Soldiers Bathing

  The sea at evening moves across the sand.

  Under a reddening sky I watch the freedom of a band

  Of soldiers who belong to me. Stripped bare

  For bathing in the sea, they shout and run in the warm air;

  Their flesh worn by the trade of war, revives

  And my mind towards the meaning of it strives.

  All's pathos now. The body that was gross,

  Rank, ravenous, disgusting in the act or in repose,

  All fever, filth and sweat, its bestial strength

  And bestial decay, by pain and labour grows at length

  Fragile and luminous. 'Poor bare forked animal,'

  Conscious of his desires and needs and flesh that rise and fall,

  Stands in the soft air, tasting after toil

  The sweetness of his nakedness: letting the sea-waves coil

  Their frothy tongues about his feet, forgets

  His hatred of the war, its terrible pressure that begets

  A machinery of death and slavery,

  Each being a slave and making slaves of others: finds that he

  Remembers his old freedom in a game

  Mocking himself, and comically mimics fear and shame.

  He plays with death and animality;

  And reading in the shadows of his pallid flesh, I see

  The idea of Michelangelo's cartoon

  Of soldiers bathing, breaking off before they were half done

  At some sortie of the enemy, an episode

  Of the Pisan wars with Florence. I remember how he showed

  Their muscular limbs that clamber from the water,

  And heads that turn across the shoulder, eager for the slaughter,

  Forgetful of their bodies that are bare,

  And hot to buckle on and use the weapons lying there.

  –And I think too of the theme another found

  When, shadowing men's bodies on a sinister red ground

  Another Florentine, Pollaiuolo,

  Painted a naked battle: warriors, straddled, hacked the foe,

  Dug their bare toes into the ground and slew

  The brother-naked man who lay between their feet and drew

  His lips back from his teeth in a grimace.

  They were Italians who knew war's sorrow and disgrace

  And showed the thing suspended, stripped: a theme

  Born out of the experience of war's horrible extreme

  Beneath a sky where even the air flows

  With lacrimae Christi. For that rage, that bitterness, those blows,

  That hatred of the slain, what could they be

  But indirectly or directly a commentary

  On the Crucifixion? And the picture burns

  With indignation and pity and despair by turns,

  Because it is the obverse of the scene

  Where Christ hangs murdered, stripped, upon the Cross. I mean,

  That is the explanation of its rage.

  And we too have our bitterness and pity that engage

  Blood, spirit, in this war. But night begins,

  Night of the mind: who nowadays is conscious of our sins?

  Though every human deed concerns our blood,

  And even we must know, what nobody has understood,

  That some great love is over all we do,

  And that is what has driven us to this fury, for so few

  Can suffer all the terror of that love:

  The terror of that love has set us spinning in this groove

  Greased with our blood.

  These dry themselves and dress,

  Combing their hair, forget the fear and shame of nakedness.

  Because to love is frightening we prefer

  The freedom of our crimes. Yet, as I drink the dusky air,

  I feel a strange delight that fills me full,

  Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,

  And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west

  I watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ's breast.




F. T. Prince

Collected Poems 1935-1992

(Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), pp. 55-57