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The White Cliffs Analysis



Author: poem of Alice Duer Miller Type: poem Views: 1

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I

I have loved England, dearly and deeply,

Since that first morning, shining and pure,

The white cliffs of Dover I saw rising steeply

Out of the sea that once made her secure.

I had no thought then of husband or lover,

I was a traveller, the guest of a week;

Yet when they pointed 'the white cliffs of Dover',

Startled I found there were tears on my cheek.

I have loved England, and still as a stranger,

Here is my home and I still am alone.

Now in her hour of trial and danger,

Only the English are really her own.



II

It happened the first evening I was there.

Some one was giving a ball in Belgrave Square.

At Belgrave Square, that most Victorian spot.—

Lives there a novel-reader who has not

At some time wept for those delightful girls,

Daughters of dukes, prime ministers and earls,

In bonnets, berthas, bustles, buttoned basques,

Hiding behind their pure Victorian masks

Hearts just as hot - hotter perhaps than those

Whose owners now abandon hats and hose?

Who has not wept for Lady Joan or Jill

Loving against her noble parent's will  

A handsome guardsman, who to her alarm

Feels her hand kissed behind a potted palm

At Lady Ivry's ball the dreadful night

Before his regiment goes off to fight;

And see him the next morning, in the park,

Complete in busbee, marching to embark.

I had read freely, even as a child,

Not only Meredith and Oscar Wilde

But many novels of an earlier day—

Ravenshoe, Can You Forgive Her?, Vivien Grey,

Ouida, The Duchess, Broughton's Red As a Rose,

Guy Livingstone, Whyte-Melville— Heaven knows

What others. Now, I thought, I was to see

Their habitat, though like the Miller of Dee,

I cared for none and no one cared for me.





III

A light blue carpet on the stair

And tall young footmen everywhere,

Tall young men with English faces

Standing rigidly in their places,

Rows and rows of them stiff and staid

In powder and breeches and bright gold braid;

And high above them on the wall

Hung other English faces-all

Part of the pattern of English life—

General Sir Charles, and his pretty wife,

Admirals, Lords-Lieutenant of Shires,

Men who were served by these footmen's sires

At their great parties-none of them knowing

How soon or late they would all be going

In plainer dress to a sterner strife-

Another pattern of English life.



I went up the stairs between them all,

Strange and frightened and shy and small,

And as I entered the ballroom door,

Saw something I had never seen before

Except in portraits— a stout old guest

With a broad blue ribbon across his breast—

That blue as deep as the southern sea,

Bluer than skies can ever be—

The Countess of Salisbury—Edward the Third—

No damn merit— the Duke— I heard

My own voice saying; 'Upon my word,

The garter!' and clapped my hands like a child.



Some one beside me turned and smiled,

And looking down at me said: "I fancy,

You're Bertie's Australian cousin Nancy.

He toId me to tell you that he'd be late

At the Foreign Office and not to wait

Supper for him, but to go with me,

And try to behave as if I were he."

I should have told him on the spot

That I had no cousin—that I was not

Australian Nancy—that my name

Was Susan Dunne, and that I came

From a small white town on a deep-cut bay

In the smallest state in the U.S.A.

I meant to tell him, but changed my mind—

I needed a friend, and he seemed kind;

So I put my gloved hand into his glove,

And we danced together— and fell in love.



IV

Young and in love-how magical the phrase!

How magical the fact! Who has not yearned

Over young lovers when to their amaze

They fall in love and find their love returned,

And the lights brighten, and their eyes are clear

To see God's image in their common clay.

Is it the music of the spheres they hear?

Is it the prelude to that noble play,

The drama of Joined Lives? Ah, they forget

They cannot write their parts; the bell has rung,

The curtain rises and the stage is set

For tragedy-they were in love and young.



V

We went to the Tower,

We went to the Zoo,

We saw every flower

In the gardens at Kew.

We saw King Charles a-prancing

On his long-tailed horse,

And thought him more entrancing

Than better kings, of course.

At a strange early hour,

In St. James's palace yard,  

We watched in a shower

The changing of the guard.

And I said, what a pity,

To have just a week to spend,

When London is a city

Whose beauties never end!



VI

When the sun shines on England, it atones

For low-hung leaden skies, and rain and dim

Moist fogs that paint the verdure on her stones

And fill her gentle rivers to the brim.

When the sun shines on England, shafts of light

Fall on far towers and hills and dark old trees,

And hedge-bound meadows of a green as bright—

As bright as is the blue of tropic seas.

When the sun shines, it is as if the face

Of some proud man relaxed his haughty stare,

And smiled upon us with a sudden grace,

Flattering because its coming is so rare.



VII

The English are frosty

When you're no kith or kin

Of theirs, but how they alter

When once they take you in!

