“Evening in Stepney” Lilian Bowes Lyon (Jonathan Cape) – Poetry Review

Evening in Stepney Lilian Bowes Lyon book coverLilian Bowes-Lyon’s thinnest collection, written in the period 1940 – 1943, containing her long sequence plus half a dozen other poems. London suffered 40% of its war casualties in the first phase of the Blitz from September 1940 – May 1941. The official casualty figures were 29890 deaths and 50507 people seriously injured and Stepney lost a third of its housing stock. Some death notices printed in newspapers suggest Lilian Bowes Lyon worked at Anna Freud and Dorothy Tiffany Burlington’s Hampstead War Nurseries to support children traumatised by war, but this seems unlikely, although she probably contributed to and supported the nurseries. She was supportive of education for children but wasn’t particularly maternal herself and became more concerned with the ordinary people in the East End who bore the brunt of the Blitz and had to resort to sheltering in Tube stations and unofficial shelters such as the underground warehouse at Tilbury Docks. She moved to Bow Road in the East End and set to work visiting bombed areas and nursing casualties.

Unsurprisingly then, “Evening in Stepney” is touched by war and its after-effects,


The circle of greensward evening-lit,
And each house taciturn to its neighbour.
The destruction of a city is not caused by fire;
What many have lost begets a ghostlier heritage
Or hails the unknown horizon; workaday street
A travel-ordained encounter, the breakable family
Fortified in defeat by the soldering air.
The destruction is in the rejection of a common weal;
Agony’s open abyss or the fate of an orphanage,
Mass-festering, mass-freezing or mass-burial,
Crime’s worm is in ourselves
Who crumble and are the destroyer.
Time to repair the infirmary soon, for tissue torn;
To plan the adroit, repetitive memorial. “

Her concern was not with the physical destruction of buildings – she was intensely practical and would have taken the view that buildings can be re-built – but with the destruction wrought on humanity, “The destruction is in the rejection of a common weal”. London was a series of enclaves rather than a united city and this enabled those with wealth-based status to distance themselves – the underground shelter at the Savoy was not open to the working classes and some councillors and Members of Parliament found themselves literally taking constituents to shelters and insisting they be allowed in. Lilian Bowes Lyon recognised this distancing as creating further  divides and hindering efforts to help and support the injured, bereaved and homeless. But she is not judgmental, she doesn’t pin blame on one sector or group of people. She looks within herself, “Crime’s worm is in ourselves/ Who crumble and are the destroyer”. She wants people to come together and not to lose their humanity. The poem uses assonances on the “t” sounds in “taciturn”, “destruction.. city”, “street”, “travel-ordained encounter” “Fortified in defeat”, “destruction is in the rejection”, “fate”, etc, the quick hard sound underlining the sense of the poem.

In part 3, “Some footsure lives have their allotted goals;/ Nailed to a bench the skeleton town between us/ (Shackles and relics, rust-corroded wire),/ Pathless I chose the obedient progression /    of the pause, to admit death and to arrive;/ To leave you and to come back to you no-where bound,/    A humbler desert redeemed by  waterfalls..” Lilian Bowes Lyon paints a picture of humanity overcoming the destruction of Stepney. Here she softens the hard consonantal sounds with susurrus “s” sounds in the plurals and “pathless… progression”, “pause” and “desert”. Part 4 continues to focus on the after-effects of the bombing campaign:

These make-shift years, in areas
Bred by this capital, the mean tenements
My deeds condone, my dutiful lips deplore,
More sere than once, a trifle more collapsible,
Some like the rook’s castle left to rot,
The sky for a ceiling, droppings on the floor,
Some cracked but still precariously permanent,
Consent to vanish at sundown without pathos,
Dusk into dusk; the War
Has cropped to chimney-height the occasional spire;
What towers above roof-level is intangible,
Yesterday’s hope, and the confusion of fear
Anaesthetizing a city not yet born.
Intact though nebulous monument!
Across and across it move
The search-lights, reckoning hate on a hidden clock.

Could tears with tears confer.

I see through a dark lens your hamlet burned;
The sawdust child, the seven-year-old toy
That tore in half too easily;
Drowned men who have haunted
History’s archipelago, England’s rock;
And the piston forearm catching the furnace glare;
Brotherhood sealed as the pointed bayonet struck;
The joy re-vindicated, and the sin repented.
Near to us now the rose draws every distance
Deeply into the haven of the eye, and the breast-feather of a dove
Gave to me grows infinite in my hand.”

Part 5 captures the mood, “Condemned to a limbo sombre,/ Resigned to winter, an ember of the Sonata…”, “…To the slum, and to Europe’s tomb; to the starveling opposite,/ Shut house over against me, shored by grief…”, “…Tooth for a tooth, we have said, and bomb for bomb;/ Down by the rat-pestilent sewer pullulate/ Our children vainly arrayed like Solomon,/ How fieldless, and how venerably in bud;/ The tank rolls on beneath the rainbow’s arch…” The assonances on the long vowel sounds giving a sense of resignation and weariness. Part 6 ends, “Our destiny to endure the rebuke of love,/ One with another, pardonable, in ruins./ We look for the gift ungiven but in-graven,/ A wound of light in the forehead of the blind.”

She offers hope in “The Small Hours”, “So build, with equal mind, with burning endeavour,/ That close to the ground, though civilization crumble,/ New love may spring to illuminate the humble;/ And havoc shall be an angel that passed over.//For murder and shipwreck, for the shuddering factory/ Be small, be mute, you after-midnight tears./ The downward sigh of the rain, the roofless years/ May kill the poor but can’t put out their victory.” Despite living through two world wars, she never lost her hope in humanity.

“An Evening in Stepney” shows Lilian Bowes Lyon opening her poetic range to include war and, particularly, its after-effects. Her poems reflect her values and her desire to see people working towards a common welfare, where no one is left out and everyone is served according to need. It shows a loosening of technique too. She still uses rhyme but the line lengths vary and the poems still easily lend themselves to being read aloud.

This is the only collection that survives intact in her “Collected Poems”.


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