Monday, December 16, 2019

Give me peace

A.A. Milne
“When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe, / I'm going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe,” wrote Alan Alexander Milne in his one of his “War-Time” poems. Best known as the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories, Milne was also a war writer. He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in February of 1915 and served as a Signal Corps officer until trench fever sent him back to England in November of 1916. Milne rejoined the army after Christmas, but was again hospitalized and declared unfit for active service at the front.  He served with British military intelligence for the rest of the war, writing propaganda articles until his discharge in February of 1919. In 1921, he published The Sunny Side, a collection of poems and essays dedicated “To Owen Seaman affectionately in memory of nine happy years at the “Punch” office.” The book was divided into seven sections—the fourth was titled “War-Time.”

Milne’s war poems and sketches are witty and light-hearted, but a deep note of sadness often echoes beneath the surface.

From a Full Heart

In days of peace my fellow-men
   Rightly regarded me as more like
A Bishop than a Major-Gen.,
   And nothing since has made me warlike;
But when this age-long struggle ends
   And I have seen the Allies dish up
The goose of Hindenburg—oh, friends!

   I shall out-bish the mildest Bishop.

When the War is over and the Kaiser's out of print,
I'm going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint;
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I'm going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.

I never really longed for gore,
   And any taste for red corpuscles
That lingered with me left before
   The German troops had entered Brussels.
In early days the Colonel’s “Shun!”
   Froze me; and, as the War grew older,
The noise of someone else's gun
   Left me considerably colder.

When the War is over and the battle has been won,
I'm going to buy a barnacle and take it for a run;
When the War is over and the German Fleet we sink,
I'm going to keep a silk-worm's egg and listen to it think.

The Captains and the Kings depart—

   It may be so, but not lieutenants;
Dawn after weary dawn I start
   The never-ending round of penance;
One rock amid the welter stands
   On which my gaze is fixed intently—
An after-life in quiet hands
   Lived very lazily and gently.

When the War is over and we've done the Belgians proud,
I'm going to keep a chrysalis and read to it aloud;
When the War is over and we've finished up the show,
I'm going to plant a lemon-pip and listen to it grow.

Oh, I'm tired of the noise and the turmoil of battle
And I'm even upset by the lowing of cattle,
And the clang of' the bluebells is death to my liver,
   And the roar of the dandelion gives me a shiver,
And a glacier, in movement, is much too exciting,
   And I'm nervous, when standing on one, of alighting—

Give me Peace; that is all, that is all that I seek…
   Say, starting on Saturday week. 
         —A.A. Milne

“From a Full Heart” is the confession of a man who does not welcome war—he longs for the quiet pleasures of a simple life. The First World War has not changed the man, but rather exacerbated his fears: chilled by the sound of guns, he now startles at the “clang of bluebells” and the “roar of a dandelion.” His plans after the war are absurd: he wants nothing more than to take barnacles for a run, listen to the musings of silk-worm’s egg, read to a chrysalis, and listen to a lemon seed grow. He desires nothing more than Peace.

A decade after the war had ended, Milne explained to young readers why poetry matters: “Every piece of poetry has a music of its own which it is humming to itself as it goes along … verses sing themselves into people’s heads, and stay there for ever, so that even when they are alone and unhappy they have this music with them for company.”* 

Milne and his son, Christopher Robin
Milne scholar Ann Thwaite writes, “The House at Pooh Corner [published in 1928] stands in a glade between two dark shadows—the aftermath of one war that had just finished and the dread of one coming. No one who fought in the First World War knew it was the First World War. On the contrary, they had been told that they were fighting the war that would end all wars. It must have been with the most bitter irony and failure, then, that that generation—Milne’s generation—watched their children march away to a war that they had been told would never happen.”**  In 1934, A.A. Milne published his argument for pacifism, Peace with Honour, in which he wrote, “I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine.”
* A.A. Milne, author’s “Preface” to The Christopher Robin Story Book, Methuen, 1929.
** Ann Thwaite, Goodbye Christopher Robin: AA Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Ann Thwaite, St. Martin’s, 2017

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Poems in their pockets

There’s a holiday for everything: November 27th is Bavarian Cream Pie Day and May 4th marks both Beer Pong Day and International Respect for Chickens Day. And every April, the US celebrates National Poetry Month, with one day set aside as “Poem in your Pocket Day.” According to the National Academy of Poets, it’s a day that encourages everyone to select a poem, carry it, and share it with others.

But what of poems found in the pockets of the dead? They echo like last words, held close by those who wrote them or loved them.
Frank Hurley, Dawn of Passchendaele
State Library New South Wales
(Found in his pocket after death.)

