Poem of the week: Daybreak by Lilian Bowes Lyon | Poetry

Poem of the week: Daybreak by Lilian Bowes Lyon | Poetry


Morning is a revealing; confession of rivers,
Rainfall hushed of the rhetoric of surprise,
Field that can furrow the heart; a land our eyes
Have learnt by rote, not leaned over like lovers;

Secret divulged, of towns in a pit of horror,
Wars white-hot in the foundry’s flickering womb;
Compassionately day underlines the doom
We paste on a hoarding, peer at in a mirror;

Tripped by the tree’s root — all perfection felled
Yet faint with bloom — we flatter in man the torrid
Zealot of metal, cheat the wildwood forehead,
Prune of its green desire the desolate world.

Morning is a redeeming and a condemning.
Sparrows at two a farthing leave no smudge
On sanguine earth. May dawn forbear to judge
Between my blood-guilt and the bomber gleaming.

The work of poet and novelist Lilian Bowes Lyon (1895-1949) was well known in Britain in the 1930s and 40s but the 20th-century poetry anthologists, including those focused on war writing, frequently overlooked her achievement. It was good to discover her poem Daybreak in the recently published anthology, Contra-Flow: Lines of Englishness 1922-2022.

Daybreak is from the collection Tomorrow is a Revealing, published in 1941. This is the period when Bowes Lyon was engaged in voluntary war work, ultimately moving into London’s East End the following year, the better to serve the people of this heavily bombed area.

Morning reveals distinct aspects of warring England. Slow-dawning natural sounds of rivers and rainfall, undemonstrative, non-judgmental, are succeeded by the febrile labour of “towns in a pit of horror”. The first verse lovingly recalls a “field that can furrow the heart” and contrasts it with “a land our eyes / Have learnt by rote, not leaned over by lovers”. “Field” notably has no article, unlike the impersonal “a land”. The rote-learned land may be London where the countryside-born poet undertook the huge self-discipline of work with the Women’s Voluntary Service.

The industrial imagery of the second verse suggest munitions factories as well as bombed-out ruins. Ideas accumulate such as a secret stock of weapons in the “foundry’s flickering womb” where war’s weapons are forged. That satirical adverb in “Compassionately day underlines the doom …” brings about a less metaphysical revelation, a revelation of the human fault at the heart of things. The “doom” that’s pasted on a wall may be political propaganda, but it’s as intimately human, in its way, as what’s seen in the mirror, the face. The pronoun “we” reveals the speaker’s sense of her own culpability.

A jolt opens the third verse, as “we” are “tripped by the tree’s root”. The tree has been brought down and humanity is further undermined by the contrary elevation of military values (personified as “the torrid / Zealot of metal”). The verse is dense with tight-lipped pathos: the tree is “yet faint with bloom” but we “cheat the wildwood forehead”. The strong verbs proclaim the insult: we “flatter” the wrong qualities in man and “cheat” nature. This verse has a prescient view of environmental devastation.

In her last quatrain, Bowes Lyon achieves a fine amplification of some of the ideas in the opening verses. The morning embodies a paradox, a “redeeming” which, in its clear-sightedness, is inevitably also a “condemning”. The second line suggests a biblical reference, a challenge to the deity’s compassion for the fallen sparrows expressed in Matthew 10:29. The poem’s sparrows are more cheaply priced (“two a farthing”) and their blood is invisible on an earth described as “sanguine”, both cheerful and blood-drenched. It’s significant that the underlying ethics of the poem are Christian and possibly pacifist, but there is no sense that the speaker or her world has recourse to any divine agency. The poem has the courage of its own human qualities, and its perception of their limitations. Its only prayer is to the morning: “May dawn forbear to judge / Between my blood-guilt and the bomber gleaming.” The gleams of blood and metal are inextricably fused.

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