Love and War: George Whalley's No Man an Island
Love and War: George Whalley’s No Man An Island
By John Ferns, Professor Emeritus, McMaster University
“It wasn’t much like farm boys hunting rats in a barn with pitchforks...” – George Whalley (Remembrances 78).
“The nobleness of the Arts is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy, perfection of personality, the perfection of its surrender....” – W.B. Yeats (quoted in Poetic Process, 23)
When George Whalley married Elizabeth Watts in Chelsea-Battersea Parish Church, England on his twenty-ninth birthday, July 25, 1944, he described the event, in a letter to his college friend Arnold Banfill, as by “far and away the most important thing that ever happened to me.” (Remembrances 36) An important feature of the Whalleys’ courtship was that it took place in wartime. Even the most cursory reading of The Collected Poems of George Whalley (1986),1 especially of the majority of the poems written and originally published in the 1940s, reveals the presence of a tension in them between the contraries of war and love. Against the cruelty of war George Whalley poses the reality of human love and the achievements of human compassion and human art. Sensitive and loving human beings are threatened and often destroyed by war. It is no accident that George Whalley’s most eloquent and powerfully-wrought war poem “Battle Pattern” – surely one of the great poems of the Second World War – should be immediately followed in No Man An Island (1948) by his most deeply moving love poem, “Dunster.” Indeed, the two volumes of poetry that George Whalley published in the 1940s, Poems, 1939-1944 (1946) and No Man An Island, tell a story of a human love relationship growing through and surviving the depredations of war.
The very first poem of No Man An Island shows the cruel irony of fine human ability destroyed by war. The poem’s title is the initials of the poem’s subject, “W.K.E.”:
It is his hands that I remember:
scholarly hands with the firm
delicacy of a musician’s […].
You cannot imagine hands
so spiritual and gentle
turned to the uses of war.
It is not to be wondered at
that in the first autumn
before the bitter fighting
startled the desert solitude
a random bomb killed him. (lines 1-3, 15-22)
War, it seems, imposes synecdoche: the man is known by his initials, by his hands, but the whole man is killed by “a random bomb.” Closed form is gone too with the randomness of war, most of George Whalley’s war poems are written in a diary or note-like free verse, as, for example, “Seascape 1940-1941” that closely follows “W.K.E.” in No Man An Island. It is significant in this connection that Paul Fussell in his recent Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (1989) should find the diary or direct reminiscence the most compelling and convincing form of Second World War writing, more so than the novel, though he does not say that it surpasses the poetry of the war. What needs to be remarked here is that a canon of major World War II poets has yet to be firmly established. Unlike the poets of World War I where Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Graves, Herbert Read and David Jones are generally regarded as the major figures, critics have not yet assessed the poetry of World War II with sufficient rigour to establish a similar canon. Paul Fussell, for example, does not mention the poetry of George Whalley. Yet David Lewis, reviewing The Collected Poems is surely right when he argues that, “A judicious selection of the best writing of Keith Douglas, Randall Jarrell and George Whalley could provide a potent antidote to the prevalent cliché that in contrast to the first world war the second world war produced no memorable poetry” (1046). Certainly George Whalley deserves to be considered Canada’s major war poet and “Battle Pattern” one of the great Canadian poems as well as one of the best and most moving poems written about war.
Since No Man An Island incorporates the poems from Poems, 1939-1944 that George Whalley wished to preserve, a careful analysis of the drama of this book and its exploration of the tension between the “contraries” of love and war will take us to the heart of George Whalley’s achievement as a poet. The eight poems rejected from Poems, 1939-1944, that George Johnston includes in The Collected Poems as Homer at Dawn, and the twenty-seven poems written between 1948 and 1980 and gathered in The Collected Poems as Anima Poetae will not concern us unduly. Some of these poems, notably “Flowering of an Ancient Reticence,” “Lazarus” and “Calligrapher” are excellent in themselves, and some of them, notable “Flowering of an Ancient Reticence,” deepen our perception of George Whalley’s drama of war and love. Yet that drama is essentially and fully enacted in the three sections that present the forty-one poems of No Man An Island.
What is of special significance in focussing the concern with creativity and love for us is the dedication “For Elizabeth” that precedes both Poems, 1939-1944 and No Man An Island:
Because you brought me to the hard
sweet torment of creation,
these are for a warm mantle
of comfort against the silences.
Although the “creation” of children and of poems can be “hard […] torment” it is also “sweet” and can offer “comfort” against “silences” of post-traumatic stress disorder, separation or failures of communication. Important, too, is the fact that the creativity of love rises against the destruction of war thereby providing the central action of No Man An Island.
“Gunboat Sortie,” the second poem in the volume is one of George Whalley’s best war poems. The poem vividly evokes the apprehension involved in a gunboat sortie against the enemy coast. The poem dramatises feelings of apprehension, release from apprehension and the return of that feeling. The opening verse paragraph recalls the opening of Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” “A cold coming we had of it:”
A few nights after Christmas we made the cold
crossing against a rapidly freshening wind.
Before the full dark came, Jupiter,
Sirius and Betelgeux appeared,
then Saturn below the delicate Pleiades.
The salt inflamed our eyes. The wind plucking
peremptorily at the eyelids stunned us.
The waves were brutal ponderances crushing
with slow energy against the boat. (lines 1-9)
The vivid precision of George Whalley’s writing here (words like “ponderances” catching exactly the weight of the waves) characterises his prose as well as his verse. It continues into the second and third verse paragraphs, but at the close of the third verse paragraph natural fear of the sea is deepened by an equally natural fear of the enemy: “The moon in the surf / looks like the beam of a searchlight sweeping the coast” (lines 33-34). In the fourth and penultimate verse paragraph, mission accomplished, the gunboat sets out back to England.
Two hours pass. Our sense of danger is sharp
and clear as the village spire against the sky.
Then the job is done and we shape course for home,
with a full gale on the quarter and a full moon
setting us uplight to the enemy.
