Of all the poets who served in World War Two, Roy Fuller perhaps best recorded in verse the breadth of the struggles and sacrifices endured by civilians and the lost opportunities and personal toll the war inflicted on the men serving in the armed services. For Fuller the label war poet applies to what is a minor, though important, aspect of his oeuvre as a writer.
Another poet of the war, Donald Bain, said the poet could see only “the small components of the scene.” Though Fuller himself said he could “only scribble on the margin,” his poetry encompassed a wide array of wartime experiences and challenges.
Fuller was conscripted into the Royal Navy in April 1941 as an Ordinary Seaman and rose to Petty Officer. Assigned to the Fleet Air Arm he underwent naval training specializing in radar technology. His year of training in England allowed him time to write poetry on themes relating to his wartime service, loneliness and separation from his family—Fuller was 29 when drafted and had a wife and young son—and the conflicted relationships with his fellow recruits.
He was posted to Kenya (British East Africa) in April 1942 after enduring an arduous sea voyage documented in verse and later in his memoirs. This period gave him new material to write about but also new anxieties caused by his isolation. And he had misgivings about his role in the war far from the frontiers of the fighting. Like Henry Reed, he saw no combat. He remained in Africa until late July 1943.
Upon his return home after another laborious sea journey, which his biographer, Neil Powell, quotes him as telling his friend Julian Symons, was “devised by the Admiralty in association with Kafka,” Fuller was given a commission and promoted to Sub-Commander. Now an officer, he applied for a position in the Admiralty and in July 1944 was assigned to the Directorate of Naval Air Equipment and subsequently the Directorate of Naval Air Radio. Soon after his transfer he met Alan Ross, who became a life-long friend and promoter of his writings as publisher of The London Magazine founded by John Lehmann.
Fuller was back in London during the V-1 and V-2 buzz bombing and rocket attacks, which became the source of some of his later verse. His poetry with the end of the war near probed the changing attitudes, including his own, of the lasting consequences of the conflict on British values as he tried to find meaning and hope in the postwar peace. Fuller left the Navy in December 1945 and rejoined the building society that had employed him as a solicitor before the war.
Publishing his first collection of verse (Poems) in December 1939 he could claim to be a Thirties poet. Initially a committed Marxist, Fuller’s early poems such as “August 1939” and “New Year” reflected the influence of Auden and Stephen Spender.
Fuller wrote his first war poetry while still a civilian during the dark days of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. These poems and those written after his call-up and during naval training are contained in The Middle of a War (1942).
Themes of separation from family, the trials of having to adjust to the life of a recruit, and survival in wartime among the ruins of London are uppermost: “Charing Cross: where trains depart for the bombardment/And the leave-taking is particularly ardent…./I wipe my fingers on the hurrying faces,/And implant the wish to be in different places.…/The edges of the country are fraying with/Too much use; the ports are visited by wrath/In the shapes of the metal diver and the dart/With screaming feathers and explosive heart.” (“August 1940”) And “No longer can guns be cancelled by love,/Or by rich paintings in the galleries;/The music in the icy air cannot live,/The autumn has blown away the rose./Can we be sorry that these explosions/Which occurring in Spain and China reached us as/The outer ring of yearning emotions,/Are here as ruble and fear, as metal and glass,/Are here in the streets, in the sewers full of people?/We see as inevitable and with relief/The smoke from shells like plump ghosts on the purple,/The bombers, black insect eggs, on the sky’s broad leaf.…/Death is solitary and creeps along the Thames…” Fuller remained optimistic about the outcome: “But where the many are there is no death,/Only a temporary expedient of sorrow/And destruction; today the caught up breath—/The exhalation is promised for tomorrow./And changed tomorrow is promised precisely by/The measure of the engendered hate, the hurt/Descended; the instinct and capacity/Of man for happiness, and that drowned art.” (“October 1940”)
In “Soliloquy in an Air Raid,” Fuller’s optimism is tempered, with the Blitz serving as backdrop for his concern over the impact of the brutality and destructiveness of war: ”Our dying is effected in the streets,/London an epicentrum…/Ordered this year:/A billion tons of broken glass and rubble,/Blockade of chaos, the other requisites/For the reduction of Europe to a rubble./Who can observe this save as a frightened child/Or careful diarist? And who can speak/And still retain the tones of civilization?”
In “Royal Naval Air Station” Fuller reflects on his inability coming from a privileged middle-class background to fully sympathize with some of his less-privileged mates. There is also the fear of death that every serviceman faced: “A ghost has made uneasy every bed,/You are not you without me and The dead/Only are pleased to be alone, it said./And hearing it silently the living cry/To be again themselves, or sleeping try/To dream it is impossible to die.”
