In issue two (1944) of Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece’s New Apocalyptic review Transformation (For Treece, see here) appears a prefaced “In Memoriam” to four poets killed on service: Sidney Keyes, R Brian Scott, Gervase Stewart and Alun Lewis. Though the dedicatory poem by Richard Church doesn’t quite hit the spot – “Out of the tumbled plane, the dead boy … there flutters again the phoenix of death, whose song surprises” – its sentiment is honourable enough.
Of the four enfants perdus, the dead boy out of a tumbled plane who is not so well remembered as Keyes and Lewis is Gervase Stewart, killed in August 1941. Beyond contributions scattered among small magazines his only poetic legacy is a slim selection put together hastily by Treece and published by The Fortune Press in 1942. For title, Treece chose No Weed Death, culled from Stewart’s “Obituary notice for the Squire”:
He craved no weed death but a rose extinction …
If the choice of title was a happy one, Treece’s judgement in the selection of poems was maybe less secure. Even so, there’s enough quality in these three dozen small pages to show that Stewart was a poet of real ability who deserves our attention, even if his output had not yet achieved the volume and confidence of Keyes, Keith Douglas or Drummond Allison, the obvious comparisons. (For Allison, see here and here.) “Had he lived,” wrote Treece with maybe not too much exaggeration, “there is little doubt that he would have become one of the most eminent poets of his generation.”
Trevor Tolley noted approvingly Stewart’s “Audenesque stylishness,” and identified his strength in “an urbane blend of imaginative fantasy and a sensitive awareness of the everyday world that was characteristic of the poetry of the thirties.” On the whole, the influences of Auden and Eliot served Stewart well. He is at his best in a sort of Audenish, floating, hawk’s eye commentary that picks out among the minutiae of daily life the signifiers of the anxieties of the age: nostalgia for the pre-war peace, fear of what is to come, the relentless betrayal of ordinary people.
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 …
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 …
He is at his less best in lyrical, self-torturing teenage boy mode, but then he was a teenage boy when most of his work was written. Some pieces give the impression of being unfinished, and there is a tendency to wander off or to unravel towards the end, plus an occasional but persistent weakness for rhymes ending in “-ation”. But there are also many pieces to admire, and I’ve transcribed my own selection of sixteen – a personal choice, not representative – on a new Gervase Stewart page – go here or find the tab up above. I hope you’ll read them.
There is no comprehensive point of reference, but the life of Gervase Leslie Stewart can be picked out from various sources. (Thanks to Bill Bennett for his input on this.) He was born in March 1920 in Monkseaton, a pleasant village near Whitley Bay in Tyneside. He followed his father to Tynemouth School (later renamed King’s), a local and aspirational public school. In a poem not in my selection, Stewart voices himself as “essentially one of the rank and file … persuaded our suburb was rather elite” who has “attended a school of exorbitant fees”. But it clearly suited him, and his fingerprints are all over the school magazine of the time, in the cricket and rugby teams, the boxing club, composing a “rugger song,” in the library and the debating society, in amateur dramatics and musical theatre, and then as house captain and head boy. The magazine reports that as a boxer Stewart “is keen, and has an admirable physique … quite stylish and a heavy hitter. His footwork must develop from the hopping shuffle which it is at present.” As a cricketer, he was no batsman, but his fielding is said to be “particularly stylish” and, later, “singularly spectacular.”
Henry Treece was at the time a popular young teacher at the school, organising boxing and drama and supervising the magazine. He came to know Stewart as a confident and vital young man with “an enthusiasm for life which may best be described as Elizabethan … kind though candid, sincere though subtle,” good humoured, versatile, with a strong faith in God and in essential human goodness. On the other hand, many of the poems indicate that behind this “handsome presence” lay a full portion of doubts, anxieties and melancholy.
In 1935, when Stewart was just fifteen, he was already writing poetry, and showed his efforts to Treece, who judged them “competent, but a little too commonplace and literary.” Despite his natural ebullience, his serious teenage writing seems to have been a rather guarded affair; the school magazine contains just one contribution, in 1937, a promising descriptive exercise on the topic of “Rain” which bears the stamp of Treece’s encouragement:
The boles of trees reflect a growing smudge
Of light, a soft electric lozenge squashed
On sodden, shining oaks. The miles of streets
Gold-splashed, run oil, and fish-scaled gutters see
Within their mirrors, hazed red, yellow, green …
Both Treece and Stewart left the school in the summer of 1938. In 1939 Stewart went to St Catharine’s, Cambridge to read theology, with the intention of ordination. (He may initially have been at Fitzwilliam House until it was disbanded and the students transferred.) In his first year he became editor of Granta and in Lent term 1940 a “chairman of debates”, the wartime equivalent of Union president, being considered “one of its wittiest speakers.” In the ‘eighties his fellow poet Nicholas Moore recalled that Stewart avoided the Cambridge literati: “He hung out with the rugger crowd, all tough, bumptious boys together.” (Despite this, contact with Moore was close enough for Moore to publish Stewart’s work in several outlets and to dedicate a poem to him.) “He was a brilliant scholar. Yet when it came to exams, he became as nervous and fluttery as a girl before her first party – a bundle of nerves, shivering and quaking like a trapped animal and chattering away nineteen to the dozen.” Derek Stanford remembered Stewart simply as “an Apollo in tweeds.”
