Monday, May 29, 2017

Children of Love by Harold Monro

Harold Monro is perhaps a more influential character when it comes to early 20th century poetry than he is given credit for. He was the founder of The Poetry Bookshop and editor of The Poetry Review. The Bookshop was also a publishing concern, although usually from his own pocket and only occasionally for profit. From his position as publisher and editor he had a significant influence on the way that poetry developed into the modern era, mostly by being open minded and without literary prejudice.

For his own part, death and loss seem to have played an overly large part in his life and therefore colour his poetry. He lost his father when he was just 9 years old and WW1 took too many members of his family, as well as his very close friend Basil Watt. In this collection, first published by Monro himself from The Poetry Bookshop the year before Watt's death, he writes a quartet called "Youth in Arms" which is clearly written with his friend in mind. In the first part he compares a young soldier to the Biblical David, an approach which might have been used by a lesser writer to offer jingoistic platitudes but Monro is far subtler.

Happy boy, happy boy,
David the immortal-willed,   
Youth a thousand thousand times 
Slain, but not once killed,
Swaggering again today  
In the old contemptuous way;

Leaning backward from your thigh  
Up against the tinselled bar —  
Dust and ashes! is it you?  
Laughing, boasting, there you are!  
First we hardly recognized you
In your modern avatar.

Soldier, rifle, brown khaki —  
Is your blood as happy so?  
Where’s your sling or painted shield, 
Helmet, pike or bow?  
Well, you’re going to the wars —
That is all you need to know.

Graybeards plotted. They were sad.  
Death was in their wrinkled eyes.
At their tables—with their maps,
Plans and calculations—wise
They all seemed; for well they knew  
How ungrudgingly Youth dies.

At their green official baize
They debated all the night  
Plans for your adventurous days
Which you followed with delight,
Youth in all your wanderings,
David of a thousand slings.

War records show that when Basil was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 at the age of 33 he was buried first in a smaller cemetery and later exhumed and moved. He was identified by "fragments of officers tunic with one regimtl button. One boot. Fragment of Kilt" and his 'effects' forwarded to base were one button and a shaving brush marked with his name. The devastation to Monro caused by his friend's death, only three years his junior, is heartbreakingly laid out in his later poem "Lament in 1915", a simple but awful monologue which can be read here.

Along with a certain cynicism about the war comes also another element of the poetic arsenal from the first decades of the 20th century, a playful nod to paganism at a time when the certainties that used to be provided by the established church were being rapidly torn away in the face of mass extinction on the battlefield. Monro's title poem for this collection is both charming and peculiar in the directness with which he confronts this tension.

Children of Love

The holy boy
Went from his mother out in the cool of the day
Over the sun-parched fields
And in among the olives shining green and shining grey.

There was no sound,
No smallest voice of any shivering stream.
Poor sinless little boy.
He desired to play, and to sing; he could only sigh and dream.

Suddenly came
Running along to him naked, with curly hair,
That rogue of the lovely world,
That other beautiful child whom the virgin Venus bare.

The holy boy
Gazed with those sad blue eyes that all men know.
Impudent Cupid stood
Panting, holding an arrow and pointing his bow.

(Will you not play?
Jesus, run to him, run to him, swift for our joy.
Is he not holy, like you?
Are you afraid of his arrows, O beautiful dreaming boy?)

And now they stand
Watching one another with timid gaze;
Youth had met youth in the wood,
But holiness will not change its melancholy ways.

Cupid at last
Draws his bow and softly lets fly a dart.
Smile for a moment, sad world! - 
It has grazed the white skin and drawn blood from the sorrowful heart.

Now, for delight,
Cupid tosses his locks and goes wantonly near;
But the child that was born to the cross
Has let fall on his cheek, for the sadness of life, a compassionate tear.

Marvellous dream!
Cupid has offered his arrows for Jesus to try; 
He has offered his bow for the game.
But Jesus went weeping away, and left him there wondering why.

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