In his part humorous, part serious poem, “ABC of a Naval Trainee,” the boredom and discomforts of military life are assessed: “A is the anger we hide with some danger,/Keeping it down like the thirteenth beer./B is the boredom we feel in the bedlam./C is the cautious and supervised cheer…./G is the gun which can kill at, say Greenwich/If fired at St. Martin’s, and H is our hate/Non-existent behind it wherever we wind it./I is the image of common man’s fate…./S is the silence for brooding on violence./T is the toughness imparted to all…./W is war to start off the quarries—/Our everyday hunger and every night thirst….”
Fuller was dismissive of overt patriotism and war propaganda, which he mocked in “Spring 1942”: “The chaplain came against the sky/And quickly took a vacant chair./And under the tobacco smoke:/‘Freedom,’ he said, and ‘Good’ and ‘Duty.’/We stared as though a savage spoke./The scene took on a singular beauty./And we made no reply to that/Obscure, remote communication…” And in “Another War” and “Defending the Harbour,” the war is so distant, the boredom so deep that any sense of military urgency is lost.
Much of Fuller’s verse expressed concern not over his own death but for the safety and health of his family. “Our kisses here as they have always been,/Half sensual, half sacred, bringing like/A scent our years together,/crowds of ghosts./And then among the thousand thoughts of parting/The kisses grow perfunctory; the years/Are waved away by your retreating arm.” (“Good-bye for a Long Time”)
“To My Wife” is in part a tender love poem of parting where Fuller’s existence is “…so different with you not here./This evening when I turned from the clothes you left,/Empty and silk, the souls of swallows flickered/Against the glass of our house…/Now in the bubble of London whose glass will soon/Smear into death, at the still-calm hour of four,/I see the shadows of our life, the Fates/We narrowly missed, our still possible destiny./I try to say that love is more solid than/Our bodies, but I only want you here./I know they created love and that the rest/Is ghosts; war murders love—I really say./But dare I write it to you who have said it/Always and have no consolations from the ghosts?”
Powell notes that Fuller was shaken by the bloodthirsty patriotism he encountered on the voyage to Kenya and was “continually alert to the way in which good causes are wrecked by simplistic jingoism.” He was equally dismayed by the racial segregation in Africa.
Lehmann was so struck by Fuller’s sonnet “The Middle of a War” that he suggested it as the title poem for the collection. It was written just weeks before his posting to Africa and expresses a kind of ironic obituary, summing up his entire military service to that point:
My photograph already looks historic.
The promising youthful face, the matelot’s collar,
Say ‘This one is remembered for a lyric.
His place and period—nothing could be duller.’
Its position is already indicated—
The son or brother in the album; pained
The expression and the garments dated,
His fate so obviously preordained.
The original turns away: as horrible thoughts,
Loud fluttering aircraft slope above his head
At dusk. The ridiculous empires break like biscuits.
Ah, life has been abandoned by the boats—
Only the trodden island and the dead
Remain, and the once inestimable caskets.
Fuller’s poems from his posting to Kenya and on his return to England are contained in A Lost Season (1944). In what is probably his most anthologized poem from the war period, “What is Terrible,” Fuller tries to come to grips with what the war has meant to him, including his limited role in it, and the tenuousness of private values in wartime. What is terrible is a mechanized world ready and able to destroy itself. “Life at last I know is terrible:/The innocent scene, the innocent walls and light/And hills for me are like the cavities/Of surgery or dreams….I/Must first be moved across two oceans, then/Bored, systematically and sickeningly,/In a place where war is news. And constantly/I must be threatened with what is certainly worse:/Peril and death, but no less boring. And/What else? Besides my fear, my misspent time,/My love, hurt and postponed, there is the hand/Moving the empty glove…/To blame our fathers, to attribute vengeance/To the pursuing chorus, and to live/In a good and tenuous world of private values,/Is simply to lie when only truth can give/Continuation in time to bread and love.”
This was Fuller’s exploration of a universal statement: War is disastrous for everyone; hope for a better future tenuous. “For what is terrible is the obvious/Organization of life: the oiled black gun,/And what it cost, the destruction of Europe by/Its councils; the unending justification/Of that which cannot be justified, what is done./The year, the month, the day, the minute, at war/Is terrible and my participation/And that of all the world is terrible./My living now must bear the laceration/Of the herd, and always will. What’s done/To me is done to many….”