Suddenly one day
The last ill shall fall away;
The last little beastliness that is in our blood
Shall drop from us as the sheath drops from the bud,
And the great spirit of man shall struggle through,
And spread huge branches underneath the blue.
In any mirror, be it bright or dim,
Man will see God staring back at him.
            —T.P. Cameron Wilson

T.P. Cameron Wilson was killed in the First World War on March 23, 1918. The introduction to his posthumously published book of poems, Magpies in Picardy, relates that he was “extremely shy about his verse, and, unlike most youthful poets, was always disinclined to let it be seen, or discussed, by his friends.” Before joining the British Army, Wilson had been a schoolteacher in rural Derbyshire. In a letter dated May of 1916, he wrote,

Do teach your dear kids the horror of responsibility which rests on the war-maker … We’ve been wrong in the past. We have taught schoolboys “war” as a romantic subject … And everyone has grown up soaked in the poetry of war—which exists, because there is poetry in everything, but which is only a tiny part of the great dirty tragedy … All those picturesque phrases of war writers … are dangerous because they show nothing of the individual horror, nothing of the fine personalities smashed suddenly into red beastliness, nothing of the sick fear that is tearing at the hearts of brave boys who ought to be laughing at home.*
T.P.C. Wilson

And in his war-time notebook of “waste paper philosophy,” Wilson wrote a reflection on prayer:

When you pray I dare advise you break away from arranged titles, such as the Church has hung round the neck of its God … I have prayed to Him as the Great Calm Spirit, as Father, as King, as Friend, and all the titles mean nothing, and fluttered like dead leaves on the moving stream of love … Once as I walked along a road I spoke to Him as the Splendid Friend, and saw the huge sea, green and silent against the clouds, and near me the laughing pines, and very far away a sail like a speck of foam but which was a great ship, full of men. And I knew I was a fool, and could not call Him anything, but said, “Make me big, and less a fool,” and then I ran, and met my friends and linked an arm through the warm arm of one and sang a silly song.**
*T.P. Cameron Wilson from War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, E.P. Dutton, 1930, pp. 299-300.
** T.P. Cameron Wilson, Waste paper philosophy, to which has been added Magpies in Picardy, George H. Doran, 1920, p. 31.

Thursday, October 3, 2019


St. Ives, Cambridgeshire
Edward Hilton Young’s poem “Air Service (For M.J.G.D. 1896-1918)” remembers a young pilot who, killed at the age of twenty-one, was “swifter than all things save the wings of death.” E.H. Young was an officer with the Royal Navy when late in 1916 he met Royal Naval pilot Jeffery Miles Game Day at Harwich. The officers shared an enthusiasm for tea and the belief that life should be lived “all out”—holding nothing back from devoted action.  They became close friends, meeting numerous times during the war, the last time in February of 1918. In his memoir of Miles Day, Young recalls listening to his friend talk about his home in St. Ives, Cambridgeshire: “It is not about his own marvellous service that he likes best to talk: he is happiest when he is talking about country places and especially about his own country-side of river, fen, and mere. He loves them truly.”*
E. Hilton Young

On February 27th, 1918, Day’s plane “was shot down by six German aircraft which he attacked single-handed, out to sea…. because he wished to break the [enemy’s] formation, in order to make it easier for the less-experienced people behind him to attack.” His plane in flames, Day “nose-dived, flattened out, and landed perfectly on the water. He climbed out of his machine and waved his fellow-pilots back to their base; being in aeroplanes [not sea-planes] they could not assist him.”** Despite an immediate and lengthy search, Day’s body was never found.  He is remembered on the naval memorial to the missing at Chatham.

Less than two months later, Young was seriously wounded while manning a rear gun on the H.M.S. Vindictive in the raid on Zeebrugge. Although his right arm was amputated, Young returned to active duty and survived the war.  In 1919, he published his only book of poetry, The Muse at Sea. The book closes with a trilogy of poems remembering Jeffery Miles Day; the final poem recounts a visit to the birthplace and home that Day loved.    

Miles Jeffery Game Day

This was the way that, when the war was over,
we were to pass together. You, it’s lover,
would make me love your land, you said, no less,
its shining levels and their loneliness,
the reedy windings of the silent stream,
your boyhood’s playmate, and your childhood’s dream.

The war is over now: and we can pass
this way together.  Every blade of grass
is you: you are the ripples on the river:
you are the breeze in which they leap and quiver.
I find you in the evening shadows falling
athwart the fen, you in the wildfowl calling:
and all the immanent vision cannot save
my thoughts from wandering to your unknown grave.
                        St. Ives, 1919
            —Edward H. Young
* Edward Hilton Young, “Memoir,” Poems and Rhymes by Jeffrey Day, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1919, pp. 12-13.
** Edward Hilton Young, “Memoir,” p. 8.