There seems to be so much to commemorate at the moment that I lose track of it all, but today is St George’s Day (I think, though everyone seems to have forgotten about it this year). So here is a suitable poem (one I’ve always liked) from The Magnetic Mountain by C. Day Lewis.
You That Love England
You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully;
Ceaseless the leaves’ counterpoint in a west wind lively,
Blossom and river rippling loveliest allegro,
And the storms of wood strings brass at year’s finale:
Listen. Can you not hear the entrance of a new theme?
You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen:
Cyclists and hikers in company, day excursionists,
Refugees from cursed towns and devastated areas;
Know you seek a new world, a saviour to establish
Long-lost kinship and restore the blood’s fulfilment.
You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not;
Yet passing derelict mills and barns roof-rent
Where despair has burnt itself out – hearts at a standstill,
Who suffer loss, aware of lowered vitality;
We can tell you a secret, offer a tonic; only
Submit to the visiting angel, the strange new healer.
You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.
This was published in 1933, two years after the election when, as Orwell put it – “we all did the wrong thing in perfect unison” by electing a National Government.
Lines such as “You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April” now evoke the idyllic world of the London Transport poster, or the Shell Guide, but, at the time, were meant to be felt as jarringly modern.
Removed from its context, and backed – perhaps – by some swelling Vaughan Williams, the first stanza, at least, could be used to advertise all manner of things, all kinds of politics, any number of products, but the “new theme” Day Lewis intended was Communism, albeit of an idiosyncratic, Lawrentian variety. Elsewhere in the world of poetry in 1933, Osip Mandlestam was writing his “16 line suicide note” Stalin Epigram –
We are living, but can’t feel the land where we stay,
More than ten steps away you can’t hear what we say.
But if people would talk on occasion,
They should mention the Kremlin Caucasian.
His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.
But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,
And he plays with the services of these half-men.
Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,
He’s alone booming, poking and whiffing.
He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes –
Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Every killing for him is delight,
And Ossetian torso is wide.*
Suprisingly, this only resulted in a period in exile, but continued dissent led to Mandelstam’s death in Siberia, in 1938. Day Lewis had a long and worthwhile career, writing a form of agreeable and undervalued neo-Georgian verse. In 1968 he succeeded John Masefield as Poet Laureate.
*Translated by Dmitri Smirnov.