The kindest, the truest,

The best friends ever known,

It's hard to remember

How they froze you to a bone.

They showed me all London,

Johnnie and his friends;

They took me to the country

For long week-ends;

I never was so happy,

I never had such fun,

I stayed many weeks in England

Instead of just one.



VIII

John had one of those English faces

That always were and will always be

Found in the cream of English places

Till England herself sink into the sea—

A blond, bowed face with prominent eyes

A little bit bluer than English skies.

You see it in ruffs and suits of armour,

You see it in wigs of many styles,

Soldier and sailor, judge and farmer—

That face has governed the British Isles,

By the power, for good or ill bestowed,

Only on those who live by code.



Oh, that inflexible code of living,

That seems so easy and unconstrained,

The Englishman's code of taking and giving

Rights and privileges pre-ordained,

Based since English life began

On the prime importance of being a man.



IX

And what a voice he had-gentle, profound,

Clear masculine!—I melted at the sound.

Oh, English voices, are there any words

Those tones to tell, those cadences to teach!

As song of thrushes is to other birds,

So English voices are to other speech;

Those pure round 'o's '—those lovely liquid 'l's'

Ring in the ears like sound of Sabbath bells.



Yet I have loathed those voices when the sense

Of what they said seemed to me insolence,

As if the dominance of the whole nation

Lay in that clear correct enunciation.



Many years later, I remember when

One evening I overheard two men

In Claridge's— white waistcoats, coats I know

Were built in Bond Street or in Savile Row—

So calm, so confident, so finely bred—

Young gods in tails— and this is what they said:

'Not your first visit to the States?' 'Oh no,

I'd been to Canada two years ago.'

Good God, I thought, have they not heard that we

Were those queer colonists who would be free,

Who took our desperate chance, and fought and won

Under a colonist called Washington?



One does not lose one's birthright, it appears.

I had been English then for many years.



X

We went down to Cambridge,

Cambridge in the spring.

In a brick court at twilight

We heard the thrushes sing,

And we went to evening service

In the chapel of the King.

The library of Trinity,

The quadrangle of Clare,

John bought a pipe from Bacon,

And I acquired there

The Anecdotes of Painting

From a handcart in the square.



The Playing fields at sunset

Were vivid emerald green,

The elms were tall and mighty,

And many youths were seen,

Carefree young gentlemen

In the Spring of 'Fourteen.



XI

London, just before dawn-immense and dark—

Smell of wet earth and growth from the empty Park,

Pall Mall vacant-Whitehall deserted. Johnnie and I

Strolling together, averse to saying good-bye—

Strolling away from some party in silence profound,

Only far off in Mayfair, piercing, the sound

Of a footman's whistle—the rhythm of hoofs on wood,

Further and further away. . . . And now we stood

On a bridge, where a poet came to keep

Vigil while all the city lay asleep—

Westminster Bridge, and soon the sun would rise,

And I should see it with my very eyes!

Yes, now it came— a broad and awful glow

Out of the violet mists of dawn. 'Ah, no',

I said. 'Earth has not anything to show

More fair— changed though it is— than this.'

A curious background surely for a kiss—

Our first— Westminster Bridge at break of day—

Settings by Wordsworth, as John used to say.



XII

Why do we fall in love? I do believe

  That virtue is the magnet, the small vein

Of ore, the spark, the torch that we receive

    At birth, and that we render back again.

That drop of godhood, like a precious stone,

    May shine the brightest in the tiniest flake.

Lavished on saints, to sinners not unknown;

     In harlot, nun, philanthropist, and rake,

It shines for those who love; none else discern

     Evil from good; Men's fall did not bestow

That threatened wisdom; blindly still we yearn

     After a virtue that we do not know,

Until our thirst and longing rise above

The barriers of reason—and we love.



XIII

And still I did not see my life was changed,

Utterly different—by this love estranged

For ever and ever from my native land;

That I was now of that unhappy band

Who lose the old, and cannot gain the new

However loving and however true

To their new duties. I could never be

An English woman, there was that in me

Puritan, stubborn that would not agree

To English standards, though I did not see

The truth, because I thought them, good or ill,

So great a people—and I think so still.



But a day came when I was forced to face

Facts. I was taken down to see the place,

The family place in Devon— and John's mother.

'Of course, you understand,' he said, 'my brother

Will have the place.' He smiled; he was so sure

The world was better for primogeniture.

And yet he loved that place, as Englishmen

Do love their native countryside, and when

The day should be as it was sure to be—

When this was home no more to him— when he

Could go there only when his brother's wife

Should ask him—to a room not his— his life

Would shrink and lose its meaning. How unjust,

I thought. Why do they feel it must

Go to that idle, insolent eldest son?

