For a brief introduction to Gervase Stewart’s life and poetry, see this post.
These sixteen pieces are my personal selection. Except where indicated, items are culled from No Weed Death, 1942, hereafter NWD. I’ve tweaked some errant punctuation to clarify or restore meanings; as the Fortune Press’s printer was fond of typo’s, a few other corrections are noted as we go. Treece in NWD titled many pieces as “Poem”; where no other title exists I have used the first line.
Obituary notice for the Squire
(for Nicholas Moore)
He craved no weed death but a rose extinction,
Gracefully by degrees, resolved his dying
Should be more dignified, without compunction
Upon the family four poster lying,
All his relations standing by his side
To hear some final words before he died.
Last night a swineherd shouting in the square
Called everybody out from near and far
To hear the latest news about the squire
Killed on the by-pass by a motor-car.
The parson packed his bag and caught the train,
And no one ever went to church again.
Alone with his tremendous thoughts, the child
Weighed up his pennyworth of life for fun,
Behind locked doors where sisters could not chide,
Surveyed his furtive future on the run,
From pimpled youth parading promenade
To raw recruit parading with a gun.
Profoundly shocked by this precocious fiction
And fearing for the wickedness of man,
He soon conceived a novel jurisdiction,
Condemned himself and then contrived a plan
To carry out the sentence with the aid
Of childish conscience and a watering can.
His elder sister playing on the lawn
Was not a little startled when she found
His head immersed in water; with some scorn
She looked at him, shrugged shoulders, turned around
And ran to tell the family in the lounge.
The verdict was quite properly, “found drowned.”
[In Poets of Tomorrow 1940 this is titled “Alone”; in NWD, simply “Poem”, like so many others.]
Sitting in the warm realisation of sun
Under the awning, observing the siding,
Asleep. Blue pencil has inscribed summer
Across the sky in extravagant letter;
Comes to the mind the importance of small things,
Hedge leaf, solemnities of distant sounds,
Persistent tapping of cool wheels somewhere,
Consistent watch tick, slightly unpleasant,
Constriction in nostril, warmth on the nipple,
Circular burning sensation on navel,
Crack of a gun and cry of a pheasant –
Miles away some thin voice calling to someone.
Afternoon visit of train into station,
Steady breathing of sleeping water,
Several letters meet to be written,
Several others better forgotten,
Eventually the sly ambition
To shout and make proud silence totter.
Fat cloud smokes in centre sky,
Skilled that one, a knowledge that fate
Hangs in the air on a delicate petal
Precariously perched, but ignoring the prattle
Of hump backed crowds. Then blue vision fades
And you feel the wind’s sharp finger nails.
We have been alone before
We have been alone before, hearing square feet
Breaking the pavement silence up and down
And the hammer clock tapping the stone second
Not entirely unlike a Sunday in the town
With the lone bell beating about the air
And fourteen people talking up to church
Past the cenotaph; or the half brick
Dropped down the deep resounding well,
And the four of us waiting the distant splash
To float upwards like a swallow in full flight.
Have we not watched the terror of the night
Receding and winging up and down the stairs
And a floor board stretching in the heat
Has spoken death to us. You too have been alone
With the table lamp, standing as a lady stands
On Brighton beach in summer with her hands
Clasped ecstatically behind her head. You too have said,
“Today is the final day, the hour the last,
Tomorrow the third class compartment and common sense,
Lyons so many times next week, extravagance
Tuesdays and Thursday only.” You too have lied
And sneaked round corners to avoid the girl
So much impressed by you in August last.
And so the winter comes …
[“Lyons”, line 20: Lyons & Co tea shops, modestly priced but, according to Wikipedia, slightly more up market than their ABC counterparts. See T S Eliot, “A Cooking Egg,” in Poems, 1920: “Weeping, weeping multitudes droop in a hundred ABC’s.”]
Stay for the evening then, and we will break
Each passing hour to particles of light,
From unimportant stammer we will make
Bricks, and build towers where we can climb at night,
Castles in air which will not bear our flesh
But may sustain our thoughts.
Not to escape, but in our fireside way
To diagnose, with sympathetic hands
To mould tomorrow and repair today,
Scalpel and swab, sew up the seconds’ heads,
Inside the operating box
Dissecting steady time.
Then stay the evening, there is nothing here
You will not find upon the surgeon’s tray,
Gas hissing from the coal, the swinging heart
Of clocks, exposed and beating time away,
We have them at our mercy, do not go,
Stay, and experiment with time.
[An Experiment with Time: J W Dunne’s best seller on precognitive dreams and his “serialist” theory of time.]
Midnight. The clock weighs out an even dozen,
The voiceless city has no illustration,
And the twin searchlights like our country cousins
Cross and uncross their fingers in perturbed self-preservation.
Deftly the stars are conjured in the trick of evening.
The night is like a negro with a melon.
Further beyond the casement window’s opening,
Leashed and ungrowling squats the mastiff mountain.
And outside, each cobble like a muffled bell
Is sounded by the dilatory tread
Of waiters from the opposite hotel
Making towards the annexe and a bed
Within whose soft wide arms they may forget
The crepe suzette, the caviare, the hock,
The pâté de foie gras; but not to set
Their Ingersoll alarms for five o’clock.
Midnight flicks the calendar, and Autumn
Makes fibrous the topiary in a brown trimming,
Or shakes out all his leaves as an Alsatian
dries himself of green water after swimming.
When trees like illustrations of blood vessels in the lung
Are intricate, and only sky is green
At five o’clock, and interspersed by long
Fingers of cloud suffused in tangerine,
I am reminded of white waters where
Ten thousand minnow-tailed small fishes swim
In the involved reflections of her hair,
Distorted by the slidings in the dim
Stream. For it was peace time, and there is to say
Ineffectually what has been said before,
That rising in the error of the day
In no man’s heart was there the fact of war.
[Stanza 2, line 2, reads uncomfortably today, but the intention was innocent, and in other respects this poem deserves inclusion.]
At main line stations where such journeys have beginning
Blue tinted partings made we, with hooded trains above us
Hovering and like the fatal cobra hissing.
And we two of two hundred platform lovers
Trundled in wagons, making good our kissing
Until the moving train our parting covers
With the smoke, the garrulous lady, the soldier cursing,
The figure on the platform growing smaller,
And I not daring to withdraw my head lest the woman nursing
The sightless child shall offer consolation,
But watch the china potted poles grow taller,
Hearing her sad lips’ music in vibration
Of wide-strung wires against the background of the night,
And when at last dry-throated close the window,
To sit cornerwise beneath a smudge of light.
In an aroma of tobacco, sorrow
Collects, as mist about the outer moments of the moon,
And I am left to follow
The katabatic chatter of the train,
And wonder with a calculating eye
Would it be worth five pounds to pull the chain.
[The poem is given this title in the Oasis Trust’s Poems of the Second World War, 1985, but in NWD it is simply part IV of a six-part “Poem”. “Katabatic”: downwards moving (of air). On all trains a notice announced that the penalty for “improper use of the communication cord” (“pulling the chain”) was five pounds.]
Who weary of her applause her ingenuity applies
Who weary of her applause her ingenuity applies
Removes the green cap and the high heeled shoes
Whilst the precocious cat his head unscrews
And the bald-headed comedian his old face shows
Cheeks polished as a bowl of new apples;
Laying his soft skin neatly on the bed
Follows her along Aldwych to catch a train
Underground for Hackney. She adjusts a trim
Working coat to hide the Lincoln Green
Costume, and sits akimbo watching him,
Until, emerging out at Bloomsbury her [ ? ] shall tell
Of his birthplace by the small canemaker’s shop
Which they pass by towards old Clerkenwell.
Then Goswell Road, White Cross Street, Bunhill Row,
Dismounting at the hospital beyond
St. Luke’s, where in the night the long line of waggons go,
Driving the half dead history to a pyre
Etched in the memory by the moonlit symbol on the spire.
And when at last a worn tram draws a sparking bow
Across the wires and they ascend the hill
Attaché case in hand under the tall arch to find
Immaculate Hampstead laid in flats before, behind
The illegible credentials of the Highgate poor –
They walk on, the little woman and the wizened man
(And below them the city of the Golden legend,
My nurse’s story, Brondesbury, Holloway and Islington)
Without turning, Northwards, and the evening traffic
Decreasing, symbol of a Christmas Whittington,
The familiar route for a fourth time taking.
