by Robert Graves (pub 1920)


Owls: they whinney down the night, Bats go zigzag by.


Owls: they whinney down the night,
Bats go zigzag by.
Ambushed in shadow out of sight
The outlaws lie.

Old gods, shrunk to shadows, there
In the wet woods they lurk,
Greedy of human stuff to snare
In webs of murk.

Look up, else your eye must drown
In a moving sea of black
Between the tree-tops, upside down
Goes the sky-track.

Look up, else your feet will stray
Towards that dim ambuscade,
Where spider-like they catch their prey
In nets of shade.

For though creeds whirl away in dust,
Faith fails and men forget,
These aged gods of fright and lust
Cling to life yet.

Old gods almost dead, malign,
Starved of their ancient dues,
Incense and fruit, fire, blood and wine
And an unclean muse.

Banished to woods and a sickly moon,
Shrunk to mere bogey things,
Who spoke with thunder once at noon
To prostrate kings.

With thunder from an open sky
To peasant, tyrant, priest,
Bowing in fear with a dazzled eye
Towards the East.

Proud gods, humbled, sunk so low,
Living with ghosts and ghouls,
And ghosts of ghosts and last year’s snow
And dead toadstools.


With this poem, the green shade of the wood dies, and the old gods rouse to their prey again. This brilliant description of the tangled murk of old forests where

agèd gods of power and lust
Cling to life yet –

Old gods almost dead, malign,
Starving for unpaid dues:
Incense and fire, salt, blood and wine
And a drumming muse,

prepares us for their return; for the metamorphosis of this safe and sheltering wood into the blackened stumps of the dead forests of the Somme laden with the bodies the old gods thirst for.