“In a place where war is news”: Isolated from the war, Fuller has the nagging feeling that he is a non-factor in the war effort. Robert Hewison in Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45 states that Fuller probably faced greater danger in London during the Blitz than he ever did during his military service, though two ships in his convoy to Africa were blown up. This sense of guilt or at least unease in not contributing to the fighting against the Axis paradoxically may explain his rather critical reaction to the poetry of Keith Douglas, which it would seem Fuller felt was all blood and guts and without sympathy for the plight of civilians at home or of other ranks in the army. Fuller’s poem “Epitaphs for Soldiers,” written at the end of the war, applies more to Douglas’s war experience: “Incredibly I lasted out the war,/Survived the unnatural, enormous danger/Of each enormous day….”
Also in a political vane is “Winter in England,” reminiscent of his Thirties Audenesque verse, particularly the line, “Now man must be political or die,” echoing Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” (“September 1, 1939”) The poem laments the inadequacy of words in confronting the enormity of the 1939-45 disaster.
Like fellow poets Alun Lewis and Alan Ross, Fuller saw the irony of Britain fighting a war for freedom from colonial bases and territories still part of the British Empire. For Fuller the discomfort was personal and directly observed, what he felt was the destructive effect of British capitalism on local African tribes: “The girls run up the slope,/Their oiled and shaven heads like caramels./Behind, the village, with its corrugated/Iron, the wicked habit, of the store…./Soon they will only dance for money, will/Discover more and more things can be sold./What gods did you expect to find here, with/What healing powers?” (“The Green Hills of Africa”)
In “The Tribes” the Westerner has brought individualism which clashes with the tribes’ communal existence. “In Africa” describes a place being ruined by those newly occupying the land. Conversely, the Westerner can never be happy here. In “The Photographs” the different cultures are inexorably divided by “two seas and a war.” And in “The White Conscript and the Black Conscript” Fuller acknowledges the barrier raised by colonialism: “I do not understand/Your language, nor you mine./If we communicate/It is hardly the word that matters or the sign,/But what I can divine.”
In other African poems: “The Giraffes,” “Plains” and “Askari’s Son,” Fuller is in awe of the remarkable fauna and flora of the natural world and vast expanse of the East African landscape. But this land is the home of hyenas, jackals and vultures as well as the magnificent lion. Their victims have their “replicas/Embedded in our memories and in/Our history.”
Feelings of separation continue to fill his poems back in England. In “The Petty Officers’ Mess” Fuller knows “…(The cheap song says it on the radio)/That nerves and skin first suffer when we part,/The deep insensitive tissues of the heart/Later, when time is slow./And time has done his part and stands and looks/With dumb exasperated face.”
Epitaphs and Occasions (1949) contains several poems written at the end of the war. His war poems also comprise the early sections of Collected Poems 1936-1961 (1962).
Roy Broadbent Fuller was born in Failsworth, Lancashire. After his father died, the family—Roy, his mother and brother—moved to Blackpool where he attended high school. Though he did not attend college, Fuller taught himself the law and became a solicitor, joining the Woolwich Equitable Building Society in 1938. Rejoining the firm after the war, it became one side of a life-long duel career as lawyer and writer. He also held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for five years beginning in 1968, succeeding Edmund Blunden; was appointed a member of the BBC Board of Governors (1972-79), and was chairman of the Arts Council’s Literature Committee (1976-77). In 1970 he was awarded the CBE and that same year was given the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He received the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 1980.
Roy Fuller believed he was a poet who never quite caught on. Though this may have been accurate of his early poetry, his belief would be proved wrong in the decades that followed. He became a well-respected and prolific writer of both poetry and fiction almost until his death. Besides his war verse, Fuller published some 41 collections of poetry and four collections of verse plus two stories for children, seven novels, four crime mysteries, several memoirs and countless magazine reviews and essays.
Summing up his literary achievements, the literary historian of the ’30s and ’40s A.T. Tolley wrote in a tribute that Fuller’s poetry “…has a perhaps unequalled significance as a record of what it was to be British through the many changes that Fuller experienced: the depression; the war; the gradual sense of the declining centrality of British culture in the years following the war; and the deep sense of the richness and importance of domestic life that emerges in his later work.”
Michael D. Wormser, March 2017
Besides Fuller’s war poetry collections cited in the text, the following works were consulted:
Ronald Blythe, ed., Components of the Scene – An anthology of the prose and poetry of the Second World War.
Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1966.
Robert Hewison, Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Neil Powell, Roy Fuller Writer and Society. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1995.
William Scammell, Keith Douglas – A Study. London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1988.
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War. London: The Woburn Press, 1976.
Andrew Sinclair, War Like a Wasp – The Lost Decade of the ‘Forties. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
Steven E. Smith, Roy Fuller: A Bibliography. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.
A.T. Tolley, ed., Roy Fuller – A Tribute. Ottawa, Canada: Carleton University Press, 1993.
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