Robert Graves

Retrospect: The Jests Of The Clock

Poem by Robert Graves

He had met hours of the clock he never guessed before-
Dumb, dragging, mirthless hours confused with dreams and fear,
Bone-chilling, hungry hours when the Gods sleep and snore,
Bequeathing earth and heaven to ghosts, and will not hear,
And will not hear man groan chained to the sodden ground,
Rotting alive; in feather beds they slumbered sound.

When noisome smells of day were sicklied by cold night,
When sentries froze and muttered; when beyond the wire
Blank shadows crawled and tumbled, shaking, tricking the sight,
When impotent hatred of Life stifled desire,
Then soared the sudden rocket, broke in blanching showers,
O lagging watch! O dawn! O hope-forsaken hours!

How often with numbed heart, stale lips, venting his rage
We swore he'd be a dolt, a traitor, a damned fool,
If, when the guns stopped, ever again from youth to age
He broke the early rising, early sleeping rule.
No, though more bestial enemies roused a fouler war
Never again would he hear this, no never more!

'Rise with the cheerful sun, go to bed with the same,
Work in your field or kailyard all the shining day,
But,' he said, 'never more in quest of wealth, honour, fame,
Search the small hours of night before the East goes grey.
A healthy mind, an honest heart, a wise man leaves
Those ugly impious times to ghosts, devils, soldiers, thieves.'

Poor fool, knowing too well deep in his heart
That he'll be ready again: if urgent orders come,
To quit his rye and cabbages, kiss his wife and part
At the first sullen rapping of the awakened drum,
Ready once more to sweat with fear and brace for the shock,
To greet beneath a falling flare the jests of the clock.