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War in the Air


XXXIX

Eyes in the Air

OUR guns are a league behind us, our target a mile below,
And there's never a cloud to blind us from the haunts of our lurking foe—
Sunk pit whence his shrapnel tore us, support-trench crest concealed,
As clear as the charts before us, his ramparts lie revealed.
His panicked watchers spy us, a droning threat in the void;
Their whistling shells outfly us—puff upon puff, deployed
Across the green beneath us, across the flanking grey,
In fume and fire to sheath us and baulk us of our prey.
Before, beyond, above her,
Their iron web is spun:
Flicked but unsnared we hover,
Edged planes against the sun:
Eyes in the air above his lair,
The hawks that guide the gun!


No word from earth may reach us, save, white against the ground,
The strips outspread to teach us whose ears are deaf to sound:
But down the winds that sear us, athwart our engine's shriek,
We send—and know they hear us, the ranging guns we speak.
Our visored eyeballs show us their answering pennant, broke
Eight thousand feet below us, a whorl of flame-stabbed smoke—
The burst that hangs to guide us, while numbed gloved fingers tap
From wireless key beside us the circles of the map.
Line—target—short or over—
Come, plain as clock hands run,
Words from the birds that hover,
Unblinded, tail to sun;
Words out of air to range them fair,
From hawks that guide the gun!


Your flying shells have failed you, your landward guns are dumb:
Since earth hath naught availed you, these skies be open! Come,
Where, wild to meet and mate you, flame in their beaks for breath,
Black doves! the white hawks wait you on the wind-tossed boughs of death.
These boughs be cold without you, our hearts are hot for this,
Our wings shall beat about you, our scorching breath shall kiss;
Till, fraught with that we gave you, fulfilled of our desire,
You bank—too late to save you from biting beaks of fire—
Turn sideways from your lover,
Shudder and swerve and run,
Tilt; stagger; and plunge over
Ablaze against the sun:
Doves dead in air, who clomb to dare
The hawks that guide the gun!


XL

Command of the Air

A THOUSAND years between the sun and sea
Britannia held her court of liberty,
And cradled heroes in the questing waves
That were for lesser men but wandering graves.


Then did the British airman's sea-born skill
Teach wood and metal to foresee his will;
In every cog and joint his spirit stirred;
The Thing possessed was man as well as bird.


A falcon among timorous fowl he flies,
And bears Britannia's battle to the skies;
Vainly the Hun seeks covert in a cloud—
The clinging mist is made his ghostly shroud.


Thus at the ringing gates of heaven's glory
Begin new chapters of our island-story,
And clarion voices of the void declare:
"She who has ruled the sea shall rule the air."

O.


XLI

A Song of the Plane

THIS is the song of the Plane—
The creaking, shrieking plane,
The throbbing, sobbing plane,
And the moaning, groaning wires:—
The engine—missing again!
One cylinder never fires!
Hey ho! for the Plane!


This is the song of the Man—
The driving, striving man,
The chosen, frozen man:—
The pilot, the man-at-the-wheel,
Whose limit is all that he can,
And beyond, if the need is real!
Hey ho! for the Man!


This is the song of the Gun—
The muttering, stuttering gun,
The maddening, gladdening gun:—
That chuckles with evil glee
At the last, long dive of the Hun,
With its end in eternity!
Hey ho! for the Gun!


This is the song of the Air—
The lifting, drifting air,
The eddying, steadying air,
The wine of its limitless space,
May it nerve us at last to dare
Even death with undaunted face!
Hey ho! for the Air.


XLII

Two Pictures

DAWN. . . .
And the dewy plain
Awakes to life and sound—
Where on the flying-ground
The ghostly hangars blaze with lights again.
The giant birds of prey
Creep forth to a new day,
And one by one,
As morning gilds the dome,
Leave the grey aerodrome—
The day's begun.


Dusk. . . .
And the vanish'd sun
Still streaks the evening skies:
Below, the prone earth lies
Darkened, wherever warring Night has won.
The 'planes, returning, show
Deep black in the afterglow,
And one by one
Drop down from the higher airs,
—Down, down the invisible stairs—
The day is done.


XLIII

Per Ardua ad Astra

FOR every soul
That's claimed by the outraged wind,
Humanity, take toll
In fuller knowledge of the world behind
The dawn-mist and the aery eventide—
In greater skill the paths of heaven to ride.


