The Roll of the Kettledrum

'You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone ?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one ?'—Byron.
 
ONE line of swart profiles, and bearded lips dressing,
One ridge of bright helmets, one crest of fair plumes,
One streak of blue sword-blades all bared for the fleshing,
One row of red nostrils that scent battle-fumes.
 
Forward ! the trumpets were sounding the charge,
The roll of the kettledrum rapidly ran,
That music, like wild-fire spreading at large,
Madden'd the war-horse as well as the man.
 
Forward ! still forward ! we thunder'd along,
Steadily yet, for our strength we were nursing ;
Tall Ewart, our sergeant, was humming a song,
Lance-corporal Black Will was blaspheming and cursing.
 
Open'd their volley of guns on our right,
Puffs of grey smoke, veiling gleams of red flame,
Curling to leeward, were seen on the height,
Where the batteries were posted, as onward we came.
 
Spreading before us their cavalry lay,
Squadron on squadron, troop upon troop ;
We were so few, and so many were they—
Eagles wait calmly the sparrow-hawk's stoop.
 
Forward ! still forward ! steed answering steed
Cheerily neigh'd, while the foam flakes were toss'd
From bridle to bridle—the top of our speed
Was gain'd, but the pride of our order was lost.
 
One was there, leading by nearly a rood,
Though we were racing he kept to the fore,
Still as a rock in his stirrups he stood,
High in the sunlight his sabre he bore.
 
Suddenly tottering, backwards he crash'd,
Loudly his helm right in front of us rung ;
Iron hoofs thunder'd, and naked steel flash'd
Over him—youngest, where many were young.
 
Now we were close to them, every horse striding
Madly ;—St. Luce pass'd with never a groan ;—
Sadly my master look'd round—he was riding
On the boy's right, with a line of his own.
 
Thrusting his hand in his breast or breast pocket,
While from his wrist the sword swung by a chain,
Swiftly he drew out some trinket or locket,
Kiss'd it (I think) and replaced it again.
 
Burst, while his fingers reclosed on the haft,
Jarring concussion and earth shaking din,
Horse 'counter'd horse, and I reel'd, but he laugh'd,
Down went his man, cloven clean to the chin !
 
Wedged in the midst of that struggling mass,
After the first shock, where each his foe singled,
Little was seen save a dazzle, like glass
In the sun, with grey smoke and black dust intermingled.
 
Here and there redden'd a pistol shot, flashing
Through the red sparkle of steel upon steel !
Redder the spark seem'd, and louder the clashing,
Struck from the helm by the iron-shod heel !
 
Over fallen riders, like wither'd leaves strewing
Uplands in autumn, we sunder'd their ranks ;
Steeds rearing and plunging, men hacking and hewing,
Fierce grinding of sword-blades, sharp goading of flanks.
 
Short was the crisis of conflict soon over,
Being too good (I suppose) to last long ;
Through them we cut, as the scythe cuts the clover,
Batter'd and stain'd we emerged from their throng.
 
Some of our saddles were emptied, of course ;
To heaven (or elsewhere) Black Will had been carried !
Ned Sullivan mounted Will's riderless horse,
His mare being hurt, while ten seconds we tarried.
 
And then we re-formed, and went at them once more,
And ere they had rightly closed up the old track,
We broke through the lane we had open'd before,
And as we went forward e'en so we came back.
 
Our numbers were few, and our loss far from small,
They could fight, and, besides, they were twenty to one ;
We were clear of them all when we heard the recall,
And thus we returned, but my tale is not done.
 
For the hand of my rider felt strange on my bit,
He breathed once or twice like one partially choked,
And sway'd in his seat, then I knew he was hit :—
He must have bled fast, for my withers were soak'd,
 
And scarcely an inch of my housing was dry ;
I slacken'd my speed, yet I never quite stopp'd,
Ere he patted my neck, said, 'Old fellow, good-bye !'
And dropp'd off me gently, and lay where he dropp'd !
 
Ah, me ! after all, they may call us dumb creatures—
I tried hard to neigh, but the sobs took my breath,
Yet I guess'd, gazing down at those still, quiet features,
He was never more happy in life than in death.
 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
 
Two years back, at Aldershot, Elrington mentioned
My name to our colonel one field-day. He said,
' 'Count,' 'Steeltrap,' and 'Challenger' ought to be pension'd ;'
'Count
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Adam Lindsay Gordon

Adam Lindsay Gordon was an Australian poet, jockey and politician. more…

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"The Roll of the Kettledrum" Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 29 Mar. 2020. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/184/the-roll-of-the-kettledrum>.

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