From Winchester to War: Timothy Corsellis (1921-1941)
The all-too-short life and surviving work of the poet Timothy Corsellis are fascinating for the light they cast on the writing and publishing of poetry in adverse conditions. Little in his middle-class London and home counties background predestined Timothy Corsellis to become a poet; his vocation appears to have been awakened when he was sent to school in Winchester, during walks in the meadows where Keats had composed his “Ode to Autumn” and on St. Catherine’s Hill, up which the poets had marched so triumphantly in A.G. Macdonell’s England, their England (1933). In his last term at Winchester College he read voraciously: the Moberly Library archives record his borrowing no less than fifty-six books in less than three months. The full list of those books gives a useful insight into what interested a seventeen-year old poet around the time of the Munich crisis. (Goethals, 200-201)
By the time that Timothy left Winchester College, in December 1938, he had already written nearly 80 poems. Mistakenly hopeful to the last that “There is yet a chance that a rich aunt will finance me into literature as a living which I would love” he freely admitted that, “There is one thing I want to be and one thing I once thought I might be and that is a poet. (Goethals, 16) When, a month or so later, Timothy copied his poems into two red leather-bound notebooks, he was at pains to point out that as a public schoolboy-poet he was not so much despised as treated as an oddity, and he added:
During four years at a house of 40 boys coming and going in a disturbing and endless stream I was aware of three besides myself writing poetry, one of whom did so fairly extensively; of course it is quite likely that others have been doing so but only allowing the wastepaper basket to share this secret with them. To hazard a guess upon such a number is as mad as calculating the number of murders that pass unsuspected as ordinary deaths.
Timothy’s close friend and correspondent Nigel Watson was the person “who wrote fairly extensively”; he went on to Oxford, then into a cavalry regiment which was converted into a tank regiment. Before he was killed in battle, he published a few poems and short stories in a slim volume, privately printed in Oxford. Timothy was also aware that Nigel Weir wrote poetry, and when Weir’s poems were published by Faber soon after his death in September 1941, wrote him a moving elegy. The third poet was his (unpublished) friend Tony Whyte.
Unknown to Timothy, because they were not in his House, two other Winchester pupils were also at that time writing poetry. One was Frank Thompson, the highly-gifted brother of the historian E.P. Thompson, who was killed on a secret service mission to Bulgaria, and whose poems only came to light in response to the publishing of the Oasis anthologies in the 1980s. The other was Robert Conquest, four years older than Timothy, an historian admired for his work on the Soviet Union, but also well-known as the editor of New Lines (1956) and recognized as an accomplished poet, particularly in the vein of light verse.
After Winchester, unlike most of his friends and many an aspiring poet, Corsellis did not go to university but took up a post as an articled clerk in the Town Hall in Wandsworth, while living in and helping out with a Winchester settlement house in the Hoxton area of the East End. What he saw in that overcrowded and deprived area accentuated his nostalgia for the rural life of Winchester and encouraged him to continue his political activities. These were expressed in letters, an unfinished novel and more poems. The verse that he wrote between January 1939 and January 1940, like the ideological climate from which they sprang, seem curiously transitional. One in particular, written on October 10, 1939, wittily suggests the fear behind the artificially-induced war fever:
NEWS REEL OF EMBARKATION
Where are you going to, laughing men?
For a holiday on the sea?
Laughing, smiling, wonderful men,
Why won’t you wait for me?
God, how I love you, men of my race,
As you smile on your way to a war;
How can you do it, wonderful face
Do you not know what’s before?
Laugh, laugh, you soldier sons
Joke on your way to the war
For your mothers won’t laugh at the sound of the guns
And the tales of the filth and the gore.
Smile and joke young sailor Jack
For it’s the self-same story:
There’ll be no jokes when you come back
And bloody little glory.
(Rhys 1941, 11 and Sinclair, 227)
In May 1940, with the defeat of Dunkirk and the fall of France, everything was changed utterly. In response to Churchill’s resonant call, Corsellis applied to be removed from the list of Conscientious Objectors. By July he had been accepted by the R.A.F. and his military career had begun. Though it was to last only six months, his training period in the R.A.F. produced the poems that were to figure in no less than eleven anthologies of war poetry, and on which his reputation still rests. From “Mayfly” to “Kobodaishi” (Goethals, 93-108) they bear witness to the painful contrast between the pettiness of service training and the exhilaration of flying. Corsellis’s R.A.F. experience was brought to an abrupt end when he learnt that he was to be put under Bomber Command. Horrified, he wrote to his Commanding Officer to ask for an immediate transfer from bomber-training to a fighter squadron or the Fleet Air Arm, or any flying area that would not involve the bombing of civilians. By way of official response, he received, on the 14th of February 1941, an honourable discharge from the R.A.F. and so, in the midst of war, returned to civilian life.
