the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

Herbert Read – ‘Ode: Written during the Battle of Dunkirk, May 1940’

with 2 comments

“Sixteen years ago I built this house
By an oak on an acre of wild land…”

Herbert Read (1893-1968), anarchist poet, veteran of the 1st World War (he got a DSO and a MC), living in Norfolk during the Second World War, published a short collection of poems in 1944 under the title ‘A World Within a War’, the above lines taken from the title-poem. It is a time when every thought and action is “within a war” – even here in his idyllic countryside retreat. Read, born in Yorkshire, orphaned as a child, was, my research tells me, committed to the ‘people’s war’, the aim of which Evelyn Waugh said was to “direct the struggle for national survival into proletarian revolution”. He wrote theory on anarchism; was an art critic, championing Henry Moore and other modern artists; and co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Art as “an adult play-centre” and “a source of vitality and daring experiment”. Later in his life he accepted a very un-anarchist knighthood from the very un-anarchist Queen of England.


Written during the Battle of Dunkirk, May 1940



Fair now this world of peace
this May sun rising over the quickened bird
giving the tender leaves
a human warmth: opening
with golden fingers the heart of the rose.

Gently, ceaselessly, the fretted oaks
sway against the sky: not a bough of leaf
is still. The slender grasses
shiver in urgent freshness.

A butterfly desperately clings
to the shaking bell of a hyacinth.
On the sunned earth
an Iceland poppy has shed its petals
they shrivel in the heat
soon to disintegrate
cell by cell
in the slow material
kiss of death.

The same sun once sucked the film
out of the fallen seed: mastic phlegm
flooded the dry fibre: there was life
and growth, colour and form. There was man
a coral plasm clinging to shafts of bone
fragile flesh that will fall
like a petal on the provident soil.

The mystery could end there
in birth and death, in wax and wane
and in all that for the interim
dazzles the world with bloom.
But just as the cool luminous clouds
inexplicably thicken in the clear air
to drift across the sun like ragged clots
spreading darkness over the green and eminent land
so there rises in the flesh of man
a forest lust: the rosy fanes
are flushed with a darker blood: the human bond
is broken, the race divided. The petals
no longer lie withering where they fall
but are torn and crushed, and into the soil
mashed rawly.

So the poem, with its Keatsean title and its time-setting of the subtitle, starts with this contradiction of Romantic beauty and modern despair. It opens with what the poet can see out of his Norfolk window: a world full of life – “gently, ceaselessly the fretted oaks / sway against the sky … the slender grasses /shiver in urgent freshness” – vital and amazing. The massive, the small, no one single unit, living and whole – yet containing their vulnerability in the “sway” of the oaks and the “shiver” of the grass. There is life and there is death and man is a part of the cycle: just as the seed germinated in the sun’s heat, so “there was man / a coral plasm clinging to shafts of bone / fragile flesh that will fall / like a petal on the provident soil.” Like oak or petal, large or small, we die- in the nice half-rhyme of nature’s rhythm, we “fall” on the “soil” and fertilise anew.

Except this is wartime and man has messed things up. “The petals no longer lie withering where they fall / but are torn and crushed, and into the soil / mashed rawly.” An image which is enough to remind us of the terrible violence we had almost forgotten.


The old guns
barked into my ear. Day and night
They shook the earth in which I cowered
or rained round me
detonations of steel and fire.

One of the dazed and disinherited
I crawled out of that mess
with two medals and a gift of blood-money.
No visible wounds to lick – only a resolve
to tell the truth without rhetoric
the truth about war and about men
involved in the indignities of war.

But the world was tired and would forget
forget the pain and squalor
forget the hunger and dread
forget the cry of those who died in agony
and the unbearable silence of those who suddenly
as we talked
fell sniped
with mouth still open and uncomprehending eyes.

It is right to forget
sights the mind cannot accommodate
terror that cannot be described
experience that cannot be exorcised in thought.

It is natural for others to resent
the parade of wounds
eyes haunted with unrevealed sorrows
the unholy pride of sacrifice.

Human, to relapse
into the old ways, to resume
the normality so patiently acquired
in days of peace.

And so we drifted twenty years
down the stream of time
feeling that such a storm
could not break again.

Feeling that our little house-boat was safe
until the last lock was reached.
Another twenty years
would see us home.

The day passes
the sun swerves
silently like a cyclist round the bend.
Disembodied voices drift past behind the hedge
the vespers of the blackbird and the thrush
rise and die. A golden frog
leaps out of the grasses.

In the silence of the twilight
I hear in the distance
the new guns.
I listen, no longer apt in war
unable to distinguish between bombs and shells.

As the evening deepens
searchlights begin to waver in the sky
the air-planes throb invisibly above me
There is still a glow in the west
And Venus shines brightly over the wooded hill.

