Ballads of a Bohemian
Robert W. Service
Part 4 out of 4
And then again I drank the cup of sorrow to the dregs:
Oh, they can keep their medals if they give me back my legs.
I think of how I used to run and leap and kick the ball,
And ride and dance and climb the hills and frolic in the sea;
And all the thousand things that now I'll never do at all. . . .
~Mon Dieu!~ there's nothing left in life, it often seems to me.
And as the nurses lift me up and strap me in my chair,
If they would chloroform me off I feel I wouldn't care.
Ah yes! we're "heroes all" to-day -- they point to us with pride;
To-day their hearts go out to us, the tears are in their eyes!
But wait a bit; to-morrow they will blindly look aside;
No more they'll talk of what they owe, the dues of sacrifice
(One hates to be reminded of an everlasting debt).
It's all in human nature. Ah! the world will soon forget.
~My mind goes back to where I lay wound-rotted on the plain,
And ate the muddy mangold roots, and drank the drops of dew,
And dragged myself for miles and miles when every move was pain,
And over me the carrion-crows were retching as they flew.
Oh, ere I closed my eyes and stuck my rifle in the air
I wish that those who picked me up had passed and left me there.~
(~The Bright Side~)
Oh, one gets used to everything!
I hum a merry song,
And up the street and round the square
I wheel my chair along;
For look you, how my chest is sound
And how my arms are strong!
Oh, one gets used to anything!
It's awkward at the first,
And jolting o'er the cobbles gives
A man a grievous thirst;
But of all ills that one must bear
That's surely not the worst.
For there's the cafe open wide,
And there they set me up;
And there I smoke my ~caporal~
Above my cider cup;
And play ~manille~ a while before
I hurry home to sup.
At home the wife is waiting me
With smiles and pigeon-pie;
And little Zi-Zi claps her hands
With laughter loud and high;
And if there's cause to growl, I fail
To see the reason why.
And all the evening by the lamp
I read some tale of crime,
Or play my old accordion
With Marie keeping time,
Until we hear the hour of ten
From out the steeple chime.
Then in the morning bright and soon,
No moment do I lose;
Within my little cobbler's shop
To gain the silver ~sous~
(Good luck one has no need of legs
To make a pair of shoes).
And every Sunday -- oh, it's then
I am the happy man;
They wheel me to the river-side,
And there with rod and can
I sit and fish and catch a dish
Of ~goujons~ for the pan.
Aye, one gets used to everything,
And doesn't seem to mind;
Maybe I'm happier than most
Of my two-legged kind;
For look you at the darkest cloud,
Lo! how it's silver-lined.
The Faceless Man
Officially I'm dead. Their hope is past.
How long I stood as missing! Now, at last
Look in my face -- no likeness can you see,
No tiny trace of him they knew as "me".
How terrible the change!
Even my eyes are strange.
So keyed are they to pain,
That if I chanced to meet
My mother in the street
She'd look at me in vain.
When she got home I think she'd say:
"I saw the saddest sight to-day --
A ~poilu~ with no face at all.
Far better in the fight to fall
Than go through life like that, I think.
Poor fellow! how he made me shrink.
No face. Just eyes that seemed to stare
At me with anguish and despair.
This ghastly war! I'm almost cheered
To think my son who disappeared,
My boy so handsome and so gay,
Might have come home like him to-day."
I'm dead. I think it's better to be dead
When little children look at you with dread;
And when you know your coming home again
Will only give the ones who love you pain.
Ah! who can help but shrink? One cannot blame.
They see the hideous husk, not, not the flame
Of sacrifice and love that burns within;
While souls of satyrs, riddled through with sin,
Have bodies fair and excellent to see.
~Mon Dieu!~ how different we all would be
If this our flesh was ordained to express
Our spirit's beauty or its ugliness.
(Oh, you who look at me with fear to-day,
And shrink despite yourselves, and turn away --
It was for you I suffered woe accurst;
For you I braved red battle at its worst;
For you I fought and bled and maimed and slew;
For you, for you!
For you I faced hell-fury and despair;
The reeking horror of it all I knew:
I flung myself into the furnace there;
I faced the flame that scorched me with its glare;
I drank unto the dregs the devil's brew --
Look at me now -- for ~you~ and ~you~ and ~you~. . . .)
. . . . .
I'm thinking of the time we said good-by:
We took our dinner in Duval's that night,
Just little Jacqueline, Lucette and I;
We tried our very utmost to be bright.
We laughed. And yet our eyes, they weren't gay.
I sought all kinds of cheering things to say.
"Don't grieve," I told them. "Soon the time will pass;
My next permission will come quickly round;
We'll all meet at the Gare du Montparnasse;
Three times I've come already, safe and sound."
(But oh, I thought, it's harder every time,
After a home that seems like Paradise,
To go back to the vermin and the slime,
The weariness, the want, the sacrifice.
"Pray God," I said, "the war may soon be done,
But no, oh never, never till we've won!")
Then to the station quietly we walked;
I had my rifle and my haversack,
My heavy boots, my blankets on my back;
And though it hurt us, cheerfully we talked.
