Alan Morrison on
The Selected Poems of Clive Branson
edited by Richard Knott
Smokestack Books, 2023
The Collected Poems of Montagu Slater
edited by Ben Harker
Smokestack Books, 2023
Poems on Campaign
These two fine posthumous volumes represent comprehensive finds of literary archaeologies curated compendiously and painstakingly by two committed academic editors and published together by Smokestack Books by way of mutual complement. The two poets exhumed for our contemporary appreciation are quite different and distinct from one another in style and form but are very much fellow travellers of their times in terms of their Communist political convictions and application of such principles in the medium of poetry.
The lesser known of the two, Clive Branson (1907-1944), son of a major in the Indian Army, and privately educated, undoubtedly owes his hitherto fainter posterity to the fact that he died much younger, killed in action in Burma in 1944. A selection of his poems composed while on active service some years earlier in Spain was included posthumously in the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (1980 ed. Valentine Cunningham); even earlier, as far back as 1932, Branson had privately published a poetry collection; while in the year of his death, the Communist Party brought out a book of his letters under the title British Soldier in India (introduced by Harry Pollitt).
It was however as an artist of considerable gifts that Branson was mostly known during his lifetime, as the exceptional Self-Portrait on the cover of this volume testifies—he had studied at the Slade School of Art in London. On converting (along with his wife Noreen) to Communism in the 1930s (after a brief time with Battersea Independent Labour Party) following his encounter with the abject slum poverty of London, he started up a weekly paper, Revolt, which he sold himself, and then went on to sell the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) at Clapham Junction, deciding to devote his life to political activism. Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, dissuading Branson from volunteering to fight for the Spanish Republic in 1936, instead put him ‘in charge of guiding volunteers from all over the United Kingdom through the capital and onwards to the Spanish war, the would-be fighters leaving by the ‘Red Train’ from Victoria Station’. But by 1938 ‘the Party leadership agreed that Branson should be free to volunteer.
He left for Spain at the beginning of January that year, evading the attentions of Special Branch by only a matter of days. He underwent training at a camp in Albacete over a five-week period before going to the front, in charge of a group of twenty men, all of them poorly equipped and many without rifles. In March he was captured during the battle of Calaceite, paraded in front of the world’s press in Saragossa and then taken to the prison at San Pedro de Cardeña where he was incarcerated for three months. Nine miles from Burgos, it was a forbidding monastery: overcrowded, gloomy, primitive, rat-infested and cold.
In this grim captivity, Branson’s salvation was his poetry. He wrote about the durability and courage of his fellow prisoners; the weather, the ‘grip of prison’, the loss of freedom, the enforced idleness (‘men die/while we sit and in the hot sun lie’), and the enemy (‘this Fascist’s bloody name’). In the summer of 1938 Branson was moved to a prison camp in Palencia, 55 miles south-west of Burgos. The Italian-run regime was less brutal than San Pedro and here Branson could write and was encouraged to draw, producing among other things more than fifty portraits of his fellow prisoners.
At one point he was commissioned by the camp commandant to paint a set of pictures of the camp.
Branson was eventually released from captivity in the autumn of 1938.
[From the Introduction by Richard Knott]
Branson then returned to England, and to his work as an artist, but only the following year the Second World War broke out, and soon he found himself enlisting for foreign service again, this time on the basis of the ‘official’ footing of a European conflict, in the Royal Armoured Corps, and by 1942 was posted to India, where two years later he would be killed while looking out from the turret of his tank. It is perhaps unsurprising then to note that there is a broadly unfinished quality to much of Branson’s verse, since it is in the main, after all, a kind of verse on active service, or poems on campaign: inescapably poetry often sketched out in inauspicious and hostile circumstances doesn’t have the luxury of being easily redrafted several times until it reaches a point of complete poetic satisfaction on the poet’s part. Or perhaps it takes a poet of exceptional ability and self-discipline to be able to turn out near-immaculate poems while on campaign—the highly accomplished poets Keith Douglas (1920-44) and Alun Lewis (1915-44), both spring to mind in this respect, as do Oxford graduates Drummond Allison (1921-43) and Sidney Keyes (1922-43)—but they were arguably exceptions to the rule.
Montagu Slater (1902–56) is today perhaps mostly remembered for having written the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945)—otherwise, as Ben Harker puts it in his voluminous Introduction (which is more a potted biography), this ‘quietly prolific communist man of letters has disappeared almost without trace’. Harker puts much of this posthumous obscurity down to the fact that, unlike most of his contemporaries, Slater did not write an autobiography; moreover, around 1950, he apparently ‘burned a tranche of papers’ thought to include correspondence, diaries and photographs—a curious act of documentary self-erasure reminiscent, in some respects, of T.E. Lawrence or Viktor Tausk.
Slater’s background was markedly different to that of the more privileged Branson—as Harker details, he was
born into a family of Wesleyan Methodists on 23 September 1902 in Millom, a Cumbrian port-town shaped and scarred by the mining and working of iron.6 His mother, Rosa Annie Thora Lugsdon, ran the family – there were five children – and his father, Seth Slater, a lay preacher, was a master clothier and sub-postmaster (Seth’s tailor’s shop doubled as the town’s only post office).
Charles, always known by his middle name, was educated at Millom secondary school.
Slater was clearly something of a working-class autodidact: ‘he won a rare scholarship to Oxford and went up to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, as a non-collegiate student, in 1920, the year that the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed’. Two of his Oxford contemporaries, both CPGB members, were Ralph Fox, and the later International Brigadier (who commanded the British Battalion in Spain) and accomplished poet, Tom Wintringham (1898-1949). Harker provides a vividly detailed account of Slater’s metamorphosis into a young novelist and poet, accomplished through candle-burning application and sweated commitment:
After graduation, Slater took a job as reporter for the Liverpool Post. He lived in a dockside dormitory, and became active in the city’s labour movement, joining the Communist Party, probably in 1927. These experiences informed a long, never completed cycle of poems provisionally entitled ‘The Venereal Hypothesis’, whose heroic couplets struggled to integrate classical erudition and the seamier details of dock-side life. In 1928 he married photographer Enid Mace, with whom he would have three daughters, and the couple moved to London. Slater worked on Fleet Street for the Morning Post – the preferred broadsheet of Britain’s officer-class – but channelled energies into grassroots activism for the National Union of Journalists and his Communist Party branch. Rising long before work to write, he completed two novels, both published by the small, prestigious Wishart Press in the early 1930s. The Second City (1931) looked back to Liverpool and went largely unreviewed. The critically-acclaimed, Berlin-set Haunting Europe (1934) looked forward, grappling with the spread of international fascism and the challenge of creating a ‘new and emancipated society’ from within ‘the very body of a tyrannical and reactionary State.’
Slater went on to co-edit the Left Review, new organ of the British Section of the Writers’ International started in 1934, alongside Tom Wintringham and Amabel Williams-Ellis, for which Salter wrote many polemical articles under the nom de plume ‘Ajax’. Much in the spirit of his contemporary, the Marxist critic, theorist, polemicist and sometime-poet Christopher Caudwell (1907-37) who, unlike Slater, and Wintringham, his commander (since he was in the British Battalion of the International Brigade), did not survive the Spanish Civil War (as nor did John Cornford 1915-36), Slater ‘rejected the idea that cultural work could be bracketed off from politics’ (Harker)—such views, growing wider currency in the 1930s, had been given distinct expression in Caudwell’s posthumously published works, in particular, Illusion and Reality: A Study in the Sources of Poetry (1937) and Studies in a Dying Culture (1938). Harker:
The process of defining and transmitting national culture, he insisted, was always political (it decided what, and who, counted, and did not); the custodians of culture naturally defined it in their own image. In particular, the gate-keeping elite had undervalued and sidelined a powerful current of demotic folk poetry: John Skelton, Piers Ploughman, William Blake, music hall, penny dreadfuls, popular theatre, folksong, psalm books, proverbs and jokes. Countering the myth that ‘folk poetry’ ended with the Renaissance would be a central concern of Slater and his networks. He had already begun this work by seeking out, editing and republishing the scripts of Victorian barnstormers, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Traditional Acting Version (1928), Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (1928) and Two Classic Melodramas (1933).
Slater rightly believed that capitalism was a system based on deception, and so ‘To ‘describe things as they are’ was therefore ‘a revolutionary act’, especially economic exploitation lived beneath the radar of the dominant culture. Outlined in Left Review, this theory was practised in Coal Face (1935), a short documentary film for which Slater wrote the narration, produced by General Post Office Film Unit’ (Harker). Slater then
reworked his day-job coverage of the occupation by miners facing redundancy of the Nine Mile Point Colliery in Monmouthshire, 1935, as a book of eye-witness reportage, published as Stay Down Miner (1936). A forgotten classic in the tradition of JB Priestley’s English Journey (1934) and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), the book detailed not only the strike but a tight-knit way of life defined by ‘the bearing of dignity and stiff chapel-going independence’ reminiscent for Slater of Millom. Drama, however, was Slater’s primary form in the mid to late 1930s. Two plays sounding a caution against Anglicized forms of fascism – Domesday (1933) and Cock Robin (1934) – were written but not formally staged. His experiments soon found a receptive network in Left Theatre (1934–37), a professionally-based organization convinced that ‘the very class which plays the chief part in contemporary history’ was ‘debarred from expression in the present-day theatre.’ Slater went on to win the inaugural Left Theatre playwriting competition in 1935 with his Easter 1916, which was published by the CPGB’s imprint Lawrence & Wishart in 1936.
During the early years of WWII, Slater was almost impossibly employed in what sound like three very demanding posts: ‘(theatre critic and sub-editor at the Co-op’s Sunday weekly, Reynold’s News); Head of Scripts at the Film Unit of the Ministry of Information; and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, where he worked first on films, then on living newspapers performed to the troops’. Apparently Britten’s preferred librettist after Christopher Isherwood, Slater was recruited by the composer to work on an opera to be based on The Borough (1824) by poet and Aldeburgh curate, George Crabbe, (1754–1832)’, more specifically, on the ‘Peter Grimes’ section of the poem, which Slater ‘re-worked … as a three-act verse drama, set ‘towards 1830’, to be performed by a cast of fourteen, plus chorus. He replaced Crabbe’s five-beat line – ‘out of key with contemporary modes of thought and speech’ – with a more idiomatic four-beat line, and Crabbe’s ringing couplets with a ‘rough rhyme’ – ‘assonance and consonantal rhyme’ – by way of ‘striking the balance between structure and naturalness’. Harker makes a point of emphasizing Britten’s very particular take on the story: ‘Britten identified strongly with the socially alienated central figure, around whom rumour clung, and would later draw parallels between Grimes the outsider and his own life as a homosexual and conscientious objector in a world hostile to both groups’. Slater’s approach favoured more the ambiguity and enigma of Grimes. Due to artistic differences this collaboration grew strained and ultimately mutually alienating. The director of the first production of Peter Grimes at Sadler’s in 1945, Eric Crozier, ‘remembered the librettist as ‘a silent, rather recalcitrant figure’ during some tense meetings’. Tensions increased when Britten brought in poet Robert Duncan to make some revisions to the poetic text (the more obvious exponent of poetic drama of the time, Auden, had apparently been unavailable). But much to Britten’s consternation, ‘Slater then published his original libretto – ‘the one to which the music was composed’ – in his first and only verse collection, Peter Grimes and other Poems (1946)’.