His courageous stand, at the height of the Blitz, may be understood in a number of ways, but it certainly had much to do with a renewed interest in his religious belief. While on leave from the R.A.F. he met Susan Hichens at a London meeting of “Regeneration”, a Christian discussion group. They corresponded while Timothy was in the Air Force and Timothy was able to offer words of comfort when her father was killed in an air raid. Apparently, however, she did not return his affection. His disappointed hopes were expressed in “Amethyst Crucifix”, a Shakespearean sonnet which gives a wonderfully ambivalent account not only of his mixed feelings about an aloof woman but also the ambivalence of the Anglican Church in wartime.
Shared doubts about the state of the Christian Church enabled them to become friends, if not lovers, as can be seen from their correspondence from February to April 1941. After the Malvern Conference in January 1941, at which T.S. Eliot gave a paper on “The Christian concept of education”, Timothy suggested to Susan that they work together on editing a book, provisionally entitled Our Search for God. It was to have allowed young people from all walks of life and of different religious persuasions to express their views on the part that organized religion played in their lives. Timothy wanted to offer a range of moral positions, and he was anxious that the Church side should not be over-emphasized, “since we wish to be representative and tell the truth and the truth is that most people’s religions are themselves and money”. Those appealed to for 4000-word contributions responded positively: among them, Barbara Ward, Diana Reader-Harris and Dorothy Sayers. In the end, however, the project came to nothing, partly because it was disrupted by commitments to war work, and partly because Timothy had a change of heart.
Timothy’s best-known poem, “What I never saw”, was literally as well as metaphorically true. When he received his honourable discharge from the RAF, in mid-February, he successfully applied to serve in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) but his incorporation was delayed until August 1941, as it depended on his undergoing ophthalmic treatment to correct a problem which had developed in his right eye. During this time of psychosomatic semi-blindness, he was officially employed by Wandsworth Council as an A.R.P. worker. The bombing raids on London were then at their most intense and most destructive. On March 19 a raid on the East End docks killed 750 people and seriously injured more than 1000. On April 16 over 1000 people were killed and over 2000 fires were started. The worst raid of the Blitz came on May 10, killing nearly 1500, seriously injuring 1800 and destroying historic landmarks such as the House of Commons. It was during this final stage of the Blitz that the young poet had his own “earthquake of the mind”.
That which sets the writing of Timothy Corsellis apart from all other accounts of the Blitz, can be found in the three poems written during the week beginning on Easter Sunday and which, read in sequence, imitate the Pascal experience of death, resurrection and new hope. “Real Despair” is dated April 13th, Easter Sunday, 1941. The speaker is someone at the scene of a bombing, who looks into the “horror-numbed” eyes of a man who realizes that though he will survive a bomb-blast, his severely-wounded wife will not. For the poet the crazed man becomes the image of real despair because, though his body has been freed from the “timber cage” that pinions him, the “overdose of emotion” has ─for an unknown period of time─ paralyzed his mind. In the face of such loss, the poet-speaker’s private confusion becomes less real than the suffering of the other man.
The second poem, “Repression”, is remarkable for being able to give the reader glimpses into the profoundly liberating experience that can sometimes take place during the sexual act. The experience is sensual rather than emotional: the memories and the sensations evoked in free but balanced rhyme and rhythm are both intimate and carefully distanced. The metaphor of the matchstick craft pitching itself against the foaming river suggests that freedom is not incompatible with control if it comes not from futile repression but from the “rhythmical rowing” that accompanies, rather than resists, destabilizing forces. The poem itself enacts the necessary balance between the flood of past memories and desires and the controlled pleasure of present sensations, marrying innocence with experience. The intimate experience allows the perspective of the speaker to evolve from “he” to “I” to “you”: in other words, from self-alienation through troubled self-absorption to receptivity to others. It would appear that Timothy has not only found a way out of sexual frustration but an ability to write about that experience that is both sincere and acceptable to others. The poet had formerly complained that social convention prevented him writing about “copulation”. “Repression” is about coupling, the coupling of unlike experiences – past and present, male and female, inner and outer worlds – so that they form not confusion but a dialectical relationship.
It is in the nature of a consensual intimate encounter that it tends to produce a more serene view of life; in this case it also coincided with an appeal for help, for the poem suggests that the sexual episode was interrupted by the telephone call that an ARP officer would receive if required to report for duty. We understand that the official request, coming at an awkward time, was ignored:
There was a streamlined telephone
Insistent in its petulant shrilling
An ambling answer to an easy question
In “Dawn after the raid” the episode is recalled, but the private act is integrated into a public need:
Was it for this that we ached in the darkness
Not knowing that nearby
Another house had fallen
To the blast of the same bomb?
