The hitherto unknown wartime poems by Robert Conquest, with commentary by his wife and editor Elizabeth, take us back to a time when national survival was in mortal peril
Lieutenant Robert Conquest, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in June 1940 (©Elizabeth Conquest)
“The poet is a hardy life-form . . . ”
— Robert Conquest, in the Introduction to New Lines
Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: “What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.” And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article “How Resilience Works”: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.
Bob was physically resilient as well. On the morning of May 28, 2008, after an 11-hour flight from San Francisco to London, we fell into Bev Cohen’s welcoming arms for a short nap at Perrymead Street, after which she and Ken Minogue gently conveyed us to the Wallace Collection to celebrate the launch of Standpoint. We found the courtyard brimming with the great and the good, waiters swirling around potted trees as they plied guests with champagne. Tom Stoppard gave a witty speech about the magazine’s raison d’être — to “defend and celebrate Western civilisation”. Clive James emerged from the throng calling, “Bob! I didn’t know you were in town. When did you arrive?” A mischievous smile accompanied the reply, “This morning.” Perhaps not what one might expect from a 91-year-old, but then Bob’s first words to others was inevitably “What’s new?”, and what better way to find out than to be in Manchester Square that night.
Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters.
Though I probably knew more about his past than any living person, a great many things about Bob’s life came more clearly into focus, especially as I read through several thousand letters written to his mother, close friends (Amis, Larkin, Anthony Powell), Margaret Thatcher, and many other literary and political figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Other than the fabled (and even in these liberal times, still unprintable) “Mexican Pete” — a sequel to the folk ballad “Eskimo Nell” written with his friend John Blakeway during the final Oxford “Schools” term of 1939 as they waited for the war they knew was coming — there were no shocking revelations. Instead, I was left with an increased appreciation of a long and full life. To paraphrase Walter de la Mare on Jane Austen: with love and loss, success and failure, life made him familiar.
From a young age, Bob wrote poetry. In 1931, as part of the exams that won him both a scholarship at Charterhouse and a place at Winchester, he wrote “Perseus” — 34 lines of heroic couplets in which Polydectes, Hermes, Pallas Athena and Andromeda make appearances. At Winchester, and as an Oxford undergraduate, he filled notebooks with verse, much of it surrealist. Two of these appeared in 1938, in Julian Symons’s magazine Twentieth Century Verse (one reprinted later in The Penguin Book of Surrealist Verse). He filled more notebooks during the war — battered but still legible records of his early work.
In 1945, while serving in Bulgaria, Bob received a letter from Symons suggesting he enter a competition sponsored by PEN for the Brazil Prize, to be awarded to the best long poem by a British author about the war. He sent — in four sections on Service airmail letters — “For the Death of a Poet, for D. A., killed in Italy, December 1943”. The judges — Richard Church, C. Day Lewis, and Herbert Read — were unanimous in selecting this poem from the 250 entries submitted. (Another — “In the Marshes” — won a Festival of Britain prize.) Years later he wrote,
The war’s effect on my own writing (in intention at least) was to make me seek clarity and honesty untainted by the symbolism and pretentiousness that marred the poetry I had written as an undergraduate. It also — in the Mediterranean Theatre, though this would not probably be so true of the Western Front — made one more sensitive and responsive to the qualities of sky and landscape, of the phenomenal world, in contrast both to the ruined cities and desolated farmlands and to one’s own possible impending extinction.
Some of the poems in these notebooks appeared in Bob’s first collection The Colour of Doubt, published by Macmillan in 1955 as Poems. But not all. In these unpublished poems one glimpses the turbulence — personal and political — of those years.
Sanguinoso esce della trista selva. (Purgatorio, IIV, 64)
Training Unit: Winter
Intense clouds ache above the estuary,
Angles of bitter reflected light,
A knife of liquid lightning lies on the sea,
Cold acids etch the air and burn the sight.
Ice clamps the soil solider on its rocks,
In seven planes the vista receded,
With mineral violence reaches away, strikes
Surfaces off the eye: the brain bleeds.
Set for whose plan or pleasure, scenery
Of the heart’s year-long desert? But
Of what cold hatred this machinery
Of vision gripped like a vice at the throat?
Granite and water are tons in the heart
And the war is heavy and the winter’s unfree
Fists of Will. With numbing hurt
Hypnotic gales freeze the mind’s sea,
Where the joy is long since lost, swept on that tide
Down years of time and half a world of space . . .
Yet waking in the morning, by my side
I almost see her face.
At the Time
Two years ago the permanent life of dew
In gardens in early morning, a cool delight
Translucent timeless pleasure
On the island of continuous love.
Sweet isolation in a double tremor
When the outer peace too trembled on an island,
Then lack of trust in
Both chanceries and kisses.
Today I only want to remember the kisses,
Alone with the poisons of winter and Europe
Remember the inextinguishable stars
And the comforting flowers.
The flesh a fountain of transparent flame,
A revelation and an absolute:
O dark hair and soft mouth
Remain with me forever.
But they did not remain. The whole dream seized up solid.
The lines of perspective became parallel.
Everything went away
And the pain stayed.
Yet today I only want to remember the time
When time existed under all the surfaces
Before truth became memory:
The flower that really shone.
How she came closer, completely nearer
Than anyone, ever, visible in darkness,
In some absolute centre
Of complete illumined joy . . .
Meanwhile I wish her everything and only keep her
Sweet and soft in her blinding lightning
As the image in my heart
That lets life loose.
For I do not know how I can pierce without her
The absolute iron of this war, our frightful years.
So ask that image now to be
Always, always, by my side.
That Girl, That War
Si Tacet Hane Loquitur (Martial)
Her image easily absorbs the music.
The poems circle it like angry wasps
And in the heart the shaping echo gasps
And stumbles in those labyrinths of magic,
Where it can never find the way
To sing into the centre of the pleasure,
Distorted wholly by the fearful pressure
That brings her image sweetly into play.
He sings. A voice that only speaks
The wars and angers as a clear distortion
Of where the presence and the image part.
She is the pleasure that the poetry seeks,
And in the War, sung through a thrice-torn heart,
She features as the pain and the exhaustion.
Evening in Apulia
Hours have passed. The sea glow
Warms and deepens into dusk. Swallows
Flicker and dip over the harbour. And the sun,
A ripe bursting slower, low on the Apennines,
Sheds on the paper an apocalyptic light.
But I look back upon lines awkwardly stating
The elements of a problem.
The train at half-past nine
Pulls north into another life. I am not ready
For the waiting questions. For five years, or ten,
Let me read, hunger and enjoy,
Live the poet’s life
In the interstices of politics and horror:
The human sanity on its sandbank standing
In the rough rising ride.
And perhaps then
Through all the conscious disciplines,
Proud, sensuous and sceptical,
A poem like a passionate sun might rise
From this small life to light an iron age,
Giving its independent ethic out against
Improbable messianic consolations,
The beast-cry and the sirening future.
And if not, still such failure
Is better than all the other loud successes,
And to have left inside the failure
If not the poet, the free human,
If not the colossal poem for which an age labours,
At least a few refreshing moments, the last sip of a flask
Supporting life for someone somewhere
Until the sweet oasis. I will try.
Yes, the chances are against it: and the method may be wrong,
For the art’s rules are uncertain. —Perhaps already
By a damp northern hill now some neurotic
Works on, works on into that brilliant future
Burning his lonely anger to a poem.
Much later, Bob observed that the poems in the notebooks seemed to form something of a record in verse of the decade 1940-1950. Though not in any direct sense autobiographical, he recognised a certain personal development running through the series:
In a way I find this rather surprising. I would be the last person to look for any signs of the Zeitgeist in my own poetry, which has, indeed, been largely lyrical. Moreover, it is true, and I think it is more than personally significant, that the “sequence”, even though still in a social context, ends with nothing more than a simple and tentative attitude to individual experience. Fear of death, most public and most private of all feelings, certainly appears, for at that time many of us fully expected to run a serious risk of dying after discomfort and pain. Some did, of whom (apart from Keith Douglas) Drummond Allison was the best of the English poets. He was not a close friend: indeed, I do not see how one could write a poem of that sort about a close friend’s death.
In 1946 Bob was demobilised, flying to Bari, then boarding a troop train to London, via Milan, through France. The train pulling him into another life stopped in Paris, where he learned that a close friend, Maurice Langlois, had been working with one of the underground groups, taken by the Gestapo, and executed. He would dedicate his first collection of poems to Maurice, but made no attempt to write of his death as he had done when Allison was killed. “Lament for a Landing Craft”, much less personal, is typical of the poems published after the war.
Lament for a Landing Craft
Four fathoms under the green
Water, canted between
Two rocks, half on its side
Under the lowest low tide
The flat hull now dimly seen
Bore an armoured machine
Towards the golden wide
Beach, but the forts replied,
Till the swell and the fury were clean
Gone, and it entered a scene
Of soundless shimmer and glide
Heavy with myth. Time died.
And the years’ and the waters’ sheen
Smoothed out this image, serene
Enough, perhaps, to provide
For eternity’s moods, and to guide.
Men escaped, or have been
Made smooth bone by the keen
Teeth. And the weeds hide
Skull, keel, plan, pride.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Bob’s serious verse took the lyrical form. Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Lyric verse is the best armour, the best cover. You don’t give yourself away” — and like her, he was discreet about events in his personal life, and restrained in expression. At the end of the war he had written to his mother: “All I really want to do is go somewhere alone and write.” Instead, with a family to support, he joined the Foreign Office, and over the next ten years was posted to Bulgaria (where he witnessed the brutal Stalinist takeover), to the United Nations, and then to the Information Research Department — experiences useful in grasping the realities of international politics.