Unreal war! No single friend
links me with its immediacy.
It is a voice out of a cabinet
a printed sheet, and these faint reverberations
selected in the silence
by my attentive ear.

Presently I shall sleep
and sink into a deeper oblivion.


Belief without action
action without thought
the blind intervention
of years without design.

We have known that a certain way of life was good
the easy salutation, the open hand,
the sober disquisition, the frank eye,
the unfailing satisfaction
of water wine and bread.

A step as measured
as a sower’s on the field
quiet voices, voices of children
benedictions of women, ministrations
of gentle fingers
a centre to the circle
of all our wanderings.

And from this centre
the mind leaving the placid body
freely to range in thought and fantasy.

The world our person
the self the nucleus
the inner kernel round which
the films and shells are wrapped
deceptive or protective.

Our person our world
flexed limbs, elastic muscles
flow and flood, ripple of breath and blood
against the skeleton’s brittle wall
eye’s eagerness, lickerous tongue
ear’s selection, finger’s fine division
all senses single and combined
construing the living scene
extending and contracting
the livid elements the languorous the sublime.

These elements accepted but not guarded
faith formulated but not maintained
twenty years
without design.

Part II of the poem takes us back to war, starting with Read’s own experience in the trenches, out of which he came with the (romantic?) determination to “tell the truth about war and about men / involved”. He knows now, however, that he should have seen that those who were there would want to forget “experience that cannot be exorcised in thought” and those who weren’t there would “resent the parade of wounds” or not be able to believe the unbelievable stories, such as the one with which he ends his WWI recollections: the man sniped “as we talked … with mouth still open” (II).

And so, perhaps inevitably, we ended up back in war.

In III, he despairs of the years of peace, in which we haven’t “guarded” human vitality and haven’t “maintained” faith in human possibility. He introduces the unreconciled binaries that have caused these troubles: “Belief without action / action without thought”. “The best” in apocalyptic times, said Yeats, “lack all conviction”. Similarly, but nuanced differently, Read, despairs that the best did not do enough while the worst were busy doing but without the thinking that should have gone with it.


This is the hour of retribution
The city shaken, the power taken
from palsied hands.

This is the hour of retribution
the last farewell and the repetition
of the father’s sacrifice.

This the hour of retribution
of power without pity, of work without reward
of poetry without rhetoric.

This is the hour of retribution
the sense of glory kindled, dwindling in the steel cabin
choked with burning petrol.

This is the hour of retribution
the leap from earth, ecstasy in the air
the quickly withering nerve.

This is the hour of retribution
for young men in uniform, for old men in slacks
for children at play.

This is the hour of retribution
the hour of doom, the hour of extreme unction
the hour of death.


Happy are those who can relieve
suffering with prayer
Happy those who can rely on God
to see them through.

They can wait patiently for the end.

But we who have put our faith
in the goodness of man
and now see man’s image debased
lower than the wolf or the hog –

Where can we turn for consolation?

And so the poem slips into despair. Apocalypse: a time that the kindles our sense of glory, sending men to war where they will find that glory “dwindling in the steel cabin/ “choked with burnt petrol” (IV): leaving an image of twisted, charred metal accompanied with the artificial smell of petrol – the flame burnt out and only a memory of their previous belief in the internal rhyme of “kindled” and “dwindling”. The religious fool is lucky, for “they can wait patiently for  the end” (V) but for the anarchists, “who have put our faith / in the goodness of man / and now see man’s image debased / lower that the wolf or hog”, things are not looking so good. The dark powers laugh.

But slowly, like the end of Shostakovitch’s fifth (and this is poem is a symphony with movements and themes introduced and reworked), Reads finds reason for hope after this terrible low. The dark side also have unreconciled binaries: “power but no grace … powers without persuasion the hands without art” (VI). And against this stands flesh that will always be flesh and hearts that will never accept them. And as always, there is the faith of those who believe in a better world: “time, which for the tyrant is a talisman of dread” (VI). In contrast, hearts that believe in humanity “reign in aeons that are ageless in worlds without ends”. War will end, and the two driving forces of our existence – reason and love – are now reconciled as the prow of the boat that takes us on through time; art will be their flag “a pennon / rippling above / in the fabulous wind.” (VIII)

Written by angrysampoetry

March 19, 2012 at 10:19 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I realize this is an old post of yours, but today I am trying to follow a trail from F. S. Flint to Herbert Read (Flint dedicated his post WWI book “Otherworld” to Read) and I’ve been stymied by how little of Read’s poetry is available online, so this was helpful. Thanks.

    So far, I think it’s going to be challenge to integrate Herbert Reed into my project, but still it was good to be able to read it.

    Frank Hudson

    December 5, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Poetry is not well archived online, partly because of copyright, partly because of the time it takes to upload it (manually typing it out) and partly because not many people read it! I felt that this poem was too long to write out in full but you should hunt out his work in printed form; interesting writer.


      December 7, 2017 at 9:21 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: