Published in Solidarity 337, 24 September 2014
The Workers’ Dreadnought published this poem on its front page, heading an article entitled “Soldiers ask what they are fighting for” on 20 October 1917.
Britain was over three years into a war which its rulers had initially told their citizens would be “over by Christmas”. By this time, many, many families had lost loved ones, and poverty and hardship were biting at home. Belligerent governments were casually dismissing peace efforts, and it was not even clear what they aimed to achieve or under what conditions they might agree to end the war.
Milner wrote his poem in iambic pentameter, often associated with a “heroic” voice in English poetry. It speaks of the silencing of peaceful voices and the carnage to human life and surroundings, building up through the first stanza to an intense and moving description of the horror of war.
The second (shorter) stanza, though, speaks of cause for some optimism — that nature still moves and life goes on. Moreover, a new hope comes from a country “o’er the azure seas”, from which “tidings of a new born peace” are coming. I think he is referring to revolutionary Russia.
Hushed are the silvery notes that filled the world
With peace; those tiny throats that once could ring
A chord of human gladness now are hurled
Before its heedless pace, no more to sing
On, on it comes, across the wasted sheaves,
The furrow that was once a sparkling stream;
And in its trail, a darkened cloud, that weaves
A spell of terror — some incarnate dream.
For War — the very name embodies Hell —
With unrestrained passion, sweeps the sky
To torture man, and sound the solemn knell
Of Death, spurning a woman’s piteous cry.
Man cleaves the heart of man. The dying sob
Of those who, broken, lie, remains unheard,
Crushed by a cannon’s roar. The awful throb
Of some inhuman missile has but stirred
This carnage into some more ghastly form,
And Love lies slain by those who deemed her all.
But look! A tiny spark of hope remains
Among the ashes of a world’s despair;
And in that gleam, unsullied by the stains,
The lusts of war, there lies an answered prayer.
The stream flows on, tho’ crimsoned by the blood
Of guiltless men. And o’er the azure seas,
The echoes of a thousand voices flood
The world with tidings of a new born peace,
The fellowship of man. And it shall bring
New hope, new life, new love, new everything.
Donald E. Milner