VE Day Commemoration

VE Day Commemoration

8 May 2020: Poet’s Day 6

I had to change tack at the last minute this week—I discovered that two of the poems I had chosen were still in copyright.

In any case, it seems right to commemorate the tremendous efforts of World War II by choosing poems for the army, navy and air force, so we have “Tommy” by Rudyard Kipling, “Drake’s Drum” by Sir Henry Newbolt and “High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)” by John Gillespie Magee.

Hopefully next week will cover the subject I’d intended for this week (with different poems).

Poem 16. Tommy

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool, you bet that Tommy sees!

Kipling’s Tommy is a soldier of the 1890s British Army. Thomas Atkins was used as a placeholder name in War Office manuals, much as the American John/Jane Doe is nowadays. Thomas became the more popular Tommy. He is a typical British soldier of the time, portrayed quite sympathetically by Kipling: “We ain’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we ain’t no blackguards too, but single men in barricks, most remarkable like you”.

Wherever poor Tommy goes in peacetime, he finds himself denigrated and ridiculed but when “there’s trouble in the wind”, he and his boys are asked to “walk in front”. Kipling shows that Tommy is fully aware of the contrast between the two extremes and that he has opinions of his own about the rights of soldiers: decent rations, respect and reasonable treatment.

The Widow’s Uniform is, as suggested by the term “red-coats”, the scarlet tunic often associated with the British military of the 19th Century, the widow in question being, of course, Queen Victoria.

Kipling is a well-known English writer who was tremendously popular in his day though he is now often associated with the worst excesses of British colonialism—sometimes this charge is justly applied: Kipling was certainly a strong supporter of the British Empire and constantly exerted himself in extolling the role that Britain played at the time. His poems also naturally reflect the social mores of the day and the subservient role generally played by women.

Many of his poems are, however, free of these accusations. He is perhaps best known for the poem “If—” but “The Roman Centurion’s Song” speaks of homesickness and patriotism, “A Smuggler’s Song” encourages a small child to ignore the strange behaviour of the adults around her, and “The Way Through the Woods” is a kind of ghost story.

Poem 17. Drake’s Drum

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862—1938)

Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away,
 (Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time O’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the Island, yarnder lie the ships,
Wi’ sailor lads a-dancing’ heel-an’-toe,
An’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’,
He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha’ sleepin’ there below?)
Roving’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
An’ drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.”

Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
An’ dreamin arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
They shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago!

This poem is, like the Kipling one, expressed in the dialect of a common man of the time, though this is clearly Devonshire. The poem speaks of the old naval hero, whose drum was popularly supposed to beat in times of national crisis to summon Drake back to defend his country. One wonders if it has been beating recently.

Newbolt himself wrote poetry, novels and histories, and advised the government of the day on Irish issues and the study of English. When the first World War came, he was drafted into the newly formed War Propaganda Office where he worked with a score of other writers to maintain the public’s engagement and support. In 1921 he produced a report on “The Teaching of English in England” which founded modern English Studies and formalised the teaching of English Literature; it became a standard text in teacher training colleges.

His private life was well-concealed, it seems, as it was surprisingly complicated: he and his wife lived in a ménage-à-trois with her cousin; it seems unlikely that this kind of material would escape the eagle eye of the media these days.

He is also known for the poem “Vitae Lampada”. I have audio recordings of Newbolt reading both poems, and his voice is strong, high and clear but rather detached.

Poem 18. High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)

John Gillespie Magee (1922—1941)

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of —wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

This soaring, exultant poem allows us to vicariously enjoy the feelings of flying a fast fighter aircraft, the joy of speedy freedom of movement in any direction and the pleasure of travelling to heights that few had ever seen at the time, an experience that the poet likens to touching the face of God.

This is the only poem of the three that dates from the Second World War. John Magee Jr was a Canadian pilot who flew Spitfires at RAF Digby and RAD Wellingore in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Rugby School and was influenced by the poetry of Rupert Brooke, who had also been at Rugby and had won the school’s Poetry Prize 34 years before Magee won it for a poem about the interment of Brooke’s body.

This is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force; it is inscribed on the back of the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, and is also quoted on the memorial to the Red Arrows pilots Jon Egging and Sean Cunningham (both killed in accidents in 2011) at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

We will never know what other poems Magee might have composed, for he was killed in an accidental collision with another aeroplane in December 1941. He was not yet 20 years old, and so this poem stands for the tragedy of war—the senseless loss of promising lives.

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