Well, in the end it went to neither one.



XIV

A red brick manor-house in Devon,

In a beechwood of old grey trees,

Ivy climbing to the clustered chimneys,

Rustling in the wet south breeze.

Gardens trampled down by Cromwell's army,

Orchards of apple-trees and pears,

Casements that had looked for the Armada,

And a ghost on the stairs.



XV

Johnnie's mother, the Lady Jean,

Child of a penniless Scottish peer,

Was handsome, worn high-coloured, lean,

With eyes like Johnnie's—more blue and clear—

Like bubbles of glass in her fine tanned face.

Quiet, she was, and so at ease,

So perfectly sure of her rightful place

In the world that she felt no need to please.

I did not like her—she made me feel

Talkative, restless, unsure, as if

I were a cross between parrot and eel.

I thought her blank and cold and stiff.



XVI

And presently she said as they

Sooner or later always say:

'You're an American, Miss Dunne?

Really you do not speak like one.'

She seemed to think she'd said a thing

Both courteous and flattering.

I answered though my wrist were weak

With anger: 'Not at all, I speak—

At least I've always thought this true—

As educated people do

In any country-even mine.'

'Really?' I saw her head incline,

I saw her ready to assert

Americans are easily hurt.



XVII

Strange to look back to the days

So long ago

When a friend was almost a foe,

When you hurried to find a phrase

For your easy light dispraise

Of a spirit you did not know,

A nature you could not plumb

In the moment of meeting,

Not guessing a day would come

When your heart would ache to hear

Other men's tongues repeating

Those same light phrases that jest and jeer

At a friend now grown so dear— so dear.

Strange to remember long ago

When a friend was almost a foe.



XVIII

I saw the house with its oaken stair,

And the Tudor Rose on the newel post,

The panelled upper gallery where

They told me you heard the family ghost—

'A gentle unhappy ghost who sighs

Outside one's door on the night one dies.'

'Not,' Lady Jean explained, 'at all

Like the ghost at my father's place, St. Kitts,

That clanks and screams in the great West Hall

And frightens strangers out of their wits.'

I smiled politely, not thinking I

Would hear one midnight that long sad sigh.



I saw the gardens, after our tea

(Crumpets and marmalade, toast and cake)

And Drake's Walk, leading down to the sea;

Lady Jean was startled I'd heard of Drake,

For the English always find it a mystery

That Americans study English history.



I saw the picture of every son—

Percy, the eldest, and John; and Bill

In Chinese Customs, and the youngest one

Peter, the sailor, at Osborne still;

And the daughter, Enid, married, alas,

To a civil servant in far Madras.



A little thing happened, just before

We left— the evening papers came;

John, flicking them over to find a score,

Spoke for the first time a certain name—

The name of a town in a distant land

Etched on our hearts by a murderer's hand.



Mother and son exchanged a glance,

A curious glance of strength and dread.

I thought: what matter to them if Franz

Ferdinand dies? One of them said:

This might be serious.'  'Yes, you're right.'

The other answered, 'It really might.'



XIX

Dear John: I'm going home. I write to say

Goodbye. My boat-train leaves at break of day;

It will be gone when this is in your hands.

I've had enough of lovely foreign lands,

Sightseeing, strangers, holiday and play;

I'm going home to those who think the way

I think, and speak as I do. Will you try

To understand that this must be good-bye?

We both rooted deeply in the soil

Of our own countries. But I could not spoil

Our happy memories with the stress and strain

Of parting; if we never meet again

Be sure I shall remember till I die

Your love, your laugh, your kindness. But—goodbye.

Please do not hate me; give the devil his due,

This is an act of courage. Always, Sue.



XX

The boat-train rattling

Through the green country-side;

A girl within it battling

With her tears and pride.

The Southampton landing,

Porters, neat and quick,

And a young man standing,

Leaning on his stick.

'Oh, John, John, you shouldn't

Have come this long way. . .

'Did you really think I wouldn't

Be here to make you stay?'

I can't remember whether

There was much stress and strain,

But presently, together,

We were travelling back again.



XXI

The English love their country with a love

Steady, and simple, wordless, dignified;

I think it sets their patriotism above

All others. We Americans have pride—

We glory in our country's short romance.

We boast of it and love it. Frenchmen when

The ultimate menace comes, will die for France

Logically as they lived. But Englishmen

Will serve day after day, obey the law,

And do dull tasks that keep a nation strong.

Once I remember in London how I saw

Pale shabby people standing in a long

Line in the twilight and the misty rain

To pay their tax. I then saw England plain.



XXII

Johnnie and I were married. England then

Had been a week at war, and all the men

Wore uniform, as English people can,

Unconscious of it. Percy, the best man,

As thin as paper and as smart as paint,

Bade us good-by with admirable restraint,

Went from the church to catch his train to hell;

And died-saving his batman from a shell.



XXIII

We went down to Devon,

    In a warm summer rain,

Knowing that our happiness

     Might never come again;

I, not forgetting,

     'Till death us do part,'

Was outrageously happy

     With death in my heart.

Lovers in peacetime

     With fifty years to live,

Have time to tease and quarrel

     And question what to give;

But lovers in wartime

     Better understand

The fullness of living,

     With death close at hand.



XXIV

My father wrote me a letter—

My father, scholarly, indolent, strong,

Teaching Greek better

Than high-school students repay—

Teaching Greek in the winter, but all summer long

Sailing a yawl in Narragansett Bay;

Happier perhaps when I was away,

Free of an anxious daughter,

He could sail blue water

Day after day,

Beyond Brenton Reef Lightship, and Beavertail,

Past Cuttyhunk to catch a gale

Off the Cape, while he thought of Hellas and Troy,

Chanting with joy

Greek choruses— those lines that he said

Must be written some day on a stone at his head:

'But who can know

As the long years go

That to live is happy, has found his heaven.'

My father, so far away—

I thought of him, in Devon,

Anchoring in a blind fog in Booth Bay.



XXV

'So, Susan, my dear,' the letter began,

'You've fallen in love with an Englishman.

Well, they're a manly, attractive lot,

If you happen to like them, which I do not.

I am a Yankee through and through,

And I don't like them, or the things they do.

Whenever it's come to a knock-down fight

With us, they were wrong, and we right;

If you don't believe me, cast your mind

Back over history, what do you find?

They certainly had no justification

For that maddening plan to impose taxation

Without any form of representation.

Your man may be all that a man should be,

Only don't you bring him back to me

Saying he can't get decent tea—

He could have got his tea all right

In Boston Harbour a certain night,

When your great-great-grandmother— also a Sue—

Shook enough tea from her husband's shoe

To supply her house for a week or two.

The war of 1812 seems to me

About as just as a war could be.

How could we help but come to grips

With a nation that stopped and searched our ships,

And took off our seamen for no other reason

Except that they needed crews that season.

I can get angry still at the tale

Of their letting the Alabama sail,

And Palmerston being insolent

To Lincoln and Seward over the Trent.

All very long ago, you'll say,

But whenever I go up Boston-way,

I drive through Concord—that neck of the wood,

Where once the embattled farmers stood,

And I think of Revere, and the old South Steeple,

And I say, by heck, we're the only people

Who licked them not only once, but twice.

Never forget it-that's my advice.

They have their points—they're honest and brave,

Loyal and sure—as sure as the grave;

They make other nations seem pale and flighty,

But they do think England is god almighty,

And you must remind them now and then

That other countries breed other men.

From all of which you will think me rather

Unjust. I am. Your devoted Father.



XXVI

I read, and saw my home with sudden yearning—

The small white wooden house, the grass-green door,

My father's study with the fire burning,

And books piled on the floor.

I saw the moon-faced clock that told the hours,

The crimson Turkey carpet, worn and frayed,

The heavy dishes—gold with birds and flowers—

Fruits of the China trade.

I saw the jack o' lanterns, friendly, frightening,

Shine from our gateposts every Hallow-e'en;

I saw the oak tree, shattered once by lightning,

Twisted, stripped clean.



I saw the Dioscuri— two black kittens,

Stalking relentlessly an empty spool;

I saw a little girl in scarlet mittens

Trudging through snow to school.



XXVII

John read the letter with his lovely smile.

'Your father has a vigorous English style,

And what he says is true, upon my word;

But what's this war of which I never heard?

We didn't fight in 1812.' 'Yes, John,

That was the time when you burnt Washington.'

'We couldn't have, my dear. . .' 'I mean the city.'

'We burnt it?' 'Yes, you did.' 'What a pity!

No wonder people hate us. But, I say,

I'll make your father like me yet, some day.'



XXVIII

I settled down in Devon,

When Johnnie went to France.

Such a tame ending

To a great romance—

Two lonely women

With nothing much to do

But get to know each other;

She did and I did, too.

Mornings at the rectory

Learning how to roll

Bandages, and always

Saving light and coal.

Oh, that house was bitter

As winter closed in,

In spite of heavy stockings

And woollen next the skin.

I was cold and wretched,

And never unaware

Of John more cold and wretched

In a trench out there.



XXIX

All that long winter I wanted so much to complain,

But my mother-in-Iaw, as far as I could see,

Felt no such impulse, though she was always in pain,

An, as the winter fogs grew thick,

Took to walking with a stick,

Heavily.