Into us flows an exhilarating peace
born of the wind and moonlight,
and the grey valleys between the phosphorescent crests,
and the thought of England ahead below the stars.
The cold misery of the coming and our fear
are purged and forgotten in our reverie. (lines 35-45)
However, the feeling of “exhilarating peace” is suddenly ended in the final verse paragraph as the poem returns us full circle into wartime fear:
Pirate shouts, “Look at them. Six of the bastards,
fine to port.” We alter course towards them.
“Here it comes.” And red and green and yellow
tracers crawl towards us lazily
looking like lights on a children’s Christmas tree. (lines 46-50)
Ironic references to “Christmas” in the first and last lines of the poem help to dramatize the inverted world of wartime fear. Christmas tree-like tracers create a feeling of unreality like the video game-like television pictures seen of Baghdad during the Gulf and Iraq wars. “Gunboat Sortie” leaves us in wartime fear, our only reassurance emerging from the external knowledge that had the poet not survived, the poem would not have been written.
As already mentioned, “Seascape 1940-41” reads like a wartime diary. It resembles a series of sketches:
At sea in harbour on leave,the few terse notes
in pencil or ink: an afterthought a glance
ahead, the ephemerides of life at sea
in harbour on leave. And memory fills the white
spaces between the words lines thoughts entries. (lines 1-5)
Life on the bridge at night recalls the opening of Hamlet, “For this relief much thanks / ‘Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart” (1.1.8-9). The grim depression of wartime is documented as in a diary that presents the world of war as a prison and the world outside or beyond the war as “unreal.” But, then, as the volume’s title reminds us aren’t we all involved in the war?
Letters came at last with news from home
distant unreal news from a former life
(when shall we ever get home? When shall we ever
again make music? when can we ever be still?)
and news of death, the mounting casualties:
Bill killed in Egypt, Jimmy in London,
Gordon lost at sea, and Smoky in Libya.
All these noted, detached unimpassioned.
Remember not to write. (lines 17-25)
But Whalley does write, not no-longer-needed letters but poems that carry the “hard / sweet torment of creation” against the grain of war’s destruction. He even wrote against orders not to write (Remembrances 79).
In wartime London “it came on to bomb” rather than rain, “the terrible rain” of the title of Brian Gardner’s anthology of poetry of the Second World War. “Damaged ships” are like wounded people:
Damaged ships came up the Clyde today
slowly, the red ensigns at half-mast.
Empire Dorado anchored in Rothesay Bay:
all day long she lay in still water,
none of her people moving about her decks. (lines 38-42)
In war, music, like love, emerges as a gift:
The sudden benison of music: Bach
Coriolan Prokofiev the 8th.
And smoky voices crossed by tracer and boredom. (lines 52-54)
One’s own voice becomes unreal and one can never completely relax into sleep:
The long Northern nights. Cold alone
heartsick miserable, you speak to a lookout
and it isn’t your voice that speaks. A book in your bunk
after the watch is over; but still you listen
sensitively alive, even in sleeping,
to every change in speed course sound. (lines 58-63)
The reference to the lonely sleeplessness of Northern nights anticipates The Legend of John Hornby (1962) in which George Whalley was already interested through his reading of Edgar Christian’s diary Unflinching (1937). We might notice too in Christian’s diary a source for the diary-like style of “Seascape 1940-41”: “December 10th, at 1645/ the chart table hit me unaccountably” (lines 79-80) and “A bloody day of fog and evil temper,/ the bridge was all sharp angles that seemed to strike/ trip hurt with personal intent" (lines 84-86). Only music and literature seem to help, “Belloc’s Cautionary Tales delight throughout” (line 89).
At times the poem reads like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ nature Journals:
Cape Wrath: sky dove and rose like the colour
of dawn over snow. High mackerel suddenly
disintegrated and dropped away; but the bars
still persisted like mothfretted tatters of wool. (lines 90-93)
“Seascape,” also, movingly describes survivors at sea and the taking of prisoners. Indeed, it offers a series of diary-like sketches of war, of a war too stressful to permit recovery in a short leave:
It should have been good, but the silence of open country
pressed like a throbbing ache against the brain
and the chuckling of the brook outside the window
only served to crystallize the silence.
Too short a leave to ravel this thread
of quietness back through labyrinthine ways
to a yellow teapot jolly and round. (lines 105-111)
George Whalley’s final perception in his seascapes of war is that no “pattern” can be determined in them; they are simply a series of poetic sketches or diary pages. We have to wait for the much more complete “Battle Pattern,” for a “pattern” to emerge. So in “Seascape 1940-1941” Whalley concludes:
Here is no pattern, here no tissue of meaning:
but guttering candle-flames of memory
that leap, and steady a moment, and evanesce
in the dark rooms of unremembered time. (lines 122-125)
War leaves the poet with a dark vision, indeed.
As if framing “Gunboat Sortie” and “Seascape 1940-41” with the first poem, “W.K.E.,” “No Man An Island’s fourth poem, “Q.A.M.,” offers an image of human dignity and sensitivity in contrast to the horrors of war. It is as if Whalley is aware that it is initially and essentially in the individual life that war must be survived. Simple human being here offers a perception of renewal.
“Sitting the Night Out” directly dramatizes the “hunger for sanity” (“Counterpoint” line 9) that characterizes Whalley’s response to war. The poet and his friend or lover defy war time through human communication. I have already suggested that love and friendship, music and literature provide for Whalley necessary antidotes to war. They help him to hold on to what both David Lewis and John Baxter, quoting Whalley, describe as “the fugitive reality” that war creates. The deepest wish is, of course, for war’s simple opposite: peace. In “This is Your Music” Whalley reveals how music permits the expression of emotional conflicts intensified by war:
burning paradox of truth
in the fugitive impermanence
of sound that lingers glowing. (lines 17-20)
He asks his “beloved” to receive the tribute of his piano playing:
Listen, beloved, and remember,
as long as there is music
and fingers to make it, this is your music.
This is my sacrifice. (lines 25-28)
Once again we see “the hard / sweet torment of creation” dedicated to love in a time of war.
