Alan Morrison on
Who are the English?
Selected Poems 1935-81
(Smokestack Books, 2014)
Introduced by Anne Cranny-Francis
- Part 2 -
The first poem in Jack Lindsay’s Who are the English? – Selected Poems 1935 – 1981 is fittingly titled ‘First Fears and Misapprehensions’, which appears to be the middle-class Lindsay’s plea to be accepted by the proletariat as one of its own due to his personal experience of poverty, hardship and sacrifice. The first effortlessly cadent, rhythmical and rhyming verse exemplifies the spirit of the poem as a whole (of four stanzas in length):
Will you take me, workers? will you take me as one
of yourselves? I have stripped time’s rags and stand naked.
I have thrown away the past, all that I’ve wastefully done;
that’s ended now, I have no reason to shun
your eyes. I offer my hand. Will you take it?
I had sheltered early-years yet darkly threaded
by the child’s suffering when parents quarrel and break.
But I was not thrown out in the world. I was fed
though with sickening food. I was fed. I’d a bed though I lay awake.
This accessible lyrical verse, unpretentiously executed and direct in its tone. The third verse very much expresses Lindsay’s sense of ‘embodied’ ideals and serves almost as a self-epitaph to the experiential nature of his personal political and poetical journey:
I have learned what hunger is. I have tightened my belt
and gone out to walk on the beach that the seagulls owned.
I have lived for weeks on a few potatoes, and felt
the rats crawl on me from slums of sleep, and smelt
the ghosts of fear that out of blood-darkness moaned.
I have shivered in the cold, having no coal or wood.
I have walked with chilblains on the spikes of frost,
and in the appalled disrelish of the thwarted blood
have known my flesh a desert where a child was born.
There is a sense of self-rejuvenation, even self-transcendence, in that last line –or what Lindsay would term Aufhebung; a metamorphosis of the heart (or Auden’s ‘change of heart’), which Lindsay would no doubt describe his ‘conversion’ to Marxist Communism and humanism as effectively being, ironically has the tone of the Christian ‘Damascene moment’ about it. While one is almost reminded figuratively of Nietzsche’s anti-Christian and pro-‘will to power’ aphorism of ‘the camel, the lion and the child’ with the images of ‘flesh’ as a ‘desert where a child was born’ (as well as the Wordsworthian trope ‘Child is father to the man’, from the poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up’).
Lindsay rises to the occasion of this important personal poetic and political statement with a notable crescendo, or valediction, of the fourth stanza:
I have gone further now. I have come out beyond
in the comradeship accepting the world’s greatest task.
I know what holds stars in the sky, I know what strikes out of the ground
the flower-sparks of the spring, I have touched the bond.
Only you can help me, only your aid I ask,
and you have given it since the fount was unsealed
and waters sparkled to wash the grime of my pains.
The world’s outrage on my remembering flesh was healed.
Workers, I too have nothing to lose but my chains.
It’s also worth noting at this juncture Lindsay’s sentence case style whereby he only capitalises the first words of sentences and not, as well, as is more traditional, the first letters of each new line; this lends his poems a more contemporary feel reading them today, and is not a stylistic that most others of his Thirties contemporary poets –Auden, Spender, MacNiece, C Day Lewis, Tom Wintringham, Caudwell et al– were yet completely comfortable with, though which, interestingly, the slightly edgier, more modernistically inclined poets of the period were experimenting more with (e.g. David Jones, Joseph Macleod et al.).
‘Summer Song’ is an unexpectedly rapturous bucolic, strongly reminiscent of Dylan Thomas, although it is possible it was actually written prior to the latter’s most famed and distinctive work, and even more likely, to his ultimate poetic expression; more likely is the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also of James Joyce, with the profuse use of portmanteaus. Lindsay demonstrates in just the second poem of this book his mastery of a very different form of poetics to the declamatory polemical poem opening:
I lay and listened to the long lisping
of summer in wheat and slept beneath warm
a soft sly surge of whispering wheat-ears
rustling with blitheness ripe across birdlull
a sea of summer surfed on the stripes
lushtangle of hedge and the hawkweed clusters
cut in serenity high on the sky-banks
I slumbered fast and summer flowed over
in a weaving of waves the slow rumour of wheat
The portmanteaus, ‘birdlull’ and ‘lushtangle’, are not only Joycean but, again, glaringly Thomas-esque, especially set as they are against a rural backdrop. The following lines are particularly evocative of Thomas’s famous poem ‘Fern Hill’:
till golden I glimpsed the green ripples gossiping
sealed on the sky and spicily blown
thistle-beards twisted in bloom of the blue
Compare with the opening verse from ‘Fern Hill’, written and published –in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon– in 1945:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Clearly Thomas was heavily influenced by Manley Hopkins; but is it just possible that he had also read a certain lesser known Jack Lindsay’s poem ‘Summer Song’ prior to composing his own famous panegyric to a rural childhood?
‘Summer Song’ grows more polemical as it moves forward, as in the following beautifully rhythmic stanza tackling the clearances and enclosures and the many resistances to such incursions, stretching back to the disinherited Anglo-Saxons against the newly imposed feudalistic Norman yoke, through to the Peasants' Revolts of the 14th and 15th centuries –and on still to the Diggers and Levellers of the 17th:
The peasants rising with rage and patience
against enclosures of ancient earths
with mattock and spade shaggily mustering
wrenched up the fences and walls around fallow
unfastening fields with a faith in unity:
they ran and they laughed with a leap into rapture
songs of blest islands invoked in a sweat
bristling with wealth and blazing westward
with fountains of wine in a flame of red wind
with ample apples and pancake palaces
preciously dyed for a promised discovery
The influence of Manley Hopkins –particularly his most famous poem, ‘Pied Beauty’– comes to the fore again in the next effusive stanza:
Filling the ditches they drudged with a fury
and night came down in a fever of dreams
they lay in a labyrinth with love’s own laughter
and star-blossoms crackled as blue as chickory:
the nightjar thudding in thickets of nuts
cried doom on devils: and lovers with litanies
moaned in high lofts or meadows of lustre
cradled in hay: the crowds in christ’s hunger
hurried for eden happily ensigned
and the dawn swung up with a snarl of trumpets
cried doom on devils: the yaffle went yiking:
on water-meadows with wings downpointed
the tidy redshank dropped with a trill:
sweet-apples rifted the russet shadows:
the deer sprang dappled on silver streams
all for loose life and the lap of the loving
the liberty-leap and the loyal of laughter
Lindsay’s ear for beautiful phrases, images and sense-impressions is striking at times: ‘blue as chickory’, ‘snarl of trumpets’, ‘russet shadows’. It is interesting too to see the image of a ‘nightjar’, which again reminds us of ‘Fern Hill’ ‘the nightjars/ Flying with the ricks’; while ‘sweet-apples’ also harks back –or forward, as is probably the case– to Thomas’s poem. The rather overloaded ‘l’-alliteration of the last two lines in particular is more of a moot point.
But, Joycean and Hopkinsesque sprinklings apart, Lindsay really comes into his own, through a bravura marriage of rustic portmanteaus and proletarian polemic, in the next glorious verse:
I speak with a song
for peasant-camps captained by Kett or by Pouch
an instant fronting the fate of England
a single swathe set for the scything
the songs of the promise: they sowed on their pathway
bullvoice of noon with braggart nostrils
the hour of the heron in moonstruck musing
a bubble-sweetness burst with the starwort
glistening in grasses and gingerly grappling
with hooks of its leaves that hoist to the light
burst in a breathing of waspish winds
smasht by the soldiers of wary sheriffs
gasping in ditchdeaths on gallows-elms
gagged and gaping for carrion-crows
‘Summer Song’ is indeed a formidable and soul-rousing tub-thumper of a poem which almost conjures to mind the pastoral stridency of socialist composer Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘My Bonny Boy’ from his English Folk Song Suite, or Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Symphony No. 2’ and ‘No. 5’ from Peterloo Overture and his 'Scottish Dances'.
Towards its close, the sumptuous and rhapsodic ‘Summer Song’ builds to a cymbal-crashing crescendo in a very distinctive and eclectic fusion of poetic styles which at once echo Shelley’s anthemic revolutionary rallying-cry, The Mask of Anarchy, Blake’s radical hymn ‘Jerusalem’, all suffused with Hopkinsesque portmanteaus and rapturous exclamations:
Peasants claiming your birthright commons
and losing England in longpast centuries
O larkpulse of morning lovely and mettlesome
you are still England
titmouse with long tail laired in the thornbush
the story’s not ended or England ended
the sentry of marshland the redshank mutters:
the springmarch is drumming and the sap of danger:
We are still England
The peasants’ passion climbs in the coverts
and deepens the tarn of troubled darkness:
the dreams of the people plead with the dead
and the devils fear in the damned faces
of England’s evil in city-streets
O let me live through the hell-harrowing
to view the murdered victorious march
as now they march in the noon of these murmurs
singing with standards of summer-sweetness
through England cleared into equal commons
and barriers broken
O peasant prophets
Lindsay’s ‘Summer Song’ is an unfathomably obscure polemical poem-anthem of its kind.
A little less obscure is the eponymous poem of the book, and perhaps Lindsay’s most well-known, which was written in response to a hostile review of Allen Hutt’s This Final Crisis (1936) in the TLS (some things never change!), which argued ludicrously that the author couldn’t understand ‘the nature of the English people’ because he was a ‘communist’ –even if the work was largely about the Chartist movement. The long poem was subsequently staged as a ‘Mass Declamation’ at the Unity Theatre.
The declamatory ‘Who are the English?’, while not to my mind –and slightly ironically given its renown– among Lindsay’s very best poems in this Selected, it being slightly unevenly composed, a little overcooked rhetorically, and, occasionally, slightly prosaic (e.g. the opening lines’ almost essay-like question: ‘Who are the English,/ according to the definition/ of the ruling class?’, which lacks any poetic cadence), it is nonetheless an important poem, particularly in terms of its quite profound class-quandary as to the true character of the English, and in the context of its period of composition.
Not altogether obtrusive compositional shortcomings aside, the poem is immediately arresting, and rousing, and carries the reader almost compulsively forwards through its rollercoaster of English proletarian political history. One of Lindsay’s initial targets for opprobrium is the grease that oils the cogs of capitalism, advertising:
shot that hoardings of imperial size
might fill each blank space of the motor roads
with pink whore-faces beckoning the bankrupt to buy –
Lindsay then begins what will grow into a long eulogy for the countless forgotten and nameless working-class Englishmen who had sacrificed themselves to help ‘build an Empire’:
Or you, the ragged thief, fruit of the press gang, gallowsbird,
flogged to a scarlet-breasted musketeer,
you, too, splintered your bones to build an Empire;
and now that names are lost in the desolation of moons,
snow drifting on the war gnawed litter of history,
the dump of bones, you starveling, accept your share
with those whom the great sounding names or greed
drew with drum flams to death in distant places,
while Flanders mud flakes off the latest dump,
you are the English
your ruling class has said it.