We chatted bravely at the platform gate.
I watched the clock. My train must go at eight.
One minute to the hour . . . we kissed good-by,
Then, oh, they both broke down, with piteous cry.
I went. . . . Their way was barred; they could not pass.
I looked back as the train began to start;
Once more I ran with anguish at my heart
And through the bars I kissed my little lass. . . .
Three years have gone; they've waited day by day.
I never came. I did not even write.
For when I saw my face was such a sight
I thought that I had better . . . stay away.
And so I took the name of one who died,
A friendless friend who perished by my side.
In Prussian prison camps three years of hell
I kept my secret; oh, I kept it well!
And now I'm free, but none shall ever know;
They think I died out there . . . it's better so.
To-day I passed my wife in widow's weeds.
I brushed her arm. She did not even look.
So white, so pinched her face, my heart still bleeds,
And at the touch of her, oh, how I shook!
And then last night I passed the window where
They sat together; I could see them clear,
The lamplight softly gleaming on their hair,
And all the room so full of cozy cheer.
My wife was sewing, while my daughter read;
I even saw my portrait on the wall.
I wanted to rush in, to tell them all;
And then I cursed myself: "You're dead, you're dead!"
God! how I watched them from the darkness there,
Clutching the dripping branches of a tree,
Peering as close as ever I might dare,
And sobbing, sobbing, oh, so bitterly!
But no, it's folly; and I mustn't stay.
To-morrow I am going far away.
I'll find a ship and sail before the mast;
In some wild land I'll bury all the past.
I'll live on lonely shores and there forget,
Or tell myself that there has never been
The gay and tender courage of Lucette,
The little loving arms of Jacqueline.
A man lonely upon a lonely isle,
Sometimes I'll look towards the North and smile
To think they're happy, and they both believe
I died for France, and that I lie at rest;
And for my glory's sake they've ceased to grieve,
And hold my memory sacred. Ah! that's best.
And in that thought I'll find my joy and peace
As there alone I wait the Last Release.
~We've finished up the filthy war;
We've won what we were fighting for . . .
(Or have we? I don't know).
But anyway I have my wish:
I'm back upon the old Boul' Mich',
And how my heart's aglow!
Though in my coat's an empty sleeve,
Ah! do not think I ever grieve
(The pension for it, I believe,
Will keep me on the go).
So I'll be free to write and write,
And give my soul to sheer delight,
Till joy is almost pain;
To stand aloof and watch the throng,
And worship youth and sing my song
Of faith and hope again;
To seek for beauty everywhere,
To make each day a living prayer
That life may not be vain.
To sing of things that comfort me,
The joy in mother-eyes, the glee
Of little ones at play;
The blessed gentleness of trees,
Of old men dreaming at their ease
Soft afternoons away;
Of violets and swallows' wings,
Of wondrous, ordinary things
In words of every day.
To rhyme of rich and rainy nights,
When like a legion leap the lights
And take the town with gold;
Of taverns quaint where poets dream,
Of cafes gaudily agleam,
And vice that's overbold;
Of crystal shimmer, silver sheen,
Of soft and soothing nicotine,
Of wine that's rich and old,
Of gutters, chimney-tops and stars,
Of apple-carts and motor-cars,
The sordid and sublime;
Of wealth and misery that meet
In every great and little street,
Of glory and of grime;
Of all the living tide that flows --
From princes down to puppet shows --
I'll make my humble rhyme.
So if you like the sort of thing
Of which I also like to sing,
Just give my stuff a look;
And if you don't, no harm is done --
In writing it I've had my fun;
Good luck to you and every one --
Here ends my book.~
[End of text.]
While `Stephen Poore' is a fictional character, he is real enough
in some ways. Robert Service was himself in the Ambulance Corps,
and his descriptions of `Bohemia' of this day, and the emergence of war,
bear striking similarities to the case of Alan Seeger -- and, no doubt,
a great many other `war poets' of the "Great War". It has been said
that every section of the trench had its own poet, and many of them,
such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves,
became famous for their poetry of the war. This book, in its way,
presents a striking picture of the effect of the war on Europe --
though it stops short of showing just how great the effect was.
I hope you enjoyed Service's references to himself in the text,
as "Sourdough Service" -- but they should not be taken too seriously.
The names of two great Russian composers, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky,
were originally spelled Tschaikowsky and Stravinski
in "The Philistine and the Bohemian". These composers were contemporaries
of the author, and due to the difficulty of transliterating
from the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet to the Roman Alphabet,
hampered by different uses of Roman letters in various European languages,
it is not until fairly recently that the current spellings have taken hold --
and their grip is not yet firm. A couple of other names
were given incorrectly in the same poem: Mallarme/ was spelled with one L,
and E. Burne-Jones (a pre-Raphaelite painter and associate of Rossetti)
was given as F. B. Jones. These names are corrected in this text,
as is Synge, given as Singe in the original ("L'Escargot D'Or").
The Introduction to Alan Seeger's Poems, written by William Archer,
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