Harker makes note: ‘The framework for much of Slater’s work in the late and immediate post-war years was the conviction that the so-called ‘cultural upsurge’ of wartime Britain, in which access to the arts had begun to be broadened – in part through state-funded initiatives (CEMA, ENSA, ABCA) – must be sustained and developed in the image of a better, socialist, future’. One of the main organs for promulgating such ‘upsurge’ was the Communist magazine Our Time which had a readership in the tens of thousands. There was also, of course, Victor Gollancz’ emphatically antifascist Left Book Club and its prolific crop of subscription-only red hardbacks and orange paperbacks famously NOT FOR THE SALE TO THE PUBLIC. As to Slater’s other, later works:
While working on Peter Grimes, he had written the commercially-oriented, Once a Jolly Swagman (1944), a novel that keyed into the popularity of speedway racing, a sport Slater enjoyed. The novel became a feature film in 1948, starring Dirk Bogarde, scripted by William Rose and directed by Jack Lee. He wrote Who Rides a Tiger (1947), an espionage novel tracking an MI5 agent as the hot war gave way to the cold, and The Inhabitants (1948), partly set in a version of Millom, that contrasted the empty lives of a languid, upper-class London elite and the bustling vitality of a northern working-class community in which ‘friendliness was the single key.
The most tantalising work, from this writer’s viewpoint, is recounted by Harker next:
His most ambitious work of the late 1940s was Englishmen with Swords: A Narrative of the Years 1647–1648 and 1649 (1949). A radical historical documentary, this novel took the form of a journal supposedly written by journalist Gilbert Mabbot, official licensor of the press between 1647 and 1649 and secretary of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Animated by the ideas thrown up during these revolutionary years – rulers’ rights to rule, the ethics and implications of property ownership, the possibility of social levelling, the radical extension of the franchise – the novel atmospherically recreates the period of the Putney Debates, the second Civil War and Charles I’s execution.
Slater became something of a champion for the posthumously trounced reputation of Christopher Caudwell: ‘Mediating diplomatically, he challenged the tone, if not the logic, of a party increasingly bent on ideological conformity during the so-called ‘Caudwell Controversy’, in which the ‘idealist’ deviations of Christopher Caudwell’s posthumously published theoretical work were ritualistically denounced’. And as cultural enterprises as the LBC and the Workers’ Music Association began to wane in reach and influence, Slater ‘renewed the collaboration with his old GPO Film Unit associate, director John Grierson, writing the critically-acclaimed documentary-style feature film, The Brave Don’t Cry (1952), which dramatized the struggle of miners trapped by a landslide at the Knockshinnoch Castle Colliery in September 1950’. Slater was, too, ‘equally prominent in the writers’ union, PEN, co-editing with non-communists Roy Fuller and Clifford Dyment New Poems 1952: A PEN Anthology (1952), the first of a series of books to show case new work in a form seldom commercially viable, and now struggling with the closure of key periodicals (Horizon, New Writing)’.
Slater ‘scripted Out of True (1951), a short documentary drama film stressing the treatability of mental breakdown, sponsored by the National Health Service (a version of his script was published as Cure of Minds (1952))’, and ‘While other communists in his circle visited the so-called ‘People’s Democracies’, and produced romanticized accounts, Slater drew inspiration from visits to Africa in the early 1950s’. In his final years, Harker details, like his work ethic, his communism remained intact, redefined in 1954 as the ‘full community of all minds and possessions’ necessary for ‘complete freedom.’ Harker speculates on where Slater’s deeply culturally-inclined Communism might have taken him had he lived to see the 1950s out, by remarking on the directions his closest contemporaries took post-1956: ‘his closest associates – Edgell Rickword, Randall Swingler, Bernard Stevens, Arnold Rattenbury – were drawn to the New Left, a movement that credibly claimed Slater’s long career – non dogmatic, open to a wide range of cultural influences and forms, committed to cultural democracy’.
The Selected Poems of Clive Branson
Now to the poetry. First up, Clive Branson, most of whose poems were fortuitously dated, giving them specific historic contexts and adding to the sense of event-verse which recalls the oeuvre of another contemporary of his and Slater’s, Australian-born poet, novelist, playwright and CPGB member, Jack Lindsay (1900-1990) (who, among a jaw-droppingly prolific output of almost 200 titles throughout his extensive career, wrote a social-realist novel set after the execution of Charles I, 1649: A Novel of a Year (1938), eleven years before Slater published Englishmen with Swords: A Narrative of the Years 1647–1648 and 1649 (1949)).'
'Spain's Civil War'
Indeed, the first section of Branson’s Selected is titled 'Spain’s Civil War'. Apt opener ‘The International’ is a simple but skilful piece of verse which makes fine use of half-rhyme endings:
We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the Universe
Singing The International.
I remember it so well
Waiting in the station yard
The darkness stood around still
And the stars, masses, stared.
This poem is dated January 1940. It echoes the work of other poet contemporaries of Branson’s such as John Cornford and Jack Lindsay. ‘December 1936, Spain’, is curiously dated June 1939, which means either it was written in retrospect or was redrafted at the latter date, since it is a hortatory poem much in the polemical vein of fellow Communist poet (and eventual Poet Laureate) C. Day Lewis’s Left Review intervention, ‘We're Not Going To Do Nothing: A Reply to Mr. Aldous Huxley's Pamphlet, ''What Are You Going to Do About It?''’
You! English working men!
Can’t you hear the barrage creeping
that levels the Pyrenees?
Is time intangible
that bears so audible
and visible a thing?
Can’t you hear the children and women cry
where the Fascist bomb
makes the people’s home
a tomb for you and me?
Can’t you see the gashes in the street
where our people stumble
when the city trembles?
Can’t you smell the rose held in the teeth
tighter than death?
They who lie so still
with no Cross,
only this, their courage, their faith
manures the barren earth
for new trees
to spring up the hill-side to the very sky.
That we should be insensible at such a time
Makes deafness kill and peace the bloodier crime.
A rousing piece with an exceptional neo-Shakespearean end couplet. A little subtler is ‘On Being Questioned After Capture: Alcañiz’, which takes a lyrical scalpel to a traumatic personal experience with a sharp use of assonantal and half-rhyme:
On him the bigger lie – a conscript
‘volunteer’ to rape Spain where she slept
to save his own skin…
I could imitate the victor, cringe
till I and the world beyond
take our revenge.
‘Lines Written in a Book of Drawings’ is ominously subtitled ‘done by the order of the Commandant of the Italian Camp’—it is a rudimentary and probably spur-of-the-moment epigram:
These drawings needed a little freedom,
The eye and hand of man enjoying life.
Great Art demands fulfilment of a dream
Of human peace and friendship, no more strife.
Far more powerful and accomplished however is the following epigram, ‘On being ordered to copy a large signature of MUSSOLINI’ subtitled ‘under a slogan written on the camp wall’:
For years I’ve trained, burnt out my sight, not spared
my health, my strength, my life’s too tender flame
I strove to heights no former vision dared –
to scrawl in black this Fascist’s bloody name.
The first stanza ‘The Aeroplane’, subtitled ‘San Pedro, 1938’, is particularly striking:
This winged machine that cancels distance out.
New steel Icarus senseless to the sun.
Would have Da Vinci end what he’d begun
knowing his dream materialised? – the rout
of innocents from field and home – the shout
of joy to spot an aeroplane. Tis done
The metal bird now sings and man has won
Power to touch the stars or turn about.
The use of assonance, sibilance and consonance are extremely effective: ‘cancels distance’/ ‘Icarus senseless … sun’ etc. This is almost a Miltonic sonnet but for a slightly altered rhyme scheme in the second verse—it is unclear if that was intentional. Aeroplanes appear in the following shorter poem ‘The Red Airforce’, depicted as ‘gigantic eagles jealous of no one’.
The next section is titled ‘The 1930s’. ‘Zero Hour’ is one of the longer lyrical pieces and contains some beautiful tropes: ‘The little child lingering/ On the precincts of sleep/ Presses her face in the pillow again’, ‘Children understand the screams of intrusion’, and the Audenesque ‘Latest events litter the pavements/ Along with the tickets to yesterday’. Indeed, there is definitely an Audenic influence throughout this poem:
Light fades out before the end of vision.
Turn on the artificial planets
That swarm about the corners of our streets.
Turn on the headlights and the neon-signs.
The peaks of life aren’t gained by blind obedience.
To the shortcomings of the sun. Now mountains
Whose high purpose only the eagles know.
In spite of its officious-sounding title ‘Tasks Before the XIII Party Congress’ is lyrical and aphorismic:
When the sky is like the inverted lake
and gripped by inert trees, tentacled earth.
This is the archway we walk through for years
leisurely picking up new thoughts like friends
…only the parallel of a railway line
leading the will along its safe known track
to another station, or terminus, or back
Another fourteen-liner, ‘Paris, 1929’, is a rather vague lyrical meditation which disappointingly contains nothing specific to the title, its natural descriptions are general and could refer to anywhere. ‘Forward’ is another hortatory poem, a direct Shelleyan call for revolution, its simplicity is well-expressed:
He is no better than the millionaire
Who clears the ground of trees, shrubs, weeds
To make his lawns monotonously green
Forbidden to all except the mowing machine.
Don’t insult the bugger on the dole.
He loves the taste and smell of a good meal –
Sure! – but he loves as well
Fresh air, a salty breeze and brown earth still.
It is for these, the joy of being in a man
That the factory hand is ready to risk all,
Can take what’s coming to him, and rebel.
Let every Englishman fight for this cause –
Communism is English! Freedom is Ours!
Note again the assonantal half-rhymes. ‘A Song: Lenin to Gorky’ is an eight-line epigram:
We will drink deep of the white wine of Capri
Gorky, you and I, when the day-long finger
Will have cleaned from the earth all tyranny we
Now mean to be ended with rapid anger.
Gone, gone will the time of our fighting be when
The hymn of the wine we’ll ring together
With the thunder of clapping and the laughter of men
With whom we worked hard in the day long over.
‘To C Day Lewis’, dated 3 July 1935, is a little cryptic in its tone and meaning:
You labour through wastes of depression.
An oasis, a palm tree, a well
you kick for a tombstone. The lesson?
On the beach there’s only one pebble,
only one among all.
At the foot of new waves you were jilted.
Think! Shall you think like the sea?
Or would you the white cliffs were lifted
yet higher before they’re to be
flat as eternity?
The next section is titled ‘I Stay With You’. It starts with the distinctly Shelleyan-Keatsian lyric, ‘The Sun’:
The Sun when it begins to climb
Lingers on the crest of time,
Even the sensate butterfly
Flutters ere it die.
The early mist lies on the hills
Until the air with light fill
And so in life I stay for you
Waiting to die too.
‘Tulips’ is a sublime, Lorcaesque lyric:
You strain for the light, for new life,
And lift. your supplicating mouths
For pure air,
Your feeble wings lie
Down the vase folded;
And red petals die.
‘Dwindle into Moors’ is a curious poem which seems to show some Modernist influence in unusual rhythms and seemingly dislocated syntax:
Where is the victory if the soldier dies?
Smooth movement screens by addition tumult.
Turmoil, pain, doubt, anger, surprises
Stop a revolution; no peace is the result,
No sitting sunning in the park but crises
Yawning factories vomit men and women…
‘Where the Summer Follows’ skilfully replicates the same rhyme scheme and meter as Wordsworth’s iconic ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ (aka ‘Daffodils’). The Modernistic lyric ‘To Noreen’ (1931) is arguably one of the most accomplished of Branson’s poems—it’s first verse is particularly well-sculpted and cadent with some beautiful turns of phrase:
I have seen you bear the cup and drink
Sipping the warm minutes of evening
And winnow the grey hairs of day
From pretended darkness, smoking.
You counted the uneatable ‘beggarman’
And watched the taxis move up in their rank
Heard the footsteps of the people
Heard the clock register each new blank.
So whiled away an age have you and I
Sitting and listening to the stars
Caring not how many filled the sky
Nor was that music written which has faded.
And will you drink black coffee till the moon
Lights the round bottom of the cup you hold
Or hearing the clouds no more, get bored soon
And leave me on the pavement thirsting?
Curiously, there’s an abandonment of the rhyme scheme in the last lines of the third and fourth stanzas which perhaps enhance the poem by giving it an edginess, a sense of unpredictability. ‘Have They Told You?’ is a nice Blakean lyric. ‘Dawn’ is another nice lyric with some unusual images, such as ‘juvenile light’, while it closes on a nicely assonantal flourish:
And accumulated voices hum
Accelerating and ascending
In the day’s crescendo.
‘Beyond the Speed of Light’ is another sonnet of sorts, it again has an epigrammatic quality to it:
How often time hangs heavy on our hands
When every minute is a lifetime gone;
It seems as though a mighty barrier stands
Between our deeds and what needs to be done.
In thought too often we are miles away
Performing acts of utmost urgency
When just so often we are forced to stay
Inactive, equal to complacency.
Yet time is no screen-picture overflowing
Another performance, a second showing.
The next section is titled ‘Crumbling City’. Branson’s ‘London’ in many senses serves as a kind of 1930s/40s updating of Blake’s ‘London’ (Songs of Experience, 1794):
Crumbling city! Once mirror of the star-lit heaven
And brilliant in your own splendour too. Now
Streetlights are turned down, blinds drawn and neon-signs even
Torn from the cinema front. Everywhere shadow.
In people’s eyes look fear, no sleep, and despair.
Children must feed on hunger, read the pavement
While mother labours to quicken dad’s massacre
In this mad-house of profit, interest and rent.
This shadow’s magnitude is entirely yours.
But not the depth of night, the sense of darkness.
The will to feel belongs to us and ours;
No, not to armed police, business men and bankers.
Out from the back streets, factories, dark men and women –
A furnace charged to white heat threatens the horizon.
The second verse in particular recalls Blake’s poem which might have served as a template for Branson’s—the parallels between the two poems are clear in tone and image, the second verses of each in particular:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
‘The Thames’ is more vers libre and is faintly reminiscent of John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’:
A large white rat dri.ed up the river on its back
Past HMS PRESIDENT
.at gently swayed
But kept her moorings strained
The ALAIN tug
With five low-laden barges
Smoked its course
Toward Charing Cross
And the river police dashed past.
‘The Doors of the Tube’ is a wonderful curiosity, a poetic take on the London Underground which really should be included in Poems on the Underground—with great descriptive lines such as ‘Ghostly doors! Handless slide impassionate’ and ‘Into these carriages smooth moving through modern catacombs’, it reminded this writer of Christopher Caudwell’s contemporaneous poem 'The Kingdom of Heaven' (1937), part of which I excerpt below:
I walked down a long, tiled corridor.
There were notices on the walls.
WHITE TIES PLEASE. …
DO NOT SPIT.
THIS WAS TO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
I went down the long tiled corridor
And at the end someone clattered lift gates.
I walked back down the stairs, down the corridor.
There are offices it seems across the way.
He may be in there.
PLEASE USE THE SUBWAY.
I used the subway. I am still walking…
Although it’s unclear whether Caudwell’s ‘subway’ alludes to the underground or merely an underpass. ‘In The Park’ is a strong Eliotic piece:
Men take off their hats to mop their old heads
while everybody’s walking slowly
along the pavements through the shade.
The chocolate-man has covered up his wares.
The horses are hot and trot wearily in the Row.
The sheep bleat by the Serpentine, new sheared and thin
in bare continuous monotone.
Bobbing, the ducks waddle through the grass to avoid
inebriated steps of a full-fledged Cygnet.
A tattered ‘Scrap of Paper’
fixed to the points of the iron rails
is sensitive to air.
‘Night (1)’ is similarly Eliotic:
Silence can be found
Only where the roads pass through
From thoroughfare to thoroughfare;
Tis true and yet untrue
For women sitting in saloons
Laugh and irritate the air
Appreciating humour over beer.
Here I am again
Among chattering lamps
To Covent Garden bound
Where the few that are found
Speak, walk and look
(described in a book)
And drunk they steer
Down the difficult pavements.
How pale and wearied with forbidden love
The men and women seem!
A van, like a cage drove past the market
Carrying new flowers for the morrow’s sale.
There’s also something of the spectral quality of Harold Monro’s poetry. ‘Night (2)’ is another fine lyrical piece:
I shall endeavour
To lose myself in the lonely streets
(though packed with people and the traffic’s stir)
To follow my shadow down dark retreats
Further and further.
I’ll strive to leave the world alone
Or else in some cheap cinema
Watch fabulous love’s desires fulfilled
And dread what might have been
Or what may come.
‘I Thought England Safe’
The next section is titled ominously ‘I Thought England Safe’. ‘Thaelmann’ is a eulogy to Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German Communist Party 1925 to 1933, who was assassinated (on Hitler's orders) in 1944. Here Branson’s lyrical is peaking, this poem is more assured and confident in style and tone than much that has preceded it:
Barred, the inflexible day – cell walls
stone-flat concrete and bricks, sky out of reach,
and in chains – Thaelmann. The man built,
like the fugitive in the hay stack, the would-be clerk,
a world against oppression, war on each
past year that spreads its avalanche of dark
over the new trees, the beginning, the green success.
Only the light of invincible early morning.
Only the distinct rattle of the world
dragging fetters. Only the prison bell rings.
And keys, voices of men and warders, unlocked doors
shut like an empty plate, and the grey old
evening twilight. Night brings a poverty of stars
window bound. And the whisper of all moving.
There are some arresting images here: ‘avalanche of dark’, ‘green success’, ‘grey old evening twilight’, ‘poverty of stars window bound’ etc. There’s also an Audenic touch with the use of definite instead of indefinite articles for ‘the fugitive’ and ‘the would-be clerk’. ‘The Asturian Miners’ (Asturias is a region in Green Spain) is a superb descriptive poem awash with striking imagery:
Suddenly risen a.er years of quiet digging
No more like coal they’ve raised from the dug shaft.
No more do they submit
To the pick, the wage-cut, and the easy talk
The hunger that eats away their so. guts.
Not gods. Nor great men. …
Once again, the Audenic register: ‘To the pick, the wage-cut, and the easy talk’. This poem has a Soviet sense of the nobility in hard manual labour in its depictions of the miners at work:
Not heavy headed
Men. Not sons of Thor or Samson who might wield
Weapons of immense size. Nor brutes. These
Are wrought of hunger, are sons of women,
Sons of quarrels shouted down the street
Sons of laughter piercing from a basement…
Branson’s descriptions of the miners become ever more vivid and evocative in the second verse:
Their lips pressed white for lack of food
And the black dust hollows out their white eyes
A bitter hatred nursed
In a deep sadness to which only they know
How to respond with life itself fighting
And at other times with sensitive deeds
With tenderness, fatiguing patience, able
Are the horny knuckles, scarred hands, capable.
Out there beyond the latest crest – over –
Huge thunder clouds ride slowly warning black.
Our work-mates’ bodies lie bleeding at the mouth,
And dull red patches saturate their clothes
Recently cleaned by the hands of their girls.
There’s much use of colour as symbol, white, black and red. From Green Spain to greener ‘England’, which begins with a line in direct reference to Blake’s ‘green & pleasant land’ in ‘Jerusalem’: ‘I thought England green with pleasant valleys’. In many senses this poem is ‘covert pastoral’—that is, in William Empson’s definition that ‘good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral’ (‘Proletarian Literature’, Some Versions of Pastoral, 1935), that is to say, art which camouflages a socio-political message under symbolic pastoral imagery. The poem takes us from a Monroesque urban decay crackling with alliteration:
From doors of dark and grimy alleys
in huge spreading cities, breathing smoke,
through black cracks in curtained windows
pale houses queer.
To countryside imagery:
I thought England safe where the brook
broke silence over the pebbles, where the rows
of houses parallel to the sky over the hill
where the white clouds, smoke, look
to see what we’re doing, asking
‘Help the people of Spain.’
Though admittedly the poem becomes much less ‘covert’ the more it goes on, ending in a direct Shelleyan address:
by the scum who fight against us
by the rich who starve the people
from ragged clothes and dirty pockets
sewn and cleaned a thousand times
comes the will to pay the price
comes the penny’s mighty sacrifice
comes the warmth of friendliness.
Personally I’d have removed that last line which feels somewhat twee and unnecessary—ending on the ‘sacrifice’ would have had more impact. However, the poem isn’t finished—there remains a rallying call summoning green England’s lesser-known radical history: 'England’s subdued voices tell/ how Freedom strode inside the closed forest of Sherwood'. The poem closes on the triumphant: 'How they would mould it all/ and name it after them/ England'. ‘Abyssinia’ is a poetically effective poem-polemic against Mussolini’s audacious invasion of the eponymous African country:
All foreign powers gather for her blood.
Black Africa, primeval Africa! And Nile –
along whose banks luxurious Egypt went
in search of Rome, of youthful Rome –
here looks a man down on the ugly gnome
of ‘black’ Italy. Great Caesar, too great! Now
all the hideous opposite of Caesar,
murdered by a nightmare in the Capitol,
stalks the ruins lit by a hollow moon,
a cheap forgery and imitation.
Egypt died long ago, and with her, Rome
lies in the bed of the continuous Nile
pouring out of Africa.
The stream turns?
Will Africa now conquer all her past?
‘Wherever Green Wheat Flows’ is a more wistful lyrical poem:
…Wherever light fill
Breaks in woods, windows in prison walls.
Whenever some old peasant woman sleeps
And workmen have wiped their greasy hands
After a hard day…
It is in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet with a ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. ‘People Draw Their Curtains Close’ is as a fine painterly lyric:
People draw their curtains close
To keep the light within
And the night
The trees appear a silver-grey
Under the evening’s sensitive brush.
Two young men with a mandolin
In the less frequented parts
And only stop when coins drop
Or cease to fall.
The lamps throw out their radiating beams
To take dominion of the shadowed roads.
The wireless utters varied sounds
Into closely lighted rooms.
The Continental Restaurant’s empty now.
The line ‘To take dominion of the shadowed roads’ is wonderfully assonantal. ‘Today My Eyes’ is another fourteen-liner, but its first verse of eight lines all have the same end-rhyme, which feels strained. But from halfway through the seventh line—which serves as a volta of sorts— onwards, the poem picks up in quality as the end-rhymes also begin to alternate:
…But to remain
Seeing and sightless is a deeper shame.
Blind are the windows of an empty home
Although they stare into the face of heaven.
They too are blind who travel far and roam
The world while they don’t know their own street even.
The dead deserve no eyes who from their birth
Neglect to learn the beauty of the earth.
‘A Handkerchief Waved from a Parting Train’ is a two-paged poem which seems to gain momentum and interest in its second half:
Unemployed shuffling into the labour exchange.
Patience rising into demonstration, food queue into riot.
An audience waiting for the play to begin.
A mass meeting, listening, some shouting, at a factory gate.
Massed like a mountain range along the edge of the world.
