Dunkirk

Dunkirk

By E.J. Pratt

Toronto

The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited

1941

(E.J. Pratt’s published works are in the public domain)

 

 

DUNKIRK

The English May was slipping into June

With Heralds that the spring had never known.

Black cavalry were astride the air;

The Downs awoke to find their faces slashed;

There was blood on the hawthorn,

And song had died in the nightingales’ throats.

 

Appeasement is in its grave: it sleeps well.

The mace had spiked the parchment seals

And pulverized the hedging ifs and wherefores,

The wheezy adverbs, the gutted modifiers.

Churchill and Bevin have the floor,

Whipping snarling nouns and action-verbs

Out of their lairs in the lexicon,

Bull-necked adversatives that bit and clawed,

An age before gentility was cubbed.

 

The call came in from the Channel

Like the wash of surf on sand,

Borne in by the winds against the chalk escarpments,

Into the harbours, up the rivers, along the estuaries,

And but one word in the call.

 

Three hundred thousand on the beaches,

Their spirit-level vision straining West!

A vast patience in their eyes,

They had fought pig-iron, manganese, tungsten, cobalt;

And their struggle with hunger, thirst,

And the drug of sleep,

Had multiplied the famine in their cheeks

For England,

By forty miles divided from her brood.

 

Seven millions on the roads in France,

Set to a pattern of chaos

Fashioned through years for this hour.

Inside the brain of the planner

No tolerance befogged the reason –

The reason with its clear-swept halls,

Its brilliant corridors,

Where no recesses with their healing dusk

Offered asylum for a fugitive.

The straightedge ruled out errors,

The tremors in the sensory nerves,

Pity and the wayward impulses,

The liberal imbecilities.

The reason reckoned that the allied guns

Would not be turned upon the roads

To clear the path for the retreat.

It reasoned well –

Brutality, an art which had been bogged

In some stray corner of the field

In that Gallic-Anglo-Saxon fumble of the game.

Regatta and Crew

Millenniums it had taken to make their stock.

Piltdown hung on the frontals of their fathers.

They had lain as sacrifices

Upon the mortuary slabs of Stonehenge.

Their souls had come to birth out of their racial myths.

The sea was their school; the storm, their friend.

Foot by foot and hand to hand

They had met the legions

On the beaches and in the surf.

Great names had been delivered unto them;

Caractacus,

Taking his toll on the invaders

In his retreat to the fens and hills;

Boadicea,

The storming of Londinium and Verulamium,

And the annihilation of the Roman ninth;

Alban, Alfred, Athelney, Edington!

And in the march of their survival

They had fought the poll-tax and burned

The manor rolls under Ball and Tyler.

They had led the riots against the Enclosures,

They had sung ballads to the rhythms of the gibbets.

The welts had been around their necks and ankles.

They had swept the Main with Hawkins and Drake.

Morgan-mouthed* vocabularians,

Lovers of the beef of language,

They had carved with curse and cutlass

Castilian grandees in the Caribbean.

They had signed up with Frobisher,

Had stifled cries in the cockpits of Trafalgar.

They had emptied their veins into the Marne.

Freedom to them was like the diver’s lust for air.

Children of oaths and madrigals,

They had shambled out of caves

To write the clauses of the Charters,

To paint the Channel mists,

To stand hushed before the Canterbury tapers.

*Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688), buccaneer, Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, as famous for his oaths as for his piracy.

The Race on the Channel

 The Royal Yacht squadrons of the Thames and Cowes,

Those slim and rakish models of the wave-line theory,

Flying the ensign with their Club devices-

Grand-daughters of Genesta and the Galatea

Whose racing spinnakers

Outsilvered and outflew the sea-gulls off the Isle of Wight.

Cutters, the pride of Folkestone and Sheerness

With their press balloon-jibs,

Their billows of flax and hemp

Smothering their single masts

And straight-running bowsprits.

 

Excursion paddlers-

Last of the family known as the fleet of the butterflies,

Purveyors of moonlight sonatas and Sunday siestas.

 

The fireboats from the London Fire Brigade.

Luggers with four-sided sails bent to the yards

And slung obliquely to the masts,

Smelling of the wharves of Deal.

Smacks that build the Grimsby name.

Yawls with their handy mizzen-sails-

The Jacks-of-all-trades on the English coast.

Barges spritsail-rigged with jigger booms.

Bluff-bowed bullyboys and Norfolk wherries,

Skiffs that stank of herring roes and Yarmouth.

Dutch scoots and square-stemmed bawleys rank

With kelp, fish-scales and the slime of eels.

And with them all, the merchantmen,

Three-funnel liners turbine-driven,

Cabin cruisers, with whaleboats, rafts and dories

Tied to the grimy tails of barges drawn by tugs.

