The Old, Bad Civilisation

Arnold Rattenbury

  • Selected Poems by Randall Swingler, edited by Andy Croft
    Trent, 113 pp, £7.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 84233 014 4
  • British Writing of the Second World War by Mark Rawlinson
    Oxford, 256 pp, £35.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 19 818456 5

Even now most discussion of Second World War poetry cannot do without reference back to that of the First; and it’s true that Keith Douglas was always conscious of Isaac Rosenberg behind his shoulder, Alun Lewis of Edward Thomas. But the idea of modern warfare as one thing and of poetic response to it as another seems, in retrospect, almost Churchillian in its fixedness. Back then, although we loved the old rogue for the rodomontade and sheer cheek of his rhetoric, we got rid of him and his Party as quickly as possible afterwards: real life has few, if any, eternal verities. A British conscript Army at the end of the 1930s necessarily included hunger marchers, stay-down miners, Left Book Clubbers, black-coffin bearers, China campaigners, India Leaguers, Howard Leaguers, associates of Artists International, International Brigaders, Trotskyites, Communists, pacifists failed by their tribunals. The playwright David Hare declared recently that working-class conscripts now met ‘the officer class’ for the first time and rebelled; but plenty had met the people issuing orders, at least since Peterloo. Moreover, an Army largely unemployed except in training or retreat found much for disaffection and revolutionary aspiration to feed on. By 1943 my own training battalion at Trowbridge boasted a vigorous ‘club’ of agitators: not particularly effective, it’s true, but not particularly clandestine either (the journalist and historian John Prebble’s experience was identical); and by June 1944 large parts of the Army had developed from an anti-Fascism more consciously deliberated than ever Churchill’s was, through a famous browned-offness, to something like specifically socialist war aims. The eventual Labour landslide of 1945 was in this sense something long considered and bloodily fought for. Which is not to say that each soldier’s attitude was similar, only that many would find no point of contact with the brilliant, death-haunted, swashbuckling poems of Doug-las, for instance – nor he with their ideas, though he’d heard of them right enough. In one of the last letters to survive he wrote, in fine fettle, to Edmund Blunden: ‘For me it is simply a case of fighting against the Nazi regime. After that, unless there is a revolution in England, I hope to depart for sunnier and less hypocritical climates.’ More often, it’s true, he wrote that the soldiers with him did not know why they were there or what they were fighting for.

Actual forces in North Africa, where Douglas fought and wrote his major poems, were a small proportion of the British Army as a whole, and it may be that their early deployment in 1940 immunised them against a general political infection. I doubt this, however: not even Spike Milligan reads like that. When British forces in Cairo held a mock election under the auspices of the Army Educational Command (Middle East), the ‘red’ landslide anticipated events at home. (In the 1944 Cairo result, Labour won 119 seats; the Commonwealth led the opposition with 55 seats and the Tories were returned in 17 seats. The Bank of England was nationalised by a majority of more than 400.) In the same desert battles as Douglas’s, another poet, Hamish Henderson, would introduce his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1942-47, published 1948) with most un-Douglas-like vocabulary and implication, speaking of ‘that eternally wronged proletariat of levelling death in which all the fallen are comrades’ – the symbol, for him, of ‘our human civil war’. Nine months before Douglas’s death in Europe, in 1944, another soldier-poet, leaving Tunisia for the bloody Italian campaign, wrote to his wife:

The last war started with people who wanted to fight and begot a generation that didn’t, and this one began with those people who didn’t want to fight and has begotten a generation that does, and there’s your strange spiral of history, that has caught us somewhere midway in its curve, who loathe fighting but now we must until it’s finished and there’s no more.

And a year later: ‘The story of the last war was the story of man’s fate and how it mastered him: the story of this war’s the story of our fate and how “we” mastered it.’