There is a passage which is particularly poignant in 2023:
But once there were no clouds
Where the moon shone
To light the golden corn
In the Ukraine
Helping the peasants
Gather in the harvest
From the flames of war
And the enemy’s hunger…
‘Evening’ is another Shakespearean sonnet—it contains some beautiful images, such as ‘in the shallows where the green weeds sway’. ‘Prisoner’ is the ominously titled next section. ‘San Pedro’ demonstrates Branson’s command of the sonnet form and in particular of iambic pentameter:
Ill-clad rabble of a lost dreaded might.
Look longer, deeper, the accustomed eyes
Know more than quick appearances can tell.
These fools, this shoddy crowd, this dirt, are lies
Their idiot captors wantonly compel.
These men are giants chained down from the skies
To congregate an old and empty hell.
‘The Nightingale’ is another Shakespearean sonnet in a distinctly Keatsian vein:
Each tedious darkness with the deaf-mute moon.
…We too cower
Awake under the dead blanket thinking
Of that illusive freedom you echo each hour.
And even through the shouting of the guard,
Their chain of noise, we hear you secret bird,
Their strength, their arrogance, though bayonet proud,
Can’t still the voice humanity has heard.
Your silence is articulate when you
Must be obedient, sing when ordered to.
The lyrical ‘To the German Anti-Fascists in San Pedro’ continues with this imagery but in vers libre:
I have lain in my blanket at night
kept awake by lice and a dry itching skin
looked at the blue window panes broken
with a star up in one corner.
Outside a night-bird intensely sings
unseen and to no-one.
Only to memories of friends did he sing?
Only to the deaf ears of these ghosts?
Was there meaning in his song, or meaningless
Like that of the nightingale?
It closes on the thoughtful internationalist note:
This German sang to us of home
Our heritage in one another
Comrade, Brother – no foreigner.
‘On the Statue of Christ, Palencia (1)’ is a deft epigrammatic lyric:
Still symmetry! Is this our human aim?
Knowing conceit! Should child of woman born
live perfect death to reach a deathless fame?
Her child still-born! Spain’s body mangled, torn.
Historic judgement no confusion mars.
Perhaps this statue climbs upon the hill
better to win the plenitude of stars:
Ride with the sun beyond earth’s window sill.
Perhaps it cheats the sight its splendour bars,
Its high pretence to life lives on to kill.
While we return to the Shakespearean sonnet with ‘On the Statue of Christ, Palencia (2)’, a poem which once again demonstrates Branson’s exceptional command of iambic pentameter:
When I first saw this venerable stone
Statue standing up against the sunrise
I learnt how vast it was to be alone
To pause in solitude before men’s eyes,
Not to move while the day’s wide motion threw
.e sun above all else, whose blazing heat
Parched tongues to flame, white-powdered roads; and drew
the cool of evening past the statue’s feet.
At night dogs howl, the firmament spins round,
Dark is the noise of unseen insects’ wings,
And yet I know you are on your high mound
Straight, upright, fixed, immune to living things.
Dead as a rock memento of the past
Life’s immortality in death held fast.
By contrast, ‘By the Canal Castilla’ is a Lorcan lyric, and one wonders whether Branson would have been aware of the work of said contemporary Spanish poet (who was of course assassinated by the fascists in August 1936):
The guard’s bayonet splinters the sun.
A gilded iris shrivels up.
A poppy’s crimson cup
breaks petal by petal to the wind.
An unseen shadow sings.
Everything waits what the next journey brings –
Even the authorities.
‘Sunset’, subtitled ‘Palencia, 1938’, is a short and exquisite Symbolist miniature:
Like a new cut on a young girl’s shoulder
the sun le. a crimson scar.
Through barbed wire
we can feel the day’s passing
warns us of night, the complete end.
‘A Sunday Afternoon’ is a focused lyric:
A delicate breeze sufficient to stir
Light dust, a little leaf, by an insect’s wing
Dance music on the wireless; between prisoner
And a girl dressed like a rose, a smile.
A leaf, a frog, a shadow, a piece of paper
A trickle of water, reading, writing
These things on a stillness deeper than all
Took a whole afternoon to drift with the canal.
‘The Prisoner’s Outlook’, composed in captivity as the rest of this sequence, has a demoralised and understandably pessimistic tone:
After eternity of search and travel
Millions of times died in an eye’s pupil
Mutinous water, tides, tropic rain, attend
Monotonous as clouds and wind with no end.
A long white road bending back against itself –
War not to end wars. Sentence for life
No chance to repeat, no hope for reprieve.
In ‘In the Camp’ Branson reimagines his captivity as being inside a painting:
The storm has cleared the air
but not barbed wire.
Here we can bask in the sun,
should our eyes have forgotten,
pointed at by the guard’s bayonet.
We’re like young trees set
on a wide landscape and mountain
in a picture for ever certain…
With ‘Death Sentence Commuted to Thirty Years’ we’re back in Lorcan poetic territory, but also, with the language more figurative, the closer focus on imagery and symbolism, there is something of the poetry of Keith Douglas, and also Alun Lewis here:
When this sunrise put the question, ‘why
should birds sing?’ Even the machine-gun
kills in rhythm. For the ordinary eye
enjoys the redness in blood, the purple of wine,
Death’s proud carnation
a murdered man twists at the corner of his mouth.
The Douglas influence is also reinforced with a clear Modernistic influence in terms of unusual turns of phrase and curious syntax:
The homeward rail imagination ran
outdistanced time with modern mockery.
Slow passed each day, compiled a week,
our patient waiting streamed by the prison bars…
‘On Dreaming of Home’ is more Audenesque: ‘Where is the lettering of your name,/ That spells the safe hangar, aerodrome and home?’ The poem closes with an expression of Branson’s implacable idealism undaunted even in imprisonment:
But we are pioneers, we who dream and think.
Dream of wide spaces that sever man from man.
Think out the journey and in detailed plan
Of the end. Even though we crash soon and near,
Our thought’s beginning is our dream’s conqueror.
‘We Are The People…’
The penultimate section is titled ‘We Are The People…’. and starts off with ‘The General Didn’t Know’, a poem-polemic which makes very effective use of rhetorical repetition:
We are the soldiers. We are the bombed.
We are the routed, the wounded, the dead…
We are the people those bombs hit again –
and again – there’s always printer’s ink
for tomorrow’s press – and again –
there’s always plenty of drink
for the General Staff – and again
until we realise WE are the men, the women,
the children killed in the press
by the generals for the rich
who have no feelings, cannot feel our pain.
‘Blackout’, dated April 1939, is an eight-line lyric which packs a punch: ‘We can’t stop the gangsters’ machine-gun/ through the blackout that’s shut us in’. ‘May First’ is one of Branson’s longer poems—it is openly polemical in purpose but the polemic is couched in rhyming couplets and is presumably influenced much by Shelley:
Over the peoples of Europe dying and dead
the barbed wire of the concentration camp has spread
to new territories – Spain, now France –
and will take England too unless we advance
like the Workers’ and Peasants’ Army that came in the nick of time
to rescue half Poland, to hurl Baron Mannheim
back from the gates of Leningrad. We can….
We are organised in mine, workshop and factory,
and huge town. Think of the difficulty the peasant had
to collect an army. We as quick as the word,
can turn out in millions, possess the streets,
bring industry to a standstill, are disciplined; such feats
even the Chartists could not emulate, yet they
were never slow in rising to make the rich pay
for all their degradation. That movement died,
with victory following after, but it supplied
with France and Germany the component parts
to make up modern communism. .at spectre which haunts
today the whole world…
The poem is almost like a tub-thumping speech in couplets, a flourish of rhetoric, even agitprop, and, with the luxury of historical hindsight, can be seen in some respects as somewhat naïve:
...Have you forgotten
How Karl Marx and Frederick Engels lived in London,
worked in London, led from London the Paris Commune,
American Labour, Germans against Bismarck. How Lenin
here, in our London, raised high the torch of progress,
printed Iskra, the spark that glowed in the darkness
of Imperialism and Tsardom, and from the debris of war
burst into the splendour of the USSR.
But like all good rhetoric Branson knows the power of repetition to get a point across:
…Peace and Freedom
and Bread. And someone explains ‘that’s Communism’.
The wireless warns against Communism. The gutter press
screams against Communism. The Labour Leaders
shriek against Communism. All the time mankind
longs for Freedom, Peace and Bread. That’s why we must find
the path to their understanding, the same path
shown to us in the Manifesto, the birth-
certificate of the new man, the free man.
Those last two lines are particularly effective as they hone in on a metaphor. A little further on we have the potent trope, ‘Pity and Charity are the hand-rags of Slavery’, which seems to come as much out of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as it does Karl Marx. There’s then a diatribe against patriotism, pomp and the propping-up of monarchy, which is tragically just as relevant in twenty-first century England:
…Our men and women
are the same that Tom Mann led. The same as when
our dockers stopped the Jolly George. The same as those
who in nine short days in nineteen-twenty-six rose
almost to power. The same who marched on May First
challenging with Red Banners (our flags) the cursed
Union Jack and pomp of coronation. Bone of their bone
with the five hundred men of the British Battalion
who died in Spain.
It’s notable that the piece gathers momentum just as a more poetic form is employed—in this case rhyming couplets of a distinctly Shelleyan vein. What Branson attempts in this polemical piece is to reconfigure the shadow-lineage of left-wing radicalism into the English identity:
…the banner of liberty, the banner of Englishmen.
Though the Red Flag may now be down under,
in our hands we’ll lift it to flutter and thunder
in the storm of our movement, to head the assault
against the world’s tyrants who rule through our fault…
The poem closes on the triumphant rallying cry: ‘Let every Englishman fight for this cause –/ Communism is English! Freedom is ours!’ This is perhaps Branson’s attempt at an updating of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy and considering it was probably composed while on campaign, it is a commendable effort. By contrast, the next much shorter poem, ‘The Soviet People Speak’, shows much more a Modernist influence, particularly in its curious phrasing which is almost cryptic, as in its riddling opening: ‘Revenge vengeance since against us risen/ Refused to meet our request to resist’.
‘To Rupert Brooke’ is an unforgivingly critical poem on the much-celebrated First World War poet who famously died before reaching the Front, and appears to be in the form of pastiche of Brooke’s most well-known poem ‘The Soldier’:
What good is it that you should understand
And feel the beauty of our English tongue
When from life’s orchestra you’ve only wrung
Some trivial notes, an echo of the grand
Tradition of poets that belong to England
And ended when the sightless Milton flung
His vision against night, when Shelley sung
To lend humanity a poet’s hand.
They did not mean to take the place of strife
Who wrote the dreams and actions of mankind,
They fought in their own way. They knew the need
To stop the will of man from going blind,
They led the sick from suicide to life,
They strained their art to mingle word and deed.
It’s a compelling piece but perhaps a little too vituperative in parts, especially the phrase ‘trivial notes’, which is an especially vicious aspersion to make of another poet, though Branson’s point is the superficiality and naivety of Brooke’s poeticised patriotism. ‘Bombed Again’ is an interesting free verse on the apparent compassion fatigue or sanitised mindset of ordinary people remarking on the recent catastrophic news of wars:
I spoke to a bus conductor,
an old soldier
about Norway – the bloody massacre there –
who said coldly,
the first lot’s bound to be wiped out.
And a man back from Spain
from the war, the wounds, and prison
made a long speech about it
without feeling, without emotion; exactly
like a tram running along lines;
like girls who go to the factory of a morning
as day must follow night
leaving yesterday forgotten, not caring.
