His mother bids him go without a tear;
His sweetheart walks beside him, proudly gay,
‘No coward have I loved,” her clear eyes say –
The band is playing and the people cheer.
Yet in his heart he thinks, “I am afraid!
I am afraid of Fear – how can I tell
If in the ordeal ‘twill go ill or well?
How can man tell how bravely man is made?”
Steady he waits, obeying brisk command,
Head up, chin firm, and every muscle steeled,
Thinking, ‘I shot a rabbit in a field
And sickened at its blood upon my hand.”
The sky is blue and little winds blow free,
He catches up his comrades’ marching song;
Their bayonets glitter as they sweep along—
(“How ghastly a red bayonet must be!”)
How the folk stare! His comrade on the right
Whispers a joke – is gay and debonair,
Sure of himself and quite at odds with care;
But does he, too, turn restlessly at night?
From each familiar scene his inner eye
Turns to far fields by Titans rent and torn;
For in that struggle must his soul be born,
To look upon itself and live – or die!
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, “one of the cleverest writers we have,” according to a 1916 editor,(1) published this poem in The Canadian Magazine in July 1916.(2) Her poetry has a “philosophic turn, an artful and subtle conception of a circumstance,” (1) wrote the same critic. Her subtle conception of the fear at the heart of an untested soldier finds concrete form here in the four-line stanzas that rhyme abba, their inner rhyming lines indented as if to protect the heart of the stanza, the heart of the soldier. The movement in and out reflects also the poem’s turning back and forth from the single soldier to the many around him — the staring folk, the marching comrades, the tearless and gay women — isolated in his fear of fear.
(1) Garvin, John William, ed.Canadian Poets. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916. 237. Available in A Celebration of Women Writers
(2) The Canadian Magazine. 47:3. July 1916: 231. Available from Early Canadiana Online.
Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”