Throughout Bob’s time at the Foreign Office he continued to write — and publish — poetry. Indeed, he first came to public attention as a poet. The first reference to him in the USSR was in the Large Soviet Encyclopaedia Yearbook for 1957, there described as a poet and anthologist — a reference to New Lines, an anthology Macmillan had asked him to put together. The Cambridge Introduction to Poetry, 1945-2010 named it “the pivotal anthology of mid-century poetry”, which “had an outsized influence on the course of British poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century and helped shape a discourse and set of arguments around English poetry that linger today”. In the Introduction, Bob made the case for poetry “written by and for the whole man, intellect, emotions, senses and all . . . empirical in its attitude to all that comes”. Describing the poets in the anthology (Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, John Wain, and himself), he wrote: “We would have agreed with no less a product of classicism than Gibbon himself, who spoke of the alternative aims of poetry being to ‘satisfy, or silence, our reason’. This seems a frightfully good account of what the poet should do.” Certainly his own poems fit that description, as we find in the last lines of “Galatea”, where the sculptor regards his creation with “The whole intent of art — /With passion and reserve.”
Sometimes the mask slipped. In another unpublished poem, “First Love”, he’d written: “Pardon his early poems that could confound a/Boy’s heartbreak with the images of war.” A decade passed before a chance meeting sparked, “Song”, a poem never included in any of his collections.
Yes, each was old enough to know
In theory, that the dark would pass
And through the years they would recover:
That in the accidents of time
They both would by another’s image
Replace the only, perfect lover.
Yet they were young enough to feel
Unstartled when they never found
The consolation Time contrives:
And knew that in their hearts and knowledge
They still were happier than many
— And only wept for half their lives.
Fifty years later, she is recalled once more in “Deep Down”:
Distanced, displaced, diminished
What’s left of love and beauty just survives
Like fragments of that figurine of Venus.
In all, Bob published nine volumes of poetry, though his works of history tended to overshadow this achievement. The last two — Blokelore and Blokesongs and A Garden of Erses — showcase his talent for light verse, particularly the limerick form. Larkin inscribed a copy of High Windows “For Bob — il miglior fabbro (or whatever it was) — at least over 5 lines, Philip.” Some years later, recounting Bob’s condensation of Jacques’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “Seven Ages” —
Seven ages: first puking and mewling;
Then very pissed off with one’s schooling;
Then fucks and then fights;
Then judging chaps’ rights;
Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.
— Larkin declared, “He is a genius.”
Others were less appreciative. Clive James tells of the late Karl Miller “expressing acidly sardonic moral disapproval of how Bob wasted his poetic talent on these little jokes”, and Clive himself has often expressed regret that there were not more of the “fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy”. I share that view, but remember the opening remarks of Bob’s 1997 address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when he said that of all the various awards for histories and serious verse he’d received over the years, he was “particularly touched and delighted to receive the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse — which honours those who are often thought of as skirmishers and sharpshooters rather than solid citizens of the world of arts and letters”.
David Yezzi called Bob’s “wry and devastating ‘Progress’ [“There was a great Marxist named Lenin . . .”] perhaps the most brilliant limerick of the 20th century”, making the point that “humour can also be fraught with emotion: like poetry, it accesses our most difficult feelings, even as it orders them and elucidates them”. Bob would have agreed: in the last chapter of his memoirs he writes of his own poetry as “an effort to impose artistic order on barely explored borderline regions of feeling”. His working habit was to write two or three books at once, penning the odd article or essay or poem at the same time. He thought it made a change in one’s day, and perhaps kept any of the lines from going stale. Noting that light verse almost always requires not only concentrated clarity but regular form selected soon after the original concept comes to mind, he found wrestling with the material in that context a pleasure. Sometimes he abandoned a project for years, until a phrase adequate to the theme came up to give life and surprise to the old form. Here — from the hand of the poet — are some of those surprises.
As I whizzed ’round my 35th lap,
I got quite bollocksed up on life’s map,
And the wood was damn’d dark —
Fuck that for a lark —
Well, there I was deep in the crap!
It’s sad about old Dylan Thomas,
Yes, alcohol’s taken him from us,
We all thought that screwing
Would be his undoing,
But he didn’t live up to his promise.
When Philip gets pissed off with death
He turns all prophetic and saith,
“Fuck death and fuck dying
The cosmos ain’t trying
— And Christ all this gin on my breath!”
Tom, much maligned as “that pisser”, peered
Till Lady Godiva had disappeared;
What he gazed at, of course,
Was her well-turned out horse:
Laurel-maned, ivy-tailed, hyssop-eared.