Vita Sackville-West – Sea Poem

Above picture is of Vita Sackville- West in 1918, by William Strang. in public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Recently came across the notion of ‘combat gnosticism’ – can someone who has never experienced being under fire really be in a position to write war poetry? Not sure where the term originated but certainly has come to prominence again a few years ago via an article by one James Campbell titled ‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’.

But if the human imagination is skilled enough, the poet can get to a dimension where they can channel the impression of someone else’s experience ? My first response was ‘yes’ ! Seems to be a unique contention for war poetry. I mean how many people would seriously dismiss Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ on the basis that the poet wasn’t actually present at the Peterloo Massacre. But Shelley was commenting on what he viewed as an outrage, rather than trying to convey the experience of being part of a panic stricken crowd being faced with charging dragoons, so perhaps not a good parallel .

Was pondering said point again when looking at Vita Sackville -West’ s poem ‘The Sailing Ships’, which appeared in the fifth and final Georgian Poetry anthology 1920-1922.I am trying to establish when the poem was written. Looking at the acknowledgements in the Georgian Poetry anthology, looks like ‘The Sailing Ships’ first appeared in Vita Sackville-West’s collection ‘Orchards and Vineyards’ (1921).

The poem opens

” Lying on Downs above the wrinkling bay
I with the kestrels shared the cleanly day ”

The narrator seems to be in some enchanted dream state, watching ‘lovely ships’ seemingly gliding through the Channel. There’s a delightful couplet or two.

” The porpoise’s slow wheel to break the sheen
Of satin water indolently green ”

The focus then moves on to a make believe voyage, away from The drowsy Channel scene. Of course sailing ships themselves would be quite archaic by the time the poem was published. There are references to

” When headlands into ken
Trod grandly; threatened; and were lost again,
Old fangs along the battlemented coast;”

The ship then travels to a range of places , ‘Thessaly’, ‘desert verge below a sunset bar’ along with ‘tropic estuaries. The image of the sailing ship recedes; another boat must be making such long journeys. But the vessel turns homeward ready to have its cargo examined by ‘London clerks with paperclips’.

The poem then abruptly transforms in its last verse:

” Clerks that had never seen the embattled sea,
But wrote down jettison and barratry,
Perils, Adventures, and the Act of God,
Having no vision of such wrath flung broad;
Wrote down with weary and accustomed pen
The classic dangers of sea-faring men;
And wrote ‘Restraint of Princes,’ and ‘the Acts
Of the King’s Enemies,’ as vacant facts,
Blind to the ambushed seas, the encircling roar
Of angry nations foaming into war. ”

The Summer idyll of the Downs , the hazards of a sea odyssey, the theme of sailors v. ‘landlubbers’ suddenly swerve to an awareness of the sea as being ‘ambushed’ , it’s no longer the sailors that are in danger from the sea, the sea is now passive whilst the ‘angry nations (are) foaming’.

The clerks seem detached from the reality of war just as much as the perils of the seas. Recording losses due to enemy action as ‘vacant’ facts. Furthermore, ‘Barratery’ , civic litigation , can not compare with ‘Angry nations foaming into war’.

Perhaps this is where poetry has a role. One hundred years later we need media that tries to convey impressions of experience, to stop us appearing as detached as the ‘London clerks with their paper-clips’. Yet are said ‘clerks’ going to be derided for being indifferent to conflict at sea but also chided if they tried to write creatively as if they somehow understood the gap, maybe a chasm, that exists between their life and those who directly experience combat? Personally I think that the human imagination should be used to try to interpret experience other to our own even though this may antagonise those who have a more authentic claim.


Sailing ships -text


Combat Gnosticism 

 ‘the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of existence that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience’

Have lifted James Campbell’s definition from Professor Tim Kendall’s ‘War Poetry’  blog entry from 2009.

Combat Gnosticism-article

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