Then comes a serendipitous aphorism which sums up the present-mindedness of a lotus-eating newspaper-populace: ‘Who bothers to read yesterday’s paper again?’ And the lack of a sense of consequences, duty of care, and social responsibility in the ensuing two-lined verse which brings to mind the holistic ‘knock-on effects’ sentiments of social writers like Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and J.B. Priestley: ‘The manager put off a hundred men/ without thinking of the kids, the women’.
‘Where Does Death Begin?’
The final section is gnomically titled ‘Where Does Death Begin?’ The first poem is a short lyric presumably to the poet’s wife:
When the edge of day’s flag is tattered
Long before hours terminate day’s end
In bitter wind,
And birds’ wings lag,
And smoke crawls softly from the power-station chimney.
When at the end of a long day’s labour
Night scrapes the clodded blade of day
Metallic clean, and engines tire,
Before this fire sleeps,
thoughts of you drift from the still smouldering embers.
The alliterative line ‘And smoke crawls softly from the power-station chimney’ is particularly beautiful even if it is evoking an industrial landscape. ‘Bombay’, dated ‘Ahmednagar, April 1943’, is another short poem which gets its point across effectively and powerfully:
Come with me and I will show you,
Almost hidden in the shadow
Of an Indian night,
Pavements strewn with human bodies
That with all the other shit
The authorities forget
Even to worry about.
Still lives, though all his flesh has gone.
The vulture remains invisible
Till the meal is insensible,
But Life is not so patient as the vulture,
In India, not so poetical.
That first line of the second and final verse seems incomplete—perhaps it was supposed to read: ‘Here’s one of those’…? There’s something of Masefield again in ‘Ship’:
Free from the chains that weigh the bows down,
Loose from the refuse that drags a blunted keel.
Clear decks for action! With steam and sail
Escape the dockside grasp.
Then we shall climb among the cliffs and breathe
Fresh winds fanned by the passing stars
And chart new courses for the ships we’ve dreamed
To ride the sky-deep seas.
‘I Can Hear the Sea-Waves’ shows how towards the end of his all-too-brief life Branson was coming to master verse forms, it is composed in beautifully judged rhyming iambic pentameter:
My candle burns the wick of time low down,
While in night-silence, history turns the pages.
Wars and religion, imperial Gods are gone.
The pavement where they trod winds through the ages.
To end all strife by elemental force.
Even the slightest touch will leave its mark.
In endless stream the traffic flows its course,
And bit by bit recedes into the dark.
‘Men Condemned’ is a resonant condemnation of so-called democratic ‘freedom’:
...Men condemned for years on end
To suffer freedom to do nothing.
The white-washed sky is their cell walls
And earth the floor they walk along
To nowhere. Everything is theirs
Trees, fields, birds, wealth, tanks, gems,
So long as they don’t do, don’t think, don’t
Want to buy with their wages,
Build with their hands and enjoy
Life that is living. They’ve been warned
‘Who wants to take the storm up in both hands
And break this calm to smithereens
Shall go to prison.’ .is dungeon echoes
The song of birds, people’s voices
With the depths of fruitless nothingness,
Emptiness, limitless space,
Where to do nothing by compulsion –
‘a wolf clothed in a lamb’s white skin’ –
Is Freedom which compels men to do nothing.
That final ironic line is particularly impactful. ‘When I Come Back’ is a wonderful posthumous meditation and anticipation of future haunting, which, in light of the poet’s imminent death, reads all the more poignantly:
When I come back after this long journey
(Some have claimed to return from the dead,
Hence the great temples built beside slums)
And I meet you, stranger, on the platform…
There’s a nicely figurative trope: ‘Shy because I wouldn’t tread too hard/ On the rare mosaic of our comradeship’. This poem has many breathtaking moments of lyricism:
Then we will talk of all kinds of things.
But neither will take note of the words nor meaning
Only listen for the loved music of the voice
That is familiar even after so much silence.
It is very much a poetic imagining of the afterlife. The spectral and haunted poetry of Harold Monro comes to mind again: ‘When I am sure that you are you and no dream./ How often my longing was peopled with hollow ghosts!’ Branson’s lyricism is at a peak: ‘Caressing and fervent holding of body/ To body. To close our eyes and sleep completely’. But it remains unclear, ambiguous, as to whether this is really an anticipation of post-life spiritual existence or a figurative tilt on the material and earthly salvation of a future Communism (though surely by any definition Heaven must be communist?):
Changes in outlook, new circumstances
The foundations on which with act upon thought
We build a new life. Put into practice
The schemes we visualised on a grey London evening
And under an Indian sun meet and change and merge –
And we’ll climb up the steps where hovels once levelled the world.
That last line is particularly effective and moving in its imagery. I’m reminded of these lines from Harold Monro’s ‘The Silent Pool’:
I am so glad that underneath our talk
Our minds together walk.
We argue all the while,
But down below our argument we smile,
We have our houses, but we understand
That our real property is common land.
At night we often go
With happy comrades to that real estate,
Where dreams in beauty grow,
And every man enjoys a common fate.
And of these lines from Monro’s ‘Real Property’:
A hedge is about it, very tall,
Hazy and cool, and breathing sweet.
Round paradise is such a wall,
And all the day, in such a way,
In paradise the wild birds call.
You only need to close your eyes
And go within your secret mind,
And you'll be into paradise:
I've learnt quite easily to find
Some linden trees and drowsy bees,
A tall sweet hedge with the corn behind.
I will not have that harvest mown:
I'll keep the corn and leave the bread.
I've bought that field; it's now my own:
I've fifty acres in my head.
I take it as a dream to bed.
I carry it about all day....
Sometimes when I have found a friend
I give a blade of corn away.
‘Orders for Landing’, dated 5 December 1943, once more recalls Harold Monro):
Today we got our orders for tomorrow,
A few brief sentences as a title page
Preludes a book. Each one wonders how
The story will turn out. What’s over the edge?
It is I who move. I who will look again
To find the I that searched and could not see
Exactly the I that am. Had I but taken
I as the recurrent particle of continuous We!
There’s no unknown to him who reads the sea,
For whom the horizon predicts the certain land.
Like words we live, self-lost in history.
We sink like waves into the endless end.
Dated 25 December 1943, this is a poignant lyric with a sublime and lingering ending. The ghost of Harold Monro is still with us here as I’m reminded of these lines from his thanatophobic poem ‘Living’ (very much an poetic ancestor of Philip Larkin’s devastating ‘Aubade’):
Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive – this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realization warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You'll only die.
Here's a new day. O Pendulum move slowly!
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg.
I am alive – this I.
And in a moment Habit, like a crane,
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable,
Gathering me, my body, and our garment,
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question,
Into the daylight – why?
‘Millions of Years Old’, dated Burma, 4 January 1944, has more of a Modernist timbre:
Star-spluttering and belching darkness.
Over the whole spread a silent vastness
So still, the silence recoiled on itself
And broke to pieces in a myriad whispers –
A mountain stream worming its way to the sea –
Branson’s strikes an Eliotic note: ‘Then through the night the howl of homeless dogs/ To hurl the stillness back into no noise’. It’s closing image is one of the poet’s more imaginative descriptions: ‘Morning, like a flock of flamingoes, wings/ To settle in the branches and spread across the fields’. ‘Without Time’ is another existential meditation:
I lay on my back on the deck looking up
At a star which swayed from side to side
In a sea of perpetual space.
Time was a secret to everything living
For fear that the dead might learn,
There lying among sea-weed and broken ships
Fish – haunted and watched
They’d been swindled
And take revenge
Turn all so that the star I see
Is a grain of sand in the depth of eternity
Or an eye looking at me.
Branson’s final poem, and inescapably among the most haunting, is ‘Where Light Breaks Up’, dated the Burma front, February 1944:
Where light breaks up obscurity for sunrise,
And peace accumulates the parts of storm.
Where death’s the sequence of the pregnant womb
An embryo contains the adult’s size.
Where mountain peaks hold up the moving skies
Their might is tunnelled by the invidious worm;
Where clouds pile up their cumbersome white form
The flat laborious plain of wheat-fields lies.
Women and children build up the only road
Where overhead the shells of death whine past
And cattle graze indifferent to the din.
I felt perhaps I’d understood at last
By close observance of all that nature showed
‘When life has gone, then where does death begin?’
That last line is sublime, all the more so given that it is quite possibly the last line of verse Clive Branson wrote before his abrupt death in battle. The following month, on the same Burma front, Welsh poet Alun Lewis was found lying near the latrines with a gunshot to the head while apparently shaving, a revolver pluming away in his hand—he died from his wound some hours later, apparently self-inflicted though the army tried to cover it up as death by misadventure. Smokestack has done a great service in bringing Branson’s valuable poetry back into wider public circulation.
The Collected Poems of Montagu Slater
Part I. Poems
Now to Montagu Slater. The first section of his Collected is simply titled ‘Poems’. The first poem is titled ‘An Elegy’ and subtitled ‘Written in the shadow of a mountain in a northern mining port which, established in the Nineteenth Century, proves superfluous to the needs of the Twentieth’. This poem is fairly typical of Slater’s penchant for industrial lyricism and also demonstrates his prosodic dexterity and command of rhyme and iambic pentameter:
Mountain, whose rondure is determinate
by riches of your still unshamed mines,
chambers and galleries and caves intestate,
a various hoard which every twig divines:
the glimmering presence of your urgent Jove
your shoulder hummocking above the screes
where smoky clouds bend daylight as it moves
to closure in imperfect cadences
tells how an earthquake had once split the rock
and giant sparks leaping the centuries
found the dead shafts and mines of human thought
and legends of imaginary countries.
Our little lives, our chapels and our hymns,
mining and fishing – apostolic round –
a tidal river governed with its whims
neap tides renew but spring tides leap the bounds.
It also contains in an earlier stanza the curious phrase ‘menstrual sea’ which colouristically seems to evoke the Homeric ‘wine-dark sea’. A rather long, two-paged poem, this is quite an ambitious opening to a poetry collection which is normally served best with a pithier opener, but the cadence of the verses carries the eye well:
…screes at their feet and laminated shale,
on the north-west the Cumbrian mountains rise
and to the south the glimmering peaks of Wales.
This is a superlative piece of verse:
Now solemn the precedent shadow falls,
like disintoxication, like dismay
of clocks set going after drinking brawls
with unrelenting news of yesterday
We then seem to hit upon—as we did with Branson’s ‘London’—a stanza which echoes Blake’s ‘London’:
Slater: and down the dream-choked gullet of the street
crab-like on an ambiguous journey led
we read in all the faces that we meet
stale news, a preterite of the nearer dead.
And being mindful of the twilight mood
and the grave charm of the alternate note
the lyric burden of this solitude,
satyricon for any golden throat;
Blake: I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
This is a kind of imitation, but there is nothing at fault in that, it is part of a poet’s apprenticeship, and there can be few better templates for succinct lyrical rhymes than Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. What Slater achieves here, like Branson, is a brilliant updating of Blake for the twentieth century where his ‘dark Satanic mills’ have unfortunately proliferated and polluted the atmosphere. The word ‘preterite’ is an interesting choice, it means something completed in the past; while the second verse excerpted above is masterly in its scansion and Coleridgean imagery i.e. ‘satyricon for any golden throat’. If one was to be nitpicking, the last line of the final verse is one syllable too long for the scansion and rhythm—an easy solution to this would have been to strike out the 'all':
And touch, which is the lovers’ sense, implies
a membrane’s pleasure when a last bird sings
of night’s scarce-scented guesses, and the eyes
give up their kingdom over all visible things.
Next comes a short lyric, ‘Love, We Can Lie Back’, which grows more intriguing towards its close:
(For even a dog in rut has no place in the sun
But grey activity bare and unmetaphored)
Live on Lillith and do not be too sorry when he also departs.
