Operation By Night
The wine of mellowing ages
That wet your lips in youth,
The whiteness of pored pages
Where once you searched for truth,
Deep music silenced, leaves that fell,
The midnight chime and chance-heard bell—
All life’s dead undergrowth:
Seen stubble-swoop of plovers,
Speed-flash of polished spokes,
Remembered touch of lovers,
High storm in forest oaks—
All things that rose and sank again
You think of when you see your plane
Crouched where the sundown smokes.
You stump towards the hangar
Blocked in the fire-foam sky,
Not touched by hate or anger
Or fear that you may die,
But seeing small things round the drome
Which like an old man leaving home
You bid, in case, good-bye.
There under elders leaflorn
A thistle flowering late—
Oh, while one’s left unbreathed on
You still can educate
Your driftfain soul! Spend steady hours
Just gazing in the eyes of flowers:
Those other things can wait.
Slit throats in city barrows,
In café’s bought to wilt;
Brush fertilizing marrows,
Sea-campions born of silt,
The dew-bald flesh of fungus heads,
Long tulip-gasjets lit in beds
And heather in a kilt—
Have you not seen them, passed them
Beckoning with their eyes?
When have your hands plucked and cast them
Away with no lover’s sighs?
Why then should just this weed remain—
Why aren’t there orchids round your plane
Or frail fritillaries?
If kissing were less pleasant
This race of men would die.
Yet flowers in bloom procreant
Make joy for hand and eye,
Nostril and palate, bee-sweet food—
Unselfish beauty such as could
Never in our love lie.
Once born, should we regret it
With every indrawn breath
Or close our eyes, forget it,
Kiss, laugh our way to death?
Kissing that dazzles dark with light,
Laughter that lingers in the night—
But then what the wind saith . . .
You! —stumping to the hangar
In deep-fleeced flying-boots—
That misanthropic anger
That shook you to the roots
When war first came, is that still there?
Does self-protection in the air
Not squeeze out all your doubts?
Are you that great impatient
Dark introvert again
When all these martyred nations
Are fighting to keep sane?
You may have played at hermits once
But a hermit flying makes a dunce.
There crouching waits your plane!
Some ground crew hot from soccer
Run panting by to change . . .
You open your tall locker—
That flying-suit looks strange!
Rats! —Well of course with chewing gum
Left in the pockets, they’re bound to come
And give the darn thing mange.
It smells of furs that moulder—
You draw the collar round
Like a kitten on your shoulder
Or a girl’s hair lightly wound
About your neck. But bitterness
Scatters all thoughts of tenderness
Like hares chased by a hound.
You take your ’chute and helmet.
A face you’d fain forget
Shines clear. You overwhelm it
And light a cigarette.
Then mingling with the other men
Discussing all the latest gen
You smoke and wait and sweat.
This is what makes a hero—
Discomfort and delay
Till the craved hour called zero
Flings chance into the fray.
The tumbril waits outside the door;
You say “so long” to pals once more,
Climb in and drive away.
There grows a sense of smallness
Under the plane’s huge snout
Just as there’s mental tallness
In throwing her about.
This span of metal tons—that this
On paper clouds seemed just a kiss
Pencilled, can you but doubt?
Slow props turn past compression:
Sudden the engines roar.
You make one last concession
To nature, gaze once more
On sunset and blown grasses bent,
Then through the toothless shark-mouth vent
Climb up and close the door.
Once settled in the cockpit
Your hands assume control-
Oxygen plug in socket
And intercom in hole-
Try talking to the other chaps,
Run up the engines, test the flaps-
All handwork: where’s your soul?
Faculties taut as wires,
Sweating from scalp to socks,
You set the trimming bias
And check the petrol cocks,
Adjust your seat, glance down the wing
At the pitot head—check everything,
Then wave away the chocks.
As when a whip-wave lashes
Fierce up some shingling beach,
Or a great engine passes
With steam-plumed valves ascreech,
So hisses pressure from the brakes
At last released; the plane awakes
To speed as well as speech.
You heave back on the bridle,
The stick against your chest.
The Merlins merely idle—
A mighty voice repressed
Of giants who forever rave
Being tortured in a mountain cave
And passionate for rest.
