This is a war poem from John Cornford, who was killed in action during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when still a very young man. Unlike many of the other war poems, either of World War One, or other conflicts, this piece does not dwell on the horrors and absurdities of war, but of a particular aspect of the soldier’s experience- perceptions of the passing of time while waiting to go into action, knowing that death might be imminent.
The moment is at night under the full moon, awaiting the order to attack the city of Huesca, on the Aragon front in eastern Spain. Presumably the attack is to take place at dawn, hoping to catch the defenders still sleepy or unprepared. But we learn nothing of the outcome here or the manner of the battle, this poem is a reflection on the irresistible progress of time, bringing the soldiers ever closer to their moment of truth.
Full Moon At Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca
The past, a glacier, gripped the mountain wall,
And time was inches, dark was all.
But here it scales the end of the range,
The dialectic’s point of change,
Crashes in light and minutes to its fall.
Time present is a cataract whose force
Breaks down the banks even at its source
And history forming in our hands
Not plasticine but roaring sands,
Yet we must swing it to its final course.
The intersecting lines that cross both ways,
Time future, has no image in space,
Crooked as the road that we must tread,
Straight as our bullets fly ahead.
We are the future. The last fight let us face.
In the experience of these soldiers, the passage of time reaches a tipping point as the attack approaches. It is transformed from being like a glacier, extremely slow moving into a roaring, crashing waterfall, unstoppable and faster than thought. Thus the soldier is inexorably swept forward towards his fate, like a twig carried over Niagara Falls, insignificant and powerless to stop time putting him in front of the enemy.
Each stanza describes the characteristics of the experience of time, in the past, in the present, and in the future. But the future cannot be seen, it has no image, only the notion that bullets will fly and the soldier must face what might be his last fight, his last day of life.
The poem is very moving and it captures wonderfully the soldiers plight at the critical moment when he knows he must soon fight and perhaps die.
The Poetry Dude