“Tomorrow is a Revealing” Lilian Bowes Lyon (Jonathan Cape) – poetry review

Tomorrow is a Revealing Lilian Bowes Lyon poetry book cover

“Tomorrow is a Revealing” was published in 1941 so it does contain poems that carry a foreboding, for example, “Starlings: 1938”

“Starlings pack these trees,
Each Folly of light,
With a glib roar as of shingle
Sucked by fallow seas;
The tired lands in lava-slow retreat
Leave hostage to the night
Effulgent ruin, tower and tinsel garrison
A fiery while we wrangle
Then, sparkling thousands, are distilled in flight;
How care-worn, by comparison
With that rose-crazed debate,
The dark news on the breeze.”

Similarly in “Daybreak”, “Morning is a redeeming and a condemning./ Sparrows at two a farthing leave no smudge/ On sanguine earth. My dawn forbear to judge/ Between my blood-guilt and the bomber gleaming.” Lilian Bowes Lyon still focuses on natural themes, but death creeps in, most obviously in “The Grave”

“It hurt me, the efficient, spade-proud hole,
That earth-room with its tapestry of boughs;
I dared not look, how sturdily into marl
The pick had struck, how strong they had made your house.

After, I knew the spring would heal that scar
Easily with daisies, mend the ground undone.
Your wistful bones are best then where they are;
Too deeply wintered-out to wound the sun.”

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, she acted as guarantor for two Jewish, Czech brothers, Hanus and Karel Gorsz, whose parents put them on Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport enabling them to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia (as it was then). During the Blitz in London she moved from comfortable Kensington to the East End and worked in the Tilbury Docks air raid shelter, visiting bombed properties and nursing the injured. During this time her own health worsened. She suffered with thromboangiitis obliterans (Buerger’s disease) where blood vessels in the hands and feet inflame and become blocked, which reduces blood flow to the tissues and in turn causes damage which can lead to gangrene. Cold and damp can worsen symptoms.  Lilian Bowes Lyon underwent a series of amputations of her toes, her feet during the Second World War and eventually, in 1948 had her legs below her hips amptuated. However, she was not one for self-pity and felt her place was helping those she regarded as worse off than she was. Neither was she going to stop writing.

Her most anthologised poem, “A Son” is included in “Tomorrow is a Revealing”, a successful combination of country and war themes,

“A middle-aged farm labourer lived here,
And loved his wife; paid rent to hard eternity
Six barren years, till thorn-tree-blessed she bore
A son with a bird’s glint, and wheat-straw hair.
Sweet life! Yet neither boasted.
The boy was a tassel flown by gaunt serenity,
Hedge banner in the September of the War.

A jettisoned bomb fell; at noonday there,
Where take my dusty oath a cottage stood.
Great with unspendable centuries of maternity,
‘At least he had struck seven,’ she said, ‘this year –’
Of different grace; of blood.
The man looks bent; yet neither girds at God,
Remembering it was beautiful while it lasted.”

It takes the story of a common couple, desperate for a child but forced to try for six years before the wife becomes pregnant. Their much-loved child makes it to the age of seven – one more year than he’s been waited for – before being lost to a bomb. The man “looks bent” is cowed with grief but neither he nor his wife blame either God or fate but remember the joy and love their son brought. It’s a short poem that captures the tragedy of war. The language is not overtly poetic but accessible. Accumulation of small details are used to build a bigger picture with careful attention to choice of detail, eg a farm labourer would use “bird’s glint” and “wheat-straw hair” to describe his son.

There is no obvious rhyme pattern, but care has been taken with the sound patterns within the poem. Apart from the two short lines, feminine endings are mostly used, creating a falling away feeling at the end of each line and a sense of inevitability. The two short lines end in masculine endings, the “boasted” of the first stanza preparing the reader for “blood” in the second, so it doesn’t shock. The wife notes that her much waited for son lived one year longer than their wait, trying to comfort herself with this small concession. The echoes in “eternity”, “serenity” and “maternity” serve to remind readers that the couple are not party to any of them. “The man looks bent”, Lilian Bowes Lyon is showing the man’s grief, instead of telling the reader he is grieving. It’s this careful, skilled attention to how rhythm and sound complement meaning that makes the poem look effortless.

In “Collected Poems”, Lilian Bowes Lyon excludes two poems, “The Keen Wind” and “The Future’s Virture” from “Tomorrow is a Revealing” and re-writes “Till Streams Are Banners” as “Depressed Area”.

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