Lindsay’s declamatory tone is punctuated with some beautifully composed polemical aphorisms:
And shuffle along you toilers on whose cowed faces
the heels of your betters have left bleeding badges
as proof of your allegiance. Shuffle along,
all you thrifty cotters saved from brotherhood by Wesley,
all you farmhands sweated out of thought,
all you slum denizens humbly paying pence
to keep a Bishop in Christian poverty…
But Lindsay gets into his stride through more contemporaneously placed imageries, echoing the consumer symbolism of the 'Pylon Poets' of the same period, and particularly of their stylistic cousin-twice-removed Louis MacNiece’s oeuvre:
all you shophands beaten over the brain
till you can only answer, ‘O let’s go to the pictures,’
all you that lick the hand providing dope,
you readers of the national newspapers
absorbing fascism and astrology
with your list of winners and hire-payment systems...
Then another lapse into a somewhat prosaic essay-style English: ‘I call instead on those who are not the English/ according to the definition of the ruling class’. This distinctly un-poetic line is then, however, followed by another stream of resonant images, allusions and descriptive phrases:
We’ll step back first six hundred years or seven
and call up the peasants hoarsely talking under the wind,
their cattle stolen by the king’s purveyors,
their wives deceived by whining hedge-priests,
Peasants leaving your wattled huts to haunt
the crooked dreams of Henry with your scythes,
unrolling a long scroll you couldn’t read
though you knew the word it held, not England,
but Justice – come, you peasants with hoof smashed faces,
speak from the rotting wounds of your mouths, we’ll
prompting you with our anger.
Then come the radical English figures of the distant past, thick and fast, in almost incantatory homage:
I talked with John Ball, I was out with Jack Cade
I listened to Wicliffe, I was burnt as a Lollard.
Come with us peasants, waking from fumes of charcoal,
into the wintry dawn, while the cattle stamp,
leap from your strawbed, leave the blowsy alewife,
someone has called, and you have taken your fork,
against the thundering cataphract of power.
Here again we note Lindsay’s tilt towards the portmanteau. An exhortation ensues of those common men who either volunteered or were conscripted into the ranks of the New Model Army in what many thought initially was an attempt at fundamental revolution towards a future England free of the tyrannies of property and class:
I call on those who left the little farms
and left the common lands at Parliament’s voice
to chase the grave and comely henpecked king.
I call on Cromwell’s Ironsides and the men
who listened to the many voices blown, distracted,
birdcries out of the thicket of blood-darkness,
and answered awry, glamoured by dark phrases,
the slaughtered Lamb, the flayed carcass of their lives,
the unremitting call to follow truth,
to follow a bond denying their present slavery,
broken by harsh echoes from the unploughed thicket.
Here I’d say Lindsay is a little short on period details with regards to the seismic significance of the English Civil War (or English Revolution as many left-wing revisionist historians, not without valid reason, term it today), tilting instead towards a more broad and vaguer panegyric tangent, a kind of ‘covert pastoral’ (see William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral for the full definition of what this is –essentially, proletarian polemical poetry disguised as pastoral lyricism). But Lindsay does mention some of the more radical fringe movements of the 1640s and 1650s:
Come, you Anabaptists and you Levellers,
come, you Muggletonians, all you Bedlamites,
fall in behind us, you are not English, comrades.
Curious though it is that there is no citing of the Diggers, perhaps the most important and truly pioneering radical egalitarian activists of that time, it is highly incisive of Lindsay to mention the ‘Bedlamites’ (i.e. the inmates of Bedlam, the infamous ‘insane asylum’), since there is a lasting school of thought which argues that many of those historically ‘committed’ to asylums and written off as ‘mad’ were tarred and incarcerated thus for what in more sophisticated or enlightened times since, might have been perceived more as intellectual nuances of anarchism, anti-establishment sentiments, or radical Leftist ideas; just as there is a school of thought that similarly argues what we term ‘mental illness’ might sometimes be otherwise interpreted as ‘political deviancies’ (cue the anti-psychiatric movement of the likes of R.D. Laing, and also Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, et al).
And just as ‘Bedlamites’, or rather, those termed ‘mentally ill’ and committed or ‘sectioned’ to mental institutions are effectively stripped –at least temporarily– of their societal identities, freedoms and rights, so too are the proletarian English of Lindsay’s poem polemic –from the dispossessed Anglo-Saxons through the peasant classes to the modern industrial working classes– denied their fundamental identities as members of the English race simply by dint of being born into the lower classes.
Lindsay tips into an arresting hortatory tone reminiscent of that of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy:
Come, you Luddites, come you men of the Charter,
singing your songs of defiance on the blackened hills,
invoking the storm, the whirlwind, being surer now,
deciphering at last the certain earth behind
the many voices confusing the moonstruck mind.
Come from the mines and the looms, come from the
from the minds and the looms,
come and tramp the streets of Birmingham and London,
the dragoon are waiting to spit your skulls, my comrades,
for you are not English, you angry millions, you workers,
your voice snarls in the clang of the flaring foundry,
your voice rips louder than the raven caws at morning,
you are speaking out and were not meant to speak,
you are waking, comrades,
you are not English now,
your ruling class has said it.
The line ‘your voice snarls in the clang of the flaring foundry’ is particularly striking in terms of alliteration, sibilance and sense-impression. We then tilt back into Lindsay’s core poetic stomping ground of ‘embodied’ politics, of lived revolutionary ideals of their utmost meaning and authenticity when being enacted in the furore of the moment:
Come, you Luddites, come you men of the Charter,
singing your songs of defiance on the blackened hills,
invoking the storm, the whirlwind, being surer now,
deciphering at last the certain earth behind
the many voices confusing the moonstruck mind.
Come from the mines and the looms, come from the
from the minds and the looms,
come and tramp the streets of Birmingham and London,
the dragoon are waiting to spit your skulls, my comrades,
for you are not English, you angry millions, you workers,
your voice snarls in the clang of the flaring foundry,
your voice rips louder than the raven caws at morning,
you are speaking out and were not meant to speak,
you are waking, comrades,
you are not English now,
your ruling class has said it.
This is a kind of eulogy to political activism in its most visceral and literal manifestation; this is Lindsay’s emphatically thrown gauntlet in the pivotal Audenic paradigm of the time: the quandary of poetry/thought and politics/action. Lindsay seems to set out to show how the Audenic dualism is a nothing more than an ‘abstracted’ mirage, and that poetry and action can merge into one, both on the page and on the street.
Stand out one of the men who were not English,
come, William Morris,
you that preached revolt to the workers and said
of the men who died for us in the Commune of Paris:
We honour them as the foundation-stone
of the new world that is to be.
You that cried out after Bloody Sunday.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
but one and all if they would dusk the day!
And stand out you the unknown weaver,
who wrote in the Poor Man’s Guardian of 1832,
before Marx has shown us how the thefts were made:
the profit is that which is retained and never paid back,
there is no common interest
between working men and profit makers.
You were not English, we are not English either –
though we have these trees plumed upon the sunset
and turned back to the area rails our prison bars;
though we have followed the plough like a hungry rook
with love for the brown soil slicing fatly away,
to haunt in the end the dingy rain of the street
where a prosperous splith of warming music
trickled through drawn blinds on our beggar senses;
though we have crept into the daisy light of the dew
to wake once more in the dripping tenements;
though we have plucked hazelnuts in the lane of autumn,
that was not our land, we were trespassers,
the field of toil was our allotted life,
beyond it we might not stir though blossom scents
left tender trails leading to the heart of summer;
though we have loved this earth where our seat and our tears
drained through the thankless centuries, though we lay
long nights of agony digging our fingers deep
in the wet earth, yet the bailiffs evicted us,
it was all taken away, England was taken,
what little of it was ours in desperate toil
was taken, and the desperate toil remained
[Note: it is assumed 'splith' is some old dialect word as this writer can find no definition for it online]. To my mind, Lindsay’s poem –and indeed his poetry altogether– is at its most affecting, resonant and powerful when channelled through contemporary image and symbol, or, to put in another way, when at its most distilled MacNiecean:
and lanes of dank gloom where the echo of midnight falls
a late wayfarer stumbling, leaving nothing behind
except the gaslight coughing and the crying child,
milk turned sour in the thunder hour awaiting,
queues at the Labour Exchange while the radio squeals
in the shop nearby, and nothing remains, nothing
except the mad faces forming from the damp stains on the plaster,
the scabs of sickness and the jagged edge
of tins in the bucket, and the knock on the door,
and the child crying and the bug heats, hunger, hunger,
and the child crying
and the radio-message through crevices of the dark silence
Workers of the World…
For me, that last exceptional passage is perhaps the poetic and polemical highpoint of this entire poem, more resonant than the more declamatory parts due to its emphasis on contemporary social symbolisms such as ‘the Labour Exchange’ and its dismal reminders of the ‘shops’ that dominate post-industrial consumer capitalist society and adorn their windows with the unaffordable products of our own labours, like so many shiny albatrosses. MacNiecean imagery apart, there is also something of Auden here (though Lindsay’s style is more discursive) in the listing of proverbial images as every day symbols preceded deliberately with the definite article as if to somehow brand certain quotidian daily occurrences as rituals or anti-sacraments of routine, depersonalising contemporary life; this is a kind of anti-celebration and irreverent sanctification of the modern ‘religion’ of working poverty amid plentiful consumer-capitalism, wherein people worship not at altars but at shop window-displays. In reality, everything is grind and grime to no progressive collective purpose –the rest is window-dressing.
Lindsay then swoops into more hortatory mode again, as if to ensure he sustains the engagement of the readers and jump-start the less immersed awake with a sense of urgency: ‘Listen, hold up your head’, and then follows one of the most stunningly figurative passages in this poem:
…it wasn’t the rat
whisking under the coal scuttle, it wasn’t the lodger
stealing back scared from the woman under the bridge.
In this hour even the flower lips speak. It is
the augural moment declared by frenetic guesses,
come clear at last. The moon slit whispers, the rafter
creaks to a new pulse stirring, the bough of silence
cracks with a quick decision, men softly creeping
through forests of hardship to surprise the drunken castle.
Here Lindsay proves once again he has as capable of scintillating imageries and aphorisms as he is when in more direct polemical mode. Again, the hortation:
Lift up your head,
listen, you Rhondda miners, you Durham miners,
the radio voice is seeping through the barriers,
Workers of the World…
And again Lindsay displays a gusto of imagery and rhythms:
They are awake at Bleanleachan, men are stirring,
reaching out their hands, the moon sets in the coal tip,
the fans of the air shaft whirr like a giant breathing.
Come, changelings of poverty, cheated of the earth,
Albion or Land of Brut or Avalon,
Coal-ghetto that was once the Isle of Apples,
call it what you will, there must be in it
England, my England –
the words are clear
Workers of the World, unite!
The voice comes pealing through the trumpet of the night,
You have nothing to lose but your chains!
Finally we come to the poem’s climactic close, which I think pretty much does justice to the poetic momentum built up hereto:
The sunlight breaks
like waves on a shingly beach, sweeping the mountains
with more than the sough of pines.
This morning is of men as well as light
its unity is born from the sweat of mingled toil,
it springs from the earth of action,
its is ours and England. We who made it, we are making
another England, and the loyalty learned
in mine and factory begets our truth,
Then another emphasis on the eternal moment and the 'cconcrete universal': 'this compact linking is to past and future'. Lindsay continues in his rhapsodic Marxist tone:
The workers take the world that they have made!
Unseal the horns of plenty, join once more
the severed ends of work and play; and if the thieves
challenge our coming, we have learned the might
of sledged falling, the turbines’ fury, the craft
of dynamos winding energy from the elements.
Then the poet alludes to how some of the very products of the workers can be turned against them as weapons of class oppression:
In vain they turn their guns and poison gas
on those for whom electricity rears its unseen fortress,
the sun drops shrapnel of light upon their ranks
but feeds our renewed bodies; the womb of earth
cries for our seed. No others have the thews
to make this earth this England, breed to her desire.
The disinherited are restored, our mother,
England, our England,
England, our own.
[The dialect term 'thews' means well-developed muscles or sinews]. The climax to the poem is indeed beautifully phrased and brilliantly judged in terms of tone and purpose. To use the crude capitalistic paraphrase, the reader gets a decent ‘return’ on their ‘investment’. And if ‘Who are the English?’ is perhaps a poem which might have done with a little bit more tidying around the occasionally ragged edges, or, conversely, even a little more expansion into greater historical details in the more broad-sweeping passages, its vein of impulsiveness serves well to pump the pulse of its impulsion (and propulsion), giving it a sense of having been to some extent composed very much in and of the moment it in part depicts, a poem with its finger on the pulse, as so to speak, and in those senses, a prime example of Lindsay’s philosophy of the essential embodiment of the metamorphic political moment.
It has been said of Steve Ely’s prize-shortlisted Oswald’s Book of Hours (also Smokestack, and which was recently reviewed by me on this site) that it is a kind of standard-bearer poem trumpeting the working-class place of Englands past –and to some extent it is, in part, tantamount to such; and Lindsay’s ‘Summer Song’ and ‘Who are the English?’ serve as earlier and, I’d add, more rawly passionate examples of such an ambitious poetic schema (for my personal tastes, contemporary/post-modern mainstream verse is on the whole a little too tight-lipped, pared-down and mealy-mouthed to properly evoke the gut-felt emotion of such important and powerful subjects as the legion forgotten English peoples of the poorer classes wholesale dispossession from the national narrative of the past).
But we have only come three poems into this substantial book –there are plenty more poems to explore and, to my mind, the best of Lindsay’s output are yet to come. So, to the next verse, ‘Warning of the End’. This is one of Lindsay’s more direct poems, brilliantly epigrammatic and brimming with powerful polemical aphorisms. Here it is in full:
Do you think that politicians and bankers do more than assume,
for the press-photographers, a face of bleared compassion
when people starve? do they hear the voice of doom
when bugs devour the slum-walls but do not lower rents?
Do you think the bourgeois turn their heads
if the hoof of famine stamps out a Chinese village?
(The Japanese have the situation in hand, eliminating the Reds.)
The bourgeois suffering comes in another fashion.
A tumbling market may disturb their pillage,
but is not serious; for they can always recoup
their losses elsewhere, pushing the workers down.
Only one matter gives them tears to shed,
only one bellykick makes their spirits droop.
That is when the shock-troops, that is when the cossacks,
sent to batter a crowd and back them dumb,
hear the voices Brother, the thundering voices Brother,
and answer We are Brothers, and laugh Brothers we come!
For me, the final fourth verse is a masterly example of polemical rhyme with a genuinely sublime close; while lines such as ‘A tumbling market may disturb their pillage,/ but is not serious; for they can always recoup/ their losses elsewhere’ not only alliteratively brilliant but also aphoristically exceptional, especially in picking apart the sheer unprincipled inhumanity of capitalism’s profit-motive. ‘Warning of the End’ is in my opinion a classic epigram of its period and more than stands up to contemporaries such as Auden, Spender and MacNiece.
‘Looking at a Map of Spain on the Devon Coast’, dated August, 1937. This appears to be one of Lindsay’s more empirical pieces, detailing his impression of coming upon a devastated Spanish town littered with –presumably loyalist– corpses, and yet, somewhat surreally given the geographical juxtaposition of the title, possibly a projected impression extrapolated from a map the poet peers at while in Devon. However, since we know Lindsay volunteered for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, we can assume that the Spanish details are indeed from personal experience/witness, and that for some poetic/narrative purpose he has chosen to merge and shift locations. It seems as if Lindsay is remembering how he anticipated going to when looking at the map from an embarkation point, presumably in Plymouth, and these reminiscences thus interspersed with more recent recollections of the devastation he has witnessed there after his time at the Spanish Front:
The waves that break and rumble on the sands
gleaming outside my window, break on Spain.
Southward I look and only the quick waves stretch
between my eyes and ravaged Santander moaning
with many winds of death, great blackening blasts
of devastation and little alley-whispers
where forgotten children die.
The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation,
and volleyed with these moaning winds of death.
Aragon I touch, Castilla, and Asturias.
Lindsay then moves on to articulating how following the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression capitalism has finally slipped its mask and revealed the even darker side to its latent ‘animal spirits’: fascism –debatably the last ditch anti-democratic resort of capitalism-in-crisis, from which are deployed its assaults squads, in Spain’s particular case, those of the Falangists and Francoists:
The brittle mask has broken, the money-mask
that hid the jackal-jaws, the mask of fear
that twisted the tender face of love; and eyes
now look on naked eyes. The map of Spain
seethes with the truth of things, no longer closed
in greed’s geography, an abstract space
of imports, exports, capitalist statistics,
the jargon record of a tyrannous bargain.
The scroll of injustice, the sheet of paper is torn,
and behind the demolished surface of the lie
the Spanish people are seen with resolute faces.
They break the dark grilles
on custom’s stuccoed wall
and come into the open.
And while it is true that fascist movements always claim to be on the side of the ordinary people, the native workers, and also anti-capitalist, one can safely assume from much historical precedent that this is often simply a populist ruse to attempt to ingratiate themselves –a la Nigel Farage and UKIP– with the common populace from whom, of course, they conscript their ranks.
Historian David Thomson commented on the historical political pattern of capitalism tipping into fascism when its chips are down –as we see today with the fiscal fascism of the Troika, IMF and the Tory-led British Government; while, more blatantly, with the rise of the Far Right Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary, and the Golden Dawn in Greece, et al:
The slog-arm bands of fascism the hirelings of the capitalist class, the latest instrument of that war which was inherent in bourgeois society… (Europe Since Napoleon, 1957).
Indeed, as a recent extract from Graham Stevenson's '80 years ago today...' columns in the Morning Star illustrated, in a piece detailing a perspective of trade unionist Alex Gossip, expressed in response to a governmental attack on the League Against Imperialism, such views were becoming very common as early as the 1930s:
Pointing to the increasing use of fascist methods in the attempt to maintain capitalism, [Gossip] emphasised the necessity for doing all possible to strengthen the links of solidarity between the workers of the imperialist countries and the oppressed colonial toilers in order to bring about the overthrow of imperialism... (The Daily Worker, 26 Nov 1934)
There follows from Lindsay a superb depiction of skirmishing in what had recently been an Loyalist-secured, anarcho-Syndicalist-run micro-socialist republic in Barcelona, now invaded and overrun by Fascists, the scenario evoked through some of the poet’s most striking and poignant images and aphorisms:
In the city-square the rags of bodies lie
like refuse after death’s careless fiesta.
Sandbags are plied across
the tramlines of routine.
A bullet has gone through the townhall clock,
the hands of official time are stopped.
New clocks for the Spanish people:
new springs and cogwheels for the Time of Freedom.
The garrotting machines are snatched
out of the chests of old darkness
and strung between lamp-posts and balcony
in the streets of sunlight in Barcelona.
My friend is holding the cartridge-belt, the gun
is trained on the corner, the turn in the dark street,
round which the Fascists will come.
The noticeboard of the People’s University
is nailed above the church’s door of stone
over the face of the Virgin in the shrine.
Then, like a refrain, Lindsay repeats the trope: ‘New clocks for the Spanish people:/ New springs and cogwheels for the Time for Freedom’. It’s as if this particular poem pours out from Lindsay effortlessly, since it is after all recounting the graphic and gruesome images of civil war, which he has personally encountered and witnessed:
These images slip through the mesh. They flush
the superficial map with hints
of what the tumult means.
You girl in overalls with young breasts of pride
bearing the great banner down the street,
your pulse accords with the day’s terrific cymbals.
You militiaman leaning
beside the soup-cauldrons on the ridge of stones
and bushes flickering with heat, your hands
speak of the sickle and hammer, and the rifle
you hold in such a way
breaks to a cornsheaf in your dreaming hour
…olive-trees tousled silver under the wind.
These closing stanzas have an almost rhapsodic quality, even though they are mostly detailing the terrible sacrifices of war –but the images of such sacrifices are treated almost as symbols of sanctification, even of salvation:
The old man choking among the thistles
by the peaked windmill with the lattice-wings
has spoken a curse. The child blindly crying
down lanes of terror in the endless night
of bursting faces, and the mother riddled
with rape on the dungheap, and the friend
who smiled at you yesterday
now crucified on the garden-wall,
litter these names. Oh, watch the map of Spain
and you can see the sodden earth of pain,
the least blood-trickle on the broken face,
and hear the clutter of the trucks that bring
the Moorish firing-squad along the village street,
and through the frantic storm of shattering guns
the child’s small wail. You hear it in your heart.
louder than all the roaring. An accusation
that shall be answered.
