Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unfamous history

It's not uncommon to read poems about the First World War written from the perspective of fathers, mothers, sisters, or sweethearts of men who had left to fight, but I can think of only two poems written by sons of soldiers.  Ironically, both poets' fathers served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.  One of those poems -- "Six Young Men" – was written by Ted Hughes nearly forty years after the war had ended.  Hughes himself had no memory of the war, as he was born in 1930, twelve years after the Armistice. 

Another lesser known poem – "The Son" – was written by Clifford Dyment when he was just 21 years old.  Dyment was born in January of 1914 to Bessie and William Dyment.  His autobiography, The Railway Game, includes an early memory of his young father in their home in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, probably shortly before his father enlisted: 

It was my father's job to light the lamp in the evening. To me this was a ritual and a spectacle that invested him with priestly power and glory. He held a match to the wick and the wild wick snatched the flame from his hand and threw it up in the air and bounced it on the floor and hurled it up to the ceiling and flung it from wall to wall: it was a rough and playful exhibition of the eternal conflict between the forces of light and darkness. Majestically my father turned the lamp's brass wheel and the romping flame was hauled instantly back into the lamp like a tiger into its cage: the ceremony, short, brilliant, and daunting, was over. Now a cone of sunshiny radiance hung placidly from the lamp to the floor, and until it was time for me to be put to bed I scrambled about in a bell-tent made of light.

Dyment was just four when his father died; his poem "The Son" was published seventeen years later in 1935. 

The Son
by Clifford Dyment

I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier's, from the front—
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. It's cancelled now, he wrote.
My luck is at the bottom of the sea.

Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun,
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men,
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.

The first stanza's images of age and decay separate the living son from his dead father and from the past.  In an ordinary cardboard box, the son has found a letter that is "history," a pedestrian, common sort of history that was never widely known and that will be forgotten within a generation.  It seems that the box has been hidden away, and although the letter is precious for having been "kept," this is likely the first time the son has seen his father's handwriting.  Without emotion, the young man tells us flatly that he "read the words."  The poem creates a further emotional distance describing the letter as that of "a soldier's, from the front," as if it could be from any man.  The letter's message is simple and universal, writing of love and longing for home.  The news is of a cancelled leave, and the soldier's resigned despair can be heard in his words:  "My luck is at the bottom of the sea." 

The second stanza abruptly shifts to the present: the sun, a radio, laughter.  But the young man detaches himself from the present moment, sitting alone and apart in "the quiet room," remembering his father and "all the other men" whose "luck was at the bottom of the sea."  The luckless include not only the men who died in the war, but the men who grew up fatherless.  As well, the repetition of the phrase "luck is at the bottom of the sea" underscores the hopelessness and powerless of ordinary people during war time. 

William Dyment, Clifford Dyment's father, will never be famous, but he need not be forgotten.  He was born September 15, 1888 in Llancarfen, Wales and baptized there as well.  He married Bessie Riding on October 20, 1912 in the Registry Office in Newport.  They moved to Caerleon-on-Usk and lived at 1 Ashwell Terrace in a two-room cottage that has since been destroyed.  William was a carpenter who set himself up in business as a cabinet maker until on May 17, 1917 he joined the Royal Engineers  (later the Lancashire Fusiliers).   In just over a year, on May 22, 1918, he would die outside Amiens, France and be buried in the Varennes Military Cemetery, Section II, Row M, Grave 6.  

In 1919-1920, when British military cemeteries were erecting permanent headstones to commemorate the Commonwealth war dead, relatives were contacted and asked if they wished to purchase a brief epitaph inscription (limited to 66 characters).  Records indicate that a letter was sent to William Dyment's next of kin, B. Dyment, in Nottingham.  Next to his name is noted, "No Reply."   




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