 

A Collingwood came from Newcastle-on-Tyne,

Trelawney and Grenville of the Cornish Line,

And Raleigh and Gilbert from the Devon Seas

With a Somerset Blake. They met at the quays-

McCluskey, Gallagher, Joe Millard,

Three riveters red from Dumbarton Yard,

And Peebles of Paisley, a notary clerk,

Two joiners from Belfast, Mahaffy and Burke,

Blackstone and Coke of Lincoln’s Inn,

A butcher from Smithfield, Toby Quinn,

Jonathan Wells, a Sheffield bricklayer,

Tim Thomas of Swansea, a borough surveyor,

Jack Wesley, a stoker, by way of South Shields,

And Snodgrass and Tuttle from Giles-in-the-fields,

Young Bill of Old Bill with Hancock and Reid,

Two sons of a bishop from Berwick-on-Tweed,

A landscape gardener of Tunbridge, Kent,

Povey, a draper from Stoke-on-Trent,

Arthur Cholmondeley Bennington-Grubbe

With Benbow of the Boodles Club.

A Ralph Abercrombie, a Fetherstonehaugh

With Smith, and Ibbs, and Jones, and Buggs-

They met on the liners, yachts and tugs:

The Princess Maud, the Massy Shaw,

The Crested Eagle, the Nicholas Drew,

The Gurling Jean and the Saucy Sue.

 

Two prefects from Harrow – Dudley and Fraser,

Fresh in their gray flannel trousers and blazer,

Helping two tanners, Muggins and Day,

To rig up a sail at a mizzen stay,

Were hailed by a Cambridge stroke – “Ahoy!

Will you let me go on your billyboy?”

 

A curate from Cardiff, the Reverend Evans,

Inspired with zeal by a speech of Bevin’s,

Called on a Rochester verger named Burchall,

Likewise inflamed by a speech from Churchill-

Together they went to a Greenwich jetty

And boarded a lighter – the Bouncing Betty.

 

Meadows, the valet, tapped at the door

Of Colonel Ramsbottom, late of Lahore:

‘Twas dawn, and the Colonel was sick with a head:

“The Dean and his lordship, the Bishop, are here,

And your sloop, sir, is ready down at the pier,

And may I go with you?” Meadows said-

“No,” roared the Colonel, as he creaked out of bed,

Blasting out damns with a spot of saliva,

Yet the four of them boarded the Lady Godiva.

 

A Captain with a Cape Horn face,

Being down on his luck without a ship,

Had spent ten years in his own disgrace

As skipper of a river ferry-

To-night he was taking his finest trip

As master of a Norfolk wherry.

 

The Junior partner, Davie Scott,

Of MacTavish, MacEachren, MacGregor, and Scott,

Conspired with Murdoch, MacNutt and MacPhail

To go to Gravesend that evening and sail

For the Beach in Mr. MacTavish’s yacht.

 

Heard on the Colliers

“I’ve been in a bit of a muss, messen,

With my game left leg,” said Eddie Glen,

“And every night my faintin’ spells,

Contracted in the Dardanelles.”

“My floatin’ kidney keeps me ‘ome,

My shoulder too ‘as never ’ealed,”

Quoth Rufus Stirk of ‘Uddersfield,

Cracked with shrapnel at Bapaume.

 

“Ow, wot’s a kidney, look at me,

A bleedin’ boulder in my lung,”

Said ‘Umphrey ‘Iggins of Bermondsey;

“A ‘Igh Explosive ‘ad me strung

On the top of a ruddy poplar tree

For thirty hours at Armenteers,

‘Aven’t spit straight nigh twenty years.”

 

“Now, my old woman,” said Solomon Pike,

“Says ‘Itler’s such a fidget like;

‘E steals the cows and ‘ens from the Danes,

‘E rummages France, ‘e chases the Poles,

And comes over ‘ere with ‘is blinkin’ planes

To drive us to the ‘Yde Park ‘oles

Where there’s nary a roof that isn’t leakin’,

Swipin’ the pillows right under our ‘eads,

Shooin’ us out from our ’umble beds.”

“’E’s a mug, I says, in a manner o’ speakin’.”

 

“How lang d’ye ken it’ll take to get through it?”

Said a cautious drover, Angus Bain.

“It’ll take a bit o’ doing to do it,

The blighters are dropping bombs like rain,”

Said the costermonger from Petticoat Lane.

***

Out on the Channel – laughter died.

Casual understatement

Was driven back from its London haunts

To its clinical nakedness

Along the banks of the Ilissus.

In front of the crew were rolling mountains of smoke

Spilling fire from their Vesuvian rims;

The swaying fringes of Borealis blue;

The crimson stabs through the curtains;

The tracers’ fiery parabolas,

The falling pendants of green from the Verey lights;

The mad colours of the murals of Dunkirk.

 

Space, time, water, bread, sleep,

Above all- sleep;

Commodities beyond the purchase of the Rand.

Space– a thousand pounds per foot! Not up for sale

In the cabin suites or on the floors of the lighters

The single Mole was crammed with human termites,

Stumbling, falling on the decks of the transports

Strung along the seaward end.

The solid black queues on the sand waited their turn

To file along the bridgehead jetties

Improvised from the army lorries,

Or waded out to swim

Or clutch at drifting gangplanks, rafts and life-belts.

Time– Days, weeks of the balance of life

Offered in exchange for minutes now.

 

Stuff of the world’s sagas in the heavens!