Into a smoke-screen sunset
You taxi down the drome
Beneath cloud-capes and inlets
That merge from grey to chrome
With here and there a wash of sky
Where cirrus whitewaves lifeless lie
In wastes of frozen foam.
Up there this night or higher
Your destiny shall be—
A scarce-heard speck of fire
Above the cold North Sea;
Yet sitting in this same arm-chair
Closed in by these same windows there
You might be having tea!
Now through grey vapour-hover
Scuttle the planes to take
Their place, like crayfish over
The bottom of a lake.
You, first off, on the runway stand,
One eye on that slow second-hand,
One thumb upon the brake.
A final check: all’s ready;
Eager the engines thrum.
The second-hand ticks steady;
You have an itching thumb.
Ten seconds—(meanwhile men have died)—
At last! brakes off and throttles wide—
Heil Hitler, here we come!
Nucleus of double thunder,
Towards those clouds dark grey
Above and russet under
Gently you lift away
Nursed by still-sliding air; the earth,
Hedge, fields backrushing swift beneath
Merge with the dying day.
With new grace upward swimming,
No bump nor pitch nor roll,
Through golden water brimming
Deep in the earth’s broad bowl
You climb to where the sun is seen
Down beyond its western screen
Intense as flaming coal.
What winds have swept since morning
Above these blue-wreathed realms
Where you with monarch’s scorning—
With mastery that whelms
All fear and leaves a happy brain
Uncomplicate—to test your plane
Flew high beyond the elms.
Then mountain tarns flashed clearer
As if old giant men
Had shattered some huge mirror
O’er peak and moor and glen.
Then streams seemed snail-tracks glistening by:
What winds have swept across the sky,
What winds, what clouds since then!
In shoals of mist ungleaming
Beneath your owlish flight
You glimpse York Minster dreaming
With stone towers dimly bright;
And while the murmuring people pray
You turn from this last light of day
And steer towards the night.
So once Columbus started
Seeking an unknown world.
His crew in hope high-hearted
Beneath wide sails unfurled
At sunset scanned the tilting west
Beyond their ship’s downheaving breast
Out where the pink waves curled.
You take the other heading
To pull an old world down,
To blast the rot that’s spreading
Through countryside and town.
Dark gloom ahead, no shining grail;
Only the gunner in the tail
Sees England’s red-gold crown.
Her coastline passes under
Brown-wrinkled like a stain
On some old chart. No wonder
He sings that Scots refrain,
The red-haired navigator there—
He’s dead on track; adjusts his chair
And sets to work again.
Climbing you get the feeling,
The cloud-base lowering nigh,
Of a fly beneath a ceiling
That’s whitewashed sloppily;
And as it mists against your screen
The distant sea no more is seen:
By instruments you fly
On, up, with draughts awhistle
Through crafty Stygian gloom
Where ghostly bodies jostle
As if you’d crashed their room—
Blind groping upward airy things
Whose sudden punches rock your wings
And threaten some fell doom;
Until through thinning vapour
The green-eyed stars grow bright
Like pinpricks in dark paper
Held up against the light.
They vanish, wink, at last shine clear;
You see a vast new realm appear,
A fairy dream of night:
One level drome of whiteness
From which you take off slow
Until its prairie brightness
Makes winter lands below;
And through it far in front arise
Huge anvils in the starry skies,
Rolled alps of mist and snow.
Through thinner air and colder
Onward the great plane soars
While backward o’er each shoulder
A mane of blue flame roars
From each exhaust, a streaming jet.
Two hundred more fly with you; yet
This upper world seems yours.
Two hundred planes all flying
On this same course to-night;
Two thousand eyes outspying
Yet not a plane in sight.
After that world of bustling crowds
How vast this void above the clouds,
How clean and infinite!
The highspeed blowers waking
Scream as the gear-cogs kiss.
An indicator shaking
As pressure-bottles hiss—
The dusty-scented oxygen
Sends warmth through all your limbs again
And ends your breathlessness.
A tiny something nettles
The nerves below your eye.
You flick it off. It settles
To watch the boost—a fly!
No oxygen mask? Who would have thought
A passenger with breath so short
Would come so far to die?
And who would think that striding
Those nearing shores is death—
Death stark and out of hiding!
Why reck an insect’s breath
When you have watched its kind succumb
To torture slow of clinging gum
While people fed beneath?
