This is a relatively early poem by Robert Graves, but one that shows his particular gifts to great advantage, skilfully combining a traditional ballad form with an individual lyricism. At their best, Graves’s poems have that rare and unfashionable quality, beauty. Of course, there are many kinds of beauty in poetry: the beauty of precision, of the verbal arrow quivering in the centre of its target; the beauty of musicality, of rhythm and cadence; the beauty of evocation, of a few words on the page conjuring up whole vistas of lived experience. And sometimes if we are lucky they come together, as I find in this poem, and particularly in its penultimate stanza.
Note: the version I give differs in several places from others that may be found online, but mine is the version printed in ‘Collected Poems 1965’ that I am familiar with, so I have stuck with that.
drouth: a Scots word for drought, thirst.
Apples and Water
Dust in a cloud, blinding weather,
Drums that rattle and roar!
A mother and daughter stood together
By their cottage door.
‘Mother, the heavens are bright like brass,
The dust is shaken high,
With labouring breath the soldiers pass,
Their lips are cracked and dry.’
‘Mother, I’ll throw them apples down,
I’ll fetch them cups of water.’
The mother turned with an angry frown
Holding back her daughter.
‘But mother, see, they faint with thirst,
They march away to war,’
‘Ay, daughter, these are not the first
And there will come yet more.’
‘There is no water can supply them
In western streams that flow,
There is no fruit can satisfy them
On orchard-trees that grow.’
‘Once in my youth I gave, poor fool,
A soldier apples and water,
And may I die before you cool
Such drouth as his, my daughter.’