Poem by John Cornford
“Poem,” this week’s choice, addresses the poet’s girlfriend and fellow political activist, Margot Heinemann. It owes nothing to Rupert Brooke, nor, surprisingly, to WH Auden. Cornford begins dramatically, as if to invoke some great, abstract power. His innovative stroke, the repetition of “heart” three times, is wonderfully successful. A surge of emotion is created with each repetition, and, every time, the word earns its place by acquiring a faintly different meaning, and tracing a movement from impersonal register to intimate. The “heart of the world” is certainly a romantic notion, with a Yeatsian echo, but the depiction of the world as “heartless” is closer to realism than romantic exaggeration, given the immediate context of war, and the wider background of the rise of fascism. Cornford then shifts attention finally from the general to the personal and particular. “Dear heart” tenderly singles out the addressee, and it defines the poem. This is not to be a poem centred on war and politics, like his other great literary achievement, “Full Moon at Tierz,” but a love poem.
The newly intimate tone suggests, also, a love letter. From now on the poem will be concerned with confiding immediate experience, especially inner experience. The voice is calm, candid and direct, brave but without bravado. This bravery is not wholly connected to war: it is about confronting emotion. “The pain at my side” reminds us that war’s injuries are not only physical, not only in the body. Yet the absence of a loved one is felt so acutely it’s like an accompanying physical presence.
This idea recurs in the third stanza, where the speaker suggests a childlike device by which to transcend the absence. He uses the same rhyme-word, “side”, and the sad, high-pitched sound of stanza one is repeated, but now there is “pride”, and the hope of an intense, visionary comfort. The idea that love can be communicated telepathically, and the beloved’s presence conjured by her sufficiently “kindly” thinking, is so simply and touchingly put that it seems neither arch nor fanciful. Once more, Cornford brings the addressee into the poem with an endearment – this time, simply the familiar, informal “dear.”
The second stanza expands the sense of chill introduced by the “shadow”. Those first two lines, with the fluttering rhythm and the favourite “i” sounds of “rises” and “reminds” convey premonition and sighing loneliness. That the main verb, “reminds,” is used intransitively compounds the feeling of dislocation.
With its strong, often trochaic, rhythm, the poem invites us to hear the footsteps of marching troops. Even love is like a ghostly soldier who trudges beside the poet on that “last mile.” The death that he fears is embodied almost alliteratively by name of the town, “Huesca”. Constant little rhythmic adjustments ensure there is not a trace of monotony, but the ebb and flow of complicated feeling – fear, and the fear of fear, conviction, courage, longing for comfort – like a landscape flowing past.
The passionate apostrophe at the poem’s beginning is what moves us, and draws us in, but something else keeps us reading, something less dramatic and more truthful, almost matter-of-fact. This quieter tone is sustained to the end, where the last wishes are simple, declared with exemplary plainness.
In fact, after its first romantic flourish, the poem demonstrates many of the classical virtues: proportion, self-discipline, the integration of mind and body. You feel as if you have been presented with a photograph of a young soldier’s inner life. He is a passionate lover and a passionate warrior: these qualities are held in perfect psychic balance. And they are timeless. The speaker could be one of Homer’s heroes. He could be a Spartan at Thermopylae.
It is impressive that such a stately and achieved lyric should have been written under such pressure, and by a writer still only 20. As a “last letter” it is neither raw nor prosaic, and, with or without the reader’s knowledge of Cornford’s sacrifice, it stands as one of the most moving and memorable 20th-century love poems.
Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.
The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.
On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.
And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.