Journeys to War

S T A N    S M I T H




Aeschylus (525-456 BC) is credited with inventing modern tragedy by introducing a second actor, the antagonist. He fought in the Persian Wars, which his play The Persians reports from the point of view of the defeated enemy. Hellenic warriors were instructed to come home from battle either carrying their shields or carried on them. He is reputed to have been killed by a Sicilian eagle dropping a tortoise onto his bald head, mistaking it for a rock. The Pythian is the Priestess of the oracle at Delphi.

Sidney’s sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella (‘star-lover and star’) pays literary court to Penelope Devereux, the wife of Lord Rich, later Countess of Devonshire. ‘Asterisks’ means ‘little stars’ in Greek. While staying in his father-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham’s house in Paris in 1572, Sidney witnessed the St Bartholomew Day Massacre of Protestants by Catholic mobs. In 1580, he angered Queen Elizabeth by arguing against a projected marriage of political convenience with the Duke of Anjou, heir to the French throne (‘alliance’ in French means both alliance and wedding-ring). He subsequently spent time in Europe trying to forge an anti-Catholic coalition with Dutch, German and Bohemian Protestant powers. On 22 September 1586 he suffered a mortal wound fighting for the Dutch against the armies of Philip II of Spain at Zutphen. The famous anecdote runs that, wounded, he offered his water flask to a soldier dying nearby, with the words ‘Thy need is greater than mine.’ Mene Mene tekel upharsin, expansively translated by the Authorised Version of the Bible as ‘God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians’, was allegedly written by a ghostly hand on the wall of Belshazar’s palace, quite spoiling his Feast (see Daniel, ch. 5). The story is a parable about prophecy, interpretation and the end of empires.

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was MP for Hull from 1659 until his death. Though he had been, from 1657, a companion of Milton’s as Latin Secretary to Cromwell, he prospered under the Restoration as a result of astute alliance-building, interceding with the King to save Milton from execution as a regicide, and thereby making possible the production of Paradise Lost as the indisputable English national epic, and, in the process, the resurrection of blank verse.

Drogheda, Dunbar, Preston and Naseby were decisive victories of Cromwell’s New Model Army.  ‘The Presbyter’ is here a generic name for the Scottish Covenanters, Calvinists fiercely opposed to Cromwell’s Independents.  ‘That treas’nous Deed’ is both the execution of Charles I, and the document signed by the Regicides authorising it in the name of the English people.

Many of the villages in western Greece and the Peloponnese, in the melting pot of the Ottoman Empire, were inhabited by ethnic and linguistic Albanians, and some remain so to the present.

For ‘History’, Hankow, Burton-on-Trent and the Anschluss, see W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Journey to a War (1938), ‘Travel-Diary’, 2.

For Louis MacNeice in Barcelona, see The Strings are False (1965), ch. XXXV, and Autumn Journal (1939), sections xxiii and xxiv.

For Beckett, the French Resistance and his escape from the Gestapo, see James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996).

The battle of El Alamein began on October 21 1942 with the Eighth Army assault on Rommel’s lines. Douglas died in action in Normandy on June 9 1944, three days after the initial landings, aged 24.

In the first half of 1943 the Eighth Army entered Italian-ruled Tripoli, the Germans were decisively defeated at Stalingrad, British and US armies linked up in North Africa, and, on May 12, the German army in Tunisia surrendered to the Allies. Pound mistakenly believed US President F. D. Roosevelt to be Jewish, assuming his actually New York Dutch patronym to be a German-Jewish one. Roosevelt’s Protestant ancestors on both sides arrived in the New World in the seventeenth century. He inherited from his mother, who was of French Huguenot stock, a strong anti-semitic streak of his own. For Pound’s scabrously anti-semitic, self-proclaimedly ‘patriotic American’ rants to US troops on Rome Radio and later from Radio Milan, see Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (1988), ch. 20, ‘Europe Calling! Pound Speaking!’ Substantial transcripts of Pound’s broadcasts can be found in C. David Heymann, Ezra Pound: The Last Rower (1976), pp. 115-126. Pound avoided execution for treason after the War only by being declared insane and confined to St Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital, Washington D.C. from 1946 to 1958, where he was frequently visited by his young admirer Robert Lowell.

For Robert Lowell’s anti-war activities and his own periods in and out of mental hospital, see Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982), and the poem ‘Waking in the Blue’. Cf here the opening of ‘Man and Wife’: ‘Tamed by Miltown, we lie on mother’s bed’. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a Boston Puritan pastor who gave enthusiastic support to the Salem Witch Trials, was the author of the influential hagiographic history of the New England settlements, Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which discovered typological prefigurations of America’s manifest destiny in the events of The Bible. ‘The Devil’s Territories’ is his name for New England under its indigenous inhabitants.

