Looking Death in the Face, by Dinah Craik

Looking Death in the Face

Ay, in the face, old fellow! Now's the time.
The Black Sea wind flaps my tent-roof, nor wakes
These lads of mine, who take of sleep their fill,
As if they thought they'd never sleep again,
Instead of--
Pitiless Crimean blast,
How many a howling lullaby thou'lt raise
Tomorrow night, all nights till the world's end,
Over some sleepers here!
Some?--Who? Dumb Fate
Whispers in no man's ear his coming doom;
Each thinks--"not I--not I."
But thou, grim Death,
I hear thee on the night-wind flying abroad,
I feel thee here, squatted at our tent-door,
Invisible and incommunicable,
Why yell so in your sleep,
Comrade? Did you see aught?
Well--let him dream:
Who knows, tomorrow such a shout as this
He'll die with. A brave lad, and very like
His sister. * * * * * So! Just two hours have I lain
Freezing. That pale white star, which came and peered
Through the tent-opening, has passed on, to smile
Elsewhere, or lost herself i' the dark--God knows.
Two hours nearer to dawn. The very hour,
The very hour and day, a year ago,
When we light-hearted and light-footed fools
Went jingling idle swords in waltz and reel,
And smiling in fair faces. How they'd start,
Those dainty red and white soft faces kind,
If they could but behold my visage now,
Or his--or his--or some poor faces cold
We covered up with earth last noon.
--There sits
The laidly Thing I felt on our tent-door
Two hours back. It has sat and never stirred.
I cannot challenge it, or shoot it down,
Or grapple with it, as with that young Russ
Whom I killed yesterday. (What eyes he had!--
Great limpid eyes, and curling dark-red hair, --
A woman's picture hidden in his breast, --
I never liked this fighting hand to hand.)
No, it will not be met like flesh and blood,
This shapeless, voiceless, immaterial Thing,
Yet I will meet it. Here I sit alone, --
Show me thy face, O Death!
There, there. I think
I did not tremble.
I am a young man;
Have done full many an ill deed, left undone
Many a good one: lived unto the flesh,
Not to the spirit: I would rather live
A few years more, and try if things might change.
Yet, yet I hope I do not tremble, Death;
And that thy finger pointed at my heart
But calms the tumult there.   What small account
The All-living seems to take of this thin flame
Which we call life. He sends a moment's blast
Out of war's nostrils, and a myriad
Of these our puny tapers are blown out
Forever. Yet we shrink not--we, such frail
Poor knaves, whom a spent ball can instant strike
Into eternity--we helpless fools,
Whom a serf's clumsy hand and clumsier sword
Smiting--shall sudden into nothingness
Let out that something rare which could conceive
A universe and its God.   Free, open-eyed,
We rush like bridegrooms to Death's grisly arms:
Surely the very longing for that clasp
Proves us immortal. Immortality
Alone could teach this mortal how to die.
Perhaps, war is but Heaven's great ploughshare, driven
Over the barren, fallow earthly fields,
Preparing them for harvest; rooting up
Grass, weeds, and flowers, which necessary fall,
That in these furrows the wise Husbandman
May drop celestial seed.
So let us die;
Yield up our little lives, as the flowers do;
Believing He'll not lose one single soul--
One germ of His immortal. Naught of His
Or Him can perish; therefore let us die.   I half remember, something like this
She says in her dear letters. So--let's die.
What, dawn? The faint hum in the trenches fails.
Is that a bell i' the mist? My faith, they go
Early to matins in Sebastopol!--
A gun!--Lads, stand to your arms; the Russ is here.
Kind Heaven, I have looked Death in the face,
Help me to die.

poems.one - Dinah Craik

Dinah Craik