The poem “Wheat” seems out of place in the developing drama of war and love in No Man An Island that I am attempting to describe. John Baxter rightly notes its inferiority to the later poem “Lazarus.” Both poems treat the subject of Lazarus. Rebirth is, of course, an important subject in an environment of war. This is, perhaps, the poem’s subtle point when we consider the conflicts in North Africa during World War II:
When Lazarus awoke
and stripped off the graveclothes
his hunger and aloneness
looked out at his eyes
as he moved among his fellows,
alien and unfamiliar.
Why should the dead trample
the sun-bleached golden treasure
of tall slight Nile-wheat
under an April sun? (lines 21-30)
It seems that the poet is observing what the delicate life of nature suffers at the hands of men at war.
“By the River” is surely one of the principal poems to dramatize the contraries of war and love. Love brings peace and perceptions of eternity, whereas the separation caused by war breeds loneliness. Love is the procreant “eternity in darkness” (line 40), the “reality”, however “fugitive”, that the poet poses against the isolations of war (“Minster Lovell" line 20).
The first part of No Man An Island ends with a short sequence of five poems that deal with the Allied attempts to attack the Axis in Italy. In its stark simplicity the central poem of the group, “Sicilian Vignette,” presents exactly the conflict between war and love that the poems of No Man An Island dramatize overall. The movement from half-rhyme in the second and fourth lines of stanzas one to full rhyme in the same lines of stanza two creates a powerful sense of closure that dramatizes the finality of war’s destruction of love:
These guns could have worked
disaster in our assault.
So the blood of sleepy Italians
is splashed on a whitewashed wall.
Their boots are under their beds.
Their helmets hang by the door.
And the careful letters from home
are scattered on the floor. (lines 1-8)
This poem brings home absolutely the struggle between war and love, or death and life, that No Man An Island presents.
“Sicilian Vignette,” thus, provides the centre of a sequence in which it is preceded by “Commandos Embarking” and “Initial Assault – Sicily.” both of which depict the bitter destruction of war. The two poems that follow “Sicilian Vignette,” “Covenant with Death” and “Aftermath, July 1943” present the aftermath of battle. In “Covenant with Death,” “the Sahara / wind drives the sand to bury the tanks” (lines 13-14), but before this, as in “Sicilian Vignette,” we learn of the sufferings of soldiers and the loving patience of women. The subject of isolation recurs:
These men have been too long alone;
these have looked too constantly on death;
these have lost their lovers, lost themselves;
these are afraid, bitter, desolate, angry. (lines 1-4)
Love, it seems, is a “fugitive reality,” indeed (“Minster Lovell” line 20). Yet, what makes love a “reality” less than “fugitive” is surely “indestructible / loyalty and patience” (lines 3-4). As he was to put it five years later in Poetic Process, “But when we grasp reality, we also become real [...]. The fullest and deepest reality is achieved through love” (42). George Whalley’s central concern is, what he calls in Poetic Process, “the irreducibly moral character of human experience” (xvi).
David Lewis rightly reveals how George Whalley can evoke “the explosive drama of combat – ‘the thump and chatter / and bell-roar of the guns.’” Also, he notes how George Whalley “can distinguish subtler sounds: ‘the clitter of a dog’s nails’.” (1945). What David Lewis omits to mention is that these quite opposite evocations occur in the same poem, “Aftermath, July 1943,” thereby revealing Whalley’s poetic range. What “Aftermath, July 1943,” finally achieves, however, is an emphasis on love. From war-torn Malta and Sicily the poet recalls his love:
In the silent heat
of this placid white town
your memory comes to me
from beside an imagined river
across the dark sea
like an obscure
fragrance of sandalwood. (lines 33-39)
Thus, the first of the three sections of No Man An Island, which opens with contrary poems depicting love and war, ends with a sequence that while describing the horror of war ends with a final emphasis on remembered love.
The second section of No Man An Island contains fourteen poems that continue to dramatize the contraries of war and love. Once again the final emphasis, in the last poem, “Canadian Spring,” falls on love. Where the first section of No Man An Island is preceded by a quotation from Chaucer that emphasizes the passage of “yiftes of Fortune,” the second section is prefaced by a quotation from T.S. Eliot that speaks of abiding agony, presumably in this case the abiding agony of war. So, where the first section closed with a delicate image of remembered love, the poem “Homecoming,” that opens the second section, presents the sufferings of returning home to find the beloved absent: “to look up and see your window dark/ (for even in the blackout I can tell)/ is an agony and no homecoming” (lines 9-11). “A Girl in Love,” that follows “Homecoming,” depicts the suffering as well as the “gentle” and “delicate loveliness” of the “girl in love” (lines 2, 1). In “Minster Lovell” Whalley describes “a mood of fugitive reality” felt in wartime (line 20). The peaceful Cotswold village releases the poet’s capacity for “word painting”:
the bare elms standing
against pale lemon of winter sky,
pale buff of winter cloud.
When the early sun was stealing
the stiff magic of frost from the grass. (lines 6-10)
“Minster Lovell” evokes “a sense of peace and fragrant darkness” (line 18). The importance of peace has already been well established while “fragrant darkness” recalls the “fragrance of sandalwood” of “Aftermath, July 1943” (line 39). It is the continuous affirmation of life in the face of war that gives Whalley’s poems such poignant vitality. “London After Leave” likewise affirms the life of nature and the reality of love:
So it was last night under the trees.
We listened to an owl, wakened by the darkness,
clear his throat gruffly with a tentative exercise;
we heard contented cattle moving below us
in a twilight water-meadow, and sleepy
crickets linking the dusk to the memory
of noon-day with hesitant crisp notes;
so that the bombers mustering overhead
had no power to touch us or to destroy the peace. (lines 12-20)
The subtle echo of Edward Thomas’s First World War poem “The Owl” adds an extra dimension to Whalley’s poem.
