FROM The Ship by C S Forester [Published 1943]
Presteign was the right-handed loader of the pompom, his duty being to replace regularly the short heavy belts of shells on that side, a job he carried out accurately and unfailingly; that goes without saying, for if he had not he would never have remained entrusted with it, Harris’s friendship notwithstanding. It was odd that he and Harris were such devoted friends. It was odd that Presteign was so quick and efficient at his work. For Presteign was a poet.
Not many people knew that. Jerningham did-one evening in the wardroom the Gunnery Lieutenant had tossed over to him one of the letters he was censoring, with a brief introduction.
‘Here, Jerningham, you’re a literary man. This ought to be in your line.’
Jerningham glanced over the sheet. It was a piece of verse, written in the typical uneducated scrawl of the lower deck, and Jerningham smiled pityingly as he first observed the shortness of the lines which revealed it to be lower-deck poetry. He nearly tossed it back again unread, for it went against the grain a little to laugh at someone’s ineffective soul-stirrings. It was a little like laughing at a cripple; there are strange things to be read occasionally in the correspondence of six hundred men. But to oblige the Gunnery Lieutenant, Jerningham looked through the thing, reluctantly-he did not want to have to smile at crude rhymes and weak scansion. The rhymes were correct, he noted with surprise, and something in the sequence of them caught his notice so that he looked again. The verse was a sonnet in the Shakespearian form, perfectly correct, and for the first time he read it through with attention. It was a thing of beauty, of loveliness, exquisitely sweet, with a honeyed rhythm; as he read it the rhymes rang in his mental ear like the chiming of a distant church bell across a beautiful landscape. He looked up at the Gunnery Lieutenant.
‘This is all right,’ he said, with the misleading understatement of all the wardrooms of the British Navy. ‘It’s the real thing.’
The Gunnery Lieutenant smiled sceptically.
‘Yes it is,’ persisted Jerningham. He looked at the signature. ‘Who’s this A.B. Presteign?’
‘Nobody special. Nice-looking kid. Curly, they call him. Came to us from Excellent.’
‘No. Joined the Navy as a boy in 1938. Orphanage boy.’
‘So that he’s twenty now?’
Jerningham looked through the poem again, with the same intense pleasure. There was genius, not talent, here–genius at twenty. Unless-Jerningham went back through his mind in search of any earlier recollection of that sonnet. The man might easily have borrowed another man’s work for his own. But Jerningham could not place it; he was sure that if ever it had been published it would be known to him.
‘Who’s it addressed to?’
‘Oh, some girl or other.’ The Gunnery Lieutenant picked out the envelope from the letters before him. ‘Barmaid, I fancy.’
The envelope was addressed to Miss Jean Wardell, The Somerset Arms, Page Street, Gravesend; most likely a barmaid, as the Gunnery Lieutenant said.
‘Well, let’s have it back,’ said the Gunnery Lieutenant. ‘I can’t spend all night over these dam’ letters.’
There had been three other sonnets after that, each as lovely as the first, and each addressed to the same public house. Jerningham had wondered often about the unknown Keats on board Artemis and made a point of identifying him, but it was some time before he encountered him in person; it was not until much later that this happened, when they found themselves together on the pier waiting for the ship’s boat with no one else present. Jerningham was a little drunk.
‘I’ve seen some of your poetry, Presteign,’ he said, ‘it’s pretty good.’
Presteign flushed slightly.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.
‘What started you writing sonnets?’ asked Jerningham.
Presteign talked with a restrained fluency, handicapped by the fact that he was addressing an officer; also it was a subject he had never discussed before with anyone, never with anyone. He had read Shakespeare, borrowing the copy of the complete works from the ship’s library; he gave Jerningham the impression of having revelled in Shakespeare during some weeks of debauch, like some other sailor on a drinking bout.
‘And at the end of the book, sir–’
‘There were the sonnets, of course.’
‘Yes, sir. I never read anything like them before. They showed me something new.’
‘“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,”‘ quoted Jerningham, ‘“When a new planet swims into his ken.”‘
‘Yes, sir,’ said Presteign respectfully, but with no other reaction that Jerningham’s sharp glance could observe.
‘That’s Keats. Do you know Keats?’
‘Come to my cabin and I’ll lend you a copy.’
There was something strangely dramatic about introducing Presteign to Keats. If ever there were two poets with everything in common, it was those two. In one way Jerningham regretted having made the introduction; he would have been interested to discover if Presteign would evolve for himself the classical sonnet form of octet and sextet. Presteign had undoubtedly been moving towards it already. But on the other hand there had been Presteign’s enchanted enthusiasm over the ‘Odes’, his appreciation of the rich colour of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. There was something fantastically odd about the boy’s beauty (there was no other word for it) in the strange setting of a sailor’s uniform; his enthusiasm brought more colour to his cheeks and far more sparkle to his eyes. From the way his cropped fair hair curled over his head it was obvious how he came by his nickname.
And it was basically odd, too, to be talking about the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to a man whose duty it was to feed shells into a pompom, when England was fighting for her life and the world was in flames; and when Jerningham himself was in danger. Yet it was charming to listen to Presteign’s intuitive yet subtle criticism of the Spenserian stanza as used by Keats in ‘St Agnes’.
It was all intuitive, of course. The boy had never been educated; Jerningham ascertained the bald facts of his life partly from his own lips, partly from the ship’s papers. He was a foundling (Jerningham guessed that his name of Presteign was given him after that of the Herefordshire village), a mere orphanage child. Institution life might have killed talent, but it could not kill genius; nothing could do that, not even the bleak routine, the ordered timetable, the wearisome drill, the uninspired food, the colourless life, the drab clothing, the poor teaching, the not-unkind guardianship. Sixteen years in an institution, and then the Navy, and then the war. The boy could not write an ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, he had never read an ode nor seen a Grecian urn. He had never heard a nightingale, and the stained glass in the institution chapel could never have suggested to him nor to Keats the rose-bloom falling on Madeline’s hands.
