and voices of tired men, 20
Fading along the field-paths; home and sleep
And cool-swept upland spaces, whispering leaves,
And far off the long churring night-jar¡¯s note.
But something in the wood, trying to daunt him,
Led him confused in circles through the thicket. 25
He was forgetting his old wretched folly,
And freedom was his need; his throat was choking.
Barbed brambles gripped and clawed him round his legs,
And he floundered over snags and hidden stumps.
Mumbling: ¡®I will get out! I must get out!¡¯ 30
Butting and thrusting up the baffling gloom,
Pausing to listen in a space ¡¯twixt thorns,
He peers around with peering, frantic eyes.
An evil creature in the twilight looping,
Flapped blindly in his face. Beating it off, 35
He screeched in terror, and straightway something clambered
Heavily from an oak, and dropped, bent double,
To shamble at him zigzag, squat and bestial.
Headlong he charges down the wood, and falls
With roaring brain¡ªagony¡ªthe snap¡¯t spark¡ª 40
And blots of green and purple in his eyes.
Then the slow fingers groping on his neck,
And at his heart the strangling clasp of death.
HIS headstrong thoughts that once in eager strife
Leapt sure from eye to brain and back to eye
Weaving unconscious tapestries of life
Are now thrust inward dungeoned from the sky.
And he who has watched his world and loved it all 5
Starless and old and blind a sight for pity
With feeble steps and fingers on the wall
Gropes with his staff along the rumbling city.
THEY threw me from the gates: my matted hair
Was dank with dungeon wetness; my spent frame
O¡¯erlaid with marish agues: everywhere
Tortured by leaping pangs of frost and flame
So hideous was I that even Lazarus there 5
In noisome rags arrayed and leprous shame
Beside me set had seemed full sweet and fair
And looked on me with loathing.
But one came
Who laid a cloak on me and brought me in
Tenderly to an hostel quiet and clean; 10
Used me with healing hands for all my needs.
The mortal stain of my reputed sin
My state despised and my defil¨¨d weeds
He hath put by as though they had not been.
IN gold and grey with fleering looks of sin
I watch them come; by two by three by four
Advancing slow with loutings they begin
Their woven measure widening from the door;
While music-men behind are straddling in 5
With flutes to brisk their feet across the floor ¡ª
And jangled dulcimers and fiddles thin
That taunt the twirling antic through once more.
They pause and hushed to whispers steal away.
With cunning glances; silent go their shoon 10
On creakless stairs; but far away the dogs
Bark at some lonely farm: and haply they
Have clambered back into the dusky moon
That sinks beyond the marshes loud with frogs.
YE hooded witches baleful shapes that moan
Quench your fantastic lanterns and be still;
For now the moon through heaven sails alone
Shedding her peaceful rays from hill to hill.
The faun from out his dim and secret place 5
Draws nigh the darkling pool and from his dream
Half-wakens seeing there his sylvan face
Reflected and the wistful eyes that gleam.
To his cold lips he sets the pipe to blow
Some drowsy note that charms the listening air: 10
The dryads from their trees come down and creep
Near to his side; monotonous and low
He plays and plays till at the woodside there
Stirs to the voice of everlasting sleep.
WHEN Watkin shifts the burden of his cares
And all that irked him in his bound employ
Once more become a vagrom-hearted boy
He moves to roundelays and jocund airs;
Loitering with dusty harvestmen he shares 5
Old ale and sunshine; or with maids half-coy
Pays court to shadows; fools himself with joy
Shaking a leg at junketings and fairs.
Sometimes returning down his breezy miles
A snatch of wayward April he will bring 10
Piping the daffodilly that beguiles
Foolhardy lovers in the surge of spring.
And then once more by lanes and field-path stiles
Up the green world he wanders like a king.
ACROSS the land a faint blue veil of mist
Seems hung; the woods wear yet arrayment sober
Till frost shall make them flame; silent and whist
The drooping cherry orchards of October
Like mournful pennons hang their shrivelling leaves 5
Russet and orange: all things now decay;
Long since ye garnered in your autumn sheaves
And sad the robins pipe at set of day.
Now do ye dream of Spring when greening shaws
Confer with the shrewd breezes and of slopes 10
Flower-kirtled and of April virgin guest;
Days that ye love despite their windy flaws
Since they are woven with all joys and hopes
Whereof ye nevermore shall be possessed.
CRY out on Time that he may take away
Your cold philosophies that give no hint
Of spirit-quickened flesh; fall down and pray
That Death come never with a face of flint:
Death is our heritage; with Life we share 5
The sunlight that must own his darkening hour:
Within his very presence yet we dare
To gather gladness like a fading flower.
For even as this our joy not long may live
Perfect; and most in change the heart can trace 10
The miracle of life and human things:
All we have held to destiny we give;
Dawn glimmers on the soul-forsaken face;
Not we but others hear the bird that sings.