Friday, July 31, 2015

I knew the Roman legions and the harsh-voiced Danish hordes

London Under Bombardment
by Greta Briggs

I WHO am known as London, have faced stern times before,
Having fought and ruled and traded for a thousand years and more;
I knew the Roman legions and the harsh-voiced Danish hordes;
heard the Saxon revels, saw blood on the Norman swords.
But, though I am scarred by battle, my grim defenders vow
Never was I so stately nor so well-beloved as now.
The lights that burn and glitter in the exile's lonely dream,
The lights of Piccadilly, and those that used to gleam
Down Regent Street and Kingsway may now no longer shine,
But other lights keep burning, and their splendour, too, is mine,
Seen in the work-worn faces and glimpsed in the steadfast eyes
When little homes lie 'broken and death descends from the skies.
The bombs have shattered my churches, have torn my streets apart,
But they have not bent my spirit and they shall not break my heart.
For my people's faith and courage are lights of London town
Which still would shine in legends though my last broad bridge were down.
One among the selection in Field Marshall Wavell's Other Men's Flowers, an anthology of poetry published in the midst of World War II as he led armies across the globe. In the time period leading up to the publication of the anthology, he fought the Italians and Germans in Libya, the French in the Levant, in Iraq, with the Russians in Persia and against the Japanese in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. As Viceroy of India he had non-military catastrophes to deal with at the same time as his war responsibilities including the Bengal famine in 1943.

I think of Wavell when people mention that they do not have time to do something.

Wavell appended a note to this poem.
I read these verses in an Egyptian newspaper while flying from Cairo to Barce in Cyrenaica at the beginning of April 1941, to try to deal with Rommel's counter-attack. I was uncomfortable in body - for the bomber was cramped and draughty - and in mind for I knew I had been caught with insufficient strength to meet a heavy counter-attack; reading this poem and committing it to memory did something to relieve my discomforts of body and mind.
Poetry is not an effete exercise - it is something primal and I like this image of it being so critical an element of the life of one of the most important men at one of the most important moments in history.

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