Saturday, 14 August 2010

T. P. Cameron Wilson: 'Magpies in Picardy'

My fellow Devonian T. P. Cameron Wilson (1889-1918) belongs alongside Julian Grenfell and Patrick Shaw Stewart as a poet of the Great War who is now remembered for a single poem. Merryn Williams, who wrote a pamphlet about him several years ago, had to search long and hard for a photograph of her subject. I haven't yet seen the book to find out if she was successful.

Wilson published a novel, The Friendly Enemy, which has recently been reissued, and some of his letters appeared after he was killed in France. However, it is the title poem of Magpies in Picardy for which he is known. The internet is no respecter of line breaks; the volume can be found here in a partially mangled state. It was published in 1919 by Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop, and Monro's introduction is full of hesitancy: 'His literary talent showed itself precociously early, but afterwards developed rather slowly'. Not surprisingly, the book did not sell well, but Wilson was rescued into semi-obscurity when some poems were included by Lord Wavell in Other Men's Flowers.

Looking through Magpies in Picardy now, it is hard to find much worth salvaging. Hibberd and Onions include 'A Soldier' as well as the title poem in their anthology, and a case could also be made by the generous-spirited for 'Song of Amiens' and 'During the Bombardment' (all of which are strategically positioned near the start of Monro's edition). After that, the quality falls away. A poem titled 'Stanzas Written Outside a Fried-Fish Shop' begins with mesmerising awfulness: 'O Mother Earth! Whose sweetest visions move / Through the blue night in silver nakedness'. It isn't a joke, and it doesn't get better. As for Wilson's attempts at Devon dialect, they are more extreme than anything found in supposedly humorous pamphlets from Dartmoor tea-shops.

And yet... the title poem, 'Magpies in Picardy', is a wonder, with all the strangeness of genius. Monro's edition misses two stanzas which later editors have added and which I include below. The first of them (which is now the penultimate stanza) is the weakest in the poem, and makes no grammatical sense unless considered for upwards of five minutes. (The verb is 'works on', not 'works', and 'the ancient plan' is the subject, not the object.)

Magpies in Picardy

The magpies in Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flicker down the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to hell.

(The blackbird flies with panic,
The swallow goes with light,
The finches move like ladies,
The owl floats by at night;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as artists might.)

A magpie in Picardy
Told me secret things—
Of the music in white feathers,
And the sunlight that sings
And dances in deep shadows—
He told me with his wings.

(The hawk is cruel and rigid,
He watches from a height;
The rook is slow and sombre,
The robin loves to fight;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as lovers might.)

He told me that in Picardy,
An age ago or more,
While all his fathers still were eggs,
These dusty highways bore
Brown, singing soldiers marching out
Through Picardy to war.

He said that still through chaos
Works on the ancient plan,
And two things have altered not
Since first the world began—
The beauty of the wild green earth
And the bravery of man.

(For the sparrow flies unthinking
And quarrels in his flight;
The heron trails his legs behind,
The lark goes out of sight;
But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as poets might.)


  1. why is this not doggerel?

  2. Because it's birdderel instead? No, because it has the simplicity and singing quality, and the carefully shaped directness becoming magical incantation, of some of Yeat's poems. The question, however, is where to stop it--after "Picardy to war," as was the likely stopping point before, or after a single additional stanza (ah, but which?), or after both as printed? Since Tim is specific only about the one he elucidates so well, the reader may choose to play at being Wilson and ponder what to do to improve the original five stanzas. I would add the last bird stanza only if choosing one to tack on, and I would reverse stanzas six and seven if I believed adding two would strengthen my poem, to put "the bravery of man" as final thought. Of course neither six nor seven really adds much, so what's a fledgling poet to do? Hmmmm...

  3. Sorry. Doggerel. (The two previous suggestions sound far too interesting.) What besides the rhythm makes it doggerel? Well, there's that "magic spell," always a bad sign, made worse by its being "cast" in the very first stanza so as to lure the starry-eyed reader and that reader only. The thought of men marching to "hell" may have been a jolt to that same consumer of popular verse in 1916, but it sounds to me like a cheap substitute for thought. "Sunlight" and "shadows," like "magic spell," are default diction for sentimentalists of the period. The poet (in his romantic mystery-identity of "Tipuca," a point worth mentioning) wrote "when all his fathers [not "feathers"] still were eggs," but that whimsy isn't enough to save the poem. Each time "the great and flashing magpie" (quite good, really) flies as artists, lovers, and poets might, Tipuca reveals inadvertently that he wants to be all these things himself but can't quite manage. These are mere sentimental categories anyway, filled in this case with pure nothing.

    Many of the characterizations of bird species seem picked at random. Do jumpy little finches really "move like ladies"? Are larks specially good at flying "out of sight"?

    I'd like to know too just what "ancient plan" is at work. God's, obviously, but what is the substance of it according to the magpie? Beauty and bravery may be components of such a "plan," but they can't be the plan itself. And any cosmic scheme big enough to include a world war might well be lopsided with further, very different ingredients.

    Frankly, I don't think the magpie told Wilson very much. Certainly not about war or birds or the universe.

  4. Apologies: 'feathers' now changed to 'fathers'...

    Many thanks --- I've enjoyed and learned from these criticisms. Nevertheless, I still want to argue that this is a great poem. Doggerel? I'm not sure where we'd stop using that word, if we counted this as doggerel. Housman? Tennyson?

    I'd cut the penultimate stanza, I'd change 'magic spell', and I'd drop at least one of the uses of 'dusty'. But then, even some of Wilfred Owen's best poems need a great deal of editing ('Dulce et Decorum Est' with its devil sick of sin, for example).

  5. Maybe it's the way a lark can go out of sight vertically, that he alludes to... not many birds do that (though I watched a peregrine do it yesterday). I wonder how I'd describe finches in human terms, if I had to? -perhaps like frisky teenagers, bobbing along. Certainly something light-footed.

  6. I like Tim's phrase "the strangeness of genius" applied here. Even if this is Wilson's only interesting poem, even if it needs a more certain ending (war? or magpie poets?), he caught hold of something, however briefly, and bits of Clare, Hopkins, Yeats, and... who else?... flew in. Wilson chose the sing-song "doggerel" of nursery rhymes to express the peculiar suspended moment and the hesitancy to move on. (Maybe there is some magic in magpies flickering along dusty roads?) Then he elected to keep the language and images as light as larks and as frisky as finches (fine word from DM above) while just barely feinting at the war beyond Picardy. Easy to reject such a "childish" poem; harder to catch and explain its strangeness of genius.

  7. Tim, that photo at the top of your blog is fantastic. I look at those faces and see the faces I watched leave the deserted schoolhouse down in X in Kandahar Province as they set out on their first big Op. I see the excitement of the new soldiers, and the old man jade of the Sgt. at the centre, the one with the mustache - and surely he is a Sgt. with such a wooly mustache, a mustache that says "I'm not trimming this for anyone. Not after what I've seen, done, been through". And Sgt. is oh so old at maybe 25.

  8. How very superior some of you sound--and I thought (hoped) the Leavis attitude had expired long ago! Can't we just take poems for what they are instead of harping on what they are not?

    Re the "magic spell": First, there are a number of folklore traditions associating magpies with magic. Second, many WWI poets refer to the salving effect of contact with nature, so the magpies may have worked magic in that sense. At the very least they were a pleasant distraction for men on a boring (and perhaps threatening) march. But in any case magpies are indeed magical-they're black and white, and then suddenly, as they fly, their feathers seem green or blue. I wonder, too, if they were perhaps less common in Britain than in France 100 years ago, and therefore more interesting to the marching soldiers.
    One other point to make is that editing and refining what had been written was a luxury that most WWI poets seem not to have enjoyed. Civilians whose poems were "contributions to the war effort" would be anxious to see them in print, anti-war writers must have felt an even greater sense of urgency to have their poems published, and for combatant poets time may have been short or unsuitable for a variety of reasons.
    "What did they expect of our toil and extreme / Hunger -- the perfect drawing of a heart's dream?" (Ivor Gurney, "War Books")

  9. Mary Hedges, Sydney Australia.
    I googled "he flies as poets might" this morning, as those lines had come to mind, God knows why, and I couldn't then remember what poem they were from, just that it had "magic". I discovered this website, and read these comments, and, like "Anonymous" above, feel irritated by the carping nature of the comments.
    I have always loved poetry but worked as a scientist. I read "Magpies in Picardy"in Other Men's Flowers, and in Men Who March Away, Poems of the First World War. I love the last 2 stanzas, and find the last 2 lines of the penultimate stanza, "the beauty of the wild green earth, and the bravery of man", very beautiful.
    Your comments are treating this poem as a piece of prose to be analysed grammatically, a sentence to be parsed, pulled apart, criticised. I agree it is "a wonder, with all the strangeness og genius".I think it should be enjoyed, for the sum of its words, not analysed phrase by phrase. Do any of you know "The Orange Tree" by John Shaw Nielsen - another magical poem? Someone is trying to analyse what the "young girl" is seeing, and she dismisses him. "Silence! the young girl said. Oh why? Whywill you talk to weary me? Plague me no longer now, for I am listening, like the orange tree."