“Why is there resolution in your walking?
Pause at a mashe[sic] milestone dear,
Perhaps to be four time Lord Mayor
When Bow Bells ring.”
Soliloquising as they disappear –
“Sir Richard would not buy a pup.
He knew the milestones are all taken up,
And no bells ring.”
[Parts of this are not entirely coherent in NWD. Line 7 has “tram”, but of course only trains run underground. Line 11 has a word missing. The speech at line 30 begins at line 31 in NWD, but my adjustment seems reasonable. Line 31 has the meaningless typo “mashe milestone”, and “marker” would be very much my guess.
The Whittington Stone, marking the spot where Dick sat on a milestone and reputedly heard the famous bells, is at the foot of Highgate Hill. I’m not quite sure why a pantomime “principal boy” playing Dick Whittington would wear Robin Hood’s Lincoln green. For comparable incantational catalogues of place names see William Blake, Milton, I, 6, or T S Eliot, The Waste Land, III.]
Today; at the corner of world disaster
Today; at the corner of world disaster
Turning the organ, the bearded master,
The intelligent monkey, the gipsy songster,
Serious the children, sad the coster,
Who stumble upon old phrases of prophetic music
Involved with by-passers. Today; a mystic,
intrusive tomorrow has stolen the evening,
Exclusive as love in a crowded room,
Or flame in the grate. Staccato argument
Has ceased, ceased the rattle of words,
Tumbling like little stones in a tin can;
Has commenced the impassive stream of traffic,
All night returning from the terrific
Clangour of crowd in hall and promenade.
Now darkened, the entrance to the Winter Gardens barred,
Has ceased the brightly coloured maze
Moving massed and individual in the morning sun,
The languid lengths of fabulous white haze,
Acute to every caress of the wind, the wand
Of Summer infusing content to the bones
Has fallen. The bars of our national person
Have fallen. Today, a mystic tomorrow has stolen
Our evening, our future.
[The “national person” in the last line but two seems to make no sense, and “prison” would be my guess at correcting a possible typo. “Winter Gardens” might be the Tynemouth Aquarium and Winter Garden, generally known as the Plaza, which burned down in 1996, but then again the poem may be set in Blackpool.]
Day goes with sun as golden lift girls go
slipping to basement down the shaft of night.
Sea makes its soft shape comfortable, assumes
an easy shade, as from their broken rooms
in tribes the chosen people make for tubes,
take escalator down
to dream of bricks and straw and wait for dawn
at Earls Court, Leicester Square and Camden Town.
An end to January with broken snow –
anticipating spring, in local parks
tall guns point skyward, all along the coast
at intervals arranged. The heavier armament
directs its telescopic vision south
towards the forelock of the Channel ports;
and on the embankment over Westminster
(the boy’s ambition in fretwork) methodically is hoisted
an extravagant moon, easily to etch the city
in blue and silver. It is now. It is evening. It is London.
In a long fashion the mechanical murmur
of an approaching ‘plane divides the distance
between ourselves and destruction, and the dithering searchlights
rise and fall nervously, as hands arranging flowers
to no purpose, or with gathering instance
somewhere a train departs to somewhere else, and in
inadequate shelters up a thousand streets they hear
the terrible guns begin ….
and tomorrow in Tonbridge over tea
in the hall, with rationing and the obsequious clocks
repairing the silence, sheltered by the tall
trees which were your father’s pride, and my
image on the wall; observe
how – pausing for effect – they watched the glow
eating the clouds, and how like a
bridesmaid in red, waving red roses at a wedding,
it was; or that they visualised the flames
edging along the street by houses spreading
efficiently on predetermined lines
crimson as sunsets over Vauxhall lanes,
and firemen in brass hats, their steady jets
directed to the blaze, the whole conceived
like one of Alexander Korda’s sets
with an unruffled hero rescuing,
by proxy, an unruffled heroine
as bravely he
stands with decision on the roof top, jumps
to earn a cinematograph embrace –
(I really quite forget how many lumps
of sugar in your tea?)
