Drummond Allison: The Forgotten ‘War’ Poet

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers Drummond Allison, a poet who died in the Second World War

‘Lost Generation’. That was the name Gertrude Stein gave to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and their contemporaries, men who’d lived through the Great War. Of course, many writers were lost in the war themselves, killed in action while still in their twenties (or younger): Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Hamilton Sorley, Wilfred Owen. But the Second World War also produced its own lost generation: born just after the First World War and destined to perish in the Second. Of that generation, it would be those poets who survived the Second World War, or who were excused active service for health reasons, who would go on to achieve wider notice: Charles Causley, Richard Wilbur, and, most of all, Philip Larkin. Yet although Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis died before, perhaps, their full potential could be realised, Keith Douglas, as I’ve previously observed, was a great poet even by the time he died aged 24 during the D-Day campaign. Drummond Allison was also a very accomplished poet by the time he died, aged just 22, while fighting on the Garigliano. Yet next to Allison’s, Douglas’s small measure of fame looks positively stratospheric.

It can’t have helped that Drummond Allison in the Second World War is a little like T. E. Hulme in WWI: both were labelled ‘war poets’ despite the fact that their poetic careers had effectively ended by the time they joined up. (Hulme composed one poem from the trenches, but Drummond Allison was only a ‘war poet’ in the sense that he was a poet who was killed in a major war.)

Like Douglas and Keyes, Allison was at Oxford in the early 1940s and would eventually follow them to war. As Tim Kendall has pointed out in a fascinating blog post about Allison, the young poet’s call-up was delayed because of an injury he’d sustained while acting in a play written by none other than his fellow Oxford student (and fellow WWII casualty) Sidney Keyes. One reviewer of The Prisoners described the scene:

When a young man stood on a stage in Oxford last night and talked passionately and wildly of love and idealism, with blood streaming down his face, and his hands dyed scarlet, the audience were a little taken aback, and inclined to the view that the ghastly sight he presented was carrying stage realism a little too far.

As Kendall explains, this ‘young man’ was Allison himself: in the play Allison’s character is struck in the head with a revolver-butt. ‘His assailant (thought to have been Keyes himself) had taken his role rather too literally, and severed a small artery in Allison’s head.’

Sadly, Drummond Allison’s poems are currently out of print and not easy to get hold of, but one of his more famous poems (or perhaps that should be ‘less obscure’?), ‘Come, let us pity not the dead but Death’, has been published online. As Kendall observes of this poem (perhaps having in mind Donne’s ‘Death, Be Not Proud’), ‘The poem taunts and outwits Death as expertly as one of Donne’s metaphysical conceits.’ Here is Allison’s poem, which would repay closer analysis:

Come, let us pity not the dead but Death
For He can only come when we are leaving,
He cannot stay for tea or share our sherry.
He makes the old man vomit on the hearthrug
But never knew his heart before it failed him.
He shoves the shopgirl under the curt lorry
But could not watch her body undivided.
Swerving the cannon-shell to smash the airman
He had no time to hear my brother laughing.
He sees us when, a boring day bent double,
We take the breaking-point for new beginning
Prepared for dreamless sleep or dreams or waking
For breakfast but now sleep past denying.
He has no life, no exercise but cutting;
While we can hope a houri, fear a phantom.
Look forward to No Thoughts. For Him no dying
Nor any jolt to colour His drab action,
Only the plop of heads into the basket,
Only the bags of breath, the dried-up bleeding.
We, who can build and change our clothes and moulder,
Come, let us pity Death but not the dead.

The idea of Death turning up late to the party is arresting, and developed expertly throughout the poem. The phrase ‘bent double’ returns us to the opening words of perhaps the most famous poem of the previous war, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, while there is a hint of the faraway and exotic in the reference to a houri, a beautiful female virgin found in the Muslim paradise.

You can find out more about Drummond Allison’s short life, and his poetry, here.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: Poetry about War by Robert Huffstutter, via Flickr.

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