He wrote about the beauties he knew of–the following gull; the blue and silver stern wave which curved so exquisitely above the stern of a fast-moving cruiser, as lovely as any Grecian urn; the ensign whipping stiffly from the staff; and he wrote about them in the vocabularies of the institution and the Navy, gaunt, exact words, transmuted by him into glowing jewels. Keats would have done the same, thought Jerningham, save that Milton and Byron had given him a freer choice.
And it is humanly possible that Navy discipline-Whale Island discipline-played its part in forming that disciplined poetic style. Jerningham formed the opinion that it had done so. That interested Jerningham enormously. Outwardly Presteign-save for his handsome face-was as typical a matelot as ever Jerningham had seen; if the institution had not taught him how to live in a crowded community the Navy certainly had done so. There was nothing of the rebel against society about Presteign; he had never come into conflict with rules and regulations-he wandered unharmed through them like a sleepwalker through bodily perils, carrying his supreme lyrical gift with him.
Yet in addition Jerningham came to realize that much of Presteign’s immunity from trouble was due to his friendship with Harris–a strange friendship between the poet and the hard-headed sailor, but very real and intense for all that. Harris watched over and guarded Presteign like a big brother, and had done so ever since they first came into touch with each other at Whale Island-it was a fortunate chance that had transferred the pair of them simultaneously to Artemis. It was Harris who fought the battles for him that Presteign disdained to fight, and Harris who planned the breaches of the regulations that smoothed Presteign’s path, and who did the necessary lying to save him from the consequences; Harris saw to it that Presteign’s kit was complete and his hammock lashed up and stowed, reminded him of duties for which he had to report, and shielded him from the harsher contacts with his fellow men. Presteign’s poetic gifts were something for Harris to wonder at, to admire without understanding; something which played no part in their friendship, something that Harris accepted unquestioning as part of his friend’s make-up, on a par with the fact that his hair curled. And it may have been Presteign’s exquisite sense of timing and rhythm which made him an efficient loader at the portside pompom, and that was the only return Harris wanted.
Up to the present moment Jerningham had only had three interviews with Presteign–not very long in which to gather all these facts about him, especially considering that he had spoilt the last interview rather badly.
‘And who is Miss Jean Wardell?’ asked Jerningham, as casually as he could–casually, but a sullen frown closed down over Presteign’s sunny face when he heard the words.
‘A girl I know,’ he said, and then, as Jerningham looked further questions, ‘a barmaid. In Gravesend.’
That sullenness told Jerningham much of what he wanted to know. He could picture the type, shopworn and a little overblown, uneducated and insensitive. Jerningham could picture the way a girl like that would receive Presteign’s poems–the raised eyebrows, the puzzlement, the pretended interest for fear lest she should be suspected of a lack of culture. Now that they came by post they would be laid aside pettishly with no more than a glance-thrown away, probably. And Presteign knew all this about her, as that sullen glance of his disclosed; he was aware of her blowsiness and yet remained in thrall to her, the flesh warring with the spirit. The boy was probably doomed for the rest of his life to hopeless love for women older and more experienced than him-Jerningham saw that with crystal clearness at that very moment, at the same time as he realized that his rash question had, at least temporarily, upset the delicate relationship existing between officer and seaman, poet and patron. He had to postpone indefinitely the request he was going to put forward for a complete collection of Presteign’s poetical works; and he had to terminate the interview as speedily as he decently could. After Presteign had left him he told himself again that poetry was something that did not matter, that a torpedo into a German submarine’s side was worth more than all the sonnets in the world; and more bitterly he told himself that he would give all Presteign’s poetry, written and to come, in exchange for a promise of personal immunity for himself during this war.
‘How’re you getting on, Curly?’ asked Leading Seaman Harris, swinging his legs in the gunlayer’s seat.
‘All right,’ said Presteign.
Something was forming in his mind; it was like the elaborate gold framework of a carefully designed and beautiful piece of jewellery, before the enamels and the gems are worked into it. It was the formula of a sonnet; the rhymes were grouping themselves together, with an overflow at the fifth line that would carry the sense on more vividly. That falling bomber, with the smoke pouring from it and the pilot dead at the controls, was the inspiration of that sonnet; Presteign could feel the poem forming itself, and knew it to be lovely. And farther back still in his mind there were other frameworks, other settings, constituting themselves, more shadowy as yet, and yet of a promise equally lovely. Presteign knew himself to be on the verge of a great outburst of poetry; a sequence of sonnets; the falling bomber, the Italian Navy ranged along the horizon, the Italian destroyer bursting into flames to split the night, the German submarine rising tortured to the surface; these were what he was going to write about. Presteign did not know whether ever before naval warfare had been made the subject of a sonnet-cycle, neither did he care. He was sure of himself with the perfect certainty of the artist as the words aligned themselves in his mind. The happiness of creation was upon him as he stood there beside the pompom with the wind napping his clothes, and the stern wave curling gracefully behind the ship; grey water and white wake and blue sky; and the black smoke screen behind him. The chatter of his friends was faint in his ears as the first of the sonnet-cycle grew ever more and more definite in his mind.
“Ere we go again,’ said Nibs.
Artemis was heeling over on the turn as she plunged back into the smoke screen to seek out her enemies once more.