  10. Why do people have to analyze things. This is a great poem totally simple and beautiful - the mark of a genius. The old saying 'can't see the woods for the trees is appropriate here' no wonder our young people do not appreciate literature - too much analysis.

  11. Any act of reading is an act of analysis. What makes you say it's a great poem if you haven't thought about it?

  12. The birds in the poem are all briefly but accurately characterised according to observation and/or folk lore. The problem is that we have lost touch with both nature and tradition and cannot see the poem in the same light as the original readers. Being a townie, I never saw a skylark until I moved to the countryside at the age of 45. The nature of larks is to pour out their song as they rise to the point of invisibility. The finch is a little trickier, its strong beak is rather masculine, but the poem describes the bird's movement not its looks. When I watch goldfinches or greenfinches in my garden I can see that they are 'feminine'. (At the risk of having my wings clipped): they go around in a gregarious group and very daintily dart around the twigs removing individual seeds or fruits.

    The magpie is a handsome bird and very intelligent, malign even. Its knowledge is far beyond that of the other birds and it is accordingly the focus of the poem. In folklore it has magical powers and can be a person in disguise. Hence it can have part of the spirit of artists, poets and lovers within it. It is also the bearer of omens, so it can tell us something if we are able to interpret its message. The magpie is telling the soldiers and us about the beauty of nature and about the long history of man's folly well-known to its ancestors(the 'chaos' being war). The main message is one of hope because despite the destruction of many wars the earth always stays beautiful and mankind always bravely continues with its task of surviving.

  13. Thanks Mary and Margaret - I'm with you.

    I'm not sure I'd agree with the characterizations of the poet for the different species, but this is a cavil - the poet didn't claim to be an ornithologist. Folks have been 'hiring' birds to carry their thoughts aloft since forever.

    As for analysis - yeah, I guess it has to be done, my brother and father were/are English profs - but I have never gasped with wonder or wept with emotion after hearing a poem analyzed, but have often done so after hearing the poem itself. And some of the works that have so moved me are now scorned by the cognoscenti.

    Read this poem - then immediately afterward read Owens Gas Attack poem (whatever its real title is)

  14. Captain T P Cameron Wilson's sister Marjorie explains the source of his 'strange genius' in the middle part of her poem 'To Tony (Aged 3) - In memory of T.P.C.W.'

    There was a man once loved green fields like you,
    He drew his knowledge from the wild birds' songs;
    And he had praise for every beauteous thing,
    And he had pity for all piteous wrongs...

    A lover of earth's forests – of her hills,
    And brother to her sunlight – to her rain -
    Man, with boy's fresh wonder. He was great
    With greatness all too simple to explain.

    He was a dreamer and a poet, and brave
    To face and hold what he alone found true,
    He was a comrade of the old – a friend
    To every little laughing child like you.

  15. Perhaps it is "doggerel", but the lines "And two things have have altered not" still gives me chills. And doesn't that mean that poetically, it is successful?

  16. The poem is worth the reading if only for the lines from "And two things have altered not...", which I see was quoted by Alan Clark in his "Note for the 1995 Edition" of "Barbarossa".

    I make no pretentions to scholarship, but I know words that move me, and those do.

    1. This is a sentimental post because the quote about the "plan" meant a great deal to my father who loved "Other Men's Flowers and especially this poem. He was a teacher and loved literature and I feel that this poem will resonate with children and especially next year with the WW1 Anniversary coming up.Magical Themes and stories are so much part of developing imagination.

    2. The poem resonated with me. It eloquently captured a moment of time, when to find any sense to life (which for him might well be very limited), the poet looked to nature, in its many different forms, to provide continuity and a reason to persevere. God knows, in WW1 Picardy, he would have needed to find inspiration from somewhere to maintain his sanity!

  17. I suppose this is why I'm at odds with academics and literary critics nearly 100 percent of the time.

    The penultimate stanza is utterly, utterly stirring. And also appears to be the POINT.

    And for the record, it took me not 30 seconds to figure out its grammar.

  18. We owe the last two stanzas to Lord Wavell's astonishing memory. The poem was first published in a newspaper during the war. He memorised it and put it in 'Other Men's Flowers'. It's quite a chunky anthology entirely composed of poems which he knew by heart. He put it together in 1943 while serving as a general in the British army

  19. Analyzing poetry, as anything else, always seems to come down to the lens through which we see it. So many of the above comments reflect not the poem but how each person perceives it against his or her own perspective. I find "Magpies in Picardy" fascinating, especially the penultimate stanza and what Wilson means by "the bravery of men". I'm not sure "bravery" carries a positive connotation.
    Has anyone compared Wilson's "Dulce et Decorum" with Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"? I wonder if there's a deliberate connection, at least on Owen's part.