Like “By The River” or “Sicilian Vignette,” “Counterpoint” is one of the poems in No Man An Island that explicitly draws together the “contraries” of creativity and destruction. So, “The music we made in the darkest / most bomb-harassed evening” (lines 1-2) provides an essential counterpoint of human affirmation to the bombing of London:
... only another thread
of melody in the long
that spans the centuries
in gentle but unyielding
defiance of ugliness. (lines 3-8)
The need for music is the “Hunger for sanity” (line 9) that possesses George Whalley throughout the war. Musical instruments become “secret weapons” (line 17):
But anyway the bombers,
for all their trying, failed
to drive down the music
into black silence. (lines 27-30)
In “Emergency Operation” there is no internal evidence that the operation on the child in the poem has been made necessary by war, though in the context of No Man An Island it is tempting to believe so, especially since the sailor in the poem finds it hard to confront the mother in the nurse’s eyes when the child dies. As with the other war poems, “Emergency Operation” concerns “life and the struggle for life” (line 4). Faced with the child’s death, the nurse “gazed at something beyond her sight./ The sailor trembled and looked away,/ afraid to meet the mother in her eyes” (lines 18-20).
“English Winter” appears to be simply an earlier version of “Now That The Dark...” that George Johnston includes in Anima Poetae. It is hard to see why “Now That The Dark...” was included since its differences from “English Winter” are insignificant. “English Winter” captures well the miserable feeling of a wet English winter day. It reveals once again George Whalley’s capacity for accurate and evocative description:
This is a winter land,
of rain and glistening streets
and the soft persistent slash
of rain at the window-glass. (lines 1-4)
“Peter,” perhaps concerning the poet’s painter brother, Peter Whalley, depicts the separation caused by war. Although the brothers are in the same service they are separated by different postings and brief leaves. As Peter says,
“These few short days at home
are all the war can give:
the brief tranquil glimpses
of laughter, colour and music;
and the sea in between.” (lines 12-16)
The conclusion of the poem depicts the difficulty of expressing brotherly love:
The grip of his hand hurt mine.
He turned quickly away
and as he walked jauntily into the fine snow
his fingers were strangely busy
with the collar of his coat. (lines 17-22)
The love relationship that develops through No Man An Island is not untroubled. In “Storm” the poet is silent and his lover wonders about his silences. The poet is filled with thoughts of the violence of the storm. The lover, in contrast, appears not to feel this violence. Bitterly the poet finally fears that:
... the wind’s sobbing
at the window latch and the chimney corner
is only a woman’s trick
to beguile me into the night. (lines 21-24)
Fortunately in “The Way Back” the lovers find their way back together despite the difficulties dramatized in “Storm.”
“Das Lebewohl, die Abwesenheit, das Wiedersehen” is a three part poem, “The Parting,” “Winter Night” and “The Return” that is paired with “World’s End,” a five-part poem. The first poem concerns love and the second war. “The Parting” dramatizes a fearful parting of lovers in war, fear of death intensifying the lovers’ separation. “Winter Night,” the second part of the poem, is observed by the poet in imaginative sympathy from his lover’s perspective:
but the door does not open
and again there is silence.
Then you know that I shall not come,
that you will not feel my arms
crush out your suffering. (lines 25-29)
From separation through suffering we move in part three to “The Return” that completes the action of the poem. The poet likens his return to that of the prodigal son but:
There was this difference: when the prodical son
came home his father saw him a long way off
and watched him slowly crossing the sunlit fields.
It was at night that I came back to you.
You were beside me before I could be sure.
We stood for a long time silent and still in the dark.
And presently I put out my hand and touched you
and still you did not move and made no sound.
And then I kissed you, my throat aching with tears,
and I could only say “Forgive me.
You were everywhere and I could find no peace.
Now I have found you. Now I have come home.” (lines 45-56)
I have already noted that “World’s End” which is paired with “Das Lebewohl, die Abwesenheit, das Wiedersehen” is a five part poem. In giving these two poems three and five parts George Whalley appears to be seeking for ways to give shape and structure to his poetic narratives. What is striking, too, is that in the poetic world of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, W.H. Auden, and his own Canadian contemporaries, the young George Whalley should have come so rapidly to poetic maturity and so quickly found his own voice. The relation of “Das Lebewohl...” to “World’s End” anticipates the relation between “Battle Pattern” and “Dunster” while confirming Tom Marshall’s important perception in reviewing The Collected Poems that “Powerful war poems are balanced here by moving love poems.” “World’s End: A London Incident” with its apocalyptic title concerns the blitz of London. As Paul Fussell notes in Wartime, for example, on April 16, 1941 450 German planes bombed London for eight hours killing 2,000 people. This is not necessarily the night of which George Whalley writes. The poet and his friend or lover are drawn (because “no man is an island”) to help after the blitz. In part one George Whalley writes:
Not the firebright river nor the surge
of bursting flames recoiling against the night
but some blind impulse sent us out. We knew,
as swallows know the time for heading North,
that we must go, that we would surely come
to an appointed place at a destined hour. (lines 1-6)
In part two:
We climbed through a shattered windowframe
into a little room pathetically
cluttered with broken furniture. (lines 7-9)
“A shadowy brotherhood” (line 13) is formed around a dying boy in “common sympathy in a common danger” (line 17):
One by one you came to know the men
by voice, by sense, by silhouette: the large
and inarticulate men who worked in silence. (lines 18-20)
In the struggle for life “the doctor’s voice was deep with weariness” (line 29). The words spoken by the men in the poem are “words / weaving across the warp of long-spun time / an intimacy casual and profound” (lines 35-37). The wartime tension of the blitz and its aftermath ebbs into exhortation:
Strong men trembled with exhaustion.
Hours shaped like eternity passed singly on.
The slow ebb of reaction trickled out
into numbed lassitude.
The brotherhood, dissolving as though at some unspoken word,
took the silent apologetic leave
of nameless shadows passing into the dark. (lines 38-44)
Part three is the centre and turning point of the poem as the company in the shattered house confront the boy’s death:
“Had you ever,” the fireman said, “observed
the way the dying seem to travel back --
or is it forward? -- in a natural arc
towards the innocence before the Fall?”