For Urizen, William Blake’s tyrannous Judeo-Christian archetype of instrumental rationality, conceived in response to the turbulence of American and French Revolutions, and the patriarchal enemy of Luvah, the principle of love, see The Illuminated Books of William Blake, Volume 6: The Urizen Books (1998), ed. David Worrall.

For Lawrence, see D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), ch 7, ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’:

“Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath. Until such time as it will have to hear.”

 *   *  *   *   *

Stan Smith (1907-1980), who described himself as a ‘pup-tent poet’, served in the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, 1943-46, as a driver and dispatch rider in both First and Eighth Armies. His unpublished poem, ‘The Road to Rome’, describes ‘Dull grey skies, drizzling rain, / Rumble of guns, cries of pain, / Burnt-out tanks, squelching mud, / The road to Rome bought dearly with blood.’ 

He was my father. This sonnet sequence is dedicated to his memory.



Aeschylus, Gela, Sicily, 456 B.C.

‘This is the battle for everything’The Persians


The Pythian tells me I should wear a wig –

effeminacy appropriate for a Persian

but not my scene. We made them dance a jig

at Marathon, and then at Salamis

our salty Attic wit gave them immersion

classes in all things Greek. For all their big

imperial talk of building bridges, us

and them, Europe and Asia, we weren’t fooled.


And I came home, not carried on my shield

but carrying it up-raised over my head

(Apollo’s Mezzogiorno shafts are deadly).

They say I invented tragedy. But Eris

has spawned antagonists since the Age of Gold:

eagle and tortoise, chalk, cheese, Hellene, Mede.



Sir Philip Sidney, Zutphen, Holland, September 22 1586


I never liked the C**tess much. It was just

a convention, literary or political,

something one did. Oh yes, she was a star,

a tart more like, a set of asterisks,

a pregnant nullity, all things to all,

and rich in being poor. In Paris that year

I saw the truth of things written in blood,

Tekel upharsin running down the walls.


Forget convenience, take the risk.

If our most holy cause survive we must

clutch at the moment, build those dykes

of alliance against the Papist flood.

In Europe lies our help, in politics,

not poetry. Give that man my flask.



‘Lines on the Restoration of His Majesty, King Charles II, Rightful King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith’.

Andrew Marvell reflects, Hull, May 8, 1660


In those dark days ordain’d by Fate

when liquefaction of the State,

Rebellion’s pyroclastic flow,

had pitch’d all Elevation low,

standards ran ragged, rude feet fell

upon the Muses’ citadel.


Now broken lines are fresh restor’d

and reinstated Rule’s swift sword,

post-bellum detumescent days

of lyric grace and easy lays

declare no insurrection’s scann’d

to interrupt rhyme’s royal stand:

rough strife’s harsh jangle must amend

when sense in silken chords is penn’d.



John Milton, Bartholomew Close, West Smithfield, December 1660


Nearer uncivil strife in Marvell’s Garden

than in those heathen haunts where by the Celt

were Ireton’s ire and Cromwell’s wrath first felt

at Drogheda or Dunbar, or Preston where

from his high horse the Presbyter was thrown

and slaughter’d those who Heaven’s will withstood

till rills ran red with Covenanters’ blood,

or where at Naseby Cromwell snatch’d the crown

from the usurper’s head, that none should wear

save that the sovereign Commonwealth decreed,

now must I kneel, beg the pretender’s pardon,

proud yet to justify that treas’nous Deed,

tho’ apostates chang’d their spots when angels fell:

better to serve in Hull than reign in Hell?



Byron at Missolonghi, April 1824


The midges hereabouts can be ferocious.

Out on the salt pans that girl with the doe eyes

Gave me the eye from behind her thingummyjig.

The Albanians are bloodsuckers like the flies

but by God their girls can go. And their bite’s atrocious –

the moskies I mean for God’s sake! – some are big

as the terns out in the gulf, or Zeus’s swan –

And their breasts are like swansdown, out of the sun

that turns their heads brown as the hillsides – one

is speaking of the girls, in Heaven’s name!

They turn my head. Of afternoons the sun

sits on the water like a sheet of flame.

The cut-throats here will never come to good,

there’s fever in the air, and in the blood.



Auden and Isherwood in Hankow, March 12 1938


At the Three Gorges a fine site for a dam.

At noon today, we heard the news from home:

Hitler’s invaded Austria. I am

unsurprised. Two years ago in Iceland rumours

of Franco’s insurrection spoiled our lunch.

Now, smirking, Christopher reminds me doom

is droller than sea-dingles. We had a hunch

that this would happen, just our luck. To whom,


one asks, should we address our protests now?

Not that bitch History, who has moved elsewhere,

nor Chamberlain. To be seen off by a bomb

as pointless and provincial in Hankow

as being run down in Burton by a tram.