‘Cock Crow’ is a semi-rhyming curiosity reminiscent of Stevie Smith—here are the last two stanzas:
The world turns... am I afraid?
I can feel conscience multiplied
By chiding voices millionfold
Cock-crowing now, ‘Have you betrayed?’
The cock crew twice, crew twice. I know
One more summons is permitted
By tradition of the city.
Cock crow cock crow cock crow cock crow.
‘The Fear’ is a striking Modernistic poem with an unusual tilt on its subject, it reads almost like a Marxist astronomy, or should that be astronomical Marxism, the metaphor working at the forefront of the poem—I excerpt it in full:
Labourers and tradesmen are
The population of this star
And the solar system turns
On labouring and trading terms.
Gravitation’s mystic bonds
May be measured in foot-pounds
And fixed stars raise from ancient graves
Old light like capital reserves.
Attraction – ah! the lover’s debt –
Centrifugal curves offset
And the old dissatisfaction
Is moon-hidden by rotation.
Nebulae and Milky Way –
In between them wise men say,
In blank spaces of the sky
Lurks the fear of bankruptcy.
The juxtaposition of the cosmic and microcosmic as exemplified in the final line is highly imaginative and quite ingenious. Slater is much more into longform poems: the free verse fragmentary piece ‘In the Beginning: A Broken Narrative’ once more shows the Modernist influence—in this instance a distinctly Eliotic one:
Banged across Oxford Street to break a cordon
If taxi drew out of its rank
Swung out at the bottom of the Euston inclined plane
Where steam sizzles under the low-eaved glass
Sizzles through a Euston of Manchester smoke,
Rugby, Stafford, Wigan, Oldham, Preston, Carnforth smoke
And heard Red Front and a whistle shouting
Jim on the footplate fist up in the salute
And the Power House a double pitched bellow
Town lights twice-flickered as a Jock signal: If –
There’s definitely something of the dislocated syntax and figurative language of contemporary Marxist longform poet Joseph MacLeod here. Section II of this poem continues in this vein:
It’s no use just
got to connect.
Once was. General strike. ’26.
One stanza is reminiscent in its ‘vox pox’ approach to Clive Branson’s ‘Bombed Again’:
I ask the secretary (Bob said) how he thought it was going to
work out for the miners, & c.
But his mouth shut like a zip fastener.
The poem grows ever more discursive and almost tils into Joycean stream-of-consciousness: ‘Cut out the saint stuff, let’s get down to business –/ In the beginning was the deed’—and, in the third section:
Wood grain is tension which being released log splits. The boiler
with more accelerated molecule being red hot is splashed with cold
water and lo, a molecule opens its mouth like a ducked Hitler,
gasps with heart momentarily stopped, and a crack spreads.
A tension holding men together in this factory, over against a
field of fear, insulated by the indifferency of a larger field
procured that clear direction of electric strain that lighted the
Word became light in the machining shed.
It was understood. Sufficed that it was understood to induce
power. Split the men, said the boss. Turn direction into
indirection. Atomise. So here’s the scene.
‘Workmates, I’m not up here of free will. You’ve seen the Fifth
Light, the rag that’s sold to us at the gate by strangers. But it isn’t
written by strangers. And the proof is it shouts your private
thoughts back at you.
‘You’re a fair-minded lot. You know I’m Labour and proud of it.
This is profound stuff, it is the poetry of work, of manual work, and in that, and its rangy lines, tactile sense impressions and polemic on the punishing nature of employment, it is a clear ancestor of the poetry of Smokestack poets Fred Voss (who writes about his job as a machinist) and Martin Hayes (who writes about his thankless slog in the courier industry):
‘Yesterday I was fetched to the office and asked if I had to do
with the Fi.h Light. .ey said, “Either you get it stopped
or...we’ll be sorry to lose you.”
Canteen’s a rest, canteen’s a pause for working,
Colourful as a tank and as comfortable as a knifeboard,
Has the deed become a word then,
The final section is a compact Modernistic series of semi-rhyming quatrains with striking surrealistic images:
Come on the roof, dinner time’s
nearly over. Sky’s high to-day.
Remember how the Soviet balloonists saw
the blue go black in the stratosphere?
The morning from the factory roof
Is glossy as a circus mare
And us like two weather-cocks
Buﬀeted and as bare.
Skies, violet in the early stage
Purple by increment,
Inaugurate the stratosphere
Black as bedazzlement:
Sun-bathing our defiances
Toughening skin to breed,
Like greyhounds are for speed.
I cavilled: ‘If we’d spoken up...’
Ben’s answer was a grin,
Twitching hid face, and a word like a rivet
Red hot, to be dropped in.
‘Where My Bones Rest’ is a more straightforward lyrical poem which seems to use the same metrical rhythm and shorter fourth lines as John Keats's ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’:
Slater: And ceiling-contemplative lie
Draining away the sorry dust
From brain and spinal fluid: so I
And my bones rest.
Keats: And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
‘A Ballad from Korea’, subtitled ‘Based on two newspaper correspondents’ dispatches’, is almost like a Kipling pastiche albeit with very different sentiments:
They said to me, Bill Pongo,
These Chinese said to me
‘There’s your way home, Private Pongo
Go home and work for peace.’
The password is ‘Work for Peace.’
‘We have no war with working men,’
These Chinese said to me,
There’s your way home, Private Pongo
Go home and work for peace,
The password is ‘Work for Peace.’
The password Madison Square,
The password Work for Peace
If one of these is the right one
Which of them would you choose?
‘Character Equals Situation’ is a kind of Caudwellian dialectical materialist take on the nature of art, literature and culture:
Say to a playwright, ‘Find a plot.’
He picks his fancy from the index
But Romeo and Juliet
At a building estate window
Feel, feel it’s different
‘Colour comes home into the eyes’
And dreams invent mythology
A fabulous code made to deny
The plain man’s plain prosaic lie,
His treachery which is shame.
‘Exercise with a Broad Nib’ reads almost like a slightly more intellectual Stevie Smith poem with its philosophical meditation and witty rhyming:
Cudworth a Cambridge don
Made the discovery that man
Naturally knows good from evil
Though Eve had to be told by the devil.
The ear discerns sonata form
The gusto that will sauce your dinner
Makes you a sinner
Nor shall the sharpness of your nose
Rival that other sense which knows
As datum – given –
What’s what in heaven.
You have five sense? No there’s one
More to come
Which Cudworth in his innocence
Called Common Sense.
And thus the triangle is eternal:
This common knowledge, being paternal,
Is transferred to the weaker vessel
Only by intercourse with the devil.
But the nursery rhyme-styled ‘Helen Was Not Up Was She’ is even more obviously reminiscent of Stevie Smith:
Helen of Troy said to Priam
Helen of Troy (she said)
If Paris fashions were my only passion
There’d be little more to be said
But there’s sieges and wars and epics where I am
Wherever I show my head
Helen of Troy (she said)…
This Smithian naïf element, which also echoes some of the curios of Harold Monro (see ‘Overheard on a Saltmarsh’), is also apparent in ‘St Venus’s Eve’ with its occasional snippets of dialogue:
Says: ‘Flower of the quince
I let Lisa go and what good is life since?’
Says: ‘Flower of the peach
Death for us all and his own life for each.’
‘A Sentence of Judges’ has a more cryptic Modernistic tone, as in its closing stanza:
Unless in curious reversal,
And last minute bouleversement,
Essence ups and overturns
Existence heavy on the throne?
Similarly curious is the short epigrammatic poem ‘The Spirit Kills’:
Spirit kills thought: the letter is for meaning –
For thought, like a neurotic in his moaning
Desires sweet tea, and definite moorings –
Facts to get teeth into – anything boring.
The spirit kills, the letter giveth life:
Spirit kills love, putting on oath
A cumulus of perjured evidence.
The spirit kills: the letter is concupiscence.
This seems to be an atheistic or rationalist-humanist sentiment. I would take issue with the rather lame attributing of ‘moaning’ to the state of being ‘neurotic’: it seems a rather flippant and dismissive word to use in this context and one which grossly underplays the very real and sometimes crippling anguish of neurosis, and trying to fit a semi-end-rhyme isn’t sufficient justification.
‘Poems from an Ibo Sequence’ is a lengthy narrative sequence which in today’s postcolonial consciousness could be seen as ‘problematic’ in places, at the very least, in terms of the old ‘noble savage’ trope, but it is, contextually, a sincere account of an encounter with an African tribe which Slater admires for its closeness to matriarchy and its values of equality. Nevertheless, descriptions such as the following, though evocative, might be seen as a little blunt: ‘This one was old. Her feet and breasts were leather.’ The following verse is particularly curious, intriguingly figurative, and seems to hint at the poet’s awareness as an Englishman of the colonial residues of his national mindset:
And knew that I was here in Iboland,
Here where the evil bush is sad
Because it mutters my own mind,
And Conscience, an albino, pads
Naked behind the others with his load.
That first section is simply titled ‘Iboland’. The second is titled ‘A Dark Place Under the Trees’. One particular description in this section borders on the bizarre:
A pale goat runs from the dark place,
Its flesh almost white, a hornless face –
As if a nightmare bred a giant mouse.
The third section, ‘This Is Our Love Child’, continues the unsparing descriptions:
She stretched a hand for each to hold
Displaying in the childish folds
Of her neck corals:
Her father a slim, naked youth
Jock-strapped and bearded: mother’s cloth
Was brown as her firm breasts above.
While Daniel, fat interpreter
Behind me with my retinue
Lavished some pints of sweat into
His cotton vest.
But this makes for quite fascinating reading overall, and is eloquently written, even if much of the content is unpalatable, especially to modern sensibilities:
The love child waited: there we stood
In the deep Chuku-haunted wood
And money spread a solemn shade
The bride price was a wedding veil.
The love child too
Will soon be worth what she can fetch,
When puberty distends her breasts
Her legal father will collect
Her bride price too.
Section IV is titled ‘Men and Women Almost Equal’:
Men and women almost equal
Feel their way towards the inevitable
Indecision of the sequel.
The women are gentle, their so-called masters
Are husbandmen of the smaller harvest:
But change brings force and force brings menace.
Acid in the ancient homes.
(Masculine is the imagination
Also in Iboland.)
Cruelty begets despair
Women’s gentleness disappears
And astonished children wail
Whipped with flexible stinging canes
In the tin-shack streets of Lagos –
New world, new ways, new dispensation.
It is the vain longing for the bush
The dark place under the trees and rest
On the millionfold black breasts
‘On a 17th Century Painting’ is an effective ekphrastic epigram:
A daylight fire springs from a dying furze
A too obedient Abraham turns back
Eyeing his son as Phaedra shall eye hers
And the sky cringes to the thunder clap:
And then the deluge, if hysteria dare
Tempt the sky’s passion with a wanton show
Of exaltation in the womb of air.
Last, in a general promise, comes the bow.
Equally ekphrastic and is the considerably longer poem ‘Royal Academy: Special Exhibition’, which in many ways reads like a review in semi-rhyme:
Gala concert, Filarmonic, Venice (1782)
Painted at his easy best by clever Guardi (Francesco)
Sets the human problem squarely. Here the audience is sat down
Under the high-vaulted marble and the wine is passing round:
Violins, perched on a ledge, the musicians’ gallery:
Behind them stand the women singers in respectful symmetry
While the candelabras glitter, fashionable shoulders gleam—
Individuals merged in audience waiting the composer’s theme...
