Louis MacNeice, ‘Five War Poems’, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (March 1943), pp.40-42.

I: “Brother Fire”

When our brother Fire was having his dog’s day
Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans
Clanking at his tail, we heard some shadow say
‘Give the dog a bone’ - and so we gave him ours;
Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away
The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.

Which gluttony of his for us was Lenten fare
Who mother-naked, suckled with sparks, were chill
Though dandled-on a grill of sizzling air
Striped like a convict - black, yellow and red;
Thus we were weaned to knowledge of the Will
That wills the natural world but wills us dead.

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves,
Did we not off those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city block and spire;
Echo your thought in ours ? ‘Destroy! Destroy!’

[ top ]
II: “Whit Monday”

Their feet on London, their heads in the grey clouds,
The Bank (if you pall it a holiday) Holiday crowds
Stroll from street to street, cocking an eye
For where the angel used to be in the sky;
But the Happy Future is a thing of the past and the street
Echoes to nothing but their dawdling
The Lord’s My shepherd - familiar words of myth
Stand up better to bombs than a granite monolith,
Perhaps there is something in them. I’ll not want -
Not when I'm dead. He makes me down to lie -
Death my christening and fire my font -
The quiet (Thames’ or Don’s Salween’s) waters by.

[ top ]
III: “Neutrality”

The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
before the end began.

Look into your heart, you will find a County Sligo,
bevel hill with for navel a cairn of stones,
You will find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great doubloons of
As nobody to-day would mint.

But then look eastwards from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
A re fat with the flesh of your kin.

[ top ]
IV: “Nostalgia”

in cock-wattle sunset or grey
Dawn when the dagger
Points again of longing.
For what was never home
We needs must turn away
From the voices that cry ‘ Come,’
That under-sea ding-donging.

Dingle-dongle, bells and bluebells,
Snapdragon, solstice, lunar lull,
The wasp circling the honey
Or the lamp soft on the snow -
These are the times at which
The will is vulnerable,
The trigger-finger slow,
The spirit lonely.

These are the times at which
Aloneness is too ripe
When homesick for the hollow
Heart of the Milky Way
The soundless clapper calls
And we would follow
But earth and will are stronger
And nearer - and we stay.

[ top ]
V: “Springboard”

He never made the dive - not while I watched,
High above London, naked in the night
Perched on a board. I peered up through bars
Made by his fear and mine but it was more than fright
That kept him crucified among the budding stars.

Yes, it was unbelief. He knew only too well
That circumstances called for sacrifice
But, shivering there, spreadeagled above the town,
His blood began to haggle over the price
History would pay if he were to throw himself down,.

If it would mend the world, that would be worth while
But he, quite rightly, long had ceased to believe
In any Utopia or Peace-upon-Earth;
His friends would find in his death neither ransome nor
But only a grain of faith - for what it was worth.

And yet we know he knows what he must do.
There above London where the gagoyles grin
He will dive like a bomber past the broken steeple,
One man wiping out his own original sin
And, like ten million others, dying for his people.

[ back ]

[ top ]