These letters are quoted in Andy Croft’s introduction to Selected Poems by Randall Swingler, a book consisting principally of the two last collections published in the poet’s lifetime – The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950). The first is in four, sometimes overlapping parts and takes Swingler from just after his joining the Communist Party in 1934 to demobilisation as a Corporal awarded the MM for bravery, still a Communist. The second consists of two sequences, ‘Lazarus or the Walking Dead’ and ‘Reflections on the Walls of a Palaeolithic Cave’, which cover his agony at having survived soldier-comrades, known and unknown, and his emergence, subsequently, into the light of a history which continued nonetheless. (He began this last following a visit with Nancy Cunard to the Lascaux wall-paintings, themselves then newly come to light.) The two books in effect describe the political arc of Swingler’s life from pacifist-into-socialist Popular Front days, through class war, civil war, world war to postwar Labour Government and the faint glimmer of a hope that revolutionary socialism might survive. He left the Communist Party in 1956 and died in 1967. To this political story Croft devotes the bulk of his introduction. But are the poems he introduces any good?

Swingler is an awkward poet to categorise because he lacks any quirk or personal oddity of style. Croft sees his earlier, rather rhapsodic verse – Poems (1932), Reconstruction (1933) – as Georgian, countryside-centred and influenced by Robert Bridges, changing swiftly to Auden’s ‘manifesto manner’ for Difficult Morning (also 1933). I am not sure about this, especially the implicit conflict between country and town: Swingler always seems to inhabit either with ease. Certainly, he inclined to looping, irregular line-lengths and yet, the next moment, to four or five-line rhymed structures; and his admiration of early Auden remained, despite growing political differences. One fishes for influence but the damn thing slithers away.

Safer and more plausible to blame the whole of his poetic condition on Blake. At Oxford in 1929 he had discovered and explored the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience with the musician John Sykes, who was setting them at the time; his single major contribution to Left Review in the 1930s was an essay on the prophetic books called ‘The Imputation of Madness’. He carried the considerable bulk of the Nonsuch Blake in his kitbag throughout the war (God knows how: I had trouble secreting a modest edition of Marvell in mine); and in 1957 he co-edited the Blake bicentennial New Reasoner. Blake offered this man from a deeply clerical family background almost Biblical, psalmodic rhythms – hymnody, too – without conflicting in any way with his own visionary materialism. Contradictions are not hard to find in anyone (and Croft is keen on them) but Swingler was remarkably single-minded and direct so long as his own vision sustained him, and – this was his tragedy – became quite lost when it didn’t. The great quality of his poetry is an urgent plain-spokenness. The poems are always solemn – for a memorably funny man too much so – and get on with their job, unfussed by technicalities.

The second part of The Years of Anger is a sequence of seven ‘Letter’ poems to his wife, starting in strictly rhyming quatrains. By ‘Letter III’ the rhymes are loosening, for IV and V the stanzas have risen to five-line, for VI they revert to four-line but half-rhyme or no-rhyme, and finally VII blows stanza-form clean away in favour of approximate iambic pentameters with couplets, now and then rhymed, scattered among them. This is Swingler’s way. The sequence is driven by the desire to express exactly the philosophical and political ideas that inform his love of his wife. In the sense in which critics find Douglas an ‘inward-looking’ poet, Swingler must always turn outward to other people to express his inwardness: placing his feelings in a larger scheme may well mean breaking frameworks. The same urgency to be private and public at once sometimes dictates a smaller finesse. In ‘Letter VI’, what has been set up to create the expectation of a rhymed couplet on ‘grief’ becomes instead

More than aught else I fear your possible grief,
Casting its net upon me, halting my power

so that ‘grief’ and ‘power’ are forced into marriage. The same kind of shotgun fires a later battle poem, ‘The Gothic Line’, written during a lull at Coriano Ridge in 1944, where ‘love’ and ‘hate’ similarly break an expectation that first and last lines will rhyme. But mostly the frame is larger.

Poems of premonition and human will – ‘In this silence while we wait for the guns to go off’, ‘Acres of power within me lie’ – bring the first part of The Years of Anger,1936-38, up to the ‘Letters’ of 1936-40, with images of cultivation in landscape and organisation in townscape. Only the third part, ‘Farewell 1937-40’, seems marred by a blatant hustings manner in some of the poems, ill-suiting the inward-outwardness of both earlier and later sections. And it is the later, final part of The Years of Anger – ‘Battle 1943-45’ (just 11 poems, a 12th, ‘Return to a Battlefield’ is annexed in Selected Poems) – that constitutes Swingler’s claim to greatness. These poems crouch, judder, clutch prostrate at the earth, cry out sometimes, moment by moment, place by place, near to destroying themselves in a nightmare terrain of strategic idiocy – Churchill’s insane ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ – through the slaughter of comrades, through vision somehow sustained, through all of poetry’s received authority so far. At the start, in Salerno Bay, a simple image:

Tomorrow, he said, is fixed for death’s birthday party,
A gala show on the beaches, and all invited,
Fireworks and aerobatics and aquatic diversions;
Tomorrow you can be sure of a grand reception.

