During the 141 day centenary of the Battle of the Somme, we will be featuring a collection of poems selected by the Scottish Poetry Library for their relevance and poignancy. On the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Somme, we are featuring “Lines Before Going” by Alexander Robertson, a Scottish academic-turned-soldier, who did not survive the day.
Lines Before Going
Soon is the night of our faring to regions unknown,
There not to flinch at the challenge suddenly thrown
By the great process of Being – daily to see
The utmost that life has of horror and yet to be
Calm and the masters of fear. Aware that the soul
Lives as a part and alone for the weal of the whole,
So shall the mind be free from the pain of regret,
Vain and enfeebling, firm in each venture, and yet
Brave not as those who despair, but keen to maintain,
Though not assured, hope in beneficent pain,
Hope that the truth of the world is not what appears,
Hope in the triumph of man for the price of his tears.
by Alexander Robertson
Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Alexander Robertson
About Alexander Robertson
Alexander Robertson was not typical of the many men who answered the call to volunteer for military service soon after the First World War broke out. He was over 30, so not as young as many who rushed to join up, and he was a university lecturer and promising historian, an academic and rather private man. Yet he joined the 12th (Service) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment – the Sheffield Pals – as a private, and remained in the Battalion until it was deployed in the attack on Serre on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He did not survive the day.
Robertson was a Scot, born in Edinburgh in 1882. He was an outstanding pupil at George Watson’s school, a successful student at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, a history teacher and then lecturer at the University of Sheffield. In September 1914, along with other university men, he presented himself at the Corn Exchange in Sheffield and began the process of becoming a soldier. According to his brother, Robertson found army life ‘far from congenial’, and concentrated when he could on further study, and writing poetry – all his poetry was written while on active service. ‘Lines Before Going’ is an honest contemplation of what it will be like to reach the front line, to experience battle. It was included in Robertson’s first book, published earlier in 1916, which was entitled Comrades. It was his comrades who made army life tolerable for Robertson; it was with his comrades he faced the appalling firepower of the German forces at the Somme, and with them he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
For more about this poet, see the Scottish Poetry Library.