Now on the far horizon
A hundred sparklets burst—
Flung jewels to bedizen
The plane that’s made it first.
See that? Why don’t you scram, you fool!
And such a shy child too at school
With sensitiveness cursed.
This isn’t courage surely
When there’s no grip of fear?
More like you float demurely
Through some strange dream up here
Where beauty dwells not lone in bloom
But everywhere in gleam and gloom
Cloudcap and starlight clear.
See now, to port it lightens,
Sky waning as for dawn;
A sheaf of rays outwhitens
From cloud-smoke subtly drawn
Up to the zenith far deployed
Like searchlights filtered to the void
Beyond our visual bourn.
Intenser now and broader
The wavering columns slant
Like Jacob’s dreamed-of ladder
Where angels came and went.
Then suddenly its brilliance goes,
Switched off; and leaving mists of rose
The Northern Lights are spent.
Instead there melts a hailstorm
Of meteorites above.
And quickened to a maelstrom
Your mind begins to move
In trance of spirals beauty-blown
Swirling up silt of all things known
That you have learned to love.
Childjoys no lapse erases
In memory rooted deep,
Some radiant, some like daisies
Folded from dusk in sleep;
With choice delights and studied lore
The æsthete and the epicure
Strive all their lives to keep:
Old rhymes and scraps of singing
That surely had their birth
Not in man’s brain but ringing
From some nesh grot of earth;
And churchlight hymns of evening late
With the dear vicar bald of pate
Intoning from his girth;
Breathtake of speed, fast riding,
The dive to tackle low,
Ice-risp of skates, and sliding
And squeak of trodden snow;
Warm kitchen-scents of seasoned food,
Old leathern volumes, polished wood,
All quietness, and gardens,
Curled baby-fists of ferns,
March-time when earth unhardens
Till autumn when it burns;
And seafruit brown on brinepocked walls
Where England’s tide forever falls
And evermore returns;
Welsh mist on mountain-passes,
Showers on a distant weald,
Soft furry-pollened grasses
To bare shins in a field;
Young loves that cost ideals to lose—
Wet bubbles swum with prism-hues—
By kissing unannealed;
And song of larks, and laughter
Of stone-chocked mountain becks—
Shall all of these hereafter
Become dishonoured cheques
Because five airmen, rated sane,
Three miles up in a well-built plane
Turned back to save their necks?
New models now with beauty
Unclothing as you climb
Ordain æsthetic duty
For you, whate’er the time—
P’raps wistful twilights after tea,
Morn’s work, or midnight suddenly—
To cast their limbs in rhyme.
Yet more than limbs, as Rembrandt
Drawing ruggedness or grace
Mixed in that palette-semblant
The spirit of a face;
So these cold images that roam
Dead space, with your breath shall become
A living speaking race—
If fate permits; for sudden
The dark is bloomed with fire.
You bank and kick the rudder
And try to climb up higher.
Your mind, detached, now gets it straight—
There is no destiny nor fate,
Just chance and man’s desire.
Life’s course is our volitions,
A cable, strands and stress,
That’s fouled by chance collisions—
Crosstracks in wilderness.
Here’s your volition, there’s the Hun’s—
Predictors, fuses, ’lights and guns;
Cross them, and what a mess!
Above these angry islands
And flakships off the coast
Your heart grows more defiant,
Lips curl as if to boast
Till touched once more by beauty. Soon
From cloudy grave you spy the moon
Upstealing like a ghost,
First just a drowned man’s forehead
And then a broken face
Smiling a bit, yet worried
As one without a place
Ever to pause in and call home
But still with sateless soul must roam
And never slacken pace.
And so the cloud-clumps whiten
Like broccoli aglow,
While some like lanterns brighten
With searchlights from below.
Frost-imps sparkle the glass in dance;
Steel sickles round the airscrews glance
And shimmer to and fro.
Now three miles down in Denmark
The burgher wakes and harks
To the double thump of engines
And dreams of Viking barques;
While angry order-snapping Huns
Hurry to load the longsnout guns
That yap like little dachs.