Many centuries are piled to make this velvet finery
Guardi’s highlights and his glazes now provide us with a key
To another kind of music. We owe a debt of gratitude
To Guardi for his architectural painting of 1782.
There are some striking images here, but those last two lines almost verge on the doggerel of McGonagall (how symbiotic that said notoriously talentless poet’s surname chimed with the term most often accorded to his poetry) and suggest that it was probably unwise for Slater to insist to himself on writing this particular poem in semi-rhyming couplets. Far better-crafted is the following verse:
Guardi’s concert, Filarmonic, Venice 1782
Takes a reading in his sextant of a different latitude.
All the finery, the ribbons, the gilt chairs are comme il faut
Certainly du monde is present but no individual soul
Not a pair of lovers, nor a torturer, nor Mars
Nor Giotto to encircle warmth with his Byzantine skies.
There is neither history nor suffering: it is all
Horeshair scraping over catgut and vibrating vocal chords
Candelabra and the velvet touched to highlights with a glaze
Clever Guardi learned the trick of in his architectural days.
I particularly like the use of French phrases (some might think a bit pretentious but in many ways typical of the self-conscious erudition of the autodidactic poet), and the line ‘Horsehair scraping over catgut and vibrating vocal chords’ is as brilliantly descriptive as it is alliterative. Unfortunately, however, the fourth and final verse, which seems formless, undrafted, unfinished, tips back into near-doggerel:
Can you smell the smell of order which has neither ears nor nose
Only odour of the odour of these bodies without pores?
Music cannot reach them therefore nor can sweat nor can the ardour
That might tempt to good or evil or the apple in the garden.
We’ve no people here but figures ranged according to a plan,
Guardi knew it, Guardi saw it, Guardi, he’s your man:
Points of light and points of darkness. Darkness, darkness which endures
From 1782 to 19... My guess is as good as yours.
It’s a relief, then, that the following poem softens the fall in a more focused ekphrastic lyric, ‘Your Touch Has Still’:
Your touch has still its ancient power,
Painter, and your full brush has made
Mythology of old desire
New. The explorer is afraid.
Your touch has still its ancient power
For man imagining a form in which
Eager and feminine desire
Is given lastingness in myth.
‘Past Years’ is an effective semi-rhyming envelope sonnet:
Past years brood on the plain like painted clouds
Which never can move into afternoon.
I shall not today be roused as I was once roused
By riddles and ballads sung to a folk tune.
These were my children of serenity
They told me secrets and they gave me power
But now their shadows in vain haunt me
In sunset mystery, the twilight hour.
To call a sound from past and quiet seasons –
Create a soul trembling with life at last –
In vain my crooked fingers pluck the harp.
Lost now is youth, and lost its far horizons
Mute in my throat the tunes of the rich past.
Shadows are round my feet and it is dark.
Part II. Songs and Choruses from Dramatic Works
Now to Part II of this book, titled ‘Songs and Choruses from Dramatic Works’. ‘Ballad’ is faintly Whitmanesque:
In Braddock Pennsylvania
Where the steel mills flare
The spring came in like a frightened child
In an ogre’s lair.
Jan Clepak a Bohemian
Going to work at five
Sees grass on the hills across the river
Plum blossoms all alive.
Wake up, the lever’s cracked
The steel is running through
Wake up! Oh, the dream is ended, the steel has got you.
Jan Clepak’s napoo.
There’s a refrain running throughout the poem but it’s rather prosaic: ‘Listen to the mournful drums of a strange funeral,/ Listen to the story of a strange American funeral’. ‘Speech for a Fascist’ is, as its title signals, a particularly disturbing poem, it must have been so at the time it was written, and is unfortunately still so when read in the context of a once more rising European Far Right today—the poem is basically a monologue, the Fascist being the speaker:
You know, most of you, how the Marxists
Sprinkle desire with a dry sand,
Till women’s beauty and man’s physical courage
Are sick with self-distrust and undermined.
You know, most of you, how the Jew in business
Has turned virtue into advertisement,
Buying and selling love; and that the Freemasons
Have made kingliness into a cheap scent.
It’s an impeccably composed—semi-rhyming—poem in terms of its rhythms and cadences:
Beware of him who has no vices
There are less innocent forms of power.
We hail the dignity of laying down
Our old self-worship in our country’s hour.
‘Chorus from Easter 1916’ is composed in fairly straightforward rhyming couplets of just five or six syllables per line—I like the following two lines: ‘And swift bereavement/ On the white pavement. Far more descriptive and scene-setting in its language, and with rangier lines in a free verse form, is ‘Chorus from Stay Down Miner’, which begins in the spirit of J.B. Priestley’s time plays:
Man Time, in the shape of a mine, time in that shape
Has the same backward progress underground,
And past explosions are now lighted roads.
Then turn away from lights and trams and whitewash
Into the critical Present where workings narrow:
Bend double at the coal-face, bend double and approach
The blank wall of the future.
Woman Pit-prop carefully behind you,
Pit-prop and scatter stonedust.
Here there are some similarities with the dramatic-documentary form of much of contemporary Marxist poet and broadcaster Joseph MacLeod’s poetic works. Time seems to be pivotal to this particular verse play of Slater’s, mostly in terms of how it dictates the daily labours and chores of the working-class protagonists:
Man We have our roundabout apart from yours,
Twenty-four hours divided into shifts.
Your marriages, your pregnancies and deliveries
By district nurses hurrying on bicycles,
Your shops, your credits, have no obvious harmony
With this dark round of ours, this onward march
Of Time along with death and fire and floo
And speed against time weighing coal we get;
This nice precision of the hewer’s path,
This separate world; this pit; this underground,
Time, caring little for the upper crust.
This extract closes on a wonderfully ambiguous and ominous image:
Man Yes. We have new men.
The new man, here, now, braving novel death,
Stands upright in the mine, and in that posture
Shakes more than pit-props.
It’s a wonder why ‘Deleted Song from Stay Down Miner’ was deleted, or rather, omitted, since it’s a deft slice of lyricism and begins and ends on the same brilliantly figurative lines—here it is in full:
These foothills which we speak of as a mountain
Are crossed by long-legged sheep and telpher span.
Mountains are formed by turmoil in earth’s crust;
The minerals bear their backs and miners must.
If any peak, however weather-worn
Feels dental-drillings, then a town is born:
Sometimes unsheltered, where the bracken grew
And sometimes pouched as by a kangaroo.
The foothills splayed like fingers on a hand
Shelter the southern ports and fatter land;
Oh! Climb still northward where the wrist joins on
To the Black Mountains and the hills of Brecon.
Oh! Climb still northward and against the wind
Into a world of mineral-bearing ground.
Mountains are formed by turmoil in the earth’s crust;
The minerals bear their backs and miners must.
‘Chorus from ‘Towards Tomorrow’ (1938)’ has its moments of resonance: ‘We whose sons and lovers were/ Charred and maimed, disfigured there’ and ‘How much blood to make a dawn;/ With what pangs a man is born’, and:
For the children gazing now
Into vistas of dismay
For the gardens that will gape
Into shelter pits and graves
‘A Verse for Arthur Benjamin’ (presumably the Australian composer) is reminiscent of some of the shorter lyrics in Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience:
Spilt wine of blossom fallen from
The bitter almond tree
Brings like the red of autumn leaves
Past happiness to me.
This was the past: the petals fall
The sun has filled their veins.
Let it be now! Love’s kingdom come.
O it is now he reigns,
O it is now love reigns!
Part III. Libretti and Poetic Dramas’
Now to the third and final section of the volume, ‘Libretti and Poetic Dramas’. ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ is a verse play in Yorkshire dialect:
There’s cheatin in life: when man’s brisk in his day
T’owd woman for spite begins to decay –
As the child falls.
Nay lad, shut up, tha’s come to no harm
Now shut thi row and I’ll tell thee a yarn.
Tha feels a bit dull when tha plays by thisel.
... Eh, thinkin’s for them as as wealth.
He sings rocking the child in his arms
Tha’s welcome here thou bonny brid
But shouldn’t ha come when tha did
Times are bad
But that o’course tha didn’t know,
So hunch up close, I’ll help thee grow
I’m thi dad.
As with much working-class idiom there’s much colour and tactile description, the language is much more physical and evocative than the abstractedness of middle-class discourse:
Stepmother And thine ’ud make pawnbroker weep –
Comes home wi no rent – all’t money spent,
Blewed it on wench next door.
Nay that I’ll not. I’ll see him mon
Or ye’ll egg yananither on.
Slater manages to draw out poetry from the poverty’s prosaic circumstances:
Man It’s my moral sense
Exhausted wi countin my shillings and pence.
She’s a bitch lad, and thou – too young for to know
How complicate beauties are made.
When green melancholy comes
Nay lad nay – stick up thi thumbs!
For tha’s got the looks, and tha’s got the guts
To win thiself owt that thi wants.
Here nobbut a slave
I’ll be sacked when I qualify for a man’s wage.
Fat woman I see it all in thi worried blue eye.
Tha’s like bakin powder eatin ifts way
Through flour till it’s riz.
Grandad In the madness of the moon
Playmates of the second noon
Meet your rival in your shoes
By the mirror introduced.
One in bed and fast asleep
While the other in the street
(The moon sweating hot as day)
Supperless is tired of play.
Man Tha’s a wise man grandad, tha’s read books,
Tha seest cause wherever tha looks.
Tell me grandad dosta know why
Men get moidered by t’moon in’t sky?
Grandad Because it’s dead lad and it stays,
Because a ghost’s a mirror face.
‘Old Spain’ is more figurative:
3rd woman If you dare not understand
Pain as an invaded land
Let it be transfigure
To your own finger
Think of Spain as the limit of
Your private love.
The three sing.
And death and Cortes in the evening
Held High Mass for the slaughtered heathen.
Put Christ above the Aztec devil
And died contemptibly in Seville.
There’s something of W.H. Auden’s influence here, particularly his early verse plays co-authored with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) and The Ascent of F6 (1936). There are aphorisms aplenty: ‘‘New tobacco, new wine/ New way with women’, ‘Saw all history/ Fulfilled in his gesture’, ‘A revolutionary/ Has a duty to die’, and ‘His English life/ Turned sour in his mouth’. As the verse plays goes on the language grows more figurative:
One asked him, ‘Are you persuaded
This is not perverted
But his slow grin
Damped the question down.
Man Such never come home.
The Man sings.
I, haunted by my dead
Find starting up in bed
That it was I who screamed.
Women Our life has its own dawn.
Man In my complacency
Sleep has to be a league
Between deceivers, my presence
Here is an intrigue.
Women Our life has its own dawn.
Glad for the sloughing of the husk
It bears the grinding of the ear
Accepts the birth pangs that begin
Rending the belly till a child is born.
Death had a festival but birth is here.
Our life accepts its dawn.
Peter Grimes (1945)
Finally, we come to Slater’s most famous piece of work, the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945). Briefly, Peter Grimes draws on one of the parts of George Crabbe’s long poem The Borough (1810)—the eponymous protagonist is a world-weary, faintly misanthropic and hermitic fisherman who is suspected by the local community of having murdered two of his young apprentices who have actually died in accidents when assisting him in his work. Slater’s libretto largely deals with Grimes’s trial. It’s difficult reviewing what is essentially a verse play or poetic drama, but narrative aside, I’ve concentrated mostly on the use of language and poetic form.
Slater’s libretto isn’t short of aphorismic moments: ‘When a man prays he shuts his eyes/ And so can’t tell the truth from lies’. Grimes himself has many of the most memorable lines:
Peter Not till I’ve stopped people’s mouths.
