The Collected Poems of Montagu Slater

Montagu Slater (1902–1956) is best-known today as the librettist of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945). But he was also a novelist, play wright, journalist, scriptwriter – and a poet. A committed communist from the late 1920s, he was a leading figure in the cultural world of the mid-century left, co-founded Left Review in the 1930s and edited Theatre Today in the 1940s. He worked with Britten, John Grierson, WH Auden and Alberto Cavalcanti at the GPO Film Unit, where he scripted the influential Coal Face (1935). His novels included Haunting Europe (1934) about the rise of Hitler, Once a Jolly Swagman (1944) about speedway racing (filmed starring Dirk Bogarde) and Englishmen with Swords (1949) about the English Civil War. His abiding anti-imperialism found expression in the play, Easter: 1916 (1936), and in his last book, The Trial of Jomo Kenyatta (1955). The Collected Poems of Montagu Slater includes the poems from Slater’s only published collection, Peter Grimes and other Poems (1946), alongside poetry originally published in periodicals and newspapers. It also brings into print previously unpublished poems from Slater’s papers at the University of Nottingham.

Cover photo: Enid Slater

Sample Poems

An Elegy

Written in the shadow of a mountain in a northern mining port which, established in the Nineteenth Century, proves superfluous to the needs of the Twentieth.

When the last candle of the day gives over
its conflagration of the quivering air
and riven with curtains of the west discover
endless tranquillity projected there:

and the sun drowns in continents of wests,
earth, redolent of shadow, never free
from sun’s corrosion, till his lusty breasts
touch the horizon of a menstrual sea –

Mountain, whose rondure is determinate
by riches of your still unshafted mines,
chambers and galleries and caves intestate,
a various hoard which every twig divines:

the glimmering presence of your urgent Jove
your shoulder hummocking above the screes
where smoky clouds bend daylight as it moves
to closure in imperfect cadences

tells how an earthquake had once split the rock
and giant sparks leaping the centuries
found the dead shafts and mines of human thought
and legends of imaginary countries.

Our little lives, our chapels and our hymns,
mining and fishing – apostolic round –
a tidal river governed with its whims
neap tides renew but spring tides leap the bounds.

Once, annually, our men forsook their trade,
Hired wagonettes to where the rocks begin
climbed through the night to ambuscade
the earliest secret of the rising sun;

to see the inhuman world open its eyes,
screes at their feet and laminated shale,
on the north-west the Cumbrian mountains rise
and to the south the glimmering peaks of Wales.

And then returning to their normal lives
found that their minds were overshadowed by
a memory of the mountain, and their wives
discovered in them puzzling sympathy.

Now solemn the precedent shadow falls,
like disintoxication, like dismay
of clocks set going after drinking brawls
with unrelenting news of yesterday

and down the dream-choked gullet of the street
crab-like on an ambiguous journey led
we read in all the faces that we meet
stale news, a preterite of the nearer dead.

And being mindful of the twilight mood
and the grave charm of the alternate note
the lyric burden of this solitude,
satyricon for any golden throat;

we hold the drowsy magic of the form
till the full cycle of the song disposes
that voices rhythm-cheated of the norm
in the old dark repeat the older closes.

And touch, which is the lovers’ sense, implies
a membrane’s pleasure when a last bird sings
of night’s scarce-scented guesses, and the eyes
give up their kingdom over all visible things.

Chorus from Stay Down Miner

Man 	Time, in the shape of a mine, time in that shape
		Has the same backward progress underground,
		And past explosions are now lighted roads.
		Then turn away from lights and trams and whitewash
		Into the critical Present where workings narrow:
		Bend double at the coal-face, bend double and approach
		The blank wall of the future.
Woman	Pit-prop carefully behind you,
		Pit-prop and scatter stonedust.
Man		Time in the shape of a mine –
Woman 	Can you go on now?
Man 	Whether with pneumatic drill shattering eardrums
		Or whether the mechanical cutter hauls
		Its great bulk into the underface like a tank,
		Or whether, after your drilling, the charge of dynamite
		Implies ‘stand back’ and the fireman’s signal
		And thunder blasting unknown addition to
		Time, in the shape of a mine, stretching back...
Woman 	Stretching back, maybe, this time with
		A fallen rock between you and the world
		(Two or three cut off) and a rescue party
		Tapping at the other end of the solid.
Man 	Sound travels. You can hear through solidity.
Woman 	And die in the dark hearing. Then it is finished
		Miner’s knowledge and his skull cracked
		Instantaneously... Time in the shape of a miner
		Left for dead in the workings.
Man 	Another time along main haulage roads
		Past conveyors, trams, electric lights
		Comes fire, flood chaos and general death.
		One thrust at the future brought that mighty death.
Woman 	Time in the shape of a mine is three dead every day.
		It is the shape of time, one thousand and seventy-three in a year.
Man		We have our roundabout apart from yours,
		Twenty-four hours divided into shifts.
		Your marriages, your pregnancies and deliveries
		By district nurses hurrying on bicycles,
		Your shops, your credits, have no obvious harmony
		With this dark round of ours, this onward march
		Of Time along with death and fire and flood
		And speed against time weighing coal we get;
		This nice precision of the hewer’s path,
		This separate world; this pit; this underground,
		Time, caring little for the upper crust.
Woman 	Have you got new men (otherwise we are lost)
		Have you got new men, themselves shaping
		Time in the shape of their knowledge of necessity, shaping
		Time according to the seam, according to geology,
		Time for man, not man for Time,
		Time for man! Time for man!
		Have you got new men (otherwise we are lost)
		And mines will feed on men as wars do
		Have you got new men to fight this other time?
		New men, new men to overcome it, till
		Time, in the shape of a mine, is the equation
		Of an enriching life!
Man 	Yes. We have new men.
		The new man, here, now, braving novel death,
		Stands upright in the mine, and in that posture
		Shakes more than pit-props.