For every life—
God knows the price we've paid for sov'ranty—
For every life
Let Man exact the full indemnity:
That unborn men secure may ride at ease
The labyrinthine channels of the breeze.


XLIV

Reconnaissance

I JOURNEYED to the east,
Rolled on the surgent airs of autumn days:
Below, the earth lay creased
With myriad meadows in the morning haze.
Far off, where lay the sea,
A silvered mirror beckoned to my bent,
And, moving orderly,
The high cloud-armies marched magnificent.


Some menace in the sky,
Some quick alarm did wake me as I sped:
At once, unwarningly
Streamed out repeated death, from one that fled
Headlong before my turn—
But, unavoiding of the answering blast,
Checked sudden, fell astern—
And unmolested fared I to the last.


XLV

The Flight to Flanders

DOES he know the road to Flanders, does he know the criss-cross tracks
With the row of sturdy hangars at the end?
Does he know that shady corner where, the job done, we relax
To the music of the engines round the bend?
It is here that he is coming with his gun and battle 'plane
To the little aerodrome at—well, you know!
To a wooden hut abutting on a quiet country lane,
For he's ordered overseas and he must go.


Has he seen those leagues of trenches, the traverses steep and stark,
High over which the British pilots ride?
Does he know the fear of flying miles to east-ward of his mark
When his only map has vanished over-side?
It is there that he is going, and it takes a deal of doing,
There are many things he really ought to know;
And there isn't time to swot 'em if a Fokker he's pursuing,
For he's ordered overseas and he must go.


Does he know that ruined town, that old —— of renown?
Has he heard the crack of Archie bursting near?
Has he known that ghastly moment when your engine lets you down?
Has he ever had that feeling known as fear?
It's to Flanders he is going with a brand-new aeroplane
To take the place of one that's dropped below,
To fly and fight and photo mid the storms of wind and rain,
For he's ordered overseas and he must go.


Then the hangar door flies open and the engine starts its roar,
And the pilot gives the signal with his hand;
As he rises over England he looks back upon the shore,
For the Lord alone knows where he's going to land.
Now the plane begins to gather speed, completing lap on lap,
Till, after diving down and skimming low,
They're off to shattered Flanders, by the compass and the map—
They were ordered overseas and had to go.


XLVI

The Death of the Zeppelin

A FALSE, false night! Across the sightless sky
Passed and repassed, again and yet again,
A many-flickering smile of irony,
The hieroglyphic of an evil thought.
A few pale stars glistened like drops of sweat
On the brow o' the east. . . . There was no wind—
The wind that was not whispered in the ear
Strange, crimson syllables of gathering doom;
Dread, flaming obsequies were in the eye
Before the fiery pencil traced them out;
And still the omens held, and still was heard
The voice of silence, the unspoken word.

·····

At last! At last the wingèd Worm draws near,
The vulture-ship that dare not voyage by day,
The man-made Dinosaur that haunts the night,
The beast-like creature of a bestial mind,
Which preys by choice on small and innocent lives,
Drinking its blood well soothed with mothers' milk—
Whose reeking weapons scandalise the stars,
And do most foully wrong the sanctuary
Of God's tempestuous angels, the bright winds,
That haste about the globe at His behest.
Above the violet verge of the low east
This blind and obscene head of frightfulness
Was suddenly thrust. We marked its course afar
By dull pulsations of the eager guns,
The grey, lean warders of far-listening London;
By bursts of shell-fire, mimic Leonids,
Flame-petal'd stars all blossoming blood-red.
The harassed Worm sought covert in a cloud
Which, soon disparted, gave him for a prey
To the implacable airman hovering near
(His battle-plane was part of him that hour;
In every cog and joint his valour moved,
The thing possessed was man as well as bird)
Who pierced his bowels with a fiery bolt.
The Monster writhed in self-engendered flames
Which brake forth in the likeness of a rose,
A rose-white passion in the timeless night,
A torch of hell brandished at heaven's gate,
A piercing wonder in the million eyes
Of waking London. . . . At last he dropped,
A sombre coal of fading crimson fire,
Into his burial-place, a field defiled.
And then, but not till then, arose the cry,
Prolonged, unpitying, a cordite cheer
Of the old valiant city, stark as Time,
Which wills not mercy for the merciless.
Beyond the storied stream a bower of trees
Caught it and cast it back, through all their leaves
Thrilled with a vocal joy of vengeance due,
Paid but in part, which shall be paid in full.

O.