Let the angels weep for you
And let bombs turn to doves.
Let the eagle stay in the mountain high
And not hunt tonight.
Let the wild wolf howl for my sorrow
As she cries your name in vain.
As the sun sets on you,
On your weary eyes.
But blood is blood
And the sky is the open sky.
Let the angels weep for you
Because the seas calm when you smile.
Simon Roots is a local ‘singer-songwriter’. We met at an ‘Open Mic’ Night at the Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth where a group of poets, singers and musicians performed their work. Simon had a definitive style and his singing held strong emotion. Although quietly spoken in conversation, once on the stage he assumed a confidence through his music. I was extremely pleased when he showed interest in becoming involved in the England Remembered Project. He took away an image from the England Remembered series and just a few weeks later I received Desolation Angels.
He was particularly keen that the audience should hear the words spoken by a female voice at the England Remembered Performance, reasoning that “the poem was written from a female perspective, like a love poem from home to the front, signified by “my sorrow”. It could be a girlfriend or a wife who has lost a partner or husband….”
At our initial meeting Simon mentioned that his poem might appear closer to song lyrics than traditional poetry, but here those definitions are blurred and the words could be equally set to music or read as verse. The lines are powerful in their directness, characterised by the tone and rhythm, and brought to mind the cadence of Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘Pain’.
Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty…Not the wisest knows,
Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour’s way meant. Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun.—
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.(1)
‘Pain’ was the second of five sonnets, under the title ‘Sonnets 1917 (To the Memory of Rupert Brooke)’ and published in his first poetry collection ‘Severn & Somme’. “In a letter to his great friend, the music critic Marion Scott, Gurney called ‘Pain’ the blackest of the five and told her that the poems were ‘intended to be a sort of counter blast against (Brooke’s) ‘Sonnets 1914′, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer.’ Ivor described his sequence as ‘a protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large.’ ‘Old ladies won’t like them’ he ventured, ‘but soldiers may.’(2)
Tim Kendall in his blog ‘War Poetry’ claims there is a precariousness about Gurney at his best. ‘Too tired merely to stir’ is somehow better than the more conventional ‘too tired even to stir’, because it stresses that even a tiny hint of movement might save the men and horses from their fate.’ ‘The amazed heart cries out on God, not to God. The phrase is caught between accusation, imprecation and supplication….. (3)
After his demobilisation in 1918, Gurney tried to resume his music studies, but ill-health intervened. He spent his last 15 years in the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford, where he continued to compose and write poetry including ‘The Mangel-Bury’. A mangel-bury is a thatch used to cover mangelwurzels being stored for cattle-food. Carol Rumens (describing this verse for The Guardian: poem of the week) felt “for the recently demobbed Gurney, its shape recalls a trench, or, possibly, a grave”.
It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras –
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place – along the hedge’s yet-bare lines.
West spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.
Across the flat country the rattling of the cart sounded;
Heavy of wood, jingling of iron; as he neared me I waited
For the chance perhaps of heaving at those great rounded
Ruddy or orange things – and right to be rolled and hefted
By a body like mine, soldier still, and clean from water.
Silent he assented; till the cart was drifted
High with those creatures, so right in size and matter.
We threw with our bodies swinging, blood in my ears singing;
His was the thick-set sort of farmer, but well-built –
Perhaps, long before, his blood’s name ruled all,
Watched all things for his own. If my luck had so willed
Many questions of lordship I had heard him tell – old
Names, rumours. But my pain to more moving called
And him to some barn business far in the fifteen acre field.(4)
“We see, as the poet sees, his uncertain younger self, waiting for the chance to help the farmer, convincing himself it’s only right that he should; and, around that silent encounter, we sense a host of inarticulate longings….”
Rumens concludes that “in his ‘asylum” poems, Gurney sometimes hurls himself into a desperate argument with God and fate, but not here. Here, like his remembered self, he quietly shoulders the final disappointment, The farmer has other business to attend to, and the poet is driven on by his clamouring private demons. There is no self-pity or recrimination….”(5)
Simon has kindly contributed his poem ‘Desolation Angels’ to the England Remembered Book.
Tim Kendall is Professor of English at Exeter. Editor, Poetry of the First World War (OUP). Presenter, Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War (BBC TV, 2014). President of The War Poets Association.
Carol Rumens writes the hugely popular ‘Poem of the Week’ feature for The Guardian. Cholmondeley Award winner, Prudence Farmer Prize for poetry and joint recipient of an Alice Hunt Bartlett Award. Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at the Universities of Hull and Bangor. Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Header image © Jacky Dillon (Close-up Lily Pond, Gardens, Hinton Ampler NT)
(1) Gurney, Ivor, ‘Pain’, within “Letter: To Marion Scott.,” First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed May 30, 2020, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/items/show/9374.
(2) Kendall, Tim, war-poets.blogspot.com – Ivor Gurney: ‘Pain’, Thursday 1 October 2009.
(4) Rumens, Carol, Poem of the week: The Mangel-Bury by Ivor Gurney| Books | The Guardian 22 February 2020