The theme of war is one that is all too common in poetry today, as it remains an effective lens through which to examine various aspects of humanity in an extreme environment. For Robert Service, who typically wrote a natural-based verse or light-hearted poetry, war was something of a surprising topic to read of — and yet, in 1916, he released Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, a collection of verse that dealt primarily with war, based on Service’s own experience as a wartime journalist and ambulance driver in the First World War, which was at that point still being fought. It was dedicated to the memory of his brother, who was killed in action the same year of its release and saw the writer take on a very different approach to his usually light-hearted musings of life. ‘Pilgrims’ is one such poem that explores the breadth of Service’s perspective as it was influenced in that war.
For oh, when the war will be over
We’ll go and we’ll look for our dead;
And there where the crosses are greyest,
We’ll seek for the cross that is ours.
‘Pilgrims’ is a very well-structured poem, which can be read in full here. Each line is around eight or nine syllables long, with a simple ABAB rhyming pattern. The first verse is very straightforward in meaning and symbolism. The narrator, speaking for several individuals, is discussing a time after the war has ended, suggesting that it is at present still being fought. The speakers, presumably soldiers, discuss a time after the end of the war when they will seek out the graves of their companions, and make a point of wishing to visit in the summertime. There is a clear use of imagery here — the speaker imagines flowers, bees, and poppies (a likely reference to In Flanders Fields, published less than a year before this poem), and that the meadows would be laughing. The laughter is a personification that is the exact opposite of wartime, and the idea of the year itself being happy gives a strong impression of the dream held by the soldiers amidst their war.
For they cry to us: `Friends, we are lonely,
A-weary the night and the day;
Oh, come with the hearts of you glowing,
And the joy of the Spring in your eyes.
The second verse of ‘Pilgrims’ is told from the perspective of “them,” an imagined response from the fallen soldiers the speaker wishes to visit. Since the dead cannot actually be speaking, it makes sense to think of these verses as imagined responses, ideas of what a fallen soldier might wish for if they could perceive the world around them after their death. The speakers imagine their friends as being lonely in the earth, but insistent that their friends only visit them in a summertime setting. Many elements are borrowed from the first verse here — the description of gayness as a quality of nature, of flowers in bloom and of summertime creatures (bees in the first verse, larks in the second) echoes the previous sentiment nicely. Notably, the fallen soldiers want to see their friends only if their friends will be happy. They want to be embraced by glowing hearts and springtime joys, a stark contrast to the usual somber atmosphere that surrounds visiting a gravesite. The first line of the verse indicates that the dead are “crying,” but the last suggests that they are not desperate, despite their loneliness.
`But never, oh, never come sighing,
For ours was the Splendid Release;
And here where our graves will be greening,
Just smile and be happy again.’
The third and second-to-last verse continues the perspective of the deceased soldiers, who continue to insist that they never be visited by somber or sad friends still living. They talk to their comrades about dying while fighting for something they believed in. If the war is won — keeping in mind that the first verse implies that it is not — then it will have been worth their dying for. The “Splendid Release” is an unusual phrase, and its capitalization even more so. This may be a reference to the usual capitalization of divine beings and references in religious texts (particularly in Abrahamic religions); if so, this may be a reference to dying and entering Heaven. This is an unusual perspective — wartime is, of course, a terrible experience, and dying in the fields was typically a terrible way to pass on. And yet here, it is described as being joyous.
The second half of the verse reiterates the themes present from the first two. Using colorful imagery and metaphor (“valleys are sheening” /… “graves will be greening”), the unusually joyous tone of ‘Pilgrims’ persists and tries to create an atmosphere that breaks through the grim nature of war. The dead are adamant about not seeing their friends again until their friends and the whole of the world around them are happy.
And so, when the war will be over,
We’ll seek for the Wonderful One;
As — glory beyond all believing!
We point . . . to a name on a cross.
The perspective of the verse returns to the original speaker in the final verse, and is in many ways a reiteration of everything that has already been said. Repetition holds an important place in this poem because without it, the reader is tempted to remember the somber and grim nature of the terrible events that were the First World War. This verse, by contrast uses the phrase “Wonderful One” (another possible reference to God), and imagines a future where soldiers return home to their loved ones and fill their hearts with happiness enough to visit their fallen companions and thank them sincerely for their sacrifice.
The grammatical structure of the final three lines makes their meaning a little difficult to decipher. Service’s choice to use an ellipsis (…) instead of a second dash makes dramatic sense — the importance of the final line makes the abrupt and dramatic pause associated with a dash unsuitable. With a few punctuation points shifted around, the conclusion might read:
And there will be end to our grieving, and gladness will gleam over loss, as — glory beyond all believing! — we point to a name on a cross.
Without the ellipsis, the last line is sped up noticeable and lacks its dramatic effect, but it is easier to understand now that the source of the happiness and glory felt by the speaker comes from their fallen comrades. That name on a cross, on the grave marker for someone who died in the war, is a name to be remembered fondly and honored in the highest possible way — in this case, by being eternally grateful for what that person died to create and contribute to. The speaker imagines their friends dying happy, because they knew that they were fighting for peace, and it was worth dying for.
At the time Service wrote ‘Pilgrims’, in 1916, it must have felt like the most optimistic outlook possible on a truly tragic war that had engulfed so much of his world.