Meantime the cloud decreases
With gaps through which you see
A dark-spread land, some pieces
Steelwire of streams and molten lakes,
Till in one flood the moonlight breaks
Over the Baltic Sea,
Whose level not unbroken
By whitening wash of spray
And shades of cloud that darken
Like islands black on grey,
Extends far east to Sweden’s shore
While many a deckled coastline more
Frets northwards and away.
Reflector moon at midnight,
Engines without a hitch,
Lights on the earth and starlight—
Bank wings, and which is which?
There Copenhagen’s streetlights glow
Miles off, yet seeming just below
Like glimworms in a ditch,
And there above, the Dipper
Serves gods imagined stew
While you, nocturnal tripper,
Have only gum to chew
Or frozen barley-sugar drops
That taste like ice flung off the props
And chip like brittle glue.
So you call up the others—
Switch on your microphone
And like five lifelong brothers
All chaff and swear and moan,
Make light of things lest courage fail
Or lest the gunner in the tail
Should feel too much alone.
Banking, you turn for Prussia.
Now all the stars have swung
And the moon above White Russia
Plays Hamlet in among
High cloudy tombs, white without heat,
Thin as the barley-sugar sweet
That’s melting on your tongue.
Moon in your mouth dissolving—
So soon must all be black?
And shall the earth’s revolving
Not bring the daylight back
To these tired eyes, warm kissing lips;
Must death be one long-drawn eclipse,
Eternal dive through flak?
This lap above the target
Most dangerous of all,
No devil-mask to mark it,
No searchlight yet, no shell,
Just moonlit stillness, would disarm
Suspicion, as the golden calm
Before a thunder-squall.
But ere that mood can settle
Five bombs splash flame ahead
As if earth’s dull grey metal
Were scum on molten lead.
And at this signal suddenly
Their barrage smashes up the sky
To justify their dead.
Their dead? To think, those splashes
Meant bricks and bodies burst
Asunder . . . Barking flashes
Much nearer than at first—
You weave and slacken speed in climb
Frowning and thinking all the time
How distance rubs the worst
Off this destructive melée—
You who would loathe to plunge
A bayonet in a belly
With puncturing grinding lunge,
Yet drop He’s on human-kind,
Kill hundreds and still keep a mind
Soft as a soapy sponge.
And so with prices soaring
Save one commodity
Man’s life . . . No sense ignoring
To cogitate at the controls—
Chuck it before you’re full of holes
Watch for the guns below you,
Turn off, once flashes seen,
And bursting shells will show you
Just where you would have been.
That makes you laugh, to fox them so.
In front a tracer shell mounts slow,
Sparkling electric green—
An age dead slow it rises,
Seems to accelerate—
You throttle back, it misses
And bursts ten yards too late.
The quivering plane disturbs that fly
Almost forgotten; one last try
To mould its own small fate—
So taking off it dashes
Towards the cockpit light
But stalls and spins and crashes
In darkness out of sight
Somewhere under the rudder-bar.
What slaves of circumstance they are
Who yield without a fight!
Here was a little hero
Who gallantly defied
Nigh forty below zero
And heights where his inside
Was made a vacuum; yet knelt
Not down but, hit below the belt,
Took his last count and died.
A housefly born in England,
English! And visions rise
Of summer woods in England,
Of warmth and sunny skies,
A rambling farmhouse by a stream,
The dairy-kitchen bright with cream
And musical with flies.
A sudden strong emotion
Puts feathers down your back;
And you who had the notion
Of sifting white from black,
Because the Jerries killed your fly
Now face the target angrily
And run up in the flak.
Let them burst close—you care not.
Fear is a vanity;
And he who cries “I dare not”
In panic blur of images.
Imagination sees what is
Not just what seems to be.
“Left, left!” You shove the rudder
While white-hot shrapnel whines,
And the plane jumps and judders
As the navigator lines
The target in his graticule.
An English fly—you silly fool!
And the moon so calmly shines . . .
Oh concentrate—“Right, steady.”
Turn without bank, quite flat—
Hold it! Was that just heady
Girl-sentiment, all that
About old England, or more worth—
Pride in the land that gave you birth
And her enduring fate?
Hold steady! Rein her rearing
From shells, the frenzied colt!
These seconds’ perfect steering,
Then let her buck and jolt.