(‘Briefing for Invasion’)

The imagery grows more and more sardonic and terrible until the poem pierces itself with the great cry: ‘O Love! is it worth it? And are the dead rewarded/With a bearer bond on history’s doubtful balance?’:

Even though some should slip through the
net . . .
Won’t they be dumb, sealed off by the awful vision?
Or should they speak, would anyone ever believe?
Only this pride we have, both now and after,
Because we have grasped the fate ourselves created,
And to have been the centre of contradiction
And not to have failed, and still to have found it hateful.

This is raw, hacked from man and language and, not surprisingly, finding no grammar adequate. After The Years of Anger, the two sequences of The God in the Cave can only descend, and into a plain of grief more often visited by poets who both fought in and wrote about that war. The 11 unrhymed sonnets of ‘Lazarus or the Walking Dead’, with their two conclusions, ‘Ending’ followed by ‘Beginning’, make what they can of the first sonnet’s ‘How will he ever expiate/ The guilt of being alive?’, and the eight poems of ‘Reflections on the Walls of a Palaeolithic Cave’ struggle into peace with the remains of a soldier’s imagery.

More than a third of Selected Poems is an annexe of ‘Uncollected Poems’ of roughly the same dates as the 1946 and 1950 collections, largely from ‘platform’ work written by an active Communist for particular campaigns or events. Accepting Yeats’s dictum, ‘Out of our quarrel with the world we make rhetoric, out of our quarrel with ourselves poetry,’ Swingler defined ‘rhetoric’, in another letter to his wife, as ‘political slogans, mass declamations or whatnot’; and much whatnot he did in fact write – for public protest, for drama, for musical setting. He was married to a musician, and a flautist himself – at one time with the London Philharmonic. The composers Alan Rawsthorne, Christian Darnton, John Sykes were among his closest friends, and when he wrote with or for them, collaboration could be profound.

At times, however, he almost churned out political campaign material which its organisers would then deal out to whatever composers they could involve. Poems of Swingler’s set by Britten, for instance, a nodding acquaintance only, or Rubbra, Maconchy, Lutyens, Vaughan Williams or John Ireland, say much about the ramifications and happenstance of the Popular Front, little about the value of Swingler’s words, which can often be pretty trite. Certainly, he thought this work important and said so, but for performance, not collection. When I first met him in 1939 it was (appropriately) at the offices of the Workers Music Association where the dishevelled remains of a prewar magazine called Poetry and the People had come to rest. Swingler wished to take this over, for the sake of its wartime paper ration, in order to found Our Time, a monthly magazine of all the arts. The WMA secretary, Will Sahno, was constantly at Randall – as I understood it, almost as part of the deal – to collect his ‘rhetoric’ for the WMA to publish. There was never another attempt, I think, and with few exceptions the annexed pieces of Selected Poems dilute, even to the point of misrepresentation, the solidity and vision of Swingler’s own 1946 and 1950 collections: a chasm opens before one, a grave-pit of hostages to fortune, blocking one’s way to the past.

We don’t need Marvell’s satires or his constituency correspondence (though it’s nice to know they existed) to love his poems – a proposition with which Croft may disagree. The only strictly poetic claim in his introduction is for ‘an extraordinary consistency of vision and voice and feeling’ which shares six features: that Swingler was ‘a lyric poet . . . a late poet of Dissent . . . a poet of prophecy and witness . . . a poet of modern war . . . a love poet . . . a poet of public performance’ – all features, even should one agree the list (which I do not), that might as well describe a bad poet as a good. Unusually, in an effort to rescue a neglected poet from the ruck, there is no attempt to tell us why, and some attempt to distract us.

