An Old Twenty-Third Man
“IS that the Three-and-Twentieth, Strabo mine,
Marching below, and we still gulping wine?”
From the sad magic of his fragrant cup
The red-faced old centurion started up,
Cursed, battered on the table. “No,” he said, 5
“Not that! The Three-and-Twentieth Legion’s dead,
Dead in the first year of this damned campaign—
The Legion’s dead, dead, and won’t rise again.
Pity? Rome pities her brave lads that die,
But we need pity also, you and I, 10
Whom Gallic spear and Belgian arrow miss,
Who live to see the Legion come to this,
Unsoldierlike, slovenly, bent on loot,
Grumblers, diseased, unskilled to thrust or shoot.
O, brown cheek, muscled shoulder, sturdy thigh! 15
Where are they now? God! watch it struggle by,
The sullen pack of ragged ugly swine.
Is that the Legion, Gracchus? Quick, the wine!”
“Strabo,” said Gracchus, “you are strange tonight.
The Legion is the Legion; it’s all right. 20
If these new men are slovenly, in your thinking,
God damn it! you’ll not better them by drinking.
They all try, Strabo; trust their hearts and hands.
The Legion is the Legion while Rome stands,
And these same men before the autumn’s fall 25
Shall bang old Vercingetorix out of Gaul.”
Robert Graves (1895–1985) from the collection Fairies and Fusiliers, 1918.