Lindsay then emphasises the industrial toils of the common workers as essential to the pulse of Spain:
And louder too than all the hell of war
clanging over the tiles or the hilltops hoarse
with raiding planes, there sounds the pulse of work,
the hum of factories in communal day.
The girl with the cap of liberty at the loom
weaves the fate of Spain,
the web of brotherhood on the wrap of courage.
The factory windows crimson with the sunset
flash signals to the fields of toil;
the slow echelon of sickles
advance upon the wheat. Now in the battle
the Spanish workers ride
the horses of the year, wild mountain-horses
tamed to draw the plough of man.
Hear the confederate engines throb
the belts whirr and the hammers of power leap thudding,
to bring about at last the generous hour
when man and nature mate in plenty’s bed.
These lines are beautifully wrought with an exquisite verbal craftsmanship rich in aphorism and alliterative images. One wonders whether the ‘wrap of courage’ the ‘girl with the cap… at the loom’ is weaving is a flag perhaps, and if so, we can only guess for which side, Republican or Nationalist…? Much of this industrial proletarian imagery is strongly reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet poster propaganda of the period, its almost religious glorification of the sinewy workers at toil in factories or in the fields.
The close of this exceptional poem seems to inform us that after all this poem was possibly composed by Lindsay from a retrospective point of view, he presumably being on the Devon coast looking towards Spain across the Atlantic post-civil war and his trials and encounters there:
Oh, Map of Spain creviced with countless graves,
even now, even now, the storm of murder comes.
The burning face of day is blind with tears.
I stand at the Atlantic edge and look
southwards and raise my hand to Spain. Salute.
Certainly this is one of the most affecting and linguistically engaging poems of the Spanish Civil War which I have read, and a more empirical grasp of the realities of the conflict, from first-hand experience in it, than Auden’s comparatively more detached and, dare one say, ‘abstracted’ long poem Spain, composed and published in the same year, 1937.
But for the time being in this book we remain on the subject of the Spanish Civil War with what turns into something of a sequence. ‘Christmas Eve 1937’ employs a more lyrical and epigrammatic structure, in sextets of a A/B/A/B/C/C rhyme schemes, somewhat reminiscent in style of Second World War poets Sidney Keyes and Drummond Allison:
O Spain is scarred with graves, we know it well.
Splashing the acids of quick death, there screams
into the night of man the fascist shell –
O night of Spain,
we too have heard it grinding through our dreams,
the bird of evil with scabbed claws of pain.
Lindsay’s lyrical confidence is matched by a figurative and linguistic one, with some of his now-characteristic, and boldest, portmanteaus making sporadic appearances, as in the following dextrous stanza:
Thaelmann is cragg’d against the sunsethour.
He coughs and listens to enormous death,
he hears the jailertread, he clasps the power
that sets men free
though he is chained alone: ah, hold your breath,
listen with Thaelmann, heart of history.
This is first rate lyricism:
Tom Mooney sits and looks through prison bars
upon his lonely silence, sharing thus
the vigorous night that sweats with ceaseless stars,
our night of pain. …
Lindsay filters the political sufferings going on simultaneously across the globe in one night through the prism of his ‘embodiment’ of the moment –a kind of macrocosmic mindfulness:
In Trinidad now Uriah Butler stands
gripping the bars and Prestes in Brazil,
Mick Kane in England lifts his hidden hands,
and somewhere near,
as through the night the burning voices spill,
Chandler and Smith and Carney strain to hear.
And we too pause, I said. The shadows creep,
the weak light bubbles, empty is the glass,
and as we lean upon the bar of sleep,
we hear them all,
we see their figures into anguish pass,
we hear and answer their unfaltering call.
While the line ‘swinging and unceasing stars’ almost conjures to mind van Gogh’s swirling, spiralling Starry Night. It is instructive at this juncture to excerpt Lindsay’s Note on this poem for full historical elucidation of its subjects and protagonists:
Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944) was the leader of the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic. He was arrested in 1933 and held in solitary confinement for eleven years. He was murdered in Buchenwald in 1944. Tom Mooney (1882-1942) was a trade-union activist, sentenced to life imprisonmentfor alleged involvement in the in 1916 Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco. As a result of an international campaign to secure his release, he was eventually pardoned in 1939. Uriah Butler (1897-1977) was a trade-union leader in Trinidad and Tobago, imprisoned in 1937 by the colonial authorities for organizing industrial action in the oilfields. Luis Prestes (1898-1990) was one of the leaders of the Brazilian Popular Front, imprisoned in 1935 by the Vargas dictatorship. The Communist miners’ leader Mick Kane was imprisoned in 1936 for organising a six-month strike for union recognition at Harworth colliery in Nottinghamshire. George Chandler, John Smith and William Carney were also miners who were imprisoned during the Harworth dispute.
The almost rapturous ‘On Guard for Spain’ is the most declamatory of Lindsay’s Spanish poems; it is also the longest, and, along with the title poem, perhaps his best known work. This poem is very much a call to arms or rallying cry, composed in more direct, accessible language:
What you shall hear is the tale of the Spanish people.
It is also your own life.
On guard, we cry!
It is the pattern of the world to-day…
The poem resounds with calls such as ‘Thus we plead with you our need./ Cannot you hear the guns in Spain?’ and salutary phrases. Lindsay self-assurance as to his poetic purpose is perhaps a little overstressed in the lines ‘I speak for the Spanish people,/ I speak for the Spanish people to the workers of the world’ –however, he certainly had more experiential right to claim as such than, say, Auden would have claimed to have had, in Spain. Though the vocabulary isn’t as urgently inventive or imagination as in the previous Spain poems, Lindsay’s more unobtrusive alliterative gifts combine to brilliant effect throughout:
Have you ever come out of the tangled undergrowth
into the clearing of history?
Then you have lived in Spain,
Spain of these years of pang and aspiration,
Spain the arena where a weaponless man
takes the charge of a bull of havoc,
Spain where the workers, going to battle,
go as to a fiesta,
Salute to Spain!
There is a folkloric colour to some of these stanzas, echoing the work of Lorca, and which lends a faintly romantic quality to the depiction of Spain poised on an internecine precipice:
After the February elections
the people sang in the streets of work.
The echoes of time were notes of guitars
and the moons smelt of oranges
amid the jasmine-stars.
Bodies that had been jailed by fear
turned to the slopes of light once more.
The sun tied ribbons in all the trees
when we led the prisoners out of the jails,
thousands of comrades came singing out
while the waves of the sea clicked castanets
from shore to dancing shore.
The locks of the prisons of poverty
were broken by the manners of unity,
and brushing the cobwebs of old night away
we came out into the factories of day.
One could accuse the above verses of slightly clumsy effusiveness of expression and image given the catastrophic repercussions shortly to follow; the sense-impressions of ‘oranges’ and ‘jasmine’ ascribed to celestial bodies feels somewhat whimsical, while ‘guitars’ and ‘clicked castanets’ are fairly stock Spanish images. Nevertheless, these lyrical passages serve some purpose; and ‘the factories of day’ has a satisfyingly industrial iconography.
The anticipatory and hortatory note of the poem’s title is soon elucidated by the placing of this poem just on the brink of the outbreak of Spanish hostilities –so possibly set in mid-July 1936:
We cried, and cried again:
On guard, people of Spain.
Franco the Butcher lurks in the Canary Islands.
Queipo de Llano in Seville mutters threats in his drunken sleep.
Batet sneers in Barcelona.
Sanjurjo waits in Lisbon for the gong of murder to sound.
Mola, masked with a grin, chats with death at Burgos.
On guard, people of Spain!
Gil Robles whispers in the jungle of darkness.
There is a chinkle of bribes, a smell of powder
in draped sacristies, and bombs beside the pyx.
The crucifix is held up by a stack of rifles.
The muddy light drowning in cathedral-aisles
favours conspirators, or their leathery faces sweat
where Juan March and bankers have a word
behind the frosted windowpane of importance,
their heads scarfed with cigar-smoke
as they smile and bend closer.
'The crucifix is held up by a stack of rifles' is a particularly striking image. But the poem improves as it goes along; and there is some instructive foregrounding of the state of Spain in the couple of years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War proper:
Remember, Spanish people,
the humble marchers shot down out of side-streets,
the shattered men splashed on the shattered walls of the Asturias,
the cobbles slippery with blood,
the girl screaming in the midnight of her rape,
the scythe of machine-gun volleys,
women and children mown down on red earth,
the cells of torture,
the long night of starvation,
the thugs of the Falange
sniping from taxis, hiding
round corners of the night.
Remember what was suffered in 1934.
As the poem tumbles on, Lindsay’s imagism intensifies, and he produces some beautifully alliterative and evocative aphorisms:
Cry out, and cry again,
On guard, people of Spain!
But amid the guitars of laughter,
amid the orange-suns
in Liberty’s newly-opened orchard,
a light of plenty
shining its promise into the crannies of slums,
and children playing
amid the carnation-glow
of the shadows of Granada,
who was there to hearken?
To my mind, ‘guitars of laughter’ and ‘carnation-glow/ of the shadows of Granada’ are particularly effective images. Occasionally rhymes –or rather, chimes– punctuate the cascades:
our sweat shall make the summer gold with corn,
autumn shall ooze from the olive-presses,
and we shall pluck from our flesh sharp winter’s thorn.
That second line is particularly Keatsian in flavour.
Not surprisingly for an atheist Marxist, Lindsay is particularly accusatory and contemptuous of the Spanish Catholic Church, which he dispatches in one opprobrious aphorism:
Those dumps of reaction, the arsenal churches,
bared their armouries of oppression.
The images, sense-impressions tumble onwards, and Lindsay’s eye-catching portmanteaus punctuate throughout:
Through hammerclang we heard it,
through clatters of looms, through chip of the machines,
down in the burning darkness of the mines,
on the red plains of dust,
along the sheeptracks on the heights of loneliness,
among the rocks of heat,
along the tinkling waterways,
where we were threshing corn in the cracked barn,
standing up in the dry shadow of the corktrees,
digging beside the silver shoals of olive-leaves,
coming off work at the junction,
wiping our oiled hands with some cotton-waste –
all over Spain we heard it.
Lindsay returns his accusatory glance to the priests again:
Now at last had the enemy shown his face
unmasked. No longer now
behind the veil of incense and the words of solemnity,
no longer behind the legalised titles of theft,
the enemy hid. Our brightening hopes
had forced them out undisguised to avow
their need to feed on the meat of broken lives,
to snuff the steam of simmering slums,
to alloy their gold with the blood of the poor.