Those bubble-like eyes grew black

Whenever she rose from a chair—

Rose and fell back,

Unable to bear

The sure agonizing

Torture of rising.

Her hands, those competent bony hands,

Grew gnarled and old,

But never ceased to obey the commands

Of her will— only finding new hold

Of bandage and needle and pen.

And not for the blinking

Of an eye did she ever stop thinking

Of the suffering of Englishmen

And her two sons in the trenches. Now and then

I could forget for an instant in a book or a letter,

But she never, never forgot— either one—

Percy and John—though I knew she loved one better—

Percy, the wastrel, the gambler, the eldest son.

I think I shall always remember

Until I die

Her face that day in December,

When in a hospital ward together, she and I

Were writing letters for wounded men and dying,

Writing and crying

Over their words, so silly and simple and loving,

Suddenly, looking up, I saw the old Vicar moving

Like fate down the hospital ward, until

He stood still

Beside her, where she sat at a bed.

'Dear friend, come home. I have tragic news,' he said

She looked straight at him without a spasm of fear,

Her face not stern or masked—

'Is it Percy or John?' she asked.

'Percy.' She dropped her eyes. 'I am needed here.

Surely you know

I cannot go

Until every letter is written. The dead

Must wait on the living,' she said.

'This is my work. I must stay.'

And she did— the whole long day.



XXX

Out of the dark, and dearth

Of happiness on earth,

Out of a world inured to death and pain;

On a fair spring mom

To me a son was born,

And hope was born-the future lived again.

To me a son was born,

The lonely hard forlorn

Travail was, as the Bible tells, forgot.

How old, how commonplace

To look upon the face

Of your first-born, and glory in your lot.



To look upon his face

And understand your place

Among the unknown dead in churchyards lying,

To see the reason why

You lived and why you die—

Even to find a certain grace in dying.



To know the reason why

Buds blow and blossoms die,

Why beauty fades, and genius is undone,

And how unjustified

Is any human pride

In all creation— save in this common one.



XXXI

Maternity is common, but not so

It seemed to me. Motherless, I did not know—

I was all unprepared to feel this glow,

Holy as a Madonna's, and as crude

As any animal's beatitude—

Crude as my own black cat's, who used to bring

Her newest litter to me every spring,

And say, with green eyes shining in the sun:

'Behold this miracle that I have done.'

And John came home on leave, and all was joy

And thankfulness to me, because my boy

Was not a baby only, but the heir—

Heir to the Devon acres and a name

As old as England. Somehow I became

Almost an English woman, almost at one

With all they ever did— all they had done.



XXXII

'I want him called John after you, or if not that I'd rather—'

'But the eldest son is always called Percy, dear.'

'I don't ask to call him Hiram, after my father—'

'But the eldest son is always called Percy, dear.'

'But I hate the name Percy. I like Richard or Ronald,

Or Peter like your brother, or Ian or Noel or Donald—'

'But the eldest is always called Percy, dear.'

So the Vicar christened him Percy; and Lady Jean

Gave to the child and me the empty place

In hr heart. Poor Lady, it was as if she had seen

The world destroyed— the extinction of her race,

Her country, her class, her name— and now she saw

Them live again. And I would hear her say:

'No. I admire Americans; my daughter-in-law

Was an American.' Thus she would well repay

The debt, and I was grateful— the English made

Life hard for those who did not come to her aid.



XXXIII

'They must come in in the spring.'

'Don't they care sixpence who's right?'

'What a ridiculous thing—

Saying they're too proud to fight.'

'Saying they're too proud to fight.'

'Wilson's pro-German, I'm told.'

'No, it's financial.'  'Oh, quite,

All that they care for is gold.'

'All that they care for is gold.'

'Seem to like writing a note.'

'Yes, as a penman, he's bold.'

'No. It's the Irish vote.'



'Oh, it's the Irish vote.'

'What if the Germans some night

Sink an American boat?'

'Darling, they're too proud to fight.'



XXXIV

What could I do, but ache and long

That my country, peaceful, rich, and strong,

Should come and do battle for England's sake.

What could I do, but long and ache.

And my father's letters I hid away

Lest some one should know the things he'd say.

'You ask me whether we're coming in—

We are. The English are clever as sin,

Silently, subtly they inspire

Most of youth with a holy fire

To shed their blood for the British Empire

We'll come in— we'll fight and die

Humbly to help them, and by and by,

England will do us in the eye.

They'll get colonies, gold and fame,

And we'll get nothing at all but blame.

Blame for not having come before,

Blame for not having sent them more

Money and men and war supplies,

Blame if we venture to criticise.

We're so damn simple— our skins so thin

We'll get nothing whatever, but we'll come in.'



