Poetry from the Darkest Hour
Picture of '1940' carved into the walls of the pillbox courtesy of 'Wikipedia'
Apologies for the lack of new posts, but pleased to see that people are still visiting this blog. A lot of spare time has been spent on my latest blog aBurntShip featuring 17th century related war poetry and prose. I started a blog concerning my views on the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion-which is yet unpublished. On my way back to World War 2 poetry.
With the rise of the movie 'Darkest Hour' -thought that it was time to select some poetry relating to that crucial phase of the War.
One of my favourite pieces of poetry about this year is the opening part of Bertolt Brecht 's '1940' .
"Spring is coming.The gentle winds
Are freeing the cliffs of their winter ice.
Trembling, the peoples of the north await
The battle fleets of the house-painter.
Out of the libraries
Emerge the butchers.
Pressing their children closer
Mothers stand and humbly search
The skies for the inventions of learned men.
The designers sit
Hunched in the drawing offices:
One wrong figure, and the enemy's cities
Will remain Undestroyed. "
Brecht was living in exile from Germany since 1933. After several years in Denmark, Brecht moved to Sweden in April 1939, but moved to Finland in May 1940. I rate these three verses highly; opening with the idea that the start of Spring, rather than being a cause for celebration, heralds the beginning of the fighting season. In fact knowledge itself is used against rather than for ,the interests of humanity. Butchers go to libraries, learned men are devising new inventions of war, designers are planning to destroy enemy cities.
British poetry from 1940
I have selected three poems, all written by women, not for any deliberate reason. I don't think that any of them are of astonishing literary importance. But they convey an eerie fatalism, not necessarily of a defeatist nature, more of a sense of living in a country which has lost control of its destiny. Also reminds one that the events of 1940 were shared by those out of uniform as well as those who were serving.
"The Atlantic clangs, a hammer against the headland.
Lungs of my generation wait for the stroke,
The wave's long tension tattering into smoke
Breathe turmoil, with this headland that is England
Surf in the cove has woven a scantier garland,
Scalding the ribs of a trawler mined in May.
Roll on my soul: reveal the spindrift boy.
The men like matchwood, broken against the foreland."
( from 'Lilian Bowes Lyon Collected Poems, Introduced by C.Day Lewis' , Jonathan Cape, 1948)
Lilian Bower-Lyon sees 'England' not as Shakespeare's 'sceptered isle' but as a headland being pounded by the Atlantic. There is an almost Byron type view of Nature being indifferent to man, The sea wears down the wreck of a mined fishing boat, the men 'broken like matchwood....' There is something a little obtuse about the 'spindrift boy'....'spindrift' being the spray of the waves blown by waves. Perhaps a play on the words 'boy and 'buoy' .
"Last spring carried love's garlands -this season's wreath;
broken branches of blossom to decorate death,
cloaking new graves, hardly-though unsought for,
stainless and free as the causes they fought for.
Yes, beggoten of sunlight and suckled by rain,
flowers declare that as surely shall peace follow pain."
( Published in 'Chaos of the Night -Women's Poetry and Verse of the Second World War' selected by Catherine Reilly, Virago ,1984)
Whilst Prudence Madonald contrasts Spring of 1939 with that of 1940- where flowers were once associated with romance, are now used for wreaths and to 'decorate graves'. There is quite a bitter-sweet feeling about Spring time and war. But am drawn to the poem's simplicity, and the tiny note of optimism ' as surely shall peace follow pain'.
"But in June
When the honey honeysuckle is thickest on the
The wind blows off the sea
And no one comes,
In any year
No season has begun then.
Only this year we know it will never begin,
None will come but those
Like us, to say goodbye, sisters to brothers,
Lovers to lovers.
This quiet deserted year
We saw Newgale sands as men
Shipwrecked see the waiting island,
Two miles of bay still wet
At midday from the morning tide
Under the thick English summer sky
Which only lets the warmth through not the sun;
There was a noon tide bearing on the land
The unremitting roar
Of endless breakers racing
With furious hair after the fretted surf
Scattered like whitened bones on the flat sand......"
(Published in 'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War, edited and introduced by Anne Powell, Sutton Publishing, 1999).
Joan Barton evokes the deserted holiday resort of Newgale Sands. also looking at the notion of the Sea being hostile , or at the very best, indifferent to the affairs of men. Interesting that there is no sense of the sea being a defence against invasion .....but the poet is describing a West facing port. If this was a South coast port, the beach would be cluttered with defences and travel restriction imposed. 'The unremitting roar/ Of endless breakers' reads like a strange allusion to the waves of bombers who are to come. The image of the 'fretted surf/Scattered like whitened bones '.....is haunting.
Notes on the Poets.
I can't find a full online version of the poem '1940' . I have used 'Poetry of the Second World War-An International Anthology' edited by Desmond Graham, 'Chatto & Windus', 1995.
Verse VI of 1940 is much quoted generally, but a bit too clever for my liking.
Lilian Bowes-Lyon (1895- 1949)
Cousin to Elizabeth the late Queen Mother. served as a VAD nurse in World War 1. Had some five collections of poetry published along with a 'Collected Works' in 1948. Worked with the people of Stepney during World War 2.
Excellent article The Queen Mother's Rebel Cousin by East End historian Roger Mills
Little information found - a collection of her work 'No Wasted Hour & Other Poems' was published in 1945.
Joan Barton ( 1908- 1986)
Involved with the Women's Land Army during World War 2, Set up a bookshop in 1947 in Marlborough, and continued to write poetry , sometimes read her work on radio. Seems to have had several collections of poetry published, most notably 'A House under Old Sarum- New and Selected Poems', Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1981.