Power ran openly amok in the barracks,
Greed took the glove from its leprous fingers in the square.
Two worlds stood face to face.
Then we swing back to the Shelleyean hortatory tone a la Mask of Anarchy:
Rise up, morning of July the Twentieth,
burn up into the sky of history.
Rise up, old sun, never to be forgotten,
and let the people speak.
There is then a verse-reminder of the empirical character of the poem:
We found an odd gun,
we brought it up on a truck from a beer-factory.
We rushed the Montana barracks
with some old pistols and our bare hands
through the swivelling machine-gun fire.
I was there.
I saw the officers cowering,
their faces chalked with fear.
The image ‘chalked with fear’ is particularly evocative. Suddenly Lindsay appears to tilt into an empathetic ventriloquism, seemingly embodying a random Spanish Loyalist husband and father:
I rose from the bed of my wife’s young body
at the call of Liberty.
O feed with my blood our flag’s red flame.
Comrades, remember me.
The fascists shot my children first,
they made me stand and see.
O dip the flag in my heart’s blood.
Comrades, remember me.
Spain rose up in the morning,
roused by the bluster of bullets.
Unbreakfasted, the people
put the fascists to rout.
This slightly audacious narrative switch is the alchemising of the poet’s earlier claim to ‘speak for the Spanish people’, and lends a more immediate and visceral response to the onset of hostilities. The juxtaposition of the words ‘Unbreakfasted’ with ‘fascists’ is particularly effective both alliteratively and symbolically: the brute nature of fascism is contrasted, in its vicious suddenness, with an un-preparedness of those attempting to forestall it, ordinary men and women, including many peasants, caught by surprise and thus running on empty –in more ways than one– in the valiant attempt. There follows a mantra-like repetition of the phrase ‘Spain rose up in the morning’.
And this sudden assault of militaristic fascism is depicted as brutal in the extreme, with what might be allusions to such atrocities as Geurnica, and many others, as well as many mechanistic symbolisms –Lindsay is also careful to emphasize the Moorish soldiers’ conscription into serving on the Francoist side, as opposed to their volunteering for it:
Therefore they came with Moors deceived and bribed,
therefore they came with Foreign Legion scum.
The fascist war-plot opened, with aeroplane-whirr,
it pockmarked Spain with spouting craters of bombs.
Mussolini the gangster rapped out his murder-instructions.
Hitler the gambler rattled his loaded dice,
to crush the people of Spain.
Therefore they shot the workers at Badajoz,
gouged and scourged and maimed and lamed and murdered,
blew up with grenades the wounded in hospital-wards,
mangled and hanged and flogged and smashed and ravished,
a fist of force slogging at every heartbeat
over the people of the invaded districts.
The rotary-presses of the world’s frightened masters
champed day and night with the stereotyped lies of hate,
to crush the people of Spain.
The following isolated trope is particularly resonant as to the ill-preparedness, even innocence and naivety, of the Spanish proletariat amassing to the Republican cause: ‘But the workers going to battle,/ went as to fiesta’.
There then follows a beautifully composed lyrical flourish depicting the poet’s departure for the Spanish Front, bidding goodbye to his own beloved as the train pulls away to the parched battlefields:
Now is no time for tenderness
when the heart grows most tender.
Now when the whole love of a life
brims into the farewell-kiss.
We kiss with closed eyes as the train-whistle jags us.
Darling, darling, your tear-wet lashes
brush my cheeks, and then the gust of war
wrenches us apart like a leaf torn
from its tree of safety and blown headlong
into autumn. A cold wind slides
along the grinding rail-tracks of departure.
Time and the carriage-door slam between us.
The train foreshortens, concertinas into distance,
into the lifted hills of menace,
the screech of bullets in the splayed bush of heat,
like cigarras in remembered olive-groves of home,
the phenic acid gas in murmuring tent glooms
when Juan’s breast-wound bubbles,
and the sun’s great hammer clanging
in the sickles of the skies,
and the shadow of the wings of death
flickering over Spain.
Toledo in the splintering rain of destruction,
in a twisted skein of tempest-light,
with time a tower of toppling stone.
Irun a town pulled down on the heads of heroes
to give them a fitting grave.
This is a lyrical cascade reminiscent of the work of Alun Lewis, who would perish –in somewhat mysterious circumstances– during the following global conflict of which the Spanish Civil War had been a kind of dress-rehearsal. The trope ‘The train foreshortens, concertinas into distance’ is alliteratively masterly as well as imaginatively evocative of the very particular movement of locomotives, lines of carriages haltingly snaking as if punctuated with hinges (rather like those toy plastic snakes).
The ensuing verses continue their lyrical and imagistic assault masterfully –some tropes reminiscent of the more ‘witnessing’ Spanish Civil War poetry of Stephen Spender:
The scarred flanks of Oviedo
where miners blast their way through death’s thicket.
The ruined homestead where through the window
the dying man still fires.
The cornered peasants who fight to the end,
shooting from whited holes in the cemetery-walls.
And then the flails of the chilly wind
the spikes of pain in the stark midnight watch.
We lie in coffin-grooves of rock and shoot,
while winter flaps and howls
and rides us with cruel spurs.
Yet we cry louder than the winds of darkness,
louder than all the fields of frenzy
gashed with the flame-flowers of grenades.
Hammer of industry, strike down those who would steal from us.
Sickle of plenty, cut down those who would starve us.
Lindsay then alternates his poetic approach with what reads a little bit like a kind of embattled and subverted Beatitudes:
Mourn for the workers fallen at Badajoz
when night flows on us and the cold stars bubble,
in that dark width of silence, drown, go down,
mourn for the workers fallen, the best sons of Spain.
Mourn for the workers fallen Seville
in that dark pause that makes dark earth a stone
graven with the names of our beloved dead,
go down into the dark earth, remember them,
mourn for the workers fallen before Madrid,
mourn for the workers fallen at Malaga
mourn for the women’s bodies quenched like broken moons
mourn for the children their lives snapt at flowertime
mourn for the workers fallen before Irun
their strong hands claspt upon the last defiance
their sinewy bodies gay with all freedom’s promise,
wasted defaced thrust down from the lap of summer
mourn for the workers fallen the best sons of Spain.
Here Lindsay’s choice of two antiquated spellings, ‘snapt’ and ‘claspt’, add a sense of historicity and timelessness to the depictions; while we have another of his portmanteaus with ‘flowertime’. One can then discern a poetic presentiment of the imagistic, mock-Vorticist, response to war so typical later of Keith Douglas (who, like Lewis, also perished in the Second World War):
into the stunning cyclone barbed with beaks of metal,
tear-wet lashes that brushed my cheeks
and the voice that cried out over Spain:
They shall not pass!
The latter declamation known almost as famously in its original Spanish: ¡No pásaran! This long poem really does gather both topical and poetical momentum the more it tumbles on, with some hotly polemical and poignant tropes and aphorisms coming thick and fast:
That cry broke round the world; its tides of power
foamed upon every shore of man. The workers
answered; the International Brigade
swung through the streets of torn Madrid.
Shoulder to shoulder stood
the workers of all lands.
Lindsay’s tone occasionally takes on a prophetic tone, almost as if he is announcing and narrating a contemporary pitched Ragnarok or Armageddon:
Therefore, dropped from a throbbing sky,
with venom of flame the snakes of death leaped jagged
among the women and children of Madrid.
Therefore the fascists gathered in greater numbers,
Hitler the gambler tosses for his world-war.
On every front of thought,
in every street dark with the stench of hunger,
in every house throughout the world
where the loudspeakers of capitalism blare,
the fascists fight this war
to crush the people of Spain.
The trope ‘where the loudspeakers of capitalism blare’ is so potent, once more asserts the indirect association between consumer capitalism and, following its crisis (the perpetual precipice it is constructed on in accordance with what Marx diagnosed as its internal contradictions), the default tyranny of fascism. We then have a verse resounding with Lindsay’s core conviction of the urgent truth of the ‘embodiment’ of the moment and the ‘concrete universal’: these events are happening as he writes them, almost as if he is writing them, putting them in his own narrative; it’s rather like an attempt to be the poet-correspondent of the immediate moment –the message being, this is happening NOW, and everyone is universally caught up in some sense with the events, as they happen (a versified history live):
For the war in Spain is war for the human future.
All that crawls evil out of the holes of the past,
and all that rises with love for the lucid warmth of the day,
meet in this grapple. In it meet
the evil and the good that swarm
in your inherited blood.
Yes, yours, and yours, and yours.
Lindsay intensified this tone of empirical witness by metaphorically collaring the reader and forcing them to wake up to this vital and all-determining immediate reality:
if you would know our pride.
Have you ever faced your deepest despair?
Then what you see in the agony of Spain
is your own body crucified.
of you would know our pride.
Can you dare to know your deepest joy,
all that is possible in you?
Then what you see in Spain’s heroic ardour
is your own noblest self come true.
Lindsay closes in an almost hallowed tone, brilliantly fashioning a kind of prayer for the righteous of the conflict, those who view their actions in the civil war as a moral crusade to defeat the threat of a distinctly immoral enemy:
Then, workers of the world, we cry:
We who have forged our unity on the anvil of battle,
we upon whom is concentrated
the shock, the breath of flame
belched from the hell of greed,
we who are pivot of all things since we give
to-day the ground of courage and devotion,
the fulcrum of power to shift the harried world
into the meadows of the future’s plenty,
we who have claimed our birthright, O hear our call.
Workers of the world, unite for us
that bear the burden of all.
You shall not hear us complain
that the wolves of death are ravening in our streets,
if you but understand, if your bodies flow
into this steel of resistance, this welded mass,
making you one with us, and making us
drive off the fascist vultures gathering
to pick the bones of Spanish cities,
to leave the Spanish fields
dunged with peasant dead
that greed may reap the fattened crops.
Fuse your unity in the furnace of our pain.
Enter this compact of steel,
and then we shall not complain.
On guard for the human future!
On guard for the people of Spain!
It is, of course, a Marxist prayer, if there could be such a thing, in which the Marxian trope ‘Workers of the world’ is deployed sporadically like a religious incantation; what makes this audacious technique work so effectively and authentically is our knowledge that it is being written by an individual in the thick of the action of this conflict, who is further attempting to individually ‘embody’ the crucial ‘moment(s)’ of its living narrative. This would have undoubtedly made particularly uncomfortable reading for the Roman Catholic Carlists of the time, and, in spite of Soviet Communism’s tacit overtures as to transplanting a ‘state religion’ in the thorny ground of an uprooted and incinerated Catholicism, the prayer-like poetic approach here would no doubt also bristle against the atheistic consciences of most Marxists. This is a fitting climax to Lindsay’s incremental tour de force.