That was some hours ago when all was well
The words insist: “Had you ever observed?”
In such a rapid journey fourteen years
is no great distance.
First he had been a youth verging on manhood;
now he is a child sleeping away perplexity and pain. (lines 45-54)
The poet suffers with the company waiting for the boy’s death. Several years later, in Poetic Process, Whalley asked, “Has not the artist’s creative charter always been patior ergo sum – I suffer. therefore I am?” (xv). “The language of the sufferer, the language of total assertion, is the language not of science but of poetry” (xvi). In his “hunger for sanity” (“Counterpoint” line 9), Whalley seeks to “heal the sick conscience” (Poetic Process xxiii) and restore “the health of a civilization” (Poetic Process xxiv) through poetic art which “claims to engage the whole person and to make the person whole” (Poetic Process 10). Whalley was to continue his preoccupation with human suffering and tragedy into his work on Coleridge. (We will see, for example, how the structure of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lies behind “Battle Pattern.”) In his work on John Hornby and Edgar Christian and on Aristotle’s Poetics we see the same concern. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that George Whalley dedicated his life to trying to grasp the meaning and nature of human suffering and tragedy. To grasp the meaning and nature of human tragedy is to grasp reality. And as Whalley puts it in Poetic Process, “when we grasp reality, we also become real […]. The fullest and deepest reality is achieved through love” (42).
“World’s End” leads us to a new understanding of compassion and imaginative sympathy. It is the writing of a deeply moving poem like this that leads Whalley to say in Poetic Process, “The ‘experience’ offered in the poem is not then a ‘piece of detached reality’ but the poet’s feeling of and for a valuable relation” (234). Indeed, Poetic Process is no abstract piece of theorising, rather it is a sustained reflection on the writing of the love and war poems of the 1940s. “For the poet made the poem as a means of purifying himself and clarifying his reality” (Poetic Process 235). The poem “terminates in a ‘vision of reality’” (235). The agony of the tragic recognition of reality is that, “The poet suffers; at the same time he watches himself suffer with (as we say) critical detachment” (Poetic Process 236). What is required here is what Whalley was later to call “innocence of intent” and what he called in Poetic Process “Purity of heart” which he defined as “a quality of intension” (xxvii).
“World’s End” teaches us exactly what George Whalley tells is in Poetic Process:
it is always a salutary shock to find that the vision of God is reserved, not for the excessively clever, urbane, or cultivated, for the men of ponderous learning or for those who display sharp singleness of purpose in the world of affairs or research; but quite simply for ‘the pure in heart’ – not for the expert but for the initiate in the discipline of humility, patience, and wholeness. (xxvii)
We recall from “World’s End” that it was the Cockney fireman with the red silk scarf who perceived the dying boy’s return to innocence and Whalley the Canadian sailor-poet who recorded it. “Blest are the pure in heart, / For they shall see their God. / The secret of the Lord is theirs / Their soul is Christ’s abode.” (John Keble). Of course, it was John Keble and other members of the Oxford movement who attended the aging Coleridge at Highgate. Slowly one comes to see the interrelation of Whalley’s interests and their direct connection to the vital Anglican tradition into which he was born.
The second section of No Man An Island concludes with two love poems, “Seeing Ducks Asleep” and “Canadian Spring.” “Seeing Ducks Asleep” is a simple love poem:
I could write till the end of time
and never tell exactly
the colour of your eyes
of the sweet curve of your lips. (lines 15-18)
while “Canadian Spring” appears to be spoken by the poet’s war bride who has come to her new country. In the first section of the poem the war bridge is having difficulty in adjusting to Canada:
But O it is a hard beauty, incised
with steel in sunlit granite; a cruel beauty
without distance of profundity
And so he said it would be. So it is. (lines 18-21)
In the poem’s second section the war bride remembers the “Cornish gorse” (line 48) and “Somerset heather” (line 49) of her own country and speaks of a time of separation from her lover:
But the time was slow and heavy
after the daffodils,
after he’d gone away. (lines 41-43)
In the poem’s third and final section the war bride asks her Canadian husband to comfort her homesickness.
In Remembrances contemporary Canadian poet, Michael Ondaatje, recalls showing George Whalley his first volume of verse: “he went over it carefully with me and taught me how to shape a book -- how to build up the emotion of a book by taking great care with the order and the choreography of the poems.” (120). Such order, choreography and build up of emotion is clearly evident in No Man An Island. We have noted already how a rhythm of love and war poems is established in the first part of the book and how this rhythm is continued with accumulative poignancy through the second part. The pairing, for example, of poems like “Das Lebewohl, die Abwesenheit, das Wiedersehen” and “World’s End” brings to a kind of preliminary climax the book’s opposition between war and love. The fourteen poems of part three of the volume begin with “Battle Pattern” and “Dunster.” Here the finest war and love poems of the volume are brought climactically together.
In the earlier “Seascape 1940-1941” George Whalley could find no “pattern” in his sketches of war. In “Battle Pattern,” the poem’s seven part structure, which may have been inspired by the seven part structure of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” helps to give shape to the experiences of war. “Pattern” is only important, though, if it is a pattern of meaning. This, indeed, is what we discover in the poem. The understanding of suffering in war that we have seen developing through the book, and reaching a climax in the ruined home of “World’s End,” reappears in the imaginative sympathy of “Battle Pattern.” The poem emerges from Whalley’s first-hand experience of the sinking of the Bismarck during which he felt deep sympathy for the suffering of the German sailors. The sinking of the Bismarck was followed by the sinking of H.M.S. Mashona after which Whalley saved the life of a fellow sailor. “Battle Pattern” draws upon the same experience as that recorded in a letter of June 11, 1941 that George Whalley wrote within two weeks of the Bismarck’s sinking, which he eventually published in The Atlantic Quarterly in July 1960 and which is republished in Remembrances. There are many similarities in details of observation and phrasing between the letter and “Battle Pattern,” but the poem gives a deeper and more inward feeling of the action than the letter does.