The theme of “Dawn after the Raid” is the necessary aloofness of public action: the physical and emotional distance between the dead and the living, the survivors and the rescue workers. The speaker focuses on the activity of “the worried warden and the rescue worker” whose digging for bodies under the “spillikins of beams” produces only “wretched mangled remains” which then have to be handed to the already-shocked relatives. The rescue worker’s first reaction is to ask the same question as Wilfred Owen had asked in “Futility”:
Is it for this that bending we strived
And fought in other’s blood and other’s sorrow
To reach these mangled remains?
But, miraculously, what Owen saw as “fatuous sunbeams” do in this dawn help the recovery of living or once living bodies, and this work in itself offers a raison d’être:
We are the best of those remaining
We are the mellow and the hardened
And though our backs are hard of bending
Under aloofness our souls bend rending
The sorrow out of the bereaved father’s breast
Tearing it out and holding it in our own hands
Adopting it to our own bodies
Caring for the children we had never seen
The present participles – remaining, bending, rending, tearing, holding, adopting, caring – perform their linguistic function of creating, as though in a freeze-frame, an eternally present, constantly repeated, traumatic moment. The compassionate work of the living for those still alive takes on the redemptive quality of a resurrection. Even when the unearthed children are dead, their rescue from the rubble makes rebirth possible for the bereaved relatives, since a body is necessary for the mourning process to begin.
There are of course other accounts of the Blitz in which it is seen as a transfiguring experience, when an ordinarily divided society came together in the face of a common enemy, but they do not quite capture what Timothy saw, at the time. The more famous incident in the “I see they got you too” chapter of Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy (1942) was in fact a wholly invented vision, written in New York, where Hillary had been sent on a propaganda mission to woo the Americans into the war. As critics then and since have pointed out, the episode of “what Hillary never saw” does not quite work. Nor are retrospective accounts, such as Stephen Spender’s “incandescent faith that did not quite catch fire” or Julian Symonds’ “possibility of a new kind of history”, though excellent in their own ways, quite as vivid as the physical experience transmitted by a poem written at the time. The hard work of rescuing bodies from an indecent and untimely burial and the gentle handling that the rescued bodies require are sensual, physical acts which bring to mental consciousness the innate human power of compassion.
Keidrych Rhys chose “Repression” and “Dawn after the raid” as two of the five poems by Timothy Corsellis featured in Poems from the Forces (1941). There they must have struck a chord with Walter Elliot, veteran of the First World War and Minister of Health under Neville Chamberlain, who prefaced the anthology, because the words he used to describe the general experience of the war poets of 1940-41 strangely correspond to Timothy’s own particular experience of the Blitz:
War, heaven knows, has horrors enough. But it has its compensations also. Horizons contract. Death, which we have just accepted, recedes from a certainty (since all men die) into a probability, for many will survive the battle. Survival, instead of being an endless boredom, suddenly takes on the quality of resurrection. This is the poet at war.
[…] The poets here have variety, they have amongst them power, they have thought. Now they have, quite literally, taken their lives into their hands. They, unlike many of their predecessors and contemporaries, have accepted war with their bodies. Not for the first time in poetry, their bodies will teach their souls undreamt-of things. (Rhys, 1941, xii)
Just such, we feel, must have been the glimpsed vision that gave Timothy not only the inspiration for his writing but also the strength to return to flying.
In late August 1941, he was posted to the ATA headquarters at Maidenhead, within easy reach of London literary life, where he met Stephen Spender, whom he was able to introduce into the official world of fire-fighting. This wartime encounter was to have a long literary history (Goethals, 1-4,192-197) and, had he lived longer, it would no doubt have changed the course of the young poet’s career. In the event, on October 10th, the plane Timothy Corsellis was ferrying crashed near Carlisle, killing him outright. As he and every wartime poet knew, his poems became his epitaph, commemorating a war of which it was a small, broken part. A war, which in Oscar Williams’ words, “no matter how slowly or rapidly it may change social institutions, has markedly changed those engaged in its horror and adventure. Often that change is final, as in the case of a young British Pilot Officer, Timothy Corsellis, who was killed in action. Not, however, before he had written some verse that indicated a brilliant talent, a talent that was never permitted to flower; death in action does not nourish poetry. (Williams, iii)
Helen Goethals, The Unassuming Sky: The Life and Poetry of Timothy Corsellis (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012)
Keidrych Rhys (ed.), Poems from the Forces, 1941.
Andrew Sinclair (ed.), The War Decade, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
Oscar Williams (ed.), New Poems, 1943: An Anthology of British and American Verse, New York, 1944.
For more information on Timothy Corsellis, see the article by Ronald Blythe in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the article in Wikipedia.
Helen Goethals, Université de Toulouse