Henry Treece – ‘Air Raid’

Graham Sutherland : bomb damaged buildings and twisted girders set against smoke and an evening sky. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 893)

Was recently reading an anthology ‘More Poems from the Forces By Serving Members Of the Navy, Army, and Air Force’ edited by Keidrich Rhys from 1943 ‘ This Volume is dedicated to the U.S.S.R. 

Said anthology has some intriguing work such as Peter Hellings ( Aircraftman 2, R.A.F. )

FROM DISTANT LANDS
(For the writers and artists of Europe who have been forced to leave their own countries )

” From distant lands
They have come,
Across centuries held in the grip of murderous hands,
Leaving the bitter mirth
And the mock heroics of the drum
In the clear air
Of this town
A painter of men and women is caught in the flare
Of the great grief of the earth
Like workers breaking stone
For the blood and the bone
Have returned
Life African fetishes or the burial of a nation’s sun,
And under the threat of death
Pictures and books have been burned …….”

One aspect of World War 1 poetry that is not always very endearing is the indifference the acclaimed War Poets seem to demonstrate  towards the plight of  civilians- even refugees are rarely included in the ‘pity of war’ . The above poem-from World War 2- at least recognises displacement of artists .

Henry Treece, 22nd December 1911- 10th June 1966 , another RAF serving officer, depicted the unbearable tension of being caught in an air raid in a poem that also found its way into the above volume. So far have not established whether Treece himself flew on any bombing missions. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography isn’t clear on this point – stating that he ‘”joined the volunteer reserve of the RAF in 1941, attaining the rank of flight lieutenant but serving mainly as an intelligence officer”. Already an accomplished and published poet before the War,  and co-founder of the New Apocalypse movement,  Treece jointly edited a collection with John Pudney titled ‘Air Force Poetry’ , published in 1944.

AIR -RAID

” Here then a testament, drawn from my heart’s black well
Like a bucket of blood;
It is still night and the steel birds hover
Over my paltry house on the hill,
Hover and hover. O will they fly over,
Away to the sea and let me lie still?
It is no food
This carrion hunts for; the hand on the lever
Knows no flesh’s hunger; the pitiable kill
Is child at the body, or lover to lover
Counting the hours to a kindly future
In a house that can be over or under the hill
If this hell will but pass, and death cover his feature.

Have they gone then, away, and left body still breathing,
The clock on the wall?
The fire crackles gently, the door swings ajar,
The stairs with the ghost of a footstep are creaking.
Away at the coast the waiting guns fire,
At the shadow of death and his terrible speaking,
They turn again,
Re-seeking a prey, or retreating in fear,
Their heartless black hears a black litany croaking..
But there’s only one hymn that we wait to hear,
And that is the Raider Past siren wailing….
It’s morning again and the baby is teething,
There’s a crack an inch wide in the drawing room ceiling. ”

One of the most surprising poems about air raids must be Dylan Thomas’  ‘Failure To Mourn the Death by Fire, of a Child ‘ , suggesting that the death of a child is a subject that is simply beyond words. Dylan Thomas was in London from 1940- 1944, taking the second from last verse.

” The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.”

Other major poems dealing with Air Raids include ‘ Air Raid Across The Bay At Plymouth’  by Stephen Spender and ‘Elegy on a City’  by Julian Symons.

Overall the ‘War in the Air ‘poetry has not considered to be of great significance : Perhaps the most famous example of this genre would be W.B. Yeats’  ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ from 1919 with its staggering opening lines;

“I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love “…..

I use the term ‘perhaps’ quite deliberately. W.B.Yeats generally opposed the writing of war poetry , and was famously dismissive of Wilfred Owen’s work, but its hard to avoid detaching ‘An Irish Airman….’ from the category of ‘War Poetry’ even though the poem embodies individual detachment from colossal events.

There will be more on Henry Treece on this blog in the future, particularly his involvement in the Transformation anthologies, that appeared annually between 1943-1947, combining poetry, prose, drama and art.

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