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Lead Soldiers

 The nursery fire burns brightly, crackling in cheerful 
little explosions
and trails of sparks up the back of the chimney.
Miniature rockets peppering the black bricks with golden stars, as though a gala flamed a night of victorious wars.
The nodding mandarin on the bookcase moves his head forward and back, slowly, and looks into the air with his blue-green eyes.
He stares into the air and nods -- forward and back.
The red rose in his hand is a crimson splash on his yellow coat.
Forward and back, and his blue-green eyes stare into the air, and he nods -- nods.
Tommy's soldiers march to battle, Trumpets flare and snare-drums rattle.
Bayonets flash, and sabres glance -- How the horses snort and prance! Cannon drawn up in a line Glitter in the dizzy shine Of the morning sunlight.
Flags Ripple colours in great jags.
Red blows out, then blue, then green, Then all three -- a weaving sheen Of prismed patriotism.
March Tommy's soldiers, stiff and starch, Boldly stepping to the rattle Of the drums, they go to battle.
Tommy lies on his stomach on the floor and directs his columns.
He puts his infantry in front, and before them ambles a mounted band.
Their instruments make a strand of gold before the scarlet-tunicked soldiers, and they take very long steps on their little green platforms, and from the ranks bursts the song of Tommy's soldiers marching to battle.
The song jolts a little as the green platforms stick on the thick carpet.
Tommy wheels his guns round the edge of a box of blocks, and places a squad of cavalry on the commanding eminence of a footstool.
The fire snaps pleasantly, and the old Chinaman nods -- nods.
The fire makes the red rose in his hand glow and twist.
Hist! That is a bold song Tommy's soldiers sing as they march along to battle.
Crack! Rattle! The sparks fly up the chimney.
Tommy's army's off to war -- Not a soldier knows what for.
But he knows about his rifle, How to shoot it, and a trifle Of the proper thing to do When it's he who is shot through.
Like a cleverly trained flea, He can follow instantly Orders, and some quick commands Really make severe demands On a mind that's none too rapid, Leaden brains tend to the vapid.
But how beautifully dressed Is this army! How impressed Tommy is when at his heel All his baggage wagons wheel About the patterned carpet, and Moving up his heavy guns He sees them glow with diamond suns Flashing all along each barrel.
And the gold and blue apparel Of his gunners is a joy.
Tommy is a lucky boy.
Boom! Boom! Ta-ra! The old mandarin nods under his purple umbrella.
The rose in his hand shoots its petals up in thin quills of crimson.
Then they collapse and shrivel like red embers.
The fire sizzles.
Tommy is galloping his cavalry, two by two, over the floor.
They must pass the open terror of the door and gain the enemy encamped under the wash-stand.
The mounted band is very grand, playing allegro and leading the infantry on at the double quick.
The tassel of the hearth-rug has flung down the bass-drum, and he and his dapple-grey horse lie overtripped, slipped out of line, with the little lead drumsticks glistening to the fire's shine.
The fire burns and crackles, and tickles the tripped bass-drum with its sparkles.
The marching army hitches its little green platforms valiantly, and steadily approaches the door.
The overturned bass-drummer, lying on the hearth-rug, melting in the heat, softens and sheds tears.
The song jeers at his impotence, and flaunts the glory of the martial and still upstanding, vaunting the deeds it will do.
For are not Tommy's soldiers all bright and new? Tommy's leaden soldiers we, Glittering with efficiency.
Not a button's out of place, Tons and tons of golden lace Wind about our officers.
Every manly bosom stirs At the thought of killing -- killing! Tommy's dearest wish fulfilling.
We are gaudy, savage, strong, And our loins so ripe we long First to kill, then procreate, Doubling so the laws of Fate.
On their women we have sworn To graft our sons.
And overborne They'll rear us younger soldiers, so Shall our race endure and grow, Waxing greater in the wombs Borrowed of them, while damp tombs Rot their men.
O Glorious War! Goad us with your points, Great Star! The china mandarin on the bookcase nods slowly, forward and back -- forward and back -- and the red rose writhes and wriggles, thrusting its flaming petals under and over one another like tortured snakes.
The fire strokes them with its dartles, and purrs at them, and the old man nods.
Tommy does not hear the song.
He only sees the beautiful, new, gaily-coloured lead soldiers.
They belong to him, and he is very proud and happy.
He shouts his orders aloud, and gallops his cavalry past the door to the wash-stand.
He creeps over the floor on his hands and knees to one battalion and another, but he sees only the bright colours of his soldiers and the beautiful precision of their gestures.
He is a lucky boy to have such fine lead soldiers to enjoy.
Tommy catches his toe in the leg of the wash-stand, and jars the pitcher.
He snatches at it with his hands, but it is too late.
The pitcher falls, and as it goes, he sees the white water flow over its lip.
It slips between his fingers and crashes to the floor.
But it is not water which oozes to the door.
The stain is glutinous and dark, a spark from the firelight heads it to red.
In and out, between the fine, new soldiers, licking over the carpet, squirms the stream of blood, lapping at the little green platforms, and flapping itself against the painted uniforms.
The nodding mandarin moves his head slowly, forward and back.
The rose is broken, and where it fell is black blood.
The old mandarin leers under his purple umbrella, and nods -- forward and back, staring into the air with blue-green eyes.
Every time his head comes forward a rosebud pushes between his lips, rushes into full bloom, and drips to the ground with a splashing sound.
The pool of black blood grows and grows, with each dropped rose, and spreads out to join the stream from the wash-stand.
The beautiful army of lead soldiers steps boldly forward, but the little green platforms are covered in the rising stream of blood.
The nursery fire burns brightly and flings fan-bursts of stars up the chimney, as though a gala flamed a night of victorious wars.

Poem by Amy Lowell
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Book: Shattered Sighs