First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The Swift

THE SWIFT by WILFRED OWEN An Ode

When the blue has broken
   Through the pearly heat
And the grass is woken
   By our early feet,

Oh, then to be the Lark!---With all his fun To pelt my mate with gayest kisses, And mount to laugh away those blisses In shaking merriment unto the sun!

When the dark is listening
   And the leaves hang still,
While the glow-worms, glistening,
   Make the keen stars thrill,

Would I might mourn to one lorn Nightingale And be the solace of her solitude, Speaking my doles all clear and unsubdued And audible to her, the Nightingale.

But when eve shines lowly,
   And the light is thinned,
And the moon slides slowly
   Down the far-off wind,

Oh, then to be of all the birds the Swift! To flit through ether, with elves winging, Drawn up western fires, in frenzy singing, Along the breeze to lean and poise and drift!

Fine thou art and agile,
   O thou perfect bird,
As an arrow fragile
   By an Eros whirred;

And like a cross-bow in a Cupid's grasp Thy wings are ever stretched, for striking ready; And like young Love thou'rt frantic and unsteady, And sure as his thine aim, and keen as Love's thy gasp.

Strung in tautest tension
   By the lust of speed,
And the mad contention
   Of insatiate greed,

Thou suck'st away the intoxicating air, Trailing a wake of song in trilling bubbles, Till distance drowns thee. Then thy light wing doubles, And thou art back,---nay vanished now, Oh where?

Down in sharp declension,
   Grazing the low pool;
Up in steep ascension
   Where the clouds blow cool;

And there thou sleepest all the luminous night, Aloft this hurry and this hunger, Floating with years that knew thee younger, Without this nest to feed, this death to fight.

Airily sweeping and swinging,
   Quivering unstable,
Like a dark butterfly clinging
   To the roof-gable,

Art thou not tired of this unceasing round? Long'st not for rest in mead or bower? Must lose, as spirits lose, the power To soar again if once thou come to ground?

Waywardly sliding and slinging,
   Speed never slacking,
Easily, recklessly flinging,
   Twinkling and tacking;

---Oh, how we envy thee thy lovely swerves! How covet we thy slim wings' beauty, Nor guess what stress of need and duty So bent thy frame to those slim faultless curves.

Dazzlingly swooping and plunging
   Into the nest to peep,
Dangerously leaping and lunging ---
   Hark! how the younglings cheep!

O Swift! If thou art master of the air Who taught thee! Not the joy of flying But of thy brood: their throttles' crying Stung thee to skill whereof men yet despair!

Desperately driving and dashing,
   Hissing and shrieking,
Breathlessly hurtling and lashing,
   Seeking and seeking,

What knowest thou of grace or dance or song? Thy cry that ringeth like a lyric, Is it indeed of joy, a panegyric? No ecstasy is this. By love's pain it rings strong.

O that I might make me
   Pinions like to thine,
Feathers that would take me
   Whither I incline!

Yet more thy spirit's tirelessness I crave; Yet more thy joyous fierce endurance. If my soul flew with thy assurance, What fields, what skies to scour! What seas to brave!

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