Gilbert Frankau Poems >>
The City Of Fear

This was a city once: women lived here;
Their voices were low to their lovers, o'nights by the murmuring waters;
Their hands were busied with home — mothers and daughters,
Sisters and wives:
Now, the shell dives
To scatter anew the shattered remains of the homes that their hands made dear;
Walks naked at noonday's clear
Where the shopman proffered his wares to the loitering street,
Where the Mass was read.
The war-birds beat
And whistle: and love
And laughter and work and the hum of the city are utterly dead.

Never a barge
Ruffles the long canals : the lock-gates rot,
Letting thin runnels spout :
Never the plash of a rope in the reeds nor the pash of a hoof on the marge,
Crack of whip, nor the shout
Of driver gladdens the quiet: the foul weeds knot,
Strangling the sluggish flow of the waterway ;
Slime of decay
Clots on the banks where the shell-holes cut deep and the shored edges crumble,
Clots on the piers of the bridges that echo to transport wheels' rumble
At fall of the night
When no light
Is a-gleam —
Till the sudden flame from a gun-muzzle crimsons the ebon glass of the stream.

Here, where the rails
Ran straight and glittering, linking city to teeming prosperous plain,
Mist and the rain
And long disuse have rusted the glint of the steel that the wheels made shining;
Flame and steel have twisted the steel from the lines of its fair designing :
Gold with grain,
Shone the fields once when the harvest of peacetime was ripe to the sun for the flails ;
Green and red,
Gleamed the lights once when the track was a-quiver, a-roar with the freight and the mails —
But the life of the farm and the life of the field and the traffic of peacetime are utterly dead.

The brown roads run
Bare to the sun ;
Not a cart
Jingles in through the gates that our torn graves guard
To the mart;
Never a peasant girl passes and smiles with raised eyes for a greeting,
Never men clink at the cottage the cup of the wayfarers' meeting ;
Into heaps by the roadside the cottages, blown
And riven by shell-fire, and scarred !)
Only at night, when the dank mists arise and the gaze of our watchers is hidden,
Comes tramp and muttered cursing of infantry, rush of horse ridden
In fear of the dark —
For who knows how the far shell may swerve or the blind bullet hiss to its mark !

Roadway, water or rail, the life has died in the veins,
As life is dead at the breast;
Only remains
The hollow corpse of a city, slashed and gutted of war,
A grinning skeleton-city, mocking the eye from afar
With a hangman's jest —
With tower and chimney and gable where scarcely swallows might rest.
Look well,          .
Ye that shall die as we died !
Is there roof of these roofs to guard your heads from the wind or the rain or the sun ?
Is there wall unholed of the gun,
Of street unpitted of shell ?
Is there place where Man might abide . . .
Has the house he built for his scornful gods been proof 'gainst the shafts of Hell ?

Ruin is over it all, hideous, complete :
Street upon street;
House upon house that was gay with the patter of lost children's feet,
Whose windows were mirrors of lamp-light to beckon its worker returning
To welcome of arms and of eyes, to the warmth of the home-fire's bright burning;
Palace and cot;
Their charred beams rot
And their rent walls gape as they totter, betraying the havoc within —
Iron and tin,
Brickwork and stone,
Glasswork and tilework and woodwork to refuse-heaps battered and spilt and o'erthrown.

Through the storied square —
Where aforetime the belfry spired
In a moonbeam-fretted splendour of stone that was pride of a guild long dead,
Where the glory of glass
Was fired
By the orange flames of a thousand candles ablaze on altar and shrine,
Till the quiet beauty of perfect things was warm to the soul as wine —
Men pass
Hurriedly, fearfully, quickening the footstep, barely averting the head
To vision in dread
A gleaming, terrible desert, pit-failed with shadow-wells,
Blasted and bored by the shells,
Jagged with rocks : —
For the steel has stripped
And ravished the splendours of graven stone, the ruby glory of glass,
Till apse and gargoyle, buttress and nave,
Reredos, pillar, and crypt,
Lie tumbled and crumbled to monstrous ruins of splintering granite-blocks . . .
Over the grave
Of the work that was spared for the sake of the work by the Vandals of elder wars,
Only one tattered pinnacle leers to the calm of the outraged stars.

This is the City of Fear!
Has ringed her walls with his sickle, has choked her streets with his breath;
In her cellars the rat feeds red
On the bodies of those whom their own roofbeams betrayed to him as they fled —
For none live here
Save you that shall die, as we died, for the city, and we, your dead
Whom God for the sake of our one brave dream has garnered into His hand . . .
Will He give them to understand,
The proud and the thankless cities we left in a sheltered land ?

Should we care at all ?
Should we not turn and take rest from our labours ;
Here, where you buried us, sleep ?
Forget the dream that was cheap at life, forget the wounds and the pain ;
Never again
Remember the call
That came to our souls in the sheltered cities, drawing us over the deep ?
Remember in vain !

Gladly we came —
From peaceful homeland village ; from the raw dun dusty town,
Where sun of the North drops down
In purple behind the prairie ; from the pulsing plate-glass streets,
That are bright with the girls of our younger nations at southern rim of the sea
From lazy tropic townships, where light of day is a flame,
And the night wave beats
In fire on the scented foreshores, and the cicad sings in the tree ;
From the gay gray mother of all our cities, at ease on her banks of Thame —
Came and died,
In the City of Fear.

Gladly we died,
But in death is no peace for us,
Rest nor release for us.

Had you buried us deep —
You whom we left to fulfill us the task that was stricken out of our power —
Had you rolled the battle-tide back from our city, till only the growl of your guns
Fell faint on our ears as the baying of hounds that were hunting over the hill,
Perchance we might sleep :
But day upon day that grows weary, and hour upon slow-footed hour,
The long year runs;
And ever the foeman beats at the gates and batters at rampart and tower,
And our souls are unquiet, for the voice of our dreaming will neither rest nor be still.

Our spirits fret
Through the troubled night,
To each sputter of rifle-fire,
To each clink of your transport wheels ;
To the roar and flash of your sleepless guns, to the tread of your feet in the mire,
To each soaring light
That reveals,
In a silvern silhouette,
House and tree and the hump of a crest and the broken tooth of a spire ;
By day when the high planes drone,
And the great shells throb through the void,
And the trenches blur in the gray ;
Fret, and pray
That the hour be near
When the bonds of the foeman that hold us be utterly broke and destroyed,
And ours alone,
The City of Fear.

How can we rest,
Knowing it all unaccomplished, the vow that was dear to us dying ?
How can we sleep or be still 
In out tombs that are spattered and ploughed by the shell-bursts and shaken by salvoes replying,
Till dead bones thrill;
Till our souls break forth from the grave —
Unshriven, unblest —
To flutter and shrill
Down the winds that murmur and moan in the ruins our bodies were tortured to save.

Ye that remain,
Have ye no pity
For us that are sped ?
Was it then vain,
Vain that we bartered our youth for the walls of the desolate city,
Bartered the red
Life's blood, and the hopes that were dearer than blood and the uttermost faith that was given us ?
Death hath not shriven us . . .
Shrive ye your dead !
Ypres January 1916