The Few

‘The Few’ by Edward Shanks



Now is this the last stronghold, defended only
By a frail handful of thistledown machines,
And now depends on these strange, unknown young men
Our inmost life.

But surely we have known them,
Our sons, our nephews, friends of our sons and daughters,
Gay and amusing, welcome in our houses
We knew them when the stronghold was their play-ground,
Young men to whom their land had given her plenty . . .
Tea on the airfield lawn, the light bird-chatter
Of young girls dressed like flowers, the casual flip,
Taking a dozen counties in its span,
The sports-car back to town, the cocktail bar,
Dinner, a show, the dancing and the laughter. . .

Till Cinderella’s midnight, when the gong
Called for a change of lights, the flower-hues faded,
The bird-chatter was stilled, and they stood out,
Changed to our eyes in the livid glare of danger,
Separate in their blue, strange and unknown.



(but not aloud)

I am not gone so far away
That, even in my battle-place,
Through rifted cloud I cannot see
Spread dim below me England’s face.

The woods that look like clustered weeds,
The chessboard fields, the pin-point spires,
Sun on familiar windows, even
Faint smoke of autumn garden-fires.

Since this I ride is English air,
I have not gone so far away:
From this new world I still can see
The world I knew but yesterday.

And I can see beneath my feet
The paths where not so long ago,
Before the summons came to me,
Your feet and mine were wont to go.

O new-wed wife, I am not far !
Even from the garden that we knew
You yet may see my frozen trail
Looped white across the blue.




The time will come when Ocean shall resume
His ancient sovranty upon this isle,
When all our glories shall deep-plunged be
Under a lonely sea,
And wide across this many-peopled room
The waves will roll again, mile on blue mile.

Then, not till then, the tale shall go untold
Of how the cloudy battlements were manned,
How when the gathering thunders rolled
And all the world else stood apart,
We waited, trusting in a little band,
We waited, taut and breathing close,
Till, when those vultures came to peck our heart,
Proud as a flight of swans the fighters rose.




This was their kingdom, the air, and it bore them like kings,
And they were the shield for us all who dwelt under their wings.

Brief had their lives been until then, nor much longer endured,
But just for so long as the need, till the end was assured,
This they gave up as a ransom, that we might go free,
Richness of days not yet lived, all the fullness to be,
The joy of life’s long slow achievement, the race and the prize,
The peace of the ultimate evening, before the light dies.

All this they burnt up in a moment, the young men, the kings,
Who guarded this land in that hour by the might of their wings.

No gift have we now we may give them that weighs what they gave,
But the clouds of our skies shall entwine them the wreath for their grave.

Edward Shanks (1892 – 1953)

*Threnody: genre of poetry and song, mourning the death of a person or people, similar to a lament.