Dark waters into crystalline brilliance break
About the keel, as through the moonless night
The dark ship moves in its own moving lake
Of phosphorescent cold moon-coloured light;
And to the clear horizon, all around
Drift pools of fiery beryl flashing bright
As though, still flashing, quenchless, cold and white,
A million moons in the dark green waters drowned.
And staring at the magic with eyes adream,
That never till now have looked upon the sea,
Boys from the Middle-West lounge listlessly
In the unlanterned darkness, boys who go
Beckoned by some unchallengeable gleam
To unknown lands to fight an unknown foe
My pal Sea Jane from the Great War Forum kindly directed me to this poem here. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham in 1878, and had several poetry collections published in his life, dying in 1962. This poem is from an anthology A miscellany of poetry – 1919 edited by W. Kean Seymour with decorations by Doris Palmer (London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1919).
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson is an intriguing figure. Connected to the Georgian poets, being friends with Rupert Brooke and renowned literary patron Eddie Marsh, he managed to have work included in all the Georgian Poetry anthologies from 1913-1922, and was a prolific writer of poetry.
Gibson’s war poetry is so effective that it has been assumed that he fought on the Western Front. Perhaps his poem ‘Breakfast’ is the most known about a soldiers’ life on the Front.
“We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax… ”
In fact Gibson was rejected for war service due to poor eyesight until 1917 ,then able to join the Army Service Corps Motor Transport . He never saw active service overseas . Largely forgotten from the mid-1930’s onwards, attempts have been made to revalue his work. Martin Stephens in his 1996 work ‘The Price of Pity ‘ paid his tribute to his use of the colloquial language of the ordinary soldier. Professor Tim Kendall included a section on Gibson in his 2013 anthology ‘Poetry of the First World War ‘ , stressing that “Gibson’s Battle (1915) was among the first volumes of poetry to convey the actualities of War as experienced by common soldiers’. Tim Kendall maintains that Gurney, Sassoon, Owen, Graves and Rosenberg all praised his work.
Returning to poem ‘Troopship’ , it certainly was a poem in two halves. The first verse depicts the troop ship as a lake of light crossing a dark ocean. The second verse focusing on the mid-West boys who were being sent of to war in another continent :Why was Gibson using the SS Baltic and the passage of US troops to the Western Front as a theme? Drawing on Tim Kendall above, seems that Gibson embarked on a lecture tour of the USA in the first half of 1917, so would have been there when the USA declared war on Germany . The first half of 1917 saw a huge number of Allied ships being destroyed by U boats so an Atlantic crossing had its dangers.
Perhaps Gibson’s work helped stimulate war poetry by encouraging those fighting to write about how they perceived their experience of conflict. Alternately the fact that Gibson didn’t directly see the fighting may make his war poems of only secondary value. But ‘Troopship Mid-Atlantic’ needs to be added to the website page on ‘Troopships’