XXXV

And at last—at last—like the dawn of a calm, fair day

After a night of terror and storm, they came—

My young light-hearted countrymen, tall and gay,

Looking the world over in search of fun and fame,  

Marching through London to the beat of a boastful air,

Seeing for the first time Piccadilly and Leicester Square,

All the bands playing: 'Over There, Over There,

Send the word, send the word to beware—'

And as the American flag went fluttering by

Englishmen uncovered, and I began to cry.



XXXVI

'We're here to end it, by jingo.'

'We'll lick the Heinies okay.'

'I can't get on to the lingo.'

'Dumb-they don't get what we say.'

'Call that stuff coffee? You oughter

Know better. Gee, take it away.'

'Oh, for a drink of ice water! '

'They think nut-sundae's a day.'



'Say, is this chicken feed money?'

'Say, does it rain every day?'

'Say, Lady, isn't it funny

Every one drives the wrong way?'



XXXVII

How beautiful upon the mountains,

How beautiful upon the downs,

How beautiful in the village post-office,

On the pavements of towns—

How beautiful in the huge print of newspapers,

Beautiful while telegraph wires hum,

While telephone bells wildly jingle,

The news that peace has come—

That peace has come at last—that all wars cease.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the footsteps

Of the messengers of peace!



XXXVIII

In the depth of the night betwixt midnight and morning,

In the darkness and silence forerunning the dawn,

The throb of my heart was a drum-beat of warning,

My ears were a-strain and my breath was undrawn.

In the depth of the night, when the old house was sleeping,

I lying alone in a desolate bed,

Heard soft on the staircase a slow footstep creeping—

The ear of the living—the step of the dead.

In the depth of the night betwixt midnight and morning

A step drawing near on the old oaken floor—

On the stair— in the gallery— the ghost that gives warning

Of death, by that heartbreaking sigh at my door.



XXXIX

Bad news is not broken,

     By kind tactful word;

The message is spoken

     Ere the word can be heard.

The eye and the bearing,

     The breath make it clear,

And the heart is despairing

     Before the ears hear.

I do not remember

     The words that they said:

'Killed—Douai—November—'

     I knew John was dead.

All done and over—

     That day long ago—

The while cliffs of Dover—

     Little did I know.



XL

As I grow older, looking back, I see

Not those the longest planted in the heart

Are the most missed. Some unions seem to be

Too close for even death to tear apart.

Those who have lived together many years,

And deeply learnt to read each other's mind,

Vanities, tempers, virtues, hopes, and fears—

One cannot go—nor is one left behind.

Alas, with John and me this was not so;

I was defrauded even of the past.

Our days had been so pitifully few,

Fight as I would, I found the dead go fast.

I had lost all—had lost not love alone,

But the bright knowledge it had been my own.



XLI

Oh, sad people, buy not your past too dearly,

     Live not in dreams of the past, for understand,

If you remember too much, too long, too clearly,

     If you grasp memory with too heavy a hand,

You will destroy memory in all its glory

     For the sake of the dreams of your head upon your bed.

You will be left with only the worn dead story

     You told yourself of the dead.



XLII

Nanny brought up my son, as his father before him,

Austere on questions of habits, manners, and food.

Nobly yielding a mother's right to adore him,

Thinking that mothers never did sons much good.

A Scot from Lady Jean's own native passes,

With a head as smooth and round as a silver bowl,

A crooked nose, and eyes behind her glasses

Grey and bright and wise—a great soul !

Ready to lay down her life for her charge, and ready

To administer discipline without consulting me:

'Is that the way for you to answer my leddy?

I think you'll get no sweet tonight to your tea.'



Bringing him up better than I could do it,

Teaching him to be civil and manly and cool

In the face of danger. And then before I knew it

The time came for him to go off to school.



Off to school to be free of women's teaching,

Into a world of men— at seven years old;

Into a world where a mother's hands vainly reaching

Will never again caress and comfort and hold.



XLIII

My father came over now and then

To look at the boy and talk to me,

Never staying long,

For the urge was strong

To get back to his yawl and the summer sea.

He came like a nomad passing by,

Hands in his pockets, hat over one eye,

Teasing every one great and small

With a blank straight face and a Yankee drawl;

Teasing the Vicar on Apostolic Succession

And what the Thirty-Nine Articles really meant to convey,

Teasing Nanny, though he did not

Make much impression

On that imperturbable Scot.

Teasing our local grandee, a noble peer,

Who firmly believed the Ten Lost Tribes

Of Israel had settled here—

A theory my father had at his fingers' ends—

Only one person was always safe from his jibes—

My mother-in-law, for they were really friends.



XLIV

Oh, to come home to your country

After long years away,

To see the tall shining towers

Rise over the rim of the bay,

To feel the west wind steadily blowing

And the sunshine golden and hot,

To speak to each man as an equal,

Whether he is or not.



