MAY 8, 2020
COLD WAR POLITICS has distorted our understanding not only of Russian culture but also of our own culture. I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of 20th-century English poetry. It turns out, however, that one of the greatest English-language poets of the midcentury is someone I had never even heard of until recently: Randall Swingler (1909–’67). What I have learned of Swingler during the last few months is entirely thanks to the poet, editor, and publisher Andy Croft. Croft edited Swingler’s Selected Poems in 2000 and has now brought out an expanded edition of his excellent biography; much of the new material is taken from recently released MI5 files.
Swingler was an active and committed member of the Communist Party from the mid-1930s until 1956. During the 1930s he was well known — not only as a poet, but also as a playwright, novelist, journal editor, critic, and political activist. There is little doubt that it was his communism that led to his exclusion from the mainstream of postwar British cultural life. This was both unnecessary and unjust — Swingler was too open in his conduct and beliefs to be a threat to national security — but in the context of the Cold War it is, perhaps, understandable. What is far harder to understand is the complacent inertia that has allowed critics to continue to ignore his poetry to this day.
Swingler’s propagandist ballads are models of their kind — both punchy and singable, the equal of Brecht’s. It is no surprise that “Song of the Hunger Marchers” (1934) brought Swingler to the attention of MI5, who went on to keep copious files on him for the rest of his life. Swingler’s finest ballad, “Sixty Cubic Feet,” earned a still higher accolade: it was sung during the war years by soldiers who believed it to be a traditional work-song:
He was the fourth his mother bore
The room was ten by twelve
His share was sixty cubic feet
In which to build himself. […]
At fourteen he must earn a wage
He went to pit from school
In sixty feet of dust and gas
He lay and hacked the coal. […]
They buried him with honour,
The bugler blew Retreat,
And now he claims of English earth
Some sixty cubic feet.
Swingler’s friend, Arnold Rattenbury, once told a soldier that he knew the song’s author. The soldier — he writes — “called me a bloody liar and damned near knocked me down because, he said, it was an old traditional Durham work-song.”
But for all the strength of these ballads, Swingler’s true claim to greatness is the more complex, ambivalent poetry he wrote as an ordinary soldier during the war. At his best, he imbues vivid evocations of specific events with a sense of historical perspective that I have not found in any other English writer of the time. There is something similar in the poetry of Hamish Henderson — a Scot, a fellow communist, and another veteran of the North African and Italian campaigns — but the nearest equivalent may be the work of the great Soviet Jewish poet Boris Slutsky. Slutsky, though, is more ironical, more worldly-wise, while Swingler — even at his blackest — is more lyrical. “Briefing for Invasion” begins:
To-morrow, he said, is fixed for death’s birthday party,
A gala show on the beaches, and all invited,
Fireworks and aerobatics and aquatic diversions;
Tomorrow you can be sure of a grand reception.
At o-four hundred hours when the night grows sickly
And the sand slips under your boots like a child’s nightmare,
Clumsy and humped and shrunken inside your clothes
You will shamble up the shore to give him your greeting.
The occasion is the 56th Division’s fiercely contested landing at Salerno Bay in September 1943. The poem’s emotional and philosophical depth, however, allows these lines to ripple out far beyond their immediate context. Whatever may have been in Swingler’s conscious mind at the time, it is difficult for anyone reading the poem today not to think of the Nazi death camps:
Even though some should slip through the net of flame
And life emerge loaded with secret knowledge,
Won’t they be dumb, sealed off by the awful vision?
Or should they speak, would anyone ever believe?
One of the most affecting passages of Croft’s biography is his account of the fighting at Monte Camino in early December 1943. The 56th Division eventually captured this important summit, but only at great cost. Croft writes that, after the victory,
Swingler […] was in a bad way. During the operation his signals unit was hit, and he was buried alive. When he was eventually dug out, after two and a half hours, he was the only survivor. He was unhurt, but the full horror of this incident stayed with him for the rest of his life, shaping his imagination with a morbid hunger for the darkness of the grave, weighing him down with overwhelming feelings of guilt that he should have survived when so many had perished.
Later in 1945, after the war was over, Swingler went back to Monte Camino and wrote “Return to a Battlefield.” The depth of personal feeling in the following lines is only too apparent; here and elsewhere, Swingler writes perceptively about survivors’ guilt, long before this phrase had been coined. No less remarkable is Swingler’s technical skill. The words “green” and “grief” have seldom been so strikingly brought together, and the two enjambments bring home to the reader the painful fascination of contemplating the drawn-out process of psychic decay Swingler describes. “Joe” toward the end of this passage is the nickname — after Joseph Stalin — bestowed on Swingler by his fellow soldiers:
It is only the bone that is dead. The earth is their flesh
And every year grows green in the sloughing of grief.