The first part of “Battle Pattern,” “Closing to Engage,” describes in considerable detail life aboard the Tribal class destroyer H.M.S Tartar on the night prior to the naval action in which the Bismarck was sunk by H.M.S. King George V and H.M.S Rodney. Exhausted sailors lie sleeping. “Second degree of readiness” has been called (line 1). Dawn brings a sight of the enemy as George Whalley’s delicately managed free verse realises the destroyer’s movement through the sea:
And filaments of spray indolently fumble
over the fo’csle, over the foremost guns and the bridge,
and set a small rainbow at the ship’s flying foot.
The destroyer, lipping and snuffling whiteness at the hawsepipes,
lifts in the tense trembling climax of struggle
against the synchronism of the sea,
until a green wave explodes on her falling fo’csle.
She stumbles, shudders free,
and lifts up her head,
her clean flanks creaming.
Enemy in sight.
Against the colour of fresh-made morning
the battle ensigns are dazzling and extravagant. (lines 70-85)
The Bismarck is brought to action and from the distance of the destroyer on which he serves Whalley observes the battle between capital ships. The second part of the poem is called “The Enemy,” and with imaginative sympathy Whalley realises the human connection between the exhausted sailors on board his ship and those on the Bismarck:
Throughout the action a picture forms in the mind,
instant as a gunflash,
obliterating thought like a whiff of flame.
The May dawn, grey with rainsquall,
found the men in the doomed ship
empty and gaunt with sleeplessness and the long cold
vigil at the guns. (lines 86-92)
With full human sympathy George Whalley follows the Bismarck’s journey after her sinking of the Hood and dismissal of her accompanying cruiser Prinz Eugen. The German sailors facing their fate resemble the shipmates of the Ancient Mariner:
At some moment the fact of doom
had importuned its way into their minds
like the sun insistently plucking at a late sleeper’s eyes:
and the knowledge passed from eye to eye without a word.
But doom cannot be lightly harboured in the mind.
You must accept it or drive it out, and either way
it is too enormous to touch you closely
without bringing madness or deep calm. (lines 100-107)
The German sailors, “settle at their action stations with the quietness / born out of the knowledge of finality” (lines 121-122). The Bismarck is now “like a hamstrung stag” (line 112) while the British ships “waiting for the light, waiting / with patient relish for the morning kill” (lines 127-28). Whalley observes the battle from HMS Tartar: “you hear the rumble and torn-silk of the shells / feeling for the viscera to destroy” (lines 131-132). For Whalley the battle has a world’s end quality:
Even though they interpose
the passionless beauty of the guns
these men are no less fragile
in the face of steel and fire,
battle and doom
than Hood’s men were.
Down the wind the silk tearing of the shells
matches the bright pageantry of destruction.
And the picture persists, obliterating thought
like a bright whiff of holocaustic flame. (lines 140-149)
The terrible beauty of battle brings together pageantry and destruction.
Section 3 of the poem, “Air Attack,” describes the attack by German aircraft on HMS Tartar and HMS Mashona following the sinking of the Bismarck. George Whalley describes his Captain’s efforts to take evasive action. HMS Mashona is sunk. This was, I think, the episode in which George Whalley saved a fellow sailor by diving overboard without a line (which was against Admiralty orders), an action for which he received a medal for saving life at sea. Characteristically he does not speak of this, but in section 4, “Meditation,” in seven four-line stanzas, expresses the Christ-like sacrifice required by such events as those described in “Battle Pattern.” The pattern of love as sacrifice fully emerges here. This is the central point in No Man An Island in which war and love are perceived not just as contraries but as integral in the total sum of human experience. I may be over-interpreting “Meditation,” but it seems to me that it presents the moment of Whalley’s sacrifice to save life. The language of the New Testament helps to express the poet’s sacrificial acceptance and action. Preparations that began with swimming a two mile stretch of the heavily currented St. Lawrence at the age of twelve and in selflessly leaping to save life at sea, the “end of our grail-quest” (line 164). War and love come climactically together in the second stanza that provides the dramatic centre not only of “Battle Pattern” but of No Man An Island as a whole. Stanza three, then, reveals how everything comes together in a supreme moment as the sacramental cup is drunk. In “the sea made Golgotha” Whalley tries to save what life he can (line 188).
From “Meditation” to section 5, “Sea Burial,” we move from Holy Communion to the Burial of the Dead. Survivors move along the decks in preparation for the burial of their dead ship mates. In the italicised portion of “Sea Burial” George Whalley quotes directly from the Book of Common Prayer’s The Order for the Burial of the Dead, in particular from I Corinthians 15, 51-52, “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye....” But even at the sea burial enemy aircraft return:
The men struggle forward,
picking their way against the motion of the ship.
The sky clears.
The alarm bells ring.
The sound is like a white-hot needle
plunged upward through the skull.
Blessed are the dead;
for since by man came death
why do we also stand in jeopardy? (lines 229-238)
In section 6, “Landfall,” Tartar sights the coast of Ireland at dawn – “The low darker smudge that might have been/ another stratum of cloud along the skyline/ shapes out of the darkness” (lines 254-256) – but not before the exhausted sailors have struggled to overcome the fatigue suffered from the previous day’s bombing:
It is night
and each man is groping in the darkness
to integrate what the day’s attack has cast
adrift from the hinges of consciousness and order. (lines 244-247)
The sailors’ minds are metaphorically linked to the ships they sail:
Ears pulse and tingle with the inexpungible
physical imprint of the crushing gun-note.
Eyelids are a dragging leaden torture
of sleeplessness, mouths have the bitter taste
of sleeplessness; but none dares sleep till he
has ravelled up what the bombs have pulled apart. (lines 248-253)
Tired voices from the bridge try to conceal their relief at completion of the battle’s pattern:
Husky, rough and low-pitched with fatigue
they come from a great distance, disembodied,
concealing the pattern of trembling thought that movies
behind the eyes. (lines 263-266)
Unlike the earlier “Seascape,” where no “pattern” could be perceived, a pattern that carries love through the exhaustion of war by means of sacrifice emerges here. Here the sighting of a landfall completes the “pattern” of the poem’s “grail-quest” towards battle and now home. The sailors hope, finally, to emerge from the nightmare of battle, “to wake from a dream within a dream.” (line 273). As in Coleridge’s poem the mariner returns home.
The three verse paragraphs of “Finale,” as well as being among the best lines of poetry to emerge from the Second World War are surely among the most moving lines in Canadian poetry. Somewhat reminiscent of the coda of Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Piper of Arll” they elegise the sailors, Allied and German, who died in the battle between the Hood and the Bismarck. At the close of the poem the sacramental imagery returns, while the fruits of war and love lie together at the bottom of the ocean:
No pity or memory ever ruffled the iron
implacable will of ocean. Yet in its throat
is merciful secrecy, when hope is gone.
When life is a wafer dissolved on the lips of the sea
the desolation of waiting hearts may heal
in ignorance of the haunting dread of fear,
the numb hunger, and terror -- dull tensions
that never uncoiled in the cool crystals of words.
In the vast silence of the tideless sea-floor,
fathoms deep, in the birthless womb of ocean,
let the jagged steel, and broken pitiful
beauty born of the smooth loins of women
sleep where the diatom and coral sleep. (lines 302-314)
Here Whalley speaks of “the cool crystals of words.” Over a decade later, prefacing his letter of June 11, 1941 for publication in the Atlantic Quarterly of July 1960, George Whalley’s “cool” become “hard” crystals as he attempts to describe what he was trying to do both in the letter and later in “Battle Pattern.”: “The impulse was neither to record nor to express but to release into the hard crystals of words the mordant and impacted sense of horror and awe and beauty, to make the human token of a few gale-tormented sea-weary days and nights and the terrible spectacle of a major naval gun action” (Remembrances 80).
Next to Whalley’s best war poem, “Battle Pattern,” is appropriately and dramatically placed “Dunster” his best and most moving love poem. “Dunster” is reminiscent of Hardy’s love poem “At Castle Boterel.” In that poem Hardy describes the timeless sense of significance as he and his beloved ascend a slope: “It filled but a minute. But was there ever/ A time of such quality, since or before,/ In that hill’s story?”. In the third verse paragraph of George Whalley’s poem a similar feeling is expressed:
But Exmoor cannot forget that its body
was pressed by our bodies. Exmoor will tell
whoever may pass this way
that, on the morning of spring, on a morning of war,
two were young and knew that every
moment of time is a seed from which may spring
a sudden incomprehensible delight.
As long as skylarks tumble their song
over the shimmering Exmoor heather
the imprint of our love will never
die out of this place. (lines 19-29)
From the sacrificial love for others required in war, in “Battle Pattern,” we move to the “sudden incomprehensible delight” of “Dunster.” In the “Meditation” section of “Battle Pattern:”
The sweet brimming cup
pressed to the burning lips
has the terrible delight
of a lover’s first kiss. (lines 165-168)
This is the cup of sacrifice in which the poet shows his willingness to lay down his life for his friends. In “Dunster” we move to the “sudden incomprehensible delight” of love between man and woman.
From this high point of realised human love No Man An Island moves to its conclusion. The centre of “Dieppe” depicts again the tragedy of war:
And now he sits in a cobbled
square above the sea wall;
head in hands, alone,
shaken, cold, utterly
desolate: the ships
gone, the friends ebbed
homeward. Was it ever
fun to be young, to attack
(face blackened), to lead,
to kill? All ebbed out
to the cold trembling dread
of a small boy climbing
a dark stair. (lines 20-32)
Characteristic of the book’s pattern, “Dieppe” is followed by “The Silver Cord” in which:
We want no stillness, except it be
the silence of rich disquietude,
of April’s amazing mystery
and love’s oblique beatitude. (lines 5-8)
In “Normandy Landing” we return to a diary of war. Here, as if providing ironic contraries, breeze and sun are likened to “lovers facing each other in a dance” (65). Nature speaks of resurrection:
Out of red Devon soil
springs the tremulous Easter
resurrection of the grass. (lines 7-8)
Again in this poem Whalley quotes from “The Order for the Burial of the Dead”: “Man that is born of a woman / hath but a short time to live” (lines 13-14). War is contrary to the movement of nature:
In this strange and fatal Spring
our steel invading impulse
alienates ourselves from life. (lines 19-21)
Lovers are separated as D Day approaches. The poet imagines his lover in Westminister Abbey on D Day itself. As the poem closes he poet completes the war diary he has kept for his lover:
It was right of you
to pray for us then:
but not for our bodies’ sake;
they will come home untouched.
We are the undistinguished.
Time is our enemy. (lines 107-112)
“Prayer for the Living” captures the ambivalence that war compels, “Destroying that we be not destroyed. / Forgive us. For we know not what we do” (lines 1-3).
In “Normandy 1944”:
sweep of a bulldozer crushes for all time
a sunken lane which never knew harsher uses
than murmur of lovers in mothlight. (lines 5-8)
War destroys the reality of love: “the Army of Liberation strips the country girl/ and, laughing, sets her to walk her native streets/ naked and humbled in the lewd eye of the world” (lines 33-35).
In similar vein “We Who Are Left” presents the war’s “pattern of suffering” and for soldiers now dead love was only “the sudden brilliance / of brief ecstasy” (lines 11-2). “Cabot Straight,” then, captures the pleasure of home in contrast to the loneliness of life at sea. Sea, of course, has throughout been associated with war, and home with love:
At sea home is always
locked up close in the heart;
a warm intimate secret,
nourishing the dark. (lines 29-32)
“April Shower” does not bring a sense of renewal despite its rainbow since “nobody found / a pot of gold by the Cenotaph” (lines 11-12). Likewise in “Morning Watch” the vitality of the dolphins challenges the “sombre thoughts” of the sailors who see them: “they arch out of the calm sea (mate/ close beside her mate, a little behind,/ achieving in curve a parallel perfection)” (lines 18-20).
Finally, and surprisingly, in “Victory in Europe” the war is over, though “no memory, desire or aching need / can ever unmake the casualty lists” (lines 12-13). The poet feels nostalgia for the London of the blackout even though he welcomes the return of light. But with the passing of the darkness and “The old fear” of war “has passed the enchanted beauty,/ ephemeral and lovely as almond blossom,/ sweet against the bitterness of waste” (lines 32-34).
In “Pilgrim Heart, Turn Homeward,” the penultimate poem of No Man An Island, George Whalley draws out the absolute opposition between the contraries of love and war:
Pilgrim heart, turn homeward.
There is no relation
between the loving ways
of a man among his own
and the manner of his dying
among the olive trees. (lines 1-6)
No Man An Island, with its seventeenth-century title, appropriately ends with “Variation Upon a Seventeenth-Century Theme.” This lyric beautifully and finally blends the contraries that Whalley has explored throughout the volume. We receive, recalling Michael Ondaatje’s words, a final sense of the book’s shape, of its “build up [of] emotion” and of “the order and the choreography of the poems.” While Homer at Dawn and Anima Poetae contain excellent poems, a careful reading of No Man An Island takes us to the heart of George Whalley’s accomplishment as a poet:
Ocean-stained and weather-weary,
gaunt as a picked bone,
quiet as a woman after
travail, proud, alone. (lines 1-4)
Human love and nautical life come naturally together with the returning ship:
my captain’s ship has rounded the headland
gliding into harbour,
only her gay silk pendants denying
the colour of her labour.
A rich barge is bringing him in,
the silver pipes are screaming,
and laughing children are running with flowers.
But I stand dreaming.
There must be trumpets and churchbells
in tumbling polyphony
and the sobbing lilt of fiddle-tunes
to drown the agony
of surf fretting the patient land
and wind lamenting the night
and slow time like a blind moth
troubling the candlelight.
Seabird and bird of the foreshore,
sandpiper and plover,
grey tern and cormorant
comfort his lover.
O he will bring me a scarlet cloak
and silk as grey as the rain
and fur as black as a winter night
and a diamond bright as pain:
but all I want is the gentle home
and harbour of his arms,
and magic beauty to conjure him
away from the sea’s charms
forever; so that his grey eyes
may sleep, being free
of the pale dreamed bewitching naked
body of the grey sea. (lines 5-36)
Homer at Dawn contains eight poems from Poems 1939-1944 that George Whalley decided not to include in No Man An Island. All of these poems concern love and war: “Epithalamion,” “Fragment,” “St. James’s Park” and “Sleep” concern love while “A Smile and a Nod”, “Behind the Victory,” “The Sound of Bare Feet” and “Homer at Dawn” concern war. Of these eight poems “Behind the Victory” is the most important for throwing additional light upon the central concern of No Man An Island since it describes the saving moment of self-sacrifice that lies behind the “Meditation” section of “Battle Pattern.” Despite confirming the “friendship and admiration” of the wardroom, the poet recalls the temptation to death in the cold waters, and those who died (line 2). Perhaps “Behind the Victory” was omitted from No Man An Island because George Whalley felt it to be too personal:
But also I remember
the grey and drowsy struggle
with ocean’s tentacled cold,
fighting the strong desire
to slip, like the other two,
into the gentle warmth
and voluptuous emptiness
of everlasting sleep.
There’s a hurt that will not heal
while admiration and friendship
silently sensed and given
across the wardroom table
preserve the twilight vision
of men who preferred to die
of wounds revealed in the sea,
and brown wide sightless eyes. (lines 9-24)
Of the Anima Poetae, the previously uncollected poems, “Flowering of an Ancient Reticence” is the most important poem for throwing additional light on the theme of love. It presents the reawakening of feelings of love:
Take this for a song. Night drifting down
With the bird-hush and murmur of ebbing voices:
Here, at the turn of the stairs, the darkness
Suddenly blazed, and all the silences that all these years
Had fallen between our lips and the heart’s promptings
Gathered and scattered like wings at a single gesture
Of dawn or gunshot. Or was it some small sound,
Of beetle or owl, or the limpid laconic brook
Too shallow for suicide that rippling tripped
That avalanche of gentleness and crushed
The forests of delay, starting the shy
Withholdings out of their wits, and all the plumed
Birds of rejoicing mounted in a glory of wings,
Jubilant, dainty as kestrels, psalming
The unrequited sky of their desire.
Fallen into beatitude
At this turn of the stair
We’d best go on higher
And seek peace there. (lines 1-19)
The other poem in Anima Poetae that illuminates the relationship that George Whalley dramatizes between love and war is “And This Befell....” In this poem, as in the “Meditation” section of “Battle Pattern,” he brings together the two concerns. In “Meditation” self-sacrifice in war was likened to a lover’s first kiss. Here, in “And this Befell...,” he sees loss of life in war as easier to accept than the loneliness of loss of love:
Twice I have nearly
Drowned in a terror of waters; that was
Gentle, a benign savagery compared with
The salt loneliness, the shark-tooth of remorse
The wreck. (lines 12-16)
The densely detailed free verse, the spare lyric stanzas of George Whalley have yet to be fully appreciated. His poems are the result of “revolving in my heart examples of excellence” (“Calligrapher” line 45). That he wrote few poems after 1948 should not surprise us so much. The strange conjunction of love and war inspired him to write in verse. He said what he had to say in verse on those topics.
Baxter, John. “Fugitive Reality: The Poetry of George Whalley.” Rev. of The Collected Poems of George Whalley. Dalhousie Review 68.4 (1988): 496-510. Print.
Fussell, Paul. Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Lewis, David. Review of The Collected Poems of George Whalley. Queen’s Quarterly 94 (1987): 1045-47. Print.
Marshall, Tom. Review of The Collected Poems of George Whalley. No data.
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Whalley, George. The Collected Poems of George Whalley. Ed. George Johnston. Kingston: Quarry Press, 1986. Print.
---. Poetic Process. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953. Print.