XLV

Was this America—this my home?

Prohibition and Teapot Dome—

Speakeasies, night-clubs, illicit stills,

Dark faces peering behind dark grills,

Hold-ups, kidnappings, hootch or booze—

Every one gambling—you just can't lose,

Was this my country? Even the bay

At home was altered, strange ships lay

At anchor, deserted day after day,

Old yachts in a rusty dim decay—

Like ladies going the primrose way—

At anchor, until when the moon was black,

They sailed, and often never came back.



Even my father's Puritan drawl

Told me shyly he'd sold his yawl

For a fabulous price to the constable's son—

My childhood's playmate, thought to be one

Of a criminal gang, rum-runners all,

Such clever fellows with so much money—

Even the constable found it funny,

Until one morning his son was found,

Floating dead in Long Island Sound.

Was this my country? It seemed like heaven

To get back, dull and secure, to Devon,

Loyally hiding from Lady Jean

And my English friends the horrors I'd seen.



XLVI

That year she died, my nearest, dearest friend;

Lady Jean died, heroic to the end.

The family stood about her grave, but none

Mourned her as I did. After, one by one,

They slipped away—Peter and Bill—my son

Went back to school. I hardly was aware

Of Percy's lovely widow, sitting there

In the old room, in Lady Jean's own chair.

An English beauty glacially fair

Was Percy's widow Rosamund, her hair

Was silver gilt, and smooth as silk, and fine,

Her eyes, sea-green, slanted away from mine,

From any one's, as if to meet the gaze

Of others was too intimate a phase

For one as cool and beautiful as she.



We were not friends or foes. She seemed to be

Always a little irked— fretted to find

That other women lived among mankind.

Now for the first time after years of meeting,

Never exchanging more than formal greeting,

She spoke to me— that sharp determined way

People will speak when they have things to say.



XLVII

ROSAMUND: Susan, go home with your offspring. Fly.

Live in America. SUSAN: Rosamund, why?

ROSAMUND: Why, my dear girl, haven't you seen

What English country life can mean

With too small an income to keep the place

Going? Already I think I trace

A change in you, you no longer care

So much how you look or what you wear.

That coat and skirt you have on, you know

You wouldn't have worn them ten years ago.

Those thick warm stockings— they make me sad,

Your ankles were ankles to drive men mad.

Look at your hair— you need a wave.

Get out— go home— be hard— be brave,

Or else, believe me, you'll be a slave.

There's something in you— dutiful— meek—

You'll be saving your pin-money every week

To mend the roof. Well, let it leak.

Why should you care? SUSAN: But I do care,

John loved this place and my boy's the heir.



ROSAMUND: The heir to what? To a tiresome life

Drinking tea with the vicar's wife,

Opening bazaars, and taking the chair

At meetings for causes that you don't care

Sixpence about and never will;

Breaking your heart over every bill.

I've been in the States, where everyone,

Even the poor, have a little fun.



Don't condemn your son to be

A penniless country squire. He

Would be happier driving a tram over there

Than mouldering his life away as heir.

SUSAN: Rosamund dear, this may all be true.

I'm an American through and through.

I don't see things as the English do,

But it's clearly my duty, it seems to me,  

To bring up John's son, like him, to be

A country squire—poor alas,

But true to that English upper class  

That does not change and does not pass.



ROSAMUND: Nonsense; it's come to an absolute stop.

Twenty years since we sat on top

Of the world, amusing ourselves and sneering

At other manners and customs, jeering

At other nations, living in clover—

Not any more. That's done and over.

No one nowadays cares a button

For the upper classes— they're dead as mutton.

Go home. SUSAN: I notice that you don't go.



ROSAMUND: My dear, that shows how little you know.

I'm escaping the fate of my peers,

Marrying one of the profiteers,

Who hasn't an 'aitch' where an 'aitch' should be,

But millions and millions to spend on me.

Not much fun— but there wasn't any

Other way out. I haven't a penny.

But with you it's different. You can go away,

And oh, what a fool you'd be to stay.



XLVIII

Rabbits in the park,

Scuttling as we pass,

Little white tails

Against the green grass.

'Next time, Mother,

I must really bring a gun,

I know you don't like shooting,

But—!'  John's own son,

That blond bowed face,

Those clear steady eyes,

Hard to be certain

That the dead don't rise.

Jogging on his pony

Through the autumn day,

'Bad year for fruit, Mother,

But good salt hay.'

Bowling for the village

As his father had before;

Coming home at evening

To read the cricket score,

Back to the old house

Where all his race belong,

Tired and contented—

Rosamund was wrong.



