Circa A.D. 850
An Old Battle-field
Vast, vast -- an endless wilderness of sand; A stream crawls through its tawny banks; the hills Encompass it; where in the dismal dusk Moan the last sighs of sunset. Shrubs are gone, Withered the grass; all chill as the white rime Of early morn. The birds go soaring past, The beasts avoid it; for the legend runs -- Told by the crook'd custodian of the place -- Of some old battle-field. "Here many a time," He quavered, "armies have been overwhelmed, And the faint voices of the unresting dead Often upon the darkness of the night Go wailing by." O sorrow! O ye Ch`ins! Ye Hans! ye dynasties for ever flown! Ye empires of the dust! for I have heard How, when the Ch`is and Weis embattled rose Along the frontier, when the Chings and Hans Gathered their multitudes, a myriad leagues Of utter weariness they trod. By day Grazing their jaded steeds, by night they ford The hostile stream. The endless earth below, The boundless sky above, they know no day Of their return. Their breasts are ever bared To the pitiless steel and all the wounds of war Unspeakable. Methinks I see them now, Dust-mantled in the bitter wind, a host Of Tartar warriors in ambuscade. Our leader scorns the foe. He would give battle Upon the threshold of the camp. The stream Besets a grim array where order reigns, Though many hearts may beat, where discipline Is all, and life of no account. The spear
Now works its iron will, the startled sand Blinding the combatants together locked In the death-grip; while hill and vale and stream Glow with the flash and crash of arms. Then cold The shades of night o'erwhelm them; to the knee In snow, beards stiff with ice. The carrion bird Hath sought its nest. The war-horse in its strength Is broken. Clothes avail not. Hands are dead, Flesh to the frost succumbs. Nature herself Doth aid the Tartar with a deadly blast Following the wild onslaught. Wagons block The way. Our men, beset with flank attacks, Surrender with their officers. Their chief Is slain. The river to its topmost banks Swollen with death; the dykes of the Great Wall Brimming with blood. Nation and rank are lost In that vast-heaped corruption. Faintly now, And fainter beats the drum; for strength is shorn, And arrows spent, and bow-strings snapped, and swords Shattered. The legions fall on one another In the last surge of life and death. To yield Is to become a slave; to fight is but To mingle with the desert sands.
. . . . . . . No sound Of bird now flutters from the hushed hillside; All, all is still, save for the wind that wails And whistles through the long night where the ghosts Hither and thither in the gloom go by, And spirits from the nether world arise Under the ominous clouds. The sunlight pales Athwart the trampled grass; the fading moon Still twinkles on the frost-flakes scattered round.Next