On 27th February 1918 , 21 year old Royal Naval Air Service Commander Miles Jeffrey Game Day was shot down over the North Sea by enemy fighters. His commanding officer reported that his plane landed on the water but his body was never found.
In 1919 an anthology of his work ‘Poems and Rhymes’ , with a short memoir written by his friend Edward Hilton Young who would also have his own poetry collection ‘A Muse at Sea’ published that year. The collection includes poems about the countryside surrounding Day’s family home, near St. Ives in the Fenland, some humourous verses, and observations about the war in the air and sea.
Baron Edward Hilton Young Kennet ( born in 1879) was devastated by his younger friend’s death, and three of his own poems reference Day : ‘At the Gate ‘ shows how Hilton Young found his memories of Jeffrey Day ( ‘I too the hero-soul of one who died / And lit the day ‘ ) a great comfort whilst just about to go into action during the Zeebrugge Raid on 23rd April 1918. Another poem from ‘A Muse at Sea’ titled ‘Air Service’ was dedicated to ‘M.J.G.D. 1896-1918) . ‘The Return’ describes Hilton Young visiting the Fenland shortly after the Great War : Jeffrey Day had promised to show him the Fenland , Hilton Young depicts his visit to the area and how he mourns for Jeffrey Day. One of most poignant and sadly overlooked Great War ‘aftermath’ poems.
The memoir acknowledges that Day was already a sub-lieutenant of the Royal Naval Air Service by the age of eighteen, and though accomplished at the war at sea, was promoted to a Western Front squadron . He was to receive the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. What is hard to fathom is how much the two friends discussed and possibly inspired each other’s poetry. There’s not much evidence of a celebrated literary friendship on the Sassoon/Owen or the Sassoon/Graves lines .
‘Poems & Rhymes’ is particularly striking because one is presented with the only poems of a young man who never got the opportunity to develop their own literary ability. It’s not clear how many of Day’s poems were printed during his lifetime, or even before his anthology was published. An piece in ‘The Spectator; of 6th April 1918, titled ‘ An Airman Poet’ suggests that this magazine published a Day poem ‘An Airman’s Dream’ in 1917. ( source http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/6th-april-1918/11/an-airman-poet ).
The selected poem-‘The North Sea’- was most probably written in 1916 when Day was nineteen. . There is no attempt to be convey the horror of war or to justify war. War simply is and a sense of monotony prevails. Hilton-Young had written quite a patriotic but bleak poem titled ‘North Sea Stars’ whilst serving on board HMS ‘Iron Duke’ in 1915.
“And we,while thus we traverse endlessly
the waste, unkindly places of the sea,
by sailor’s peril and by exile’s pain.
But in Jeffrey Day’s poem there is at first a sense of dreary inertia which the Sun can’t even reach. Particularly interesting observation concerning the Great War at Sea. A fair amount of the Royal Navy’s and Royal Naval Air Service’s activity involved patrolling and blockading. There is a posthumous irony that the North Sea would be Day’s grave after he decried the lack of action there. Yet at the end there is the eerie prophetic lines .
“Death we will face with glee
tis the weary wait that matters.”
The high casualty rate amongst the pilots of the Royal National Air Service and the influence of Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Forsees his Death’ might lead us to place too severe an interpretation on these lines a century later Or is this simply a bit of grim irony? That waiting for death in the North Sea is actually worse than its occurrence.
The last lines-
‘Tis a fight to the death ; ’tis war ;
and the North Sea is redly reeking”
Are intriguing. The sea ultimately proves to be a chaotic element, which thrives on conflict.
The North Sea
Dawn on the drab North Sea ! —
colourless, cold, and depressing,
with the sun that we long to see
refraining from his blessing.
To the westward — sombre as doom :
to the eastward — grey and foreboding :
Comes a low, vibrating boom —
the sound of a mine exploding.
Day on the drear North Sea ! —
wearisome, drab, and relentless.
The low clouds swiftly flee ;
bitter the sky, and relentless.
Nothing at all in sight
save the mast of a sunken trawler,
fighting her long, last fight
with the waves that mouth and maul her.
Gale on the bleak North Sea ! —
howling a dirge in the rigging.
Slowly and toilfully
through the great, grey breakers digging,
thus we make our way,
hungry, wet, and weary,
soaked with the sleet and spray,
desolate, damp, and dreary.
Fog in the dank North Sea ! —
silent and clammily dripping.
Slowly and mournfully,
ghostlike, goes the shipping.
Sudden across the swell
come the fog-horns hoarsely blaring
or the clang of a warning bell,
to leave us vainly staring.
Night on the black North Sea !—
black as hell’s darkest hollow.
we search for the ships that follow.
One are the sea and sky,
dim are the figures near us,
with only the sea-bird’s cry
and the swish of the waves to cheer us.
Death on the wild North Sea ! —
death from the shell that shatters
(death we will face with glee,
’tis the weary wait that matters) :—
death from the guns that roar,
and the splinters weirdly shrieking.
‘Tis a fight to the death ; ’tis war ;
and the North Sea is redly reeking
Yet perhaps it is misleading to consider ‘The North Sea ‘ as necessarily typical of Jeffrey Day’s work. To take the start of his poem ‘The Joy of Flying’ ( also from ‘Poems and Rhymes’) shows how liberated Day felt as a pilot.
The Joys of Flying
There is no pleasure a man may have on earth
which can compare
in any way with a similar pleasure that he may
have in the air, wheresoever and whatsoever his dreams of bliss
he would enjoy them more by air than he would
by land or sea….
Perhaps that’s a more fitting epitaph to his memory.
An online text version of ‘Poems and Rhymes’ can be found here.
Update : The Great War at Sea Poetry Blog has been updated to feature a post about another RNAS poet, Paul Bewsher, who also wrote about the North Sea .