XLIX

If some immortal strangers walked our land

And heard of death, how could they understand

That we—doomed creatures—draw our meted breath

Light-heartedly—all unconcerned with death.

So in these years between the wars did men

From happier continents look on us when

They brought us sympathy, and saw us stand

Like the proverbial ostrich-head in sand—

While youth passed resolutions not to fight,

And statesmen muttered everything was right—

Germany, a kindly, much ill-treated nation—

Russia was working out her own salvation

Within her borders. As for Spain, ah, Spain

Would buy from England when peace came again!

I listened and believed— believed through sheer

Terror. I could not look whither my fear

Pointed— that agony that I had known.

I closed my eyes, and was not alone.





Later than many, earlier than some,

I knew the die was cast— that war must come;

That war must come. Night after night I lay

Steeling a broken heart to face the day

When he, my son— would tread the very same

Path that his father trod. When the day came

I was not steeled— not ready. Foolish, wild

Words issued from my lips— 'My child, my child,

Why should you die for England too?' He smiled:

'Is she not worth it, if I must?' he said.

John would have answered yes— but John was dead.



L

Is she worth dying for? My love, my one

And only love had died, and now his son

Asks me, his alien mother, to assay

The worth of England to mankind today—

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea—

Ah, no, not that—not Shakespeare—I must be

A sterner critic. I must weigh the ill

Against the good, must strike the balance, till

I know the answer— true for me alone—

What is she worth— this country— not my own?



I thought of my father's deep traditional wrath

Against England— the redcoat bully— the ancient foe—

That second reaping of hate, that aftermath

Of a ruler's folly and ignorance long ago—

Long, long ago— yet who can honestly say

England is utterly changed— not I— not I.

Arrogance, ignorance, folly are here today,

And for these my son must die?

I thought of these years, these last dark terrible years

When the leaders of England bade the English believe

Lies at the price of peace, lies and fears,

Lies that corrupt, and fears that sap and deceive.

I though of the bars dividing man from man,

Invisible bars that the humble may not pass,

And how no pride is uglier, crueller than

The pride unchecked of class.

Oh, those invisible bars of manners and speech,

Ways that the proud man will not teach

The humble lest they too reach

Those splendid heights where a little band

Have always stood and will always stand

Ruling the fate of this small green land,

Rulers of England—for them must I

Send out my only son to die?



LI

And then, and then,

I thought of Elizabeth stepping down

Over the stones of Plymouth town

To welcome her sailors, common men,

She herself, as she used to say,

Being' mere English' as much as they—

Seafaring men who sailed away

From rocky inlet and wooded bay,

Free men, undisciplined, uncontrolled,

Some of them pirates and all of them bold,

Feeling their fate was England's fate,

Coming to save it a little late,

Much too late for the easy way,

Much too late, and yet never quite

Too late to win in that last worst fight.



And I thought of Hampden and men like him,

St John and Eliot, Cromwell and Pym,

Standing firm through the dreadful years,

When the chasm was opening, widening,

Between the Commons and the King;

I thought of the Commons in tears— in tears,

When Black Rod knocked at Parliament's door,

And they saw Rebellion straight before—

Weeping, and yet as hard as stone,

Knowing what the English have always known

Since then— and perhaps have known alone—

Something that none can teach or tell—

The moment when God's voice says; 'Rebel.'



Not to rise up in sudden gust

Of passion— not, though the cause be just;

Not to submit so long that hate,

Lava torrents break out and spill

Over the land in a fiery spate;

Not to submit for ever, until

The will of the country is one man's will,

And every soul in the whole land shrinks

From thinking—except as his neighbour thinks.

Men who have governed England know

That dreadful line that they may not pass

And live. Elizabeth long ago

Honoured and loved, and bold as brass,

Daring and subtle, arrogant, clever,

English, too, to her stiff backbone,

Somewhat a bully, like her own

Father— yet even Elizabeth never

Dared to oppose the sullen might

Of the English, standing upon a right.



LII

And were they not English, our forefathers, never more

English than when they shook the dust of her sod

From their feet for ever, angrily seeking a shore

Where in his own way a man might worship his God.

Never more English than when they dared to be

Rebels against her-that stem intractable sense

Of that which no man can stomach and still be free,

Writing: 'When in the course of human events. . .'

Writing it out so all the world could see

Whence come the powers of all just governments.

The tree of Liberty grew and changed and spread,

But the seed was English.                        

                                                I am American bred,

I have seen much to hate here— much to forgive,

But in a world where England is finished and dead,

I do not wish to live.





Submitted by Stephen Fryer






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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

.: :.

For pete's sake, doesn't anyone bother to proofread these poems? I can see even at a glance that "stem" in the final stanza -- "that stem intractable sense..." -- should be "stern."

| Posted on 2009-03-13 | by a guest




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