The Souls of the Slain. 1

[Note.—The spot indicated in the following poem is the Bill of Portland,
which stands, roughly, on a line drawn from South Africa to the middle of the
United Kingdom ; in other words, the flight of a bird along a ‘great circle’ of
the earth, cutting through South Africa and the British Isles, might land him at
Portland Bill. The ‘ Race’ is the turbulent sea-area off the Bill, where contrary
tides meet.  ‘ Spawls’ are the chips of freestone left by the quarriers.]


The thick lid of night closed upon me1
Alone at the Bill2
Of the Isle by the Race3
Many-caverned, bald, wrinkled of face4
And with darkness and silence the spirit came on me5
To brood and be still.6


No wind fanned the flats of the ocean,7
Or promontory sides,8
Or the spawls by the strand,9
Or the bent-bearded slope of the land,10
Whose base took its rest amid everlong motion11
Of criss-crossing tides.12
1 Copyright 1900 by Thomas Hardy in the United States of America.


Soon, from out of the Southward seemed nearing13
A whirr, as of wings14
Waved by mighty-vanned flies,15
Or by night birds of measureless size,16
And in softness and smoothness well-nigh beyond hearing17
Of corporal things.18


And they bore to the bluff, and alighted19
A dim-discerned train20
Of sprites without mould,21
Frameless souls none might touch or might hold22
On the ledge by the turreted lantern, far-sighted23
By men of the main.24


And I heard them say ‘ Home !’ and I knew them25
For souls of the felled26
On the earth’s nether bord27
Under Capricorn, whither they’d warred,28
And I neared in my awe, and gave heedfulness to them29
With breathings inheld.30


Then, it seemed, there approached from the northward31
A senior soul-flame32
Of the like filmy hue :33
And he met them, and spake : ‘ Is it you,34
O my men ?’  Said they, ‘ Aye !  We bear homeward and
To list to our fame !’36


I’ve flown there before you,’ he said then :37
Your households are well ;38
But—your kin linger less39
On your glory and war-mightiness40
Than on other things.’  ‘ Other ?’ cried these from the dead then,41
Of what do they tell ?’42


Some mothers muse sadly, and murmur43
Your doings as boys44
Recall the quaint ways45
Of your babyhood’s innocent days.46
Some pray that, ere dying, your faith had grown firmer,47
And higher your joys.48


A father broods : “ Would I had set him49
To some humble trade,50
And so slacked his high fire,51
And his passionate martial desire,52
And had told him no stories to woo him and whet him53
To this dire crusade !” ’54


And, General, how hold out our sweethearts,55
Sworn loyal as doves ?’56
Many mourn . . . Many think57
It is not unattractive to prink58
Them in sables for heroes . . . Some fickle and fleet hearts59
Have found them new loves.’60


And our wives ?’ quoth another resignedly,61
Dwell they on our deeds ?’62
Deeds of home ; that live yet63
Fresh as new—deeds of fondness or fret ;64
Ancient words that were kindly expressed or unkindly ;65
These, these have their heeds.’66


Alas ! then, it seems that our glory67
Weighs less in their thought68
Than our small homely acts,69
And the long-ago commonplace facts70
Of our lives—held by us as scarce part of our story71
And rated as nought !’72


Then bitterly some : ‘ Was it wise now73
To raise the tomb-door74
For such knowledge ?  Away !’ . . .75
But the rest : ‘ Fame we prized till to-day ;76
Yet that hearts keep us green for old kindness we prize now77
A thousand times more !’78


Thus speaking, the trooped apparitions79
Began to disband80
And resolve them in two :81
Those whose record was lovely and true82
Bore to northward for home : those of bitter traditions83
Again left the land,84


And, towering to seaward in legions,85
They paused at a spot86
Overbending the Race87
That engulfing, ghast, sinister place88
Whither headlong they plunged to the fathomless regions89
Of myriads forgot.90


And the spirits of those who were homing91
Passed on, rushingly,92
Like the Pentecost Wind ;93
And the whirr of their wayfaring thinned,94
And surceased on the sky, and but left in the gloaming95
Sea-mutterings and me.96