There go black smoke-puffs whiffing by,
Smell them? The plane leaps suddenly—
“Bombs gone.” Now let her bolt,
Now turn and dive and sideslip,
Go berserk in the sky
While the Germans cringe in hiding
And hear increasingly
The downward massive rush of bombs,
Knowing that now the moment comes
For England’s grim reply
To gauntlets flung on London,
On Coventry and Hull,
On Newcastle and Swansea,
Plymouth and Liverpool.
Remember these at each great flash—
Your conscience will be through the wash
All ironed, aired and cool.
Yet not in retribution
Alone lies moral calm;
More, knowing the solution
Is not to shrink, disarm,
But, giving inquisition back
A taste of its own grisly rack,
Blast out the roots of harm.
Once it seemed fine to juggle
With creeds and blow hot air;
But life is one long struggle;
In action your philosophy
Soon simplifies and easily
Balances care with dare.
For risk is back. No longer
Is earth a sheltered nook
To fuss for a cut finger
Or drowse with pipe and book.
Now life is radiator-cooled
And blood the water you were schooled
Was precious. Yes, and look
At you the hunter hunted
By baying packs below,
Laughing yourself undaunted
As you weave to and fro,
And tasting fox’s joy, for you
Unlike the poor apes who pursue
Can choose just where you’ll go.
So back across the Baltic.
Petrol? That makes you think.
If yon gauge isn’t faulty
You’ll land up in the drink.
“Gauge must be duff,” the others vote,
“And we’d rather float in a rubber boat
Than rot in Jerry’s clink!”
So on and over Denmark
Where now the sky’s blown clear;
And the burghers down in Denmark
Wake up again to hear
The double thump of English planes
And think once more of Viking Danes
Whose vengeance now they fear.
Cold searchlight fingers groping
Blue with no knuckles, thin,
Too frail to knock yet hoping
To find somebody in.
One picks you up; scores turn on full,
Till the plane becomes a silver gull,
The airscrews discs of tin.
They dazzle past believing.
No flak? You wonder why.
This web is spider’s weaving
And you are just the fly.
A cone of beams that stick like glue,
Each slowly hypnotizing you
With brilliant blinding eye.
Evasive turns grow wider;
You wait to hear the worst.
At last, here comes the spider—
The gunner sees him first
Attacking on the starboard beam;
A quick steep turn, you see him gleam
Across—one vicious burst
From flame-tongued guns as swerving
He whistles out of sight,
The errant tracers curving
Downward like meteorites.
He’s missed you! But he’ll come again,
He’s bound to see you plain as plain
Amid this blaze of lights.
(A ring of ropes, a bell tolled,
Two floodlit, crowds to cheer;
One soon will need a knell tolled,
The other pints of beer.)
These lights! You’re naked to the brain.
Look out, he’s coming in again,
Attacking from the rear.
Hold steady, so the gunner
Can pull a steady bead.
(There’s beer, beer for the winner,
Gallons of Saxon mead!)
“Oi got ’im, skip!” the gunner cries—
(Beer dripping from the punctured skies)—
A flame zooms overhead
Like a tarry torch flung outward
From the window of a tower,
Then spins and tumbles downward
Blazing—hour after hour
Like Lucifer from heaven’s heights
It seems to fall, seven days and nights,
Then bursts into a shower
Of dropping petals, autumn
The searchlights follow down.
“Thanks, Number Six!” . . . “Oi caught’n
Just where Oi wanted’n;
But don’t thank me, thank y’ lucky stars!”
There reddish overhead sits Mars
One foot upon the moon.
So back across the ocean
Above the clouds again
With gentle downward motion
Steady you steer the plane,
One of so many flocking home
Like ghosts that all the night-time roam
Till stars begin to wane.
Now in the half-light dawning
Suddenly tiredness comes.
You have a bout of yawning
And lick your salty gums
And eat the icicles off your chin
Wishing you had an aspirin
Or a couple of double rums.
The gunner starts to weaken—
Sees fighters everywhere,
Thinks Jupiter a beacon
And Betelgeuse a flare.
So each man gets his thermos flask,
Chocolate, biscuits—who would ask
For more elaborate fare?
And like old gods of Vikings
Above the clouds you sit
And feast each to his liking;
Then long for a cigarette
To keep your sense erect, not drop
Asleep. But still the wireless op.
