Arctic Waking by Alan Ross
Sky like a dog rose draws blood,
The tide mirrors my sailed love,
Through clouds of sea foamed green;
The white gull fastens on the skyline.
Foam-flecked the mooned wake curves,
an ocean grown white with roses,
Recessions of suns draw tides, coppering
The sea’s back, the scalloped hair of mermaids.
Shells bear retentive music through husks
Of night; my love’s hair floats green, like
Some Ophelia’s cold and wild the flowers
Of her eyes scattered under black water.
The free gull moves across white horses.
The dream grows dry with frozen thirst.
As dawn, the convoy alters course;
The sun comes up and slowly bursts.
Alan Ross ( 1922- 2001) served in the Royal Navy during World War 2, including a spell on the Arctic convoys. A newspaper columnist, travel writer, member of naval intelligence, ardent cricket fan, editor of ‘ London Magazine’ Ross ‘first book of poems The Derelict Day ( 1947) concerned Germany immediately after World War 2, an anthology Something of the Sea followed in 1954 -though only a third of the poems relate to the sea, and a number of them were reproduced in a subsequent collection Open Sea (1978). The poem ‘Survivors’ has already been covered by a blog entry from September 2015 and ‘Arctic Waking’ is also from Something …
Particularly like way this poem weaves from the credible ‘ Through clouds of sea foamed green’ through to the unreal ‘ An ocean grown white with roses’ . Also the folksy ballad lyric referencing ‘my sailed love’ and ‘my love’s hair’ along with an almost schoolboy interest in Ophelia , the drowned lover in stagnant water most famous from the Pre-Raphaelite painting by Sir John Everett Millais ( completed in 1852) displaced into a northern sea is peculiar . The notion that its the sun rather than the moon ‘drawing tides’ …well the impressions seem to be tumbling. Then the enchantment of the night is broken by the convoy altering its course at dawn, confronting an exploding sun.
I chose this poem because its slightly surreal. But also because from a historical point of view it tells us nothing about the nature of war. By contrast Alan Ross could write poems that are far more specific, such as the epic ‘J.W.51B A Convoy’ , with lines such as
‘Courses crossing, like lines on a hand,
Darkness disintergrating, and throwing up
Into the net of the morning, life fish,
A stranded sea of vessels, ignorantly
Approaching, British and German ‘.
Yet, it’s important to break the habit of somehow grading war poetry on the basis of what it tells us about war. ‘Arctic Waking’ arguably records the jumbled impressions of a young well educated man under pressure, whose still learning his craft as a poet. Perhaps the proverbial ‘baptism of fire’ , and a sense of the exploding sun wrecking everything else is evoked at the end of the poem. Perhaps not.
The title of Something of the Sea is taken from a poem -‘Loves Still Has Something of the Sea’ by Sir Charles Sedley , a Restoration poet, playwright and disgraceful drunk,
‘Love still has something of the sea,
From whence his Mother rose’
Love still has something of the Sea-Sir Charles Sedley (1639 -1701)
Love still has something of the sea,
From whence his Mother rose;
No time his slaves from doubt can free,
Nor give their thoughts repose.
They are becalm’d in clearest days,
And in rough weather tost;
They wither under cold delays,
Or are in tempests lost.
One while they seem to touch the port,
Then straight into the main
Some angry wind in cruel sport
Their vessel drives again.
At first disdain and pride they fear,
Which, if they chance to ‘scape,
Rivals and falsehood soon appear
In a more dreadful shape.
By such degrees to joy they come,
And are so long withstood,
So slowly they receive the sum,
It hardly does them good.
‘Tis cruel to prolong a pain;
And to defer a joy,
Believe me, gentle Celemene,
Offends the winged boy.
An hundred thousand oaths your fears
Perhaps would not remove,
And if I gaz’d a thousand years,
I could no deeper love.