Spitfires were chasing Heinkels, one to twenty.

The nation’s debt unpaid, unpayable,

Was climbing up its pyramid.

As the Hurricanes took on the Messerschmitts.

 

The Multipedes on the Roads

Born on the blueprints,

They are fed by fire.

They grow their skin from carburized steel.

They are put together by cranes.

Their hearts are engines that do not know fatigue

In the perfection of their valves,

In the might of their systolic thrusts.

Their blood is petrol: Oil bathes their joints.

Their nerves are wire,

From the assembly lines they are put on inspection.

They pass tests,

Are pronounced fit by the drill-sergeants.

They go on parade and are the pride of the High Command.

They take, understand and obey orders.

They climb hills, straddle craters and the barbed barricades.

They defy bullets and shells.

Faster than Genghis’ cavalry they speed,

Crueller than the hordes of Tamburlaine,

Yet unknowing and uncaring.

It is these that the rearguards are facing-

Creatures of conveyor belts,

Of precision tools and schedules.

They breathe through carburetted lungs;

If pierced, they do not feel the cut,

And if they die, they do not suffer death.

And Dunkirk stands between the rearguards and the sea.

***

Motor launches from the Port of London,

Life-boats from the liners,

Whale-boats, bottom of the shallow draught,

Rammed their noses into the silt,

Packed their loads and ferried them to scoots and drifters.

Blood and oil smut on their faces,

The wounded, dying and dead were hauled up

Over the rails of the hospital carriers

In the nets and cargo slings.

In the Skies

The world believed the trap was sprung,

And no Geneva words or signatures of mercy

Availed the quarry on the sands.

The bird’s right to dodge the barrels on the wing,

The start for the hare.

The chance for the fox to cross his scent,

For the teeth to snap at the end of the chase,

Did not belong to this tally-ho.

 

The proffered sword disclaimed by the victor,

The high salute at the burial of a foe

Wrapped in the folds of his flag,

The wreath from the skies,

Were far romantic memories.

As little chivalry here

As in the peregrines chasing the carriers,

As in the sniff of the jackals about a carcass!

Here over the dunes

The last civil rag was torn from the body of war-

The decencies had perished with the Stukas.

***

From Dover to Dunkirk,

From Dunkirk to Ramsgate,

And back to the dunes.

Power boats of the enemy

Were driving torpedoes into transports and colliers,

Lifting the engines clear from their beds,

Blowing the boilers, sheering the sterns,

And the jettisoned loads gathered up from the sea

Were transferred to other decks

And piled in steep confusion

On the twisted steel of the listed destroyers,

On the rough planks of the barges,

Into the hatches of the freighters,

Jammed against bulkheads and riddled ventilators,

On the coils of the cables,

On quarterdecks and in the fo’c’sles,

On the mess-tables and under them.

“Was that roar in the North from the Rodney?

We hope to God it was.”

Drip of the leadlines on the bows-

“Two fathoms, sir, four feet, three and a half.”

“Wake up, you dead end. You’re not on the feathers now.

Make room for this ‘ere bloke.”

“Stiff as cement ‘e is.” “Get a gait on,

Or the Stukas ‘ll be raisin’ boils on your necks.”

“Ahoy, skipper, a can of petrol.”

“Compass out of gear – Give us the line to Ramsgate.”

“Follow the skoots.”

 

The great birds, carrying under their wings

The black distorted crosses,

Plunged, straightened out,

Laid their eggs in air,

Hatched them in fountains of water,

In craters of sand,

To the leap of flame,

To the roar of avalanche.

 

And in those hours,

When Death was sweating at his lathe,

When heads and legs and arms were blown from their trunks,

When the seventh day on the dunes became the eighth,

And the eighth slumped into the dawn of the ninth,

When the sand’s crunch and suck under the feet

Were sounds less to be endured than the crash of bombs

In that coma and apathy of horror-

It was then that the feel of a deck,

The touch of a spar or a halyard,

Was like a hold on the latch of the heart of God.

It’s the Navy’s job!

It’s their turn now,

From the Beach to the ports.

Let the Stukas break their bloody necks on the Mole;

Let the fires scorch the stars-

For now, whether on the burnished oak of the cabins,

Or on the floor-boards of the punts,

Or in the cuddies of the skiffs,

Sleep at last has an even game with Death.

 

The blessed fog-

Ever before this day the enemy,

Leagued with the quicksands and the breakers-

Now mercifully masking the periscope lenses,

Smearing the hair-lines of the bomb-sights,

Hiding the flushed coveys.

And with it the calm of the Channel,

The power that drew the teeth from the storm,

The peace that passed understanding,

Soothing the surf, allaying the lop on the swell.

Out of the range of the guns of Nieuport,

Away from the immolating blasts of the oil-tanks,

The flotilla of ships were met by flotillas of gulls

Whiter than the cliffs of Foreland;

Between the lines of the Medway buoys

They streamed and sailed and rowed,

Back to the roadsteads, back to the piers

Inside the vigilant booms,

Back to the harbours,

Back to the River of London, to England,

Saved once again by the tread of her keels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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