And day which burst like shrapnel
on the untidy contours of this island,
set like a stool upon three legs in sea,
upon the roofs still burning, and the errors in roadways,
a Wren church fallen, a municipality broken,
a traffic diversion, the papers divulging
the bare minimum, and the necessary dead
neatly disposed of, the homeless cared for
carefully, the hungry fed. I shall go to my father
in Spain or in China, and show to my father
in Newdigate Street the measure of failure,
how all this world was his and he was happy,
lived in his little way and raised a family,
supported them by selling papers, said
nothing seditious, settled nothing, yesterday
only was living, and today
[The slightly odd title is in NWD, as are the lower case initial letters of each line, the exception to the rule there. There are several Newdigate Streets, including those in Derby and Nottingham, but not in Tynemouth or London. For “this island, set like a stool upon three legs in sea” see, famously, King Richard II, “… this sceptred isle … This precious stone set in the silver sea …”]
I burn for England with a living flame
I burn for England with a living flame
In the uncandled darkness of the night.
I share with her the fault, who share her name,
And to her light I add my lesser light.
She has my arm – who had my father’s arm,
Who shall not have my unborn children’s arms.
I burn for England, even as she burns
In living flame, that when her peace is come
Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn
Her sacrifice to profit – and the homes
Of those who fought to wreckage,
In a war for freedom – who were never free.
[Not in NWD. In Treece and Pudney’s Air Force Poetry, 1944, this is described as “written just before the author’s death”. There, “arms” in stanza 1, last line, is given as “arm”.]
Excerpts from The Two Septembers, a play , in Stefan Schimanski & Henry Treece, eds, Transformation Three 
From Act I Scene III
A PRECOCIOUS CHILD
I have skated my way to ephemeral fame
In remarkable time, have established my name
In the cities of Europe. America too
Has given me tests for the Hollywood Zoo.
My family are most insignificant folk.
I was weaned much too young and released from their yoke
To be thrust in the arms of obscene racketeers
Who invested my smile and made cash from my fears
At an alphabet age. They unplaited my hair.
I sat down a brunette, when I rose I was fair
As the rim of a cloud steeped in puddles of gold.
I’m not very clever, I’m not very old,
But I know who earns all that the family spends
In purchasing drinks for extravagant friends.
I know that my sister, I know that my brother,
Have secret affairs which they hide from their mother,
That father is not really all that he looks,
And that sex figures largely in all of his books.
And the present conditions, I know what they are,
With their sporadic crises, philanderings, war,
Secret hatchings of private political eggs,
And conference tables with rickety legs.
Stop trying to fool me, I’m young, but I’m wise
To the axes to grind the industrial lies,
And the rape and the profit. I know of it all.
Pacts made in the Summer are toilet by fall.
The foundations are snapping, decay’s in the floor.
We have done all we can, we can’t do any more.
I’m young, but I’m wise, and I’m interested still,
And I’ll struggle like hell to be in at the kill.
TOGETHER [Precocious Child, Something in the City, Clown and Countryman]
We have not forgotten summer but before us the winter
Lies with its milestones, measureless and immobile.
The cold time, expressionless as bright stars, stares
Persistent as a dead child by wind and water chilled.
We remember the summer when the warm child lived,
But winter draws his curtains as the impartial surgeon,
His sheaf of warm flesh, clipped, and carefully cut open,
Revealing the organs shining in their pocket,
Immaculate and fragile as a freshly opened packet
Of cigarettes, is the body of winter.
A man of fear and a man of wonder,
More than the past do we fear the future,
More than the present with its incandescent failure,
Do we feel the blind time of walking with our maker.
In the stealthy tread of clocks resounds the steps of strangers,
The footmen, the chauffeur, and the detailed undertaker.
[In Poets of Tomorrow 1940, this last piece is isolated as “Speech from a Play.” There, “measureless” in line 2 is given as “immeasureless.” Both there and in Transformation, the last but one line gives “resounds,” rather than the correct “resound.”]
From Act II Scene I
My well beloved, we sing no song of vineyards,
No fertile burning earth, no choice vines planted,
No wine-press lying idle, and no tower deserted,
Nor ask for judgement when the wild grapes come.
