A forgotten poet of the people

The legacy of a left behind war poet

Books

This book review was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Randall Swingler (1909-67) deserves a place in every anthology of English poetry, above all for the poems he composed as a soldier fighting in the Italian campaign during the last two years of the Second World War. At his best, he writes with a breath-taking simplicity and boldness. The first words of “The Beginning of War” are:

At the door of the world the thought of happiness
Looks back and leaves without another word:
A woman aged, who has made her last appeal
And failed.

“Briefing for Invasion” (printed in full in the July issue of The Critic) begins with evocative sensory details that at once establish its authenticity:

Tomorrow, he said, is fixed for death’s birthday party […]
At 0-four hundred hours when the night grows sickly
And the sand slips under your boots like a child’s nightmare,
Clumsy and humped and shrunken inside your clothes
You will shamble up the shore to give him your greeting.

The invasion in question is the 56th Division’s fiercely contested landing at Salerno Bay in September 1943. The poem’s emotional and philosophical depth, however, allows it to ripple out far beyond the immediate context. Whatever Swingler may have had in mind at the time, anyone reading the penultimate stanza today is likely to think of the Shoah:

Even though some should slip through the net of flame
And life emerge loaded with secret knowledge,
Won’t they be dumb, sealed off by the awful vision?
Or should they speak, would anyone ever believe?

Swingler writes with both sharp immediacy and a sense of historical perspective. The central stanza of “The Day the War Ended” (May 1945) goes:

There is a moment when contradictions cross,
A split of a moment when history twirls on one toe
Like a ballerina, and all men are really equal
And happiness could be impartial for once.

Work of this order is a reproach both to anyone who thinks that no great English-language poetry came out of the Second World War and to those who still believe that poetry must be “difficult” if it is to treat of complex and difficult experience in an original manner.

I am ashamed to admit that I first heard of Swingler only a few months ago. His biographer, the poet and publisher Andy Croft, has been championing his work for well over 20 years, publishing a Selected Poems in 2000 and an earlier version of this biography in 2003. That Croft’s heroic efforts have attracted so little attention points to an alarming complacency and inertia on the part of the British cultural establishment.

Swingler’s poetry did not fit with some unquestioned assumption as to how modern poets should write about war

Our general ignorance of Swingler is all the more surprising given that during the 1930s he was very well known. The main reason for his exclusion from postwar British cultural life appears to have been his vocal commitment to communism; he remained an active party member until 1956. It may also be relevant that Swingler’s war poetry was too distinctive, that it did not fit with some unquestioned assumption as to how modern poets should write about war.

Croft writes:

The example of the anti-war poetry of the First World War had made it extremely difficult to write about the necessary, anti-Fascist War which Swingler believed he was fighting. […] The popular press expected flag-waving verse, the metropolitan intelligentsia a hand-wringing literature about living in tragic times. Swingler’s writings about war […] were neither, expressing instead the complex, battered sensibility of the ordinary soldier and finding there something approaching greatness.

Croft tells Swingler’s life story with exemplary clarity. He was born into the heart of the British Establishment. The nephew and godson of an Archbishop of Canterbury, he was educated at Winchester and Oxford. Many of his school and university contemporaries went on to achieve the highest success in a variety of fields.

Endowed with both charm and formidable energy, Swingler himself remained a popular and successful figure at least until the late 1930s, editing literary/political magazines and organising cultural events. The most important of these was a “Festival of Music and the People” that filled the Albert Hall in 1939. He wrote the text for the historical pageant that constituted one of these three concerts. The festival featured music by a variety of composers, including Vaughan Williams; the star singer was Paul Robeson.

The Years of Anger: The Life of Randall Swingler by Andy Croft
Routledge, £34.99

Croft’s account of British cultural life in the 1930s is thorough and the chapters devoted to Swingler’s wartime experiences are vivid and moving. The final chapters, recounting Swingler’s descent into alcoholism and depression, are painful to read, but Croft tells the story with his usual balance. For the main part, he limits himself to chronicling the facts, but when he makes judgments and interpretations, these are always illuminating.

For all the grief and anger in his war poems, Swingler’s four years of military service may have marked a high point in his life. He enjoyed the company of his fellow soldiers, he was fighting for a cause in which he believed, and he had hopes for a free, socially transformed postwar Europe. Peacetime Britain, the collapse of the British Communist Party, the cultural rigidities of the Cold War — the remaining two decades before his death from a heart attack in 1967 were a bleak
anti-climax.

Swingler’s finest poems are those included in “Battle,” the last section of The Years of Anger (1946). That this superb collection went almost unreviewed may also have contributed to his postwar depression. Nevertheless, Swingler did go on to write at least one masterpiece of a very different kind: the libretto for a miniature oratorio called The Winter Journey (late 1946). The music was by Alan Bush, a fellow communist with whom Swingler had collaborated throughout his career. The finest section of all is the concluding Chorale:

Winter it may be in the streets of time,
And all in vain, and all in vain,
They made that journey through the waste and wild,
Unless we make some place to lay the child
That will be born, that will be born
This Christmas in the season of the heart.

Some chapters of Swingler’s life are dispiriting. How could someone so intelligent and courageous have accepted the party line on such matters as the Moscow show trials of the mid-1930s? How could he ever have brought himself, however reluctantly, to justify the Nazi-Soviet pact? Croft’s answer, perhaps a little hesitant, is that Swingler believed in the ideal of communism and that what happened in Moscow was always less important to him than what he believed that communism could do for England.

In some aspects of his life — not only politics, but also in his turbulent and confusing love life — Swingler lied to himself. Nevertheless, there is much that is admirable in the steadfastness with which he remained true both to the faith he adopted as an adult and — less obviously — to the Christian faith in which he was brought up.

Croft puts this well:

The Winter Journey shows just how near the surface of Swingler’s thinking the narratives of Christianity still lay; Communism had only strengthened their imaginative power and educative force for him. If he believed that the Risen Christ was now to be discovered only among the working class and in the Communist movement, he never ceased to honour the Christian tradition or to recognise its regenerative, historical potential.

The Chorale from The Winter Journey has a timeless, elegiac beauty. Yet it is also a call to action. Rather than “Unless we find some place to lay the child,” he chose to write, “Unless we make some place…” For Swingler it was not enough to look around and hope for the best; he considered it his duty to make, to construct. At a time when it was all too easy to slip into triviality or a facile nihilism, Swingler remained a poet of determined, constructive love.

I am grateful to Andy Croft for his devotion to Swingler’s legacy, and I hope that he will soon bring out a new edition of his Selected Poems, which are now out of print.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover