SAY the words ‘war poet’ and the names of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and their First World War contemporaries come instantly to mind.
But what of the Second World War? Who were the writers who gave us a poetic legacy from that tumultuous period of our history, but who, curiously, seem to have been consigned to the shadows?
Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, who were both killed in 1944, are probably the best-known, but there is a third, John Jarmain, who has remained largely unsung but who could well be worthy of a place in the top rank.
He too was killed in 1944, aged 33, in Normandy, after a long campaign in North Africa – he fought at El Alamein – and further action in the invasion of Sicily.
Jarmain, who taught Italian and Maths at Millfield School, wrote more than 150 letters home to his wife in Dorset, many of them containing his poems written by the light of the moon.
Not long after his death, a slim volume of his poems, which, with their gentle, understated nature, are in many ways untypical of war poetry, was published. Also published posthumously was his only novel, Priddy Barrows, about a boys’ school in the Mendips. Both books were widely acclaimed and Jarmain’s talents lauded. Vita Sackville-West wrote, in 1946: “Among the poets lost to us by the war, John Jarmain must take a considerable place. A real loss.”
He was also referred to as “One of the truly great but neglected poets of the Second World War” in the anthology, Oasis into Italy (pub. Salamander Oasis Trust, 1983).
That first collection of Jarmain’s poems, the one that was published in 1945, has now been republished in a beautiful hardback edition, complete with critical essays, historical notes and Imperial War Museum photographs, setting his words and work in admirably detailed context.
‘Flowers in the Minefields’ (Flagon Press, £14.99), has been edited and researched by James Crowden, the Somerset-based writer and poet. Appropriately, he launched it on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November, at Sladers Yard in Bridport as part of the town’s annual literary festival, where his guest, Ptolemy Dean, the architect, son of Jarmain’s friend and battery commander Joe Dean, will read an essay written by his father in celebration of the poet’s life and work.
A second launch was held on 24th November at The Dorset Bookshop, East Street, Blandford.
James Crowden is currently engaged in writing Jarmain’s biography, which he aims to publish next year.
Crucial to both projects relating to John Jarmain has been the input from Jarmain’s daughter Janet Coward, who lives in Queens Road, Blandford. The elder daughter from the poet’s second marriage, to Beryl Butler, of Broadstone, near Poole, Janet was born in 1942, just before the Battle of Alamein, and can only recollect her father through the written memories of his contemporaries, the body of work he left behind him, and, remarkably, a cache of love letters he wrote to Beryl. These Janet discovered after her mother had been killed in a road accident near Swanage in 1990, but it was to be 10 years before she summoned the emotional courage to read them.
Subsequently, a chance meeting with James Crowden gave her the opportunity to mention the existence of the letters, and now they have helped bring Jarmain to literary notice again.
Beryl Jarmain, with whom the poet had fallen in love after his first marriage foundered, was seven months’ pregnant with twins when her husband was killed. The little boy was to die later, aged 10, while the girl twin, Diana, became a Buddhist nun and lives in a community on the Holy Isle, off the west coast of Scotland.
Jarmain had two other children, Mark and Joanna, from his first marriage, to a talented artist, Eve Houghton. Only Joanna survives and she lives on Vancouver Island where she is a published writer of prose and poetry. Her book of poems, A Summer Father, is a poignant portrait of her absent father and her own childhood, marred by her war. She was six years old when her father was killed.
A facility with words may have been passed down from their father, Janet Coward says, but she claims it didn’t settle on her. She is now retired after a career in teaching Latin and English at Millfield, where she was employed by the same head, Jack Meyer, who had taken on her father, and at schools in Sherborne and Swanage.
Janet Coward acknowledges her father’s poetic brilliance and is pleased by this fresh awakening of interest in his work, sparked by the imminent book-launch and by the interest in the Battle of Alamein in this 70th anniversary year.
She says: “He was very talented, gifted even, and was always an emotional poet.”
His great love of the natural world, of bird life in particular, is evident in many of his poems. “I know he and my mother used to love bird-watching and they would spend whatever time they could out walking together,” Janet says.
She adds: “I now find that the poems have greater meaning for me because I am looking for the man behind the poet – and I find glimpses of him. Those that in some small way relate to my mother and their relationship are particularly poignant.”
Here she refers specifically to the final two lines of a poem written on board SS Duchess of Richmond, the troopship that in 1942 carried John Jarmain, his battery and 5,000 troops of the Highland Division from Liverpool via Cape Town to Port Tewfik in Egypt.
SLEEPING ON DECK
I lie and look at the stars that rock and sway
In a swinging arc beyond the pointer mast
And stiff black spars; I hear from far away
The quiver of the engines’ humming song.
And nearer the wave of the white wash hissing past.
Warm as your breath, and fresh, and blowing strong,
The smooth wind fans my eyelids and my hair
And faintly flaps the blankets of my bed.
How still it is! O, my heart has need of you here,
And the hollow of your arm to lay my head.
James Crowden hopes that ‘Flowers in the Minefields’ will go some way towards belatedly shedding light on the talents of Second World War poets.
Comparing them with the First World War poets, he says: “They fought a very different but just as bitter war, and many of the poets in the WesternDesert were killed.
“We can still learn so much from those that were embroiled in such major conflicts of conscience, bravery and hardship. Jarmain’s poems were shaped by solitude and the desert. As one of his lines says: ‘And the desert will live within us when war is ended’.”
Tim Kendall, Professor of English at ExeterUniversity, says that John Jarmain’s “small number of significant poems belong among the finest of the war”. He considers this one, written at Mareth, Tunisia, in March 1943 and containing the line from which the newly published book takes its title, to be his masterpiece:
There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.
It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.
So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.
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