Today sun burns the thigh, ignites a candle
In neck and breast, and the land’s slim bullion
Of corn sways slowly. Laughter in the orchard,
Young teeth cleave apples, white hands fondle flowers,
Make manifest the Summer. In the garden
No lack of bloom. The tennis players returning
Take tea and sandwiches along the terrace
And watch the water wandering through the bridges
Breathless and eager. Later in the evening,
Both casements cast wide open, with the moonlight
Walking about the room: the summer people,
Minds chock full of today, forget tomorrow,
Dream neither past nor future but the present.
Neighbours, we recall
Amidst the virgin pleasure of it all,
The unrestricted children on the lawn,
Twelve silver wings which disappeared beyond the tall
Line of dignified poplars, and the wars
Discharged within our bloodstream raised their claws
To furrow at our hearts, attack our untouched throats
And beat us to our knees with wordless threats.
Neighbours, all the fears
We once had known descended like the rain
And pounded on our brains with bony feet;
The tents and hammocks taken from the garden,
The picnics cleared away, September memories
Like mourning dragged in shreds from the reluctant cupboards
Of the mind, and donned privately before the faceless mirrors,
Showed off our figures to the worst advantage.
Twelve months have passed, four seasons born and died,
Ostensibly the easy weeks walked past
With their unspeculative and lidless eyes
All centred on the ground. Whilst in reality
With each wild hour, with every untamed second
The young world aged, and the world’s skin wasted,
Shining and wrinkled as an old man’s arm
Exposed for a moment to candlelight;
And the world’s blood thinned within the veins
Of gigantic responsibility. The senility
Is apparent in the torpid actions of the limbs,
In the reluctant efforts of the lungs,
In the uncertain vision of the eyes.
Neighbours, in the midst
Of all our summer symphony, intrudes
The rowdy jazz of death, confined by men
Within the ribs of engines. Skeletons of death
Which walk above our heads, behind our hearts,
Which take off from the landscapes of our minds
And fall entwined within our fibrous lungs.
God save us from the sounds we have not heard,
Protect us from the blows we have not felt,
Preserve us from the great unspoken word.
[In Poets of Tomorrow 1940, this is isolated as “Chorus from a Play.” There, line 34 has “born and dead” for Transformation’s “born and died.”]
CHORUS OF WOMEN
When the great rolling stock of night was shunted
Away, the lumbering mass of morning came
Belching forth cloud and flame, and sat
Leisurely in the station of the sky. We said
Nothing. (Fumbling for our underwear, flung
Carelessly over a chair or hung
On the bedpost – “Another bloody day,” we thought. We said
Nothing; but, struggling into our clothes, were aware,
In the cold morning light, of some new temper in the air,
Breathed into our lungs, felt it
Exploring our pores. We said nothing
But descending lit the stove and watched
The spluttering bacon browning in the pan,
Attempting to escape behind routine,
And were trapped on all sides. We said
Nothing, afraid of ridicule.
“You think such things, you silly little fool,
Get such incredible ideas.” Our fears
Silenced us. Unbelieving jeers
Held on to tongues with fingers fast. Until
We caught our husbands’ eye and saw
The same great doubt imprisoned there.) We said
Nothing, but knew that all our eyes were friends
Allied against intoxicating fear
For which we had no name. The same
Rumour of despair had settled there. We said
Stranger, we fear the coming of September,
Fear it as the widowed mother
The telegram that talks disaster,
As the dancer
The fall in snow. An accident,
Facial disfigurement, the actor.
The hunter weaponless before the tiger,
The man condemned by cancer,
and sympathy in the eye of a doctor.
As the sniper
Spotted and short of ammunition,
The criminal before the cap of great decision.
We fear it with the overwhelming fear
Trapped in the rabbit’s blank, unwinking stare,
Or the rat smoked from its lair,
Cowering in the glare,
Demented with unrestricted and original terror.
As the clerk the error,
His wife consumptive and a mother
Counting her coppers, fearful for another.
The young man, syphilis. The old man, death.
The girl anemia, acne and bad breath.
The devil, god. Jew, persecution. All,
The unexpected writing on the wall.
All fears are known in one tremendous fear
Which beats our great heart small, and whittles down
Our bodies to a heap of trembling bones.
Stranger, we fear the coming of September.