And this mock-religious poetic choreography of the Republican ‘crusade’ is played on by Lindsay even more emphatically, and controversially, in the ensuing poem, steeped in Roman Catholic terminology and structure. ‘Requiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade’ is a religiously-inflected threnody of a more controlled form and tone than its more expressively and tangential predecessors:
Call out the rollcall of the dead, that we,
the living, may answer, under the arch of peace
assembled where the lark’s cry is the only shrapnel,
a dew of song, a skywreath laid on earth
out of the blue silence of teeming light
in this spring-hour of truce prefiguring
the final triumph, call upon them proudly
the men whose bones now lie in the earth of freedom.
The poem is rich in factual detail but never to any obtrusive degree, its descriptive language very much alive on the page:
Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.
Eagle of Spain, from your eyrie of the skies
answer. Where are they now, the young and the brave?
The brotherly dead pour out of the bugle-call.
Where are the faces we seek, the English faces?
Let the living answer the rollcall of the dead.
Where now is he, gay as the heart of spring
rich with the world’s adventure, wandering from where the moon
hangs in a crooked willow of Samara
to where congested London clots with a toxin
England’s aorta-vein? In strength of pity,
as he had lived, he died, and the bullets whined
through boughs of winter over his broken face.
Where is Ralph Fox of Yorkshire?
What is particularly powerful, and moving, about this hymn-like poem is Lindsay’s episodic focus on some of his poet-and-writer contemporaries who sacrificed their lives in the Republican cause they volunteered for –now posthumous conscripts:
Where now is he, the eager lad who beheld
England’s fate whitening under Huesca’s moon?
Where the shells splash enormous flowers of destruction,
flame-gawds of madness, fountain-plumes of terror,
there must freedom walk or the earth is surrendered
to these her ravishers, so I shall walk with freedom
and after the agony you will pluck fruits in the garden.
Where is John Cornford of Cambridge?
Lindsay’s Note on this poem elucidates: ‘Ralph Fox, John Cornford, Wilf Jobling, Moishe Davidovich, Jack Atkinson, James Wark, Bill Briskey, Alan Craig, Robert Symes, Tommy Dolan, T.J. Carter and Sid Avner were all members of the British Communist Party who died fighting in Spain with the International Brigades’.
Once again Lindsay’s alliterative powers are at the forefront of the linguistic surge; while expressions such as ‘flame-gawds of mandess’ are worthy of the great Ivor Gurney. I find the following stanza particularly resonant:
Where now is he, a voice among many voices,
who said: In poverty’s jail are bolted the guiltless,
the thieves lock up their victims. His voice protested.
Sentenced, he saw through a stone-wall the truth.
Clearer that wall of privation than any arguments.
He struck his hand on the stone and swore he would break it,
he took a rifle and broke through that wall in Spain.
Where is Wilf Jobling of Chopwell?
There’s a curious tendency towards syntactical inversion in these stanzas, as in the above, with the profound trope ‘In poverty’s jail are bolted the guiltless’, and also ‘he saw through a stone-wall the truth’ –curious particularly because no end-rhymes are being strained at. What is particularly instructive about this poem is that one is –or I at least–being introduced to some lesser known casualties of the Spanish Civil War –presumably not all ‘men of letters’?– and this lends the poem a very moving emphasis on remembering the forgotten of the International Brigades. The next two stanzas contain four of Lindsay’s portmanteaus and are brilliantly alliterative:
Where now is he that amid the grinding of plates
in the trampsteamer’s fo’castle listened. The waters
streamed through the hawserpipe; the ship dipped shuddering.
He learned who was racketing, who had rigged orders to gain
the world’s insurance-money while drowning the crew.
Bearing an ambulance-stretcher among the trenches of danger,
I have found my way home, he answered before Madrid.
Where is Davidovich of Bethnal Green?
Where now is he that came early to fighting?
In Sydney, while gulls screamed round pinchgut, he learned,
resisting eviction, that the people were all evicted
from the world of their making and stamped into hardship’s hovels.
He came back, a stowaway, to Edinburgh,
but cried: I stand in the open bows of purpose
journeying to Spain where the people claim their birthright.
Where is Jack Atkinson of Hull?
There is a presentiment of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood –particularly its posthumous episodes– in the following almost dreamlike verse:
Over the faint blue streak of the sierras,
the bare scarps heaving ribbed and flattening vague
when noon scoops out the shadows from ravines,
rasped the Caproni planes. Is this a strange country,
you Scotsman? No, I have recognised it. See,
the village-children clench their fists in welcome,
for we are they in whom love becomes justice.
Where is James Wark of Airdrie?
Possibly my favourite stanza is the following one, which depicts one of the more obviously working-class International Brigaders, demonstrating how conscientiously socialist Lindsay is in remembering and detailing every individual sacrifice, no matter social background:
Where now is he, that leader of London busmen,
in ragged olivegroves on the Jarama sector,
a company-commander? Wiping grit from his eye,
he laughed, and swung the machinegun on the ledge
of toppling Fascists, then to the higher ground
ordered his men. The fiery rocks split flailing
and the barrage shogged battering up the hill.
Where is Bill Briskey of Dalston?
Again we have a familiar portmanteau in ‘olivegroves’; while the dialect term ‘shogged’ is again reminiscent of Ivor Gurney’s oeuvre. There follows the account of the self-sacrifice of one ‘Alan Craig of Maryhill’ who, while ‘sang the International’ as he died. Lindsay’s language takes on a sinewy, visceral and almost phantasmagorical quality in the next seething verse, reminiscent in its intense imagery and alliteration of Wilfred Owen or David Jones, and in its unusual tilt towards descriptive abstraction, Keith Douglas:
Tanks lurched up over the rise, and men from their hands and knees
flung forwards on the gust of attack staggering
head-down. Our riflefire’s long crackle was drowned,
The booming rocked and racked the earth, but wavering
the crumpled line stumbled on grass-tussocks,
clumsily pitching. Out of the trench we rushed
the tanks wheeled crunching. But where is he that led us?
Where is Robert Symes of Hampshire?
We note again another portmanteau: ‘riflefire’. This poem really is teeming with striking polemical aphorisms, as in the following stanza:
Where now is he that, tramping on means-test marches,
knew that the road he had taken against oppression
led to the front in Spain? For he was marching
in country lined with harlot-hoardings of menace,
England seared into slums by the poison-bombs of greed.
That road of anger and love must lead to Spain,
the shouts in Trafalgar Square to No pasaran.
Where is Tommy Dolan of Sunderland?
The opening trope of this verse is particularly resonant in terms of juxtaposing the common man’s struggle against the domestic oppression of consumer-capitalism with the foreign oppression of militaristic fascism. The depiction of domestic capitalism through war-language is particularly powerful, with its ‘harlot-hoardings of menace’ and ‘poison-bombs of greed’, imagery which very much chimes with Graham Greene’s war-like depiction of consumer society in It’s A Battlefield (1934) –which, possibly, Lindsay had read by the time of writing this poem? Lindsay then goes full tilt into the imagery of domestic poverty amid plenty, including the vanity accoutrements of consumerism with ‘promise of cleansing beauty’:
This war has roots, everywhere, in the soil of squalor.
He watched on the tarnished slates the glistening moon,
a milky drip of light mocking the mouth of hunger,
a promise of cleansing beauty, a pennon of freedom;
and midnight, yawning, creaked with the ghosts of old pain,
till resolution regathered like the moonlight flowing
in through the cast iron bars at the foot of the bed.
Where is T.J. Carter of West Hartlepool?
There follows some stunning natural imagery in the next verse: ‘the spears of daffodil/and eyes of the sticklebacks emerald in water-darkness’; this blossoming of the poem from the harsh imagery of war, through domestic consumerist polemic, to wild natural images, culminates in a breathtaking final flourish:
These men as types of the English dead in Spain
we summon here in this nested hush of the spring
rising amid grey clouds of travellers-joy,
with marshgold smouldering in the hollows of sunset,
and sweetness plaited in the hazel-catkins.
Here in this green hawthorn-moment of England,
we conjure them, brief as an azure drift of windflowers,
and lasting as the earth of unity.
‘Requiem’ is certainly, to my mind, one of the outstanding poems not only of the Spanish sequence, but of the book as a whole.
Next onto the brilliantly Gurneyesque ‘Soldiers’, which begins:
Looked at from across the fence, what are they?
Men, drab-clothed, sweating at some fatigue, and somehow
cut off from the life you know….
The influence of Gurney continues and coagulates in the second image-packed verse:
Soldiers tramping amid the plumes of dust,
putting a bren together in record time,
blood-blistering a thumb, waiting on schemes
close to the ramp for the grating on the pebbles,
polishing buttons or chatting in mess-room queues,
inside your voices, strengthens in the handclasp
you have no time to think, but a meaning gathers
In the dank Nissen, around the parked truck,
under the gun-nets, the eyes drowse and the voices
stumble, and no word has yet been found
to utter the thought. Against fascism we fight.
The Atlantic Charter. Unity. We the people.
Jazz-beats slap the heart with a home-yearning.
When the next man sings, those are the songs he sings.
What might have been more portmanteaus are noticeably hyphenated in the next stanza, which has also an almost sing-song energy to it –while, again, a faint influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins is detectable:
There is another day, of the shaken earth:
light-clap, flame-spout, thunder-splash corrosive
on face and hands, all the pomps and grime of terror.
Against the sheeted fire I see them moving.
O friend with blood pouring from your finger-nails,
broken body of man stark on the flare of agony,
O face of my friend bloodily blinded, gone.
It’s a kind of ‘khaki Hopkins’. Lindsay closes this excellent poem musing on the power of language to encourage active engagement with ideas, even aggressive engagement, as in conflict and war –the behavioural-engineering of propaganda and agitprop: ‘The slogans pass, across the dusk of musing,/ and are not yet our thought, which slips away’. And this trope almost seems to imply that, as opposed to the more typical depiction of words and ideas influencing action, in some instances, as in this one, it can be the other way round, or, at least, more a case of the words and ideas not yet having fully formed until after the action precipitated by them has come into effect. The final lines are another recapitulation of Lindsay’s core philosophy of the moment’s ‘embodiment’ and the ‘universal concrete’, with a meditation on the dominant paradigm of the period: words and action, poetry and politics:
And yet it is happening all the while. We know it.
Act becomes word, word becomes act. It is happening.
We the People.
Here, not for the first time, Lindsay reminds the reader of the immanence of political action and experience, of the narrative in motion at the time of writing, of which both reader and actor are parts.
We then come to the more openly polemical but no less effective ‘Production Line’, the very title of which is a sardonic metaphor for the automatic working-class reproduction facilitated for exploitative purposes under the auspices of industrial capitalism and, before it, feudalism. Lindsay begins by simply asking:
You are an Englishman.
What do you mean, saying it? Say it.
I am an Englishman.
What does it mean?
What does it mean today?
Then, continuing in directly polemical mode:
Men speak of freedom.
Men speak of the struggles that gained our freedom.
It is written in books.
It is used to give a flourish
to the speeches of politicians
and the leading-articles of newspapers.
Then we have a beautifully figurative trope which compares to the aphorisms of Alun Lewis:
There are shadowy figures
and the broken echo of trumpets
from the valley of lost causes.
Continuing in the Lewisian mould –though prefiguring it by some years– we have a digression into homage for ‘shadow lineage’ of the forgotten labouring classes conscripted into domestic labour, production and servitude and, at times of capitalist crisis, into khaki to sacrifice their already difficult existences altogether, and often without fanfares, medals or even headstones:
There are shadowy figures
bending over your lives,
and you have names, perhaps, for some of them,
and some of the names flash an allegiance.
You are grateful,
not quite knowing why,
but you are grateful,
you know, but don’t know why,
you owe the good of your lives
to men whose names are flags
on the stricken field of history,
glittering yet across the litter of years
amid the unyielding echo of those trumpets.
Again we have the motif of ‘trumpets’ which calls to mind again Alun Lewis and particularly his second collection’s biblically extracted title, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1946). The very fact that we can read Lindsay’s oeuvre today and see in it what some of the germs of the later poetics of the likes of Alun Lewis or Dylan Thomas hints at just how influential and seminal his poetry apparently was (assuming the latter two younger poets had actually read him prior to developing their own voices). Lindsay continues, in valediction:
Somehow you know that what you feel of fullness,
of life lived strongly to the full,
springs from those shadowy figures…
How bring those shadowy figures
out of the starry darkness
into the stark light of your daily lives,
make them share your closest needs,
aid your hope of a life enriched
and a decent world for your children?
For Lindsay, there is no need to summon these ‘shadowy figures’ for they are ‘with us’ now and always, almost like guilty postits on middle-class consciences:
These giant figures
cloudy on the mountaintops of history,
how bring them, with a handshake,
into your kitchen, into the pub-bar?
into your factory, workshop, mine?
They can enter, they are friendly,
you have spoken with them
and have not recognised their voices.
They have stood beside you,
they stand beside you now.
Again this ‘now-ness’ evokes Lindsay’s ‘embodiment’ of the moment and ‘concrete universal’. Lindsay next ushers us into recollections of industrial initiations into the dingy occulting right of passage that is ‘work’:
Remember the first day
you went to work.
You stepped from familiar bonds
of safety, stepped
from the warmth of the hearth-circle
into a new sphere of authority
flapped with cold winds and fears of failure,
and did not fail, but got your grip
and found a place in the widening world of action.
Can you remember it?
It’s not so easy to remember.
O life the mighty river
carried you on its crest,
carried you from the sheltered pool of home
into the world of work,
into the hurry and swirl of great water,
into the clasp of a brotherly union,
the great tide sweeping on.
We’re then flung into a wonderful, almost rhapsodic flourish suggesting our essential commonality and debt to foundation-building of what we perceive as ordinariness in others:
Freedom is no different.
It is not built on another shore
with the trumpets sounding from the further side.
It is not a dream of fiery figures
cloudy on the hills of sunset.
It is close as love and work,
closer than breathing,
born from the generations
of men and women no different from yourselves,
born from this generation,
inherited, preserved or lost by you,
you that listen here.
Now as always, it is the ceaseless flow
linking a man with his fellows,
knitting you to man. Goes quicker beside you
than your blown shadow. The innermost flame of the flame
kindling you man. Freedom.
There’s nothing stopping Lindsay’s proletarian outpouring, his poetic explosion of communistic esprit de corps:
Think of it like that.
Not as a vague word, perhaps a blind,
not as a shadowy tumult,
but as the quickening of your spirit,
the second birth, the song cleaving discord,
the sudden song, the simple pulse of love,
blossom of your blood and deepmost leap
of laughter, the quiet joke, the resolving touch,
the shared pillow, the meeting eyes of friendship,
the homing call of children in the dusk,
the triumphant swell of music,
movements of men at work,
endless movements of men at work,
men linked by work, men linked all over the world
by needs and purposes of work,
work transforming the world,
completing mastery over nature,
defeating the old wolves of famine and fear.
It’s interesting to note Lindsay’s seeming allusion, in that last line, to Lloyd-George’s unforgettably poetic “People’s Budget” speech as Chancellor on 29 April 1909:
This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests".
This speech was essentially the inauguration of the new welfare consensus which would lead to Clement Attlee’s eventual founding of the Welfare State (1945) and NHS (1948), and it’s both interesting and ironic to note how back in 1909 it was “poverty” depicted as tantamount to a hostile adversary rather than, for instance, our contemporary Tory masters’ depiction not of poverty but of ‘the poor’ themselves as tantamount to a national adversary or ‘enemy within’, and also couching their austerity policies (re the 2010 ‘emergency’ budget) as if they were formulating it at a time commensurate to that of ‘war’ (as Cameron explicitly did early on in his premiership). How British political rhetoric has changed and subverted itself to the detriment of both politics and the common people in almost precisely one century!
Here Lindsay is emphatically saying that our ‘freedom’ isn’t, as popular patriotism tries to put it, entirely down to the sacrifices of –largely working-class men– in foreign wars (though that of course plays a significant part), but is as much if not more so down to the perennial pilgrimage of the hand and the sweat of the brow that is labour, work, production, and the perpetual struggle to provide for one’s family, and to survive the arrested Ragnorak of the hammer and the anvil, the factory and foundry:
That is Freedom.
Not something distant, not a distant brightness
and calling of martyrs ravished out of time.
Freedom has been with you all your days,
your days and nights. The inherited struggle
netting your every act. Is speaking here.
The drive of the break-through.
It sang in the deep of love, and it sings there.
It clenched in the thick of work, and is clenched there.
That energy breaking through.
Breaking through into fullness.
You have known it in your own struggles.
It is no different in the surge of history.
There it is your life twined with a million others
all facing the same needs and purposes.
Freedom is the break-through
into the new union.
What then the need today?
This is a communistic poetic, an expression of the ideal of collective industrial labour for the supposed good of the many, a patriotism of spirit not expressed in colourful flags and khaki but in the sweat and spit of domestic labour –a patriotism which is an expression of fellowship, of love of one’s fellow countrymen, rather than the abstracted love one’s ‘country’ as a concept, a mental map. In many ways it shares similarities to the social idealism and sanctification of ‘work’ and ‘labour’ so typical at the time of Soviet poster art and propaganda.
Lindsay’s polemic then tips head-on into a direct and hortatory call to arms against the oncoming storm of fascism on the Continent (presumably in this case referring to Spain):
Black on your lives,
black on England, black on all the world,
the fascist menace hangs its toppling thundercrag.
There stands the barrier.
All that you touch in love,
all the union and ending of fear,
all that you hold in work,
the promise of plenty and the gay mirrors
where life rejoices in herself,
all, all is menaced, thwarted, doomed
unless the fascist threat is met and broken.
There is the point where we must make
the break-through, freedom, or we fail,
Now some must move upon that wall of terror
and walk through heaving stone and bristling fires of steel.
Your to make possible that advance.
Striking this blow at fascism, in your hand
grips all the past of struggle, our English struggle…
This is unambiguously a rallying cry on behalf of the precepts of democratic socialism against the tyrannical threat of fascism as a visceral expression of capitalism-in-crisis. In its directness and hortatory tone it bears much similarity to Rex Warner’s famous rhetorical intervention on the fascist threat in his Left Review pamphlet of the time (the authorship of which was however ascribed to C Day Lewis!): ‘We’re not going to do NOTHING’; as well as to Victor Gollancz’ stated Aim of the Left Book Club:
The aim of the Club is a simple one: it is to help in the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace & a better social & economic order & against Fascism, by giving (to all who are determined to play their part in this struggle) such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency. There are already over 36,000 members.
(And no doubt among that impressive number, Lindsay himself). It is to Lindsay’s considerable credit that he manages to punctuate such direct rhetorical activism with imaginative and powerful figurative imagery and aphorism in such lines as ‘the fascist menace hangs its toppling thundercrag’ –so he not only rallies in his language, he also evokes what is to be rallied against.
And then comes a truly crashing crescendo, more than simply tub-thumping, it is a rousing climax of common affirmation of purpose and identity, when, amid all this tempest and apocalyptic threat,
All the shadowy figures become real
in clatter of hammers or machinegun fire –
aimed at this enemy’s overthrow;
in harvesting sickles and gunfire swivelling.
In mine and factory, shipyard and foundry,
at lathe or assembly line, kilnflare or vat,
work to the beat of that purpose and need.
Love’s pulse the pulse of that need of delivery.
Work’s urge the urge of that purpose of union,
the purpose of break-through.
Here the very Soviet-style industrial labour imagery is counterpoised with industrial militarism as a response to the militarism-for-its-own-sake of mobilised fascism, emphasising thereby the essential and most crucial contribution of labour as of arms to the coming struggle; not least, of course, in terms of the industrial labour put into vital weapons manufacturing. This is a rallying cry for the mobilisation of democratic socialism in a necessity of arms to slay the Vorticist ‘dragon’ of fascist aggression.
Lindsay then concludes on a resonant note emphasising the consanguinity of industrial labour and industrial warfare, of labouring and soldiering, and one almost detects a hint that the more perennial struggle on the domestic front, of labour versus capital, is being juxtaposed with or even segued into the literal pitched battles abroad, so that by ‘fascism’ Lindsay is also referring at the same time to the ‘fiscal fascism’ of capitalism at home –both –isms being two sides of the same fickle coin:
That is the meaning of struggle
one with our lives. Understand
as a single and irreconcilable anger
the meaning of this war.
for the break-through,
the ending of fascism,
all energies linked for that purpose,
the break-through, the ending of fascism,
in unity of labour and battle,
weld all purposes, turn to your work,
saying: I know it.
I am an Englishman.
I know what it means, saying today:
I am an Englishman.
This final emphasis on national identity, on the working classes affirming and asserting there sense of Englishness, of being definitive –though still un-trumpeted– ‘Englishmen’ is an interesting theme to end the poem on; a poem which is exceptional expression of a suppressed but still simmering sense of an essential, gut-level consanguinity in Englishness. ‘Production Line’ is undoubtedly powerful stuff.
‘Peace is our Answer’ is a sequence of 12 numbered short poems in a variety of poetic forms. ‘1 She Began No Wars’, is constructed in two semi-rhyming stanzas of 12 lines each; it is a poem mainly made up of open questions whose slight ambiguity seems designed to provoke multiple responses. The second is titled as a question: ‘Who Will Dare Look This Child in the Eyes?’ It is in composed in five tercets, the most popular poetic form of today’s mainstream poetry, and a verse structure I’m not particularly fond of for various reasons; partly because I don’t completely see the point to what to my eyes look like amputated quatrains! But in Lindsay’s hands, somehow the tercet takes on a more pointed purpose and the clipped imagism he employs seems well-suited to their truncated quatrains, while the recurring rhyme through the third lines lends the verse a more impelling rhythm. Here it is in full:
This leprosy of death, this delicate
device of pain as vast as a star gone rotten
with some shrewd virus of decay:
This intricate defilement of deepest springs,
this pus of death that blotches and blots the sun
across the pitted face of day:
This thing was made by man, his brain, his hands.
You are a man, accomplice of this Thing.
Redeem your birthright while you may.
Hell has another name now, Hiroshima,
darker than all the rings of burning darkness
where Dante clambered his accusing way.
Can you escape the ghosted night, the eyes
of children scraped to ragged bone?
You are a man. What word have you to say?
‘3 Who Drives Them Out?’, which seems to be about Far Right anti-immigration rhetoric at times of capitalism crisis –proffering the aphorism, ‘They seek for boundaries/ in a world with no bound’– poses some moral questions to the reader and partly answers these with more open-minded, compassionate and internationalist sentiments: ‘The fear is gone when he looks/ his neighbour in the eyes’.
‘4 There Is No Escape’, takes on a more Blakean feel with five quatrains of rhyming second and fourth lines; it employs quite direct and accessible rhetorical diction in order to get its points across, and closes on an ostensibly simple but quite profound trope:
They will be powerless
when their power is broken.
They will be silenced
when the people have spoken.
‘5 They Think That Freedom Can Be Jailed’, is composed in a more mixed medium of five tercets with random rhyme-endings, followed by two quatrains which parallel one another’s rhyme schemes. It is written with a keen and delicate eye to images and alliterative lyricism:
the death of all that has proudly made a man
in pang of aspiration,
since the precarious fires began.
The eyes of the stars are all prickled out with pins.
The screams that weal the bloody darkness
serve but to deepen the eternal silence,
the death of man, the arctic hush of murder.
Yet here, where only jagged and barren stones
slope to the abject precipice,
even here, the spirit of man survives and answers.
Yes, here in darkness clotted and withdrawn
freedom is clenched within the fettered hands,
the pulse of song preserves its angry beat,
and the heart echoes still: How long, how long?
‘6 The Factory of Death’, is another Blakean lyric (re Songs of Innocence and Experience), which, in its flowing gnomic lines, also prefigures some of Alun Lewis’s slighter lyrical outings, such as his exquisitely aphorismic ‘Raiders’ Dawn’:
Still to and fro
with prison pace –
O see yourself
in that dark place,
face to face.
The terrible shame
that men can fall
so low. The pity
panged over it all,
and blood-soaked wall.
Softly the civilized
Paper on paper,
Peter on Paul.
Blue necklace left
On a charred chair
Tells that Beauty
Was startled there.
‘7 The Sacred Men’, again has echoes of Blake’s aphorismic lyrics, not least in its universal and immanent message couching the great historical crimes of Christ’s crucifixion and the Jewish Holocaust in a sempiternal aspic:
The faces change,
the faces are still the same.
You pass in the street today
then men who crucified Christ,
the men who thrust your brother
into the Auschwitz-flame,
the same one or another
who plays the ravening game
with all things bought and sold,
all murderously priced.
This lyric produces a strikingly resonant trope towards its close:
They are afraid,
these man of the ruthless hour,
The atom-bomb that they nurse
is their greed in its ultimate flower:
‘8 The People Have an Answer’ is a dextrous poem of five five-lined stanzas employing an effective A/B/A/C/C rhyme scheme. It begins in the spirit of personification:
The Sun, as a leader of the resistance,
under the eyes of policemen sprinkles
golden leaflets along the distance
and slips gay posters on every wall.
The people gather at the call.
Life against Death: the choice is simple,
but only simple folk can make it.
Men who are tied to the deathworld trample
the propagandist flowers and slight
the manifesto of the light.
The phrases ‘propagandist flowers’ and ‘manifesto of the light’ are particularly striking. Its final stanza is notable in its Audenesque depictions and tone, and as a Spender-esque antidotal statement against the thanatotic forces of fascism:
And now the Speeches are amplifying
echoes of park and home and workshop.
High over London the voice is crying,
and deep in the heart it enters in.
For Peace is Life, and Life must win.
The epigrammatic ‘9 Here Peace Begins’ comprises two verses of six lines each employing a satisfactory A/B/C/A/B/C rhyme scheme. It again has a Blakean flavour to it –here it is in full:
The grass upthrusts in souring earth
through rusted bedsteads in the yard.
The red geranium on the sill
defies the grime. And on the hearth
the child is bred with sturdy will.
For life is good, and life is hard.
Union they know at its full worth
because the struggles never cease;
and that’s a lesson to repeat.
Death they know, and they know Birth.
Ban the Bomb from Market Street!
Mothers are demanding Peace!
‘10 Peace Has 400,000,000 Names’ is to my mind strongly reminiscent of Harold Monro’s more polemical poems on the spiritual emptiness of consumer capitalist society. This poem needs to be excerpted in full to completely appreciate its satirical confidence and unusually –for Lindsay– sardonic depiction:
Here the tumultuous centre:
the eddies flurry,
break in or break away,
and the centre grips.
Still gossiping is Nell,
but Jane’s a shopper,
and Mary doesn’t mind
whatever at all.
Into equality enter,
dawdle or hurry,
it’s merry and market-day,
and the quack with his quips
holds Mary in his spell,
Nell comes a cropper,
and Jane still cannot find
Here is the centre steady
through every rambling eddy:
Sign the Petition!
Here on the rickety table
you too are able
to master nuclear fission.
Your name’s not blurred, submerged,
when you have signed.
The others enlarge your life
and surge behind.
Millions of hands
clench in your hand
millions of minds
sing in your mind.
Smokestack editor Andy Croft’s Note on this poem is instructive in terms of historical contextualisation: ‘In 1950 the World Peace Council launched the Stockholm Appeal, calling for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. Lindsay was on the committee of the Stockholm World Authors Peace Appeal, attending the 1948 World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw and the 1949 Paris Peace Congress. Notable signatories included Louis Aragon, Thomas Mann, Pablo Picasso and Dimitri Shostakovich’.
‘11 Who Is Against Peace?’ continues on the theme of ‘Peace’, which surely chimed well at the time with the up-and-coming Peace Movement. Here we return to tercets, eight in all, each sporting triple end-rhymes, with a final isolated line sharing the same end-rhyme as the final verse. The poem targets the police as streetbound uniformed oppressors, or ‘bourgeois plenipotentiary’, as it depicts what is presumably an anti-war protest march. Here are some choicest excerpts:
Banners of sunlight flap along
the roadways where the people throng,
who know the discipline of song.
They call and chat across the files,
marching the slow fraternal miles
to Hyde Park or the Blessed Isles.
placards are trodden in the mud,
a woman screams with hands of blood,
the batons swing, the batons thud…
The final poem in the sequence, a titular allusion to a line from Shelley’s revolutionary anthem The Mask of Anarchy, ‘12 We are Many They Are Few’, is composed in seven quatrains with A/A/B/B rhyme schemes. For me, it is ironically perhaps the weakest of these twelve poems, so not the best placed in technical terms, but in terms of its hopeful message, aptly deployed to close the sequence. The fairly simple diction and almost rapturous tone echoes the poetry of William Morris, while also retaining some sing-song aspects of Blake:
and under the crack of torture still
sings the clear unravished will
and from slums where the children cry
the brotherhoods of song march by.
Next we tip headfirst into another of Lindsay’s compelling longer poems, this time taking a Hellenic direction: ‘Cry of Greece: A Mass Declamation’, which was ‘Originally published in 1950 by Arena with a woodcut by Gerald Marks as a 3d broadsheet to raise money for the League of Democracy in Greece’ (from Smokestack editor Andy Croft’s ‘Notes’ at the back of the book). This poem would appear to be about the Greek resistance to the Nazi occupiers. It is written from the Greek perspective, as the first verse’s futile appeal to English intervention suggests:
Turning to England out of the thorns of our shadow
we look on averted faces and hurrying backs.
To whom shall we plead now? and who will answer us?
Who hears the crackle of deaths and the tears of the children
that sound whenever the name of Greece is spoken?
The phrase ‘out of the thorns of our shadow’ is a particularly striking one to open the poem on (it also makes me consider poetic synchronicities, since I’d never read Lindsay before now, and so nor this poem and phrase, and although images of ‘thorns’ and ‘shadows’ perhaps tend to mingle figuratively in literature (possibly also biblically), my own poem sequence depicting the mentally afflicted as ‘anti-saints’ was titled The Shadow Thorns, and each poem was, also coincidentally, composed –unusually for me as I seldom use them– in tercets, each of which also shared the same rhyme-endings, cue Lindsay’s ‘11 Who Is Against Peace?’ in his ‘Peace is our Answer’ sequence.
But my inkling here is that there is some kind of semantic pool of word associations, or poetic collective consciousness shared through time which inescapably poets perhaps above all other types of writers, often unconsciously ‘borrow’ from; this would also in part explain the quite striking similarities between some of Lindsay’s poems and slighter later works of Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis et al: Lindsay couldn’t have ‘borrowed’ any of this from poets who wrote after him, and yet somehow Thomas in particular seemed to so epitomise his techniques, particularly the use of portmanteaus, although that’s probably down to one’s association between portmanteaus and Thomas due to his fame and hold on the public consciousness, especially through the airwaves a la the now legendary broadcast of Under Milk Wood).