A few of Stewart’s more effective poems have a London setting, and at some point after the outbreak of war he must have spent time there. During this period his poems appeared in Seven, edited in Cambridge by Moore, Delta, run by Lawrence Durrell, The New English Weekly, Granta and Fords and Bridges (“The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”), also edited by Moore among others. In 1940 six of his pieces appeared in the Hogarth Press’s Poets of Tomorrow: Cambridge Poetry 1940, edited by Moore and Alex Comfort. A short story, “Gretchen,” later appeared in the Schimanski-Treece anthology of 1944, A Map of Hearts.
In 1940 Stewart abandoned his studies, joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted as a flying instructor with 749 Squadron to HMS Goshawk, a naval air station in Trinidad. On 25 August 1941 his Walrus seaplane exploded in mid-air. Temporary sub-lieutenant Stewart RNVR was killed with both members of his crew. He was 21 years old.
Given that (or perhaps because) Treece chided the schoolboy poet for a preoccupation with the Divine (“He replied that God was within his experience as much as anything on earth”), there is relatively little of the overtly Christian showing in Stewart’s surviving writing, though he was clearly extremely sensitive to ordinary suffering and injustice. No specific political allegiance emerges, but at times he demonstrates an outspoken and angry radicalism. In “The Two Septembers,” an early and apparently unfinished “play” (more a declamation in rhyming couplets) later published in Treece’s Transformation, an “orator” exhorts the crowd to demolish the Whitehall Cenotaph and replace it with a huge toilet:
… This cold white stone
Is a mockery out of the past. Let us tear it down,
And build for ourselves a luxurious lavatory,
For a public convenience will perpetuate the memory
Of unnecessary death as well as a monument will.
Call the workmen and bid them tear it down.
Let us drag to the spot the mobile crane …
Out of the old we will build the new,
Out of the rotten will grow the ripe …
Down with it. Down with it. Down with it.
Even at his most nationalistically anthologisable, in “I burn for England,” Stewart’s patriotism is, as we now say, considerably nuanced: “Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn [her people’s] sacrifice to profit” in a “war for freedom” fought by those “who were never free.”
Naturally, he also wrote his share of navel-gazing soliloquies –
Will none remember that I walked upon this land
And penned one bearing note upon its song?
– and of love poems, some quite direct:
Naked at night in a golden chariot
Drive to my heart, my lover.
It’s possible to read these in the context of the seismic uncertainties thrown up by the outbreak of war, but in the main they seem to me the less successful pieces, and I’ve tended to avoid them in my own small selection, in favour of Stewart’s broader visions of social complacency and despair, parting and war – the “brightly coloured maze moving massed and individual.”
Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project
“Pick up my book,” he wrote in maudlin-mortal mode, in the early “My Vanity.” “Read but one verse, and I … will know that one, at least, remembers me.” Well, we have, and we do, but for better reasons than that particular verse. In place of the neo-romantic spectre of Death, mortality in Stewart’s poems is recurrently, and presciently, figured by clocks – the stealthy tread of clocks, the swinging heart of clocks, obsequious clocks, hammer clocks, watch ticks, semitones, persistent tappings, rhythmic pulse. There is a dreadful brevity in the easy transition from the school 1st XV to college to warfare, all tough, bumptious boys together. His short life seems little more than a countdown to that awful, unnecessary, mid-air moment when, quite literally burning for England in living flame, he was extinguished in a rose of fire.
To save retracing steps, here’s another link to the selection of his poems.
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As a suffix, two appeals. Google threw up, then promptly lost, a snippet of a later poem involving a pint of beer and an air raid. If you have the full text of that, I’d love to see it.
Secondly, I can find no picture of Stewart. There are hints online of a second edition of No Weed Death, possibly by Bodley Head in 1944, that contains a portrait. If that’s so and anyone can send a scan of that or of any other image of him that I can use here, I’d be very grateful.