Saturday, February 25, 2017

War Song of the Saracens by James McElroy Flecker

I found some lines from this poem drifting into my head today. I encountered it in one of the many editions of Palgrave's Golden Treasury when I was about seventeen or eighteen. At that time I was reading a little bit of poetry early every morning. It's very Chestertonian, although Chesterton would not have been writing from the point of view of the Saracens. Like the poetry of Rubert Brooke, it seems to come from an era when Europeans felt their culture had grown decadent and over-sophisticated, and looked wistfully at war, discipline and sacrifice. (A reaction I've never felt myself. There are plenty of things I don't like about modern society, but its relative peacefulness is not one of them.) Whatever the poet's motivations, and although we would certainly be less inclined to romanticise its subject today, it's a very fine poem.

We are they who come faster than fate:
We are they who ride early or late:
We storm at your ivory gate:
Pale Kings of the Sunset, beware!
Not on silk nor in samet we lie,
Not in curtained solemnity die
Among women who chatter and cry,
And children who mumble a prayer.
But we sleep by the ropes of the camp,
And we rise with a shout, and we tramp
With the sun or moon for a lamp,
And a spray of wind in our hair.

From the land where the elephants are,
To the forts of Merou and Balghar,
Our steel we have brought and our star
To shine on the ruins of Rum.
We have marched from the Indus to Spain,
And by God we will go there again;
We have stood on the shore of the plain
where the Waters of Destiny boom.
A mart of destruction we made
at Jalula where men were afraid,
For death was a difficult trade,
And the sword was a broker of doom;

And the Spear was a Desert Physician
who cured not a few of ambition,
And drave not a few to perdition
With medicine bitter and strong:
And the shield was a grief to the fool
And as bright as a desolate pool,
And as straight as the rock of Stamboul
When their cavalry thundered along:
For the coward was drowned with the brave
When our battle sheered up like a wave,
And the dead to the desert we gave,
and the glory to God in our song.

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