Swingler’s importance to poetry – in the sense of having validity for other times and for people of other persuasions – lies in his understanding of the conflicts and necessities that bear on the exercise of a will for change, and in the blunt, sometimes heavy way he imparts that understanding. In his turning outward to his fellow men and women – of a piece with, say, Douglas’s or Alun Lewis’s inward-turning to self – Swingler was a unique voice, but not a solitary one. In such armed forces, how could he be? He, too, was of his time. Others turned outwards in other ways – perhaps most famous until now, Roy Fuller; certainly Henderson with his elegiac sense of ‘our human civil war’, his ‘wronged proletariat of levelling death’; the wonderfully precise Australian John Manifold; and another soldier-poet, Geoffrey Matthews, who ended an ‘Elegiac Sonnet’ of 1943 about flowers at a graveside:

. . . For his first low home
Pastelled sweet-peas and grass
For his green simplicity;
And the gay daughter marigold
For his sophistication.
So he had wished to die –
With the fresh flowers, and the old
Bad civilisation.

The Cold War, already begun long before any mention of peace, required the silencing by non-publication or ridicule, falsehood and misrepresentation of all Communists and their associates who had not been otherwise disposed of. We know now, particularly from the meticulous research of Frances Stonor Saunders in Who Paid the Piper? (1999), that this was a warfare at least co-ordinated, sometimes paid for, by the CIA – a fact both bruited and denied at the time. Of course there were weapons ready to hand in England: Churchill’s death-dealing predispositions, for instance (from the Dardanelles to Dakar, to Cologne, to Italy’s underbelly, to the murder of Frank Thompson), or Spender’s lachrymose sense that his (exceedingly brief) Communism had threatened to destroy his individual identity. But fairly promptly the CIA would import such heavy weaponry as Lionel Trilling, with his banging declarations that Western Communists were possessed of an ‘animus against all the gratuitous manifestations of feeling, of thought, and of art’. A whole intellectual hinterland was flattened. Neither The Years of Anger nor The God in the Cave was reviewed, and I doubt if any but the odd left-winger out in the few remaining hills has even heard of them or of the group of writers of which Swingler was one. For anyone grown adult since 1946, it must be hard to see Pinter’s mantra-like repetitions, his use of pauses and political aspiration alike as descending directly from the same qualities in Patrick Hamilton; John Arden’s cascades of language and desire from O’Casey’s; or, to take an American example, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 from the savagery of Ring Lardner’s The Ecstasy of Owen Muir. Small wonder that writers from Robert Graves to Noel Coward to Isaiah Berlin have been inflated to fill up gaps. It is the greatest of Douglas’s posthumous misfortunes that his brilliant inward-looking talents, so suited to a time obsessed by inward identities, should have guaranteed him a place as one of its icons. A world of values is awry here, and has stayed that way. When someone comes up with a title like British Writing of the Second World War, ten years or more after the death of the Soviet system – and with it, presumably, the re-thinking of anti-Communism – the heart leaps.

Mark Rawlinson’s book explores not only poetry but novel, short story, memoir, bulletin, script, journalism and more, in an attempt to discover a sense of the total experience of his period, and its sense of itself. He sees that much of the distinction between the two world wars was to do with the ‘struggle for a better world’, and that he must rediscover writers hitherto dismissed. He pays no attention to Trilling and blessedly little to Spender. He follows Richard Hillary’s much-mentioned The Last Enemy to Mary and Richard (1988), a collection of love letters between Hillary and Mary Booker edited by Michael Burn, later to become Mary’s husband; this leads him to Burn’s own important POW novel, Yes, Farewell (1946) and Burn’s introduction to its reprint in 1974, as Farewell to Colditz, though he seems unaware that Burn is also a considerable poet. In his lectures on Second World War writing since the publication of this book, he has also been quoting and examining the War Poems of Geoffrey Matthews (1989) – to my delight, since I edited them.