Stand down you say. You wash your hands.
O let me thrust into their mouths,
The truth itself, the simple truth.
Ay! only of drowning ghosts:
O, Time will not forget:
The dead are witness
And fate is Blind.
I’m reminded again of the contemporaneous verse dramas of Joseph MacLeod, particularly his nautical-themed plays, The Cove (1940), The Men of the Rocks (1942), Women of the Happy Island (1944), and Script from Norway (1953), even if his high Modernist poetic style, often obscure, even abstruse, was at several removes from Slater’s more direct and accessible style. But there are some similarities, particularly in the frequent use of choruses—here are some of them from Grimes:
Oh hang at open doors the net cork
While squalid sea-dames at their mending work
Welcome the hour when fishing through the tide
The weary husband throws his freight aside.
O cold and wet and driven with the tide
Beat your tired arms against your tarry side.
Find rest in public bars where watery gin
Will aid the warmth that languishes within.
Dabbling on shore half-naked sea-boys crowd
Swim round a ship, or swing upon a shroud:
Or in a boat purloined with paddles play
And grow familiar with the watery way.
And if the spring tide eats the land again
Till even the cottages and cobbled walks of fishermen
Are billets for the thievish waves which take
As if in sleep, thieving for thieving’s sake
We sit and drink the evening through
Not deigning to devote a
Thought to the daily cud we chew
But buying drinks by rota.
We live and let live, and look
We keep our hands to ourselves.
Talk of the devil and there he is
A devil he is, and a devil he is.
Grimes is waiting his apprentice.
Now the church parade begins,
Fresh beginning for fresh sins.
Ogling with a pious gaze
There are plenty of colourful couplets: ‘Come in gentlemen, come in./ O her vats flow with poisoned gin’, ‘Shoo, you little barnacles/ Up your anchors, hoist your sails’, ‘Parsons may moralise and fools decide,/ But a good publican takes neither side’, ‘Tis lost soul of a fisherman must be/ Shunned by respectable society’, ‘If the old dear takes much more laudanum/ She’ll land herself one day in Bedlam!’, ‘This is the sort of weak politeness/ Makes a publican lose her clients’, ‘I’ll hold the gospel light before/ The cataract that blinds his eyes’, ‘See the glitter in his eyes!/ Grimes is at his exercise’, ‘Bring the branding iron and knife:/ What’s done now is done for life’, ‘From the gutter, why should we/ Trouble at their ribaldries?’, ‘Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep/ It rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep’.
The use of Suffolk colloquialisms is an authentic touch, such as ‘Methody’ for Methodist.
Rockpools of aphorisms appear periodically like rockpools: ‘Man invented morals but tides have none’, ‘Pub conversation should depend/ On this eternal moral;/ The satire never should descend/ To fisticuff or quarrel,/ We live and let live, and look/ We keep our hands to ourselves’.
Slater’s libretto also manages to infuse the narrative with socio-political comment:
Boles Is this a Christian country? Are
Workhouse children so enslaved
That their bodies sell for cash?
One character invokes a lesson from the New Testament in dissenting from the community’s mobbish attitudes towards the solitary fisherman:
Ellen Let her among you without fault
Cast the first stone
And let the Pharisees and Sadducees
Give way to none.
But whosoever feels his pride
Humbled so deep
There is no corner he can hide
Even in sleep
Will have no trouble to find out
How a poor teacher
Widowed and lonely finds delight
In shouldering care.
Slater is very skilful at versified dialogue, which is carried on the cadences and rhymes and semi-rhymes:
Balstrode Grimes, since you’re a lonely soul
Born to blocks and spars and ropes
Why not try the wider sea
With merchantman or privateer?
Peter I am native, rooted here.
Balstrode Rooted by what?
Peter By familiar fields,
The prevailing wind.
Balstrode You’d slip these moorings if you had the mind.
Peter By the shut faces
Of the Borough clans;
By the forgiveness
Of a casual glance.
The hermitic fisherman has long been invoked in local folklore as a kind of bogeymam in nursey rhymes:
When an urchin’s quarrelsome
Brawling at his childish games,
Mother stops him with the threat,
‘You’ll be sold to Peter Grimes!’
The following exchange reveals the inconvenient and rather prosaic truth behind the vicious rumours of the community which have always been used to create a single scapegoat for social failings:
Balstrode Then the coroner sits to
Hint, but not to mention crimes,
And publishes an open verdict
Whispered about this Peter Grimes.
Your boy was workhouse starved –
Maybe you’re not to blame he died.
Peter Picture what my life was like
Tied to a child –
Whose loneliness, despair
Flooded the cabin:
I launched the boat to find
Comfort in fishing.
Then the sea rose to a storm
Over the gunwales,
And the child’s silent reproach
Turned to illness.
And I watched
Among fishing nets,
Alone, alone, alone
With a childish death!
They listen to money
These Borough gossips
I’ll fish the sea dry
Swamp their markets,
Get money to choke
Down rumour’s throat.
When others shelter
In the bad weather
I’ll slip the painter.
Balstrode With your new prentice?
Peter We’ll sail together.
The Borough gossips
Listen to rumour
Listen to money:
One buys the other.
I shall buy rumour –
The wealthy merchant
Grimes will set up
House, home and shop
You will all see it!
Grimes has some of the more wistful and thoughtful flourishes:
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s
Like a flashing turmoil
of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?
While Ellen remains the most insightful and empathic member of the otherwise hostile community:
You liked your workhouse with its grave,
Empty look. You liked to be
A lonely fellow in your misery.
When I became a teacher
I thought of school as bleak and bare –
Then found it the sort of place
I daresay like your own workhouse
Particularly towards Grimes himself:
Peter, this unforgiving work
This grey, unresting industry,
What aim, what future does it mark
What peace will your hard profits buy?
Ellen also posits: ‘O pity those who try to bring/ A shadowed life into the sun’.
Much is revealed in exchanges about the ethical conflicts and hypocrisies of the community, and society as a whole:
Rector My flock – oh what a weight is this
Mrs Sedley And what a dangerous faith is this
That gives souls equality!
Balstrode When the Borough gossip starts
Somebody must suffer for it.
Ned And thanks to flinty human hearts
Even quacks can make a profit.
Chorus (crowding round Boles)
Whoever’s guilty gets the rap
The Borough keeps its standards up.
Boles O this prentice system
Is uncivilized, unchristian.
Balstrode Something of the sort befits
Brats conceived outside the sheets.
Ellen, Auntie O Lord, hard hearts!
Chorus Who lets us down must take the rap
The Borough keeps its standards up.
No ragtail no bobtail if you please.
Boles (pushes them away)
Back to the gutter – you keep out of this.
Grimes has a rather rough-and-ready approach to his apprentices but it’s not malicious as the community suspects—Slater’s verse is continuously cadent:
Peter Lay off the blubbering. We can be
Friends when the town’s not standing by.
Not happy youngster? O the salt
Drowns ’em all, we’ll keep afloat.
You’re a landlubber this coast
Depresses with its muddy ghosts
Of withered trees and with the bleak
Ugliness in the ebb tide’s wake.
You’ll discover by and by
What this leads to is the sea.
Here’s your oilskin and sou’wester.
Stir your pins, we’ll get ready!
Here’s the jersey Ellen knitted,
With the anchor that she patterned.
The lines lengthen when Grimes goes into a wistful reverie on his own with his apprentice:
In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home
Warm in my heart and in a golden calm
Where there is no more fear and no more storm.
Where she would soon forget her schoolhouse ways
Forget the labour of our weary days
Wrapped round in kindness like September haze.
The learned at their books have no more store
Of wisdom than we’d close behind our door.
Compared with us the rich man would be poor.
I’ve seen in stars the life that we might share:
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore,
And whitened doorstep, and a woman’s care.
But then comes a kind of volta, a sea-change, and Grimes’ mood changes:
But thinking builds what thinking can disown.
Dead fingers stretch out to tear it down.
I hear my father and the one that drowned
Calling, there is no peace, there is no stone
In the earth’s thickness to make you a home,
That you can build with and remain alone.
Sometimes I see two devils in this hut.
They’re here now by the cramp under my heart –
My father and the boy I had
As prentice until you arrived.
They sit there and their faces shine like flesh.
Their mouths are open, but I close my ears.
We’re by ourselves young prentice. Shall we then
Make a pact before they come?
On finding Grimes’ empty hut a character called Swallow chastises the malicious gossipers:
Swallow The whole affair gives Borough talk its – shall
I say quietus? Here we come pell-mell,
Expecting to find out we know not what
And all we find’s a neat and empty hut.
Gentlemen, take this to your wives:
Less interference in our private lives.
There’s a probably completely inadvertent echo of the closing of the pub monologue from the ‘A Game of Chess’ section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
Burgesses Good night – it’s time for bed.
Good night. Good night. Good night, good people,
I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.
Good night. Good night. Good night, good people,
Mrs. Sedley is someone who seems fascinated by crime:
Crime, which my study is
Sweetens my thinking.
Men who can breach the peace
And kill convention –
So many guilty ghosts
With stealthy body
Trouble my midnight thoughts...
Crime is my study.
Crime – that’s my study – is
By cities hoarded.
The Borough’s larcenies
Are mostly sordid.
Rarely are country minds
Lifted to murder
The noblest of the crimes
Which are my study.
The empathetic Ellen has a lovely figurative passage:
My broidered anchor on the chest.
Embroidery in childhood was
A luxury of idleness
A coil of silken thread that gave
Dreams of a silk and satin life.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
My hand remembered its old skill –
These stitches tell a curious tale.
I remember I was brooding
On the fantasies of children
And dreamt that only by wishing I
Could bring some silk into their lives.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
Balstrode is also one of the more empathetic characters:
We have the power. We have the power.
In the black moment
When your friend suffers
We cannot turn our backs.
When horror breaks one heart
All hearts are broken.
There’s a Chorus which strikes a moral, or rather amoral, note on the nature of social exclusion and othering:
Who holds himself apart
Lets his pride rise
Him who despises us
Now cruelty becomes
Him who despises us
And so the story of Peter Grimes ends with the hermitic fisherman’s solitary suicide out at sea by jumping from his boat.
The final entry in this volume is ‘Deleted ‘Mad Song’ from Peter Grimes (1945)’—here it is in full:
Home? Would you give a comet room
Beneath your eaves and call it home?
This God who made the world and said
Let there be light and darkness made
And breathed a self-degrading love
Into the dust and called it life
This is your God of love – but I
Climb to his heaven to defy.
Here is an eye that sees the plan
For the enfeeblement of man
And a will strong enough to roll
Creation back for a new man’s soul.
O I can breathe the naked dawn
And drink the sea to pull God down
Deny his laws, like fire consume
The shame that breathes in all things human.
O would you give a comet room
Between your breasts and call it home?
In its semi-rhyme, cadence and direct yet figurative language—particularly in its closing couplet—this poem very much exemplifies Slater’s Muse.
These compendious and well-contextualised retrospective volumes are welcome additions to the Smokestack Books range in posthumous publications of underrepresented poets of the historic British Left, and take their places alongside previous volumes by Communist contemporaries Jack Lindsay and Tom Wintringham. They make an interesting pairing since the poets’ background contrast one another informatively—Slater the prolific working-class autodidact writer, and Branson, the public school-educated Spain volunteer and Second World War enlistee who was killed in his prime. Both of their oeuvres are certainly worth revisiting and I recommend them to any scholars of Thirties and Forties leftwing literature.
Alan Morrison © 2023