Is trying in a sweat
To get a last loop-bearing.
If you keep changing course
He’ll chuck it and start swearing
In savage bursts of Morse.
So swerving not you fly unbowed
Between high bergs of curdled cloud
Which from its hidden source
Dawn tints with rose and coral
As in what pucker prudes
Would call “those scarcely moral
French paintings of fat nudes” —
Warm flesh-curves, purple-hollowed thighs,
Half-limbs that wrestle in the skies,
Streaked cirrus high above you—
Ceiling reflecting fire
In colours that might move you
If the petrol gauge were higher;
But now, resigned, you all inflate
Mae Wests, put rations by, and wait
For the engines to expire.
Click on a switch; one instant,
Soothe down the valves that scream,
And sweet as birds comes distant
The cheeping of the beam,
Friendly and small as a window-light
To wanderers in a stormy night
Stumbling towards its gleam.
The English coast is nearing;
You throttle back and glide.
Cloud-surf like waves appearing—
A frozen ocean-tide
Of fleecy stillness—suddenly
Assuming speed whips foaming by
Your sinking ship that slides
Into a turbulent dimness
Where cockpit lights seem bright
Once more, and red-hot glimness
Burns either side the kite,
Which now gets tossed and heaved and flung
As in a blanket for some young
Sadistic gods’ delight.
St. Elmo lights the muzzles
Of guns, blue fire on steel;
Wraith-bright each airscrew whizzles
A monstrous Catherine-wheel.
The windscreen thickens in a trice,
You can’t see through; and lumps of ice
Off the propellers peel—
Machine-gun glass and metal
Three inches from your head,
While myriad droplets settle
On the wings and weigh like lead.
Spite of hot air the engines cough,
Props windmill. That gauge wasn’t duff:
The petrol must have bled
From a wounded tank. You’ve had it.
At the last round of the match—
And to think you might have made it
Without a single scratch!
Very lights, food, each quickly packs.
The second pilot takes the axe
And chops away the hatch.
The wireless op. is sending
An SOS to base.
Two thousand feet, descending
Still through this cloud of ice.
But wait—auxiliary tanks! A knack
They have of sucking petrol back
And getting filled up twice.
Ask then. No harm in trying.
They’re fools who slip downhill
To death without defying
Cross-circumstance with will.
The wireless op. makes his report:
“The starboard’s empty, but the port
Has forty gallons still.”
There then it skulks in hiding,
Enough for half an hour!
Switch on, and check this gliding;
Let’s feel some driving power!
But still the props just windmill round.
You drop from cloud without a sound—
A space of mist and shower
And then the sea, grey, angry,
Wallowing under rain.
Those petrol pipes are empty,
The pumps suck air in vain.
Nose down and turn—yes, vertical bank
Till the splashing fuel in the tank
Runs through the pipes again.
The engines catch and splutter,
Hesitate, roar away—
Just lift you from a gutter
Between two banks of spray,
And blowing back the salty spume
Heave upward through the dismal gloom
That folks down here call day.
In front the coast of England
Stands brown and beckoning;
And down the coast of England
You see beneath your wing
A convoy like a fleet of toys,
And scan the shore for giant boys
Who sail them on a string.
As if you were a partridge
Their warning gunfire booms.
You fire a Very cartridge—
Its flaming message zooms
Far out, two stars of green and red
That like shot jungle-parrots shed
A trail of brilliant plumes.
Safe through the rain-grey daylight,
Cloudbase downsifting steam,
You strike the singing twilight,
The twilight of the beam;
Then changing course, the drome in sight,
You wonder if that nightmare night
Was after all a dream.
But now, so tired that scowling
To banish useless thought
You just watch on the cowling
How drops of oil get caught
And dragged along by the slipstream’s power
In greasy trails—hour after hour
Of endless pointless sport—
You lower the undercarriage
And concentrate anew;
Bad landing would disparage
The whole triumphant crew.
The hedge whips under—now your eye
Makes out the grass-blades flashing by—
Hold off, off, off—you’ll do!
A whistle of propellers
After the engines die,
Then silence. “Nice work, fellers!”
But look—a little fly
Hungry for breakfast loops about
Your nose! Write, “Duty carried out
Without a casualty.”
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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• Last Modified: 26 May 2014, 08:06 •