Wednesday 26 July 2017

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets

'The common people do not understand poetry, are shy of poetry,  and though they have been taught to admire the true poets of the past are loath to admit that the race is not yet extinct. This is why very little work by living poets has a wide circulation except what is comfortably third-hand and third-rate. The people are not to be blamed: their difficulty is that despite all the charlatans, racketeers and incompetents who have disgraced the poetic profession, an aroma of holiness still clings to the title 'poet', as it does to the titles 'saint' and 'hero', both of which are properly reserved for the dead. It is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that the people are prepared to honour him...'
 They don't write Forewords like that any more. It's the opening of Robert Graves's foreword to the war poet Alun Lewis's posthumous collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (published 1945, the year after the poet's untimely death). I picked it up in a charity shop on my recent visit to Egham. The title is from the Book of Job: 'He [the horse] saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.'
 Alun Lewis is best known for the much anthologised All Day It Has Rained, a poem with something of an Edward Thomas flavour (written, in fact, in Edward Thomas country), and the touching Goodbye, which is in the Ha! Ha! volume. So too is Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape), an extraordinary, death-soaked poem that was the first of Lewis's I ever read:

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Lewis, initially a reluctant soldier (he was a pacifist and joined up as an engineer), inexplicably took a commission in an infantry battalion and was sent to India, then Burma. This gave him the material for many of the poems in his last collection, but the depression that had always dogged him grew worse - perhaps exacerbated by a love affair in India (he was married) - and he died not in combat but by his own hand. He was just 28.


  1. I notice that "All day it has rained" (what a superb ending it has) is in rhyming couplets. I reread "My Last Duchess" the other day. Patrick Kurp recently posted a poem by Turner Cassity in heroic couplets call "Energy Crises." It was excellent. The form still seems to have great possibilities.

  2. Oh and another also on Anecdotal Evidence by Thom Gunn - 'To Yvor Winters, 1955.'

  3. The foreword seems a bit ungrateful of Graves, who enjoyed a reputation as poet for something around seventy years. Hugh Kenner proposed that contemporaries see the human landscape, the writers who are published and talked about, posterity sees the energies of the age and the writers who embodied it.

  4. Quite so, George - and I don't think he'd have counted himself among the 'charlatans, racketeers and incompetents'. Kenner is right.