In fourth grade (I think), I memorised a poem – a sonnet, I realise in retrospect – by Francis Brett Young called “Bête Humaine.” Here it is. (There are two versions; I’ve marked the differences in brackets. I don’t know which is earlier, though I tend to think the version I’ve put second is superior – both for more effective language and for avoiding a double rhyme.)

Riding through Ruwu swamp, about sunrise,
I saw the world awake; and as the ray
Touched the tall grasses where they [sleeping lay] [dream till day],
Lo, the bright air alive with dragonflies:
With brittle wings aquiver, and great eyes
Piloting crimson bodies, slender and gay.
I aimed at one and struck it, and it lay
Broken and lifeless, with fast fading dyes . . . .

Then my soul sickened with a sudden pain
And horror, at my own careless cruelty,
That [in an idle moment] [where all things are cruel] I had slain
A creature whose sweet life it is to fly:
Like beasts that prey with [tooth and claw] [bloody claw] . . . .
Nay, they
Must slay to live, but what excuse had I?

Well, I recently came across the prose original of this poem, in Young’s 1917 East African war memoir Marching on Tanga:

Ruwu (or Ruvu) swamp

Ruwu (or Ruvu) swamp

By this time we were near our journey’s end; for the wide road suddenly debouched upon an open space of flat land, lying in the apex of the triangle formed by the confluence of the Ruwu river and the Soko Nassai, a plain of coarse grasses over which our men had advanced a few weeks before beneath a sheet of maxim fire. In this grassy place, scattered with the rusty fragments of the German shells, it had been decided that the army of invasion should encamp. …

At first the going was hard, over level spaces of short grass with driven sand between; but from this we passed to a kind of open slade where tall grasses bent and rippled in the wind like a mowing meadow at home. The lower air was full of dragonflies. a dragonflyWe could hear the brittle note of their stretched wings above the soft tremor of grasses swaying slowly as if they were in love with the laziness of their own soft motion. Clinging to the heads of these grasses, and swaying as they swayed, were many beetles – brilliant creatures with wing-cases blue-black and barred with the crimson of the cinnabar moth. As we marched through the lane which we had trampled in those meadows they clung to their swaying grasses and took no heed of us though we had trodden their brothers to death in thousands. …

By nine o’clock we had crossed the river, and were skirting the margin of a vast swamp. All the sunny lower air swam with moisture: the ground was oozy and black. And yet no water was to be seen: only an infinite waste of brilliant reed-beds, standing up in the air so motionless that they made no whispering. When the sun began to beat through the moist air myriads of dragon-flies, which had lain all night with folded wings and slender bodies stretched along the reeds, launched themselves into the air with brittle wings aquiver. Never in my life had I seen so many, nor such a show of bright ephemeral beauty. They hung over our path more like aeroplanes in their hesitant flight than any hovering birds. another dragonflyAgain I was riding the mule Simba, and as I rode I cut at one of them with my switch of hippo hide, cut at it and hit it. It lay broken in the path, and in a moment, as it seemed, the bright dyes faded. I was riding by myself, quite alone; and as I dismounted I felt sick with shame at this flicker of the smouldering bête humaine; and though I told myself that this creature was only one of so many that would flash in the sun and perish; that all life in these savage wildernesses laboured beneath cruelties perpetual and without number: of beasts that prey with tooth and claw, of tendrils that stifle, stealing the sap of life, or by minute insistence splitting the seasoned wood, I could not be reconciled to my own ruthless cruelty. For here, where all things were cruel, from the crocodiles of the Pangani to our own armed invasion, it should have been my privilege to love things for their beauty and rejoice in their joy of life, rather than become an accomplice in the universal ill. …

And I thought, perhaps, when this war is over, and half the world has been sated with cruelty, we may learn how sweet a thing is life, and how beautiful mercy.


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