When history happens, seems we’re never there.



Louis MacNeice in Barcelona, December 1938


When they ration the acorns you know it’s all over.

An army has no stomach for such a fight.

The sirens sound the all-clear and the sky is bright;

the trucks in the square have the patience of a lover

who knows it will be all right on the night.


But as December dries the final leaves

a woman hugs her silent child and grieves,

eyes big with famine, for the future not the past,

knowing it will not come out all right at last.


Someone is being tidy in the bars:

the ashtrays harbour not a single stub.

Over it all hang the impeccable stars,

Orion rising, with his hunter’s club.

The city waits. The cold gnaws. It is over.



 Beckett in occupied Paris, August 1942


Shinning down that drainpipe he recalled

Dublin in flames in 1916 with

his da in the Wicklow Hills and brother Frank.

He stood quite still, holding his father’s hand.

The smoke rose up in columns, then blown sideways

drifted across the Liffey. It was all

very quiet. Silent flames flickered from Bank

and Post Office. He didn’t understand

what it was all about. It was a play

as enigmatic as a megalith

or the long-chambered tombs his father showed him

so unimaginably long ago. The street

was empty, but for a chained-up bicycle.

He should move. He could make it on his feet.



  Keith Douglas, Western Desert, October 1942


The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Except that down south the Quattar Depression

means that our tanks can’t make a breakthrough, must

go round the long way. All the time the Stukas

like carrion comfort circling for their prey.

Reveille is at six. The other day

I saw a dead man in the dunes. He was

–what uniform did he wear? I quite forget –

sun-dried, beside his burnt-out tank, quite flat,

with no more substance than a bathroom mat.

One of ours, though, so we dug him in,

keeping his disc. All that shit and dust

reminds us, should we need it, of our just

deserts, that this is what we come to. Soon.



 Ezra Pound broadcasts from Rome Radio, Spring 1943

                            ‘An amiable sort of madman’ – Mussolini, after meeting Pound


The jew fifth columns are losing us this war,

them and the gooks in Washington DC

(read: ‘Dirty Communists’). The kikes and Russo-

philes are strutting round the roost, the Reds

no longer under but snoring in your beds

having given it rough to jewgirl Rooso-

velt, Weltschmerz up the ass. My fellow Americans,

listen to the voice of reason here in Rome,

rise up and kick the gangsters out. Musso

showed how. In twenty years of Order, il Duce

drained the Pontine marshes, crushed the balls

of Cosa Nostra, ’Ndrangheta, all

those Commie faggots who robbed the people raw.

Reclaim America, bring the war home.



 Stan Smith, Extracts from a Diary, Naples to Rome, 1944


March 23

Spent all day shovelling ashes off the road.

Vesuvius chucking it out. Never seen such a sight,

roads covered three feet deep. A weird light.

In the afternoon started coming down again.

A dull brown cloud, sky blotted out. Then rain.


4 April

Sat on a petrol barrel at the crossroads

waiting. Weather sunny. Just a lemon to eat.


19 September

Accident today Corso Umberto Rome.

Walked out in front of me. The poor young Pole.

There was nothing I could do. So far from home.

The bike a write-off. Terribly upset.


14 October

Letter arrived with bad news about Mam.

In tears. Wrote to her. No idea how ill.


25 October

Got birthday greetings and Dad’s telegram.







Robert Lowell dreams the future, Boston, 1968


Inflamed by Milton, we lie in Mather’s teeth,

good little Pilgrims all, in God’s name napalm

the devil’s territories, our epic dream

of Pax Americana, the world safe

for Coca Cola, Big Macs, Wal-Mart, Freedom

(you want fries with that?) and here we come,

preparing the way of the Lord with fife and drum

and Johnny Appleseed and Minute Men,

while Dr Strangelove rides Apocalypse

on a white horse from White House to Doomsday.

Pity the planet, for what lies beneath

our lethal love as Lawrence saw is Death,

kissing adieu with Agent Orange lips.

The world lies all before us, Urizen.



End Times: Conversion Poem, Anon, 2006


Tonight we shall be whole in Paradise,

the bomb that blew us into holy shreds

rewinding time, an eloquent device,

refreshes us like heavenly newly-weds.


No God but God. His prophets, we proclaim

vengeance is ours, He shall repay at last,

and all is righteousness done in His Name.

Soon, soon, my brothers, the evil empire’s passed,


the dead shall waken, martyred in their blood,

as to that destined vale the Chosen come

to share the cup, drink of His sacred Blood.

When He returns, His final Kingdom Come,

enraptured and redeemed, the Lord be praised,

at Armageddon we shall be Upraised.


Stan Smith © 2006








                               ©Literati Magazine 1999-2020. All rights reserved





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.