Like other recent books that started out as doctoral theses, this one is like a traffic jam in thick and swirling fog, each paragraph bumper to bumper with quotations, with only footnotes (1000 in 200 pages) to act as cat’s-eyes. A study conceived in these broad terms, but limited in size, must take much on trust. For a war fought over immense ideological as well as territorial areas, three references to Marxism will hardly do – especially since all are concerned with whether or not there was a Marxist discussion group at Colditz. Rawlinson’s allusions to a ‘better world’ being fought for would be fine, were Priestley’s version, the official Labour version, the Beveridge Report, the Liberal version and the Communist version understood to exist in tension, as they did. That doesn’t happen here. Instead, the fog merely thickens; landmarks are impossible to find, and those that do appear can be alarming. The only sources so often quoted as to require initials for reference are CEJL (Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters) for Orwell, PNW for Penguin New Writing (John Lehmann, its editor, a notable early Cold Warrior), MOI for Ministry of Information and RHP for Hillary’s papers. Insofar as such a list suggests the extent and directions of survey, it is frightening.

In warm and muggy air, colder assumptions lurk. The trouble with the Churchill/ Trilling/Spender/CIA model of soulless Communists and their associates was that it was hopelessly inadequate. Certainly, there were bigots who had it in for ‘manifestations of feeling, of thought and of art’ – and so on. People who were drawn to the banners and slogans and applicable texts, and who found that after all complexity remained, were disappointed. Or, if they were not disappointed, they stayed on to become bigots in their own right. But there were others. Croft is wrong, I think, to find ‘increasing’ tensions between Swingler and Party officials in 1949, leading to the closure of Our Time and eventually to his ownex-Communism. Such tensions there had always been: as Croft himself has noted elsewhere, Swingler later referred to a ‘lifetime’ of them. When Edgell Rickword, a loyal and longstanding Communist, joined Our Time in 1944, he immediately cancelled what had become regular weekly meetings with Party officials because, from his experience ten years earlier at Left Review, he foresaw endless discussions leading to ‘decisions’ and ‘instructions’ which would have to be disobeyed. In those years, largely through Nancy Cunard, Our Time was in close contact with Eluard, Tzara, Aragon and others at Les Lettres françaises, so it is interesting to discover precisely the same conflict there, recounted in Gertje Utley’s Picasso: The Communist Years (2000), Picasso in much the same position as Swingler and Rickword here. And later, in 1954, I recall sharing a hotel room with Swingler in Bucharest, and the desperation (to some extent the glee) with which we schemed to prevent our comrade Dr John Lewis – one-time Nonconformist preacher, founding organiser of the Left Book Club groups, now a prime Communist bigot and also alas in Bucharest – from informing our Romanian friends that the task of writers in both our countries was to follow the Soviet example. None of this is to claim that we were, in the American manner, ‘prematurely’ anti-Soviet. Swingler’s overriding concern always was for his own country and people. In the 1930s he had joined a Party believing in, and working for, revolution here, but had now awoken, slowly, almost somnambulantly, from his Lazarus time, his Palaeolithic time, to find himself in a Party adopting gradualism – at the behest of bigots he had always opposed. His tragedy was not that he, but that his fellows, often his dead fellows, had been betrayed, and that it could be thought (by himself, if no one else) that he had played a part in their betrayal.

The baggage of old men necessarily hampers them. Perhaps I am over-protective of, overwhelmed by, soldier-poets once well-known and still loved. In any case, I am aghast at the imputation of soullessness and lack of art. Such wooden characterisations are so far from the evidence, especially in the best work of a poet such as Swingler. In ‘The Day the War Ended’, one of his great war poems, dated ‘Gradisca, May 1945’, he begins happily enough:

On the day the war ended
The sun laced through the avenues with
lime-tree scent
The silver birches danced on the sidewalk
And the girls came out like tulips in their colours . . .

Then the poem enlarges itself: ‘tanks, tamed elephants/Wallowed among the crowds in the square’. And then the cry:

Only the soldier, snatched by the sudden sudden stop
In his world’s turning, whirled like a meteor
Through a phoenix night of stars, is falling,
falling
And as his trajectory bows and earth begins
To pull again, his hollow ears are moaning
With a wild tone of sorrow and the loss, the loss . . .

Like all the ‘Battle’ poems, this one is so grounded in its occasion, and at the same time so focused on belief and achievement and the price at which they are had, that it becomes elevated beyond itself, as only the finest poetry can, into occasions the poet never dreamed of.