The Only Son
O bitter wind toward the sunset blowing,
What of the dales tonight?
In yonder gray old hall what fires are glowing,
What ring of festal light?
‘In the great window as the day was dwindling
I saw an old man stand;
His head was proudly held and his eyes kindling,
But the list shook in his hand.’
O wind of twilight, was there no word uttered,
No sound of joy or wail?
‘”A great fight and a good death”, he muttered;
“Trust him, he would not fail.”‘
What of the chamber dark where she was lying
For whom all life is done?
‘Within her heart she rocks a dead child, crying
“My son, my little son.”‘
(Written January 15th, 1900)
Another poem from Sir Henry Newbolt. Newbolt is best known today, I imagine, for what has a reasonable claim to be the most-mocked poem in the English language – Vitai Lampada – and various lengthy ballads on historical themes “Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away / Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?” of the type which would once have been described as rollicking, but would now, probably, be seen as imperialist bluster.
He was a complex character – a Liberal in politics (a close friend of Sir Edward Grey), he discovered and championed Walter de la Mare, didn’t think much of Wilfred Owen (“I don’t think these self-pitying, shell-shocked poems will move our grandchildren greatly”) but admired and befriended Sassoon and was befriended and admired by Betjeman.
He wrote a number of poems in the manner of “The Only Son” at about this time, some of them inspired, one imagines, by the Boer War. It’s a pity that they are not better known.