War Poetry: From The Youth Of All Nations

Published in Solidarity 345:

‘From the Youth of All Nations’ reads to me as a bitter complaint against the ruling classes on all sides of the First World War playing out their arguments with the sufferings and lives of soldiers.

Its title declares both a bitterness of the young against old leaders, and an internationalist outlook. Then its fifteen four-line (quatrain) stanzas spell out the manipulations of the call to war and promise rebellion rather than reverence. The strict iambic tetrameter rhythm creates an impression of an army marching to settle scores with its rulers.

Sadly, I can’t tell you much about the poet, H C Harwood. He was a student at Balliol College, Oxford, where many students held radical views in the early twentieth century. Harwood contributed some work to the “Oxford poetry” collections, with this particular poem appearing in an anthology published in 1915. Reviewing the book in the socialist newspaper The Herald, Gerald Gould described it as “one of the few vital things to be have been written about the war”.

Think not, my elders, to rejoice
    When from the nations’ wreck we rise,
With a new thunder in our voice
    And a new lightning in our eyes.

You called with patriotic sneers,
    And drums and sentimental songs.
We came from out the vernal years
    Thus bloodily to right your wrongs.

The sins of many centuries,
    Sealed by your indolence and fright,
Have earned us these our agonies:
    The thunderous appalling night

When from the lurid darkness came
    The pains of poison and of shell,
The broken heart, the world’s ill-fame,
    The lonely arrogance of hell.

Faintly, as from a game afar,
    Your wrangles and your patronage
Come drifting to the work of war
    Which you have made our heritage.

Oh, chide us not. Not ours the crime.
    Oh, praise us not. It is not won,
The fight which we shall make sublime
    Beneath an unaccustomed sun.

The simple world of childhood fades
    Beyond the Styx that all have passed;
This is a novel land of shades,
    Wherein no ancient glories last.

A land of desolation, blurred
    By mists of penitence and woe,
Where every hope must be deferred
    And every river backward flow.

Not on this grey and ruined plain
    Shall we obedient recall
Your cities to rebuild again
    For their inevitable fall.

We kneel at no ancestral shrine.
    With admirable blasphemy
We desecrate the old divine
    And dream a new eternity.

Destroy the history of men,
    The weary cycle of decay.
We shall not pass that way again,
    We tread a new untrodden way.

Though scattered wider yet our youth
    On every sea and continent,
There shall come bitter with the truth
    A fraction of the sons you sent.

When slowly with averted head,
    Some darkly, some with halting feet,
And bowed with mourning for the dead
    We walk the cheering, fluttering street,

A music terrible, austere
    Shall rise from our returning ranks
To change your merriment to fear,
    And slay upon your lips your thanks;

And on the brooding weary brows
    Of stronger sons, close enemies,
Are writ the ruin of your house
    And swift usurping dynasties.

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