Old Spain

A young man is asleep. Three kneeling women are his dream. They are
in black, and in his dream they are calling to him from an invaded

Man 		If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
			Blessed the bed that I lie on;
			If four angels round my bed
			Came to mind my dreaming head –
			Should I sleep sounder? But I know
			There are no angels. Must I go?
1st woman 	We mourn dead children first.
			That dying hurts us most.
2nd woman	It is too late now to begin
			Begetting or bearing again.
3rd woman	Calm, her son dying, one said, ‘I
			Am alive pointlessly.’
1st woman 	If a lover is snatched away
			A woman says, ‘Do I live so bodily
			That it matters?’
2nd woman	Yes.
			She loses interest in days.
3rd woman	If you dare not understand
			Pain as an invaded land
			Let it be transfigured
			To your own finger.
			Think of Spain as the limit of
			Your private love.
1st woman	In love hell
			Is the impossible.
2nd woman	Death, not life makes
			The bars of our cage.
			Man	My loves and projects fail
			Shall I bring loss to your aid?
1st woman	Our lives and our former peace
			Were stuff for anxieties.
2nd woman	Our lives and our peace
			Though they were bitterness
			Though our dancers elect
			To dance in black,
			All	Though ours were joys crossed out
			They are prisoned and caged about.
			We are caged in death.
			Bring knives to free us with.
1st woman	Old Spain has held us
			Buried in histories,
2nd woman	An arid past.
3rd woman	A desert to cross.
1st woman	Now you shall hear in England
Old Spain... comes to an end.
The three sing.
			Cortes when he left Old Spain
			Wanted golden ornaments
			Aztec treasures for the vain
			Women who’re his worst expense.
			Cortes put crosses on the high
			Temples. He came home to die.
			... Old Spain, Cortes
			Back to Old Spain to die.
			Cortes drove the Indians out
			From the Aztec city of Mexico
			Three days the exodus filled the streets,
			Dead and dying, and the queue was slow.
			And death and Cortes in the evening
			Held High Mass for the slaughtered heathen.
			... Old Spain, Cortes
			Calls you back home to die.
			He went to school in Salamanca
			An indigent adventurer,
			And, orthodox, a true believer
			Converted men by massacre:
			Put Christ above the Aztec devil
			And died contemptibly in Seville.
			... Old Spain, Cortes,
			Back to Old Spain to die.

Man			I had a friend went there
			As an adventurer
			Crying, ‘New tobacco, new wine
			New way with women.’
1st woman	And I pray he found
			These to his own mind.
			Man	Another had waited
			Many years for it
			Refusing to touch
			The rest of us
			As latitudinarian.
			We called him sectarian
			Inhuman and abstract,
			Too human and not
			English enough yet.
			But he had waited
			Many years for it
			Then he was ready
			With one more body
			Saw all history
			Fulfilled in his gesture.
2nd woman	A revolutionary
			Has a duty to die.
1st woman	The many carpenters
			Miners and builders
			Who saw this the natural
			Stretch of the struggle:
			Did you know any?
Man			I knew one
			Relentlessly driven on.
			He had excuses.
			They were uprooted.
			His English life
			Turned sour in his mouth.
			The more frightened
			The more tautened
			Something not him
			Below his will.
			He thought he was going to death,
			Back safe knew this not enough,
			Said, ‘I go back
			To my scheduled task.’
			One asked him, ‘Are you persuaded
			This is not perverted
			Like dipsomaniacs
			Flying Atlantics?’
			But his slow grin
			Damped the question down.
Women		The news of him.
Man			Such never come home.
The Man sings.
			I, haunted by my dead
			Refulgent friends
			Find starting up in bed
			That it was I who screamed.
Women		Our life has its own dawn.
Man			In my complacency
			Sleep has to be a league
			Between deceivers, my presence
			Here is an intrigue.
Women		Our life has its own dawn.
The women sing and during the song the Man stretches out and his
sleep becomes dreamless.
Women		Our life accepts its dawn, and in
			Accepting finds its will,
			Like women sweeter for the risk,
			Held by its love until,
			Glad for the sloughing of the husk
			It bears the grinding of the ear
			Accepts the birth pangs that begin
			Rending the belly till a child is born.
			Death had a festival but birth is here.
			Our life accepts its dawn.