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Stefan George: Extracts from The War

A poem a day
International WWI Poetry Month

Extracts from

The War

Stefan George (Germany, 1917)

As jungle beasts, which slink away or snarl
At one another in their greed to rend,
Seek company and huddle in a flock
When forests are ablaze, or mountains quake,
So in our country, split to factions, foes
United at the cry of war. A breath
Not felt before, a breath of union floated
From rank to rank, and a confused divining
Of what was now to come. The people, seized
By tremors great as changing worlds, one instant
Forgot the glut and gauds of coward years
And saw themselves majestic in their need.

They journeyed to the hermit on the hill:
“Does this stupendous fate still leave you calm?”
He said: These shudders were your best response.
What grips you now—I knew it long ago!
Long have I sweated blood of anguish while
They played and played with fire. I exhausted
My tears before and I have none today.
The thing was almost done and no one saw,
The worst is yet to be and no one sees.
You yield to pressure goading from without ...
These are the beacons only, not the tidings.
The struggle, as you wage it, is not mine.

The seer is never thanked, he meets with scorn
And stones when he foretells disaster, fury
And stones when it arrives. The crimes unnumbered
Which all ascribe to force or luck, the hidden
Descent of man to larva call for penance!
What are the slaughtered multitudes to him,
If life itself is slain! He cannot splutter
Of native virtue and of Latin malice.
Here whining women, old and sated burghers
Are more at fault than bayonets and guns
Of adversaries, for our sons’ and grandsons’
Dismembered bodies, for their glassy eyes!...

You shall not cheer. No rise will mark the end,
But only downfalls, many and inglorious.
Monsters of lead and iron, tubes and rods
Escape their maker’s hand and rage unruly.
Who saw his comrade crushed to pulp and fragments,
Who lived the life of vermin in the broken
And desecrated earth, must laugh with hatred
At speeches once heroic, now deceitful.
The ancient god of battles is no more.
And in decay a fevered world is sickening
Toward death. The only ichors that are sacred
Are those which, still unstained, are spent in floods.

Where is the man who stands for all? And where is
The only word that holds on Judgment Day?
Monarchs with pasteboard crowns and silly gestures,
Lawyers, and scribes, and traders—froth and chaff!
Even in firm and charted limits: turmoil!
Then threat of chaos. From a modest house
In suburbs of the greyest of our towns,
Supported by his cane, a plain, forgotten
Old man appeared and solved the hour’s riddle.
He saved what they—God knows!—with pompous slogans
Had driven to the chasm’s brink: the realm,
But from the fouler foe he cannot succour.

“Have you no eye for sacrifice unmeasured,
For strength of unity?” These also flourish
Across the border. In nefarious eras
Offerings are useless, duties dim and dull.
Crowds have their value, but they shape no symbols,
Are aimless and forgetful. Only sages
Want reasons. People drool of charity,
Humaneness—and embark on monstrous slaughter.
On spittle of the basest wooing follows
The slime of vile affront, and what’s at odds
Would fawn with fond caresses if the future
Made manifest its terror to their eyes…