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 It also brings into print previously unpublished poems from Slater’s papers at the University of Nottingham.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
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.
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.
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 country. 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.