All they have lost is fear and the crooked bone.
But in me only the bone is alive, must watch
The slow decay of the will, the inch by inch
Retreat of the nerves, the death by shame.
“Joe, are you still our comrade? Are you true to our pledge,
By which our one survivor, you became the heir to our lives?
What have you done with the world for which we died?” …
For all the pain here, the war years may have marked a high point in Swingler’s life. He enjoyed the company of his fellow soldiers, he was fighting for a cause in which he believed, and he had hopes for a free, just, socially transformed postwar Europe. Peacetime Britain, the collapse of the British Communist Party, the cultural rigidities of the Cold War — the remaining two decades of Swingler’s life were a bleak anti-climax.
Swingler’s finest poems are those included in “Battle,” the last section of The Years of Anger (1946). That this superb collection went almost unreviewed must also have contributed to his postwar depression. Nevertheless, Swingler did go on to write at least one memorable work in a very different genre. In late 1946, he composed the libretto for a miniature oratorio called The Winter Journey. The music was by Alan Bush, a friend and fellow communist with whom Swingler had already collaborated several times.
A casual reader of some lines of this poem might imagine it to be derivative, a reprise of T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. In reality, however, it is not only more contemporary than Eliot’s poem — incorporating both Swingler’s personal experience of postwar London and the journeys of the millions of refugees across eastern and central Europe in 1945–’46 — but it is also, surprisingly, more Christian. Croft writes,
The Winter Journey shows just how near the surface of Swingler’s thinking the narratives of Christianity still lay; Communism had only strengthened their imaginative power and educative force for him. If he believed that the Risen Christ was now to be discovered only among the working class and in the Communist movement, he never ceased to honour the Christian tradition, or to recognise its regenerative, historical potential.
The final short Chorale has an elegiac beauty. The rhythms are extremely subtle. It is unusual to rhyme only the middle two lines of a six-line poem, but through assonance and repetition Swingler creates an effect close to that of full and complete rhyme. And the affirmative “will be born … will be born” balances the despairing “all in vain … all in vain.”
Winter it may be in the streets of time,
And all in vain, and all in vain,
They made that journey through the waste and wild,
Unless we make some place to lay the child
That will be born, that will be born
This Christmas in the season of the heart.
The poem is both a lament and — unlike Eliot’s Journey of the Magi — a call to action. A duller poet would have written, “Unless we find some place…” For Swingler, though, it is not enough to look around in vague hope; it is our duty to make, to construct.
Croft tells Swingler’s life story with exemplary clarity. Swingler was born into the heart of the British establishment. The nephew and godson of an Archbishop of Canterbury, he was educated at Winchester and Oxford. Many of his contemporaries at Winchester — among whom were the politicians Richard Crossman and William Whitelaw, the historian and poet Robert Conquest, and the poet and critic William Empson — went on to achieve the highest success in a variety of fields. Endowed with both charm and formidable energy, Swingler himself remained a popular and successful figure at least until the late 1930s, editing literary/political magazines and organizing a variety of cultural events. The most important of these, probably, was a series of three concerts — a “Festival of Music and the People” — that filled the Albert Hall in 1939. He himself wrote the text for the historical pageant that constituted one of these concerts. The festival featured music by a variety of composers, including Vaughan Williams. The star singer was Paul Robeson.
Croft is enlightening in his account of British cultural life in the 1930s, and the chapters devoted to Swingler’s wartime experiences are vivid and moving. The final chapters, recounting Swingler’s collapse into alcoholism and depression, are dispiriting, but Croft tells the story with his usual clarity and balance. For the main part, Croft limits himself to chronicling the facts, but when he allows himself to make judgments and interpretations, these are always to the point. After telling the story of Swingler’s puzzling sudden abandonment of a woman he loved passionately and had made pregnant (Penelope Dimont, who soon afterward married John Mortimer), Croft writes,
There was something in Swingler that recoiled, tragically, from the prospect of making life easy for himself. This most privileged and fortunate man had rejected all the privileges of his birth and given away his fortune, and by now the habit of rejection was compulsive. Jobless, penniless, loveless and drinking too much, Swingler had somehow turned his massive sense of responsibility for the world into a fear of accepting personal responsibilities. The “compulsion” to self-sacrifice and self-immolation which had attracted admirers since his days at Winchester was also a fatally damaging one. Heroic and saintly he may have seemed, but in the pursuit of his own peculiar martyrdom he repeatedly brought pain to those who loved him most.
It is impossible to imagine a more sensitive summary of this tragic life.
Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include works by Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov, and Teffi. He has also written a short biography of Pushkin and compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. His latest translation is Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (NYRB Classics, 2019).