Poetry in the Desert

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)

A story told about Field Marshal Wavell is that while throwing some things into a bag for a field tour of soldiers defending India from invasion by the Japanese, he asked if anyone had seen his Browning.

When someone pointed out that he was wearing it – his Browning 9mm – he said that he was looking for his copy of the poems of Robert Browning. In all his campaigns, Wavell always carried poetry with him.

The life and career of Field Marshal Archibald Wavell has been the subject of numerous biographies, and rightly so. He campaigned against the Boers in South Africa, was arrested by the Russians as a spy in 1912, was badly wounded and lost an eye leading his soldiers against the Germans in the First World War, served in the interwar Palestinian Mandate, won Britain’s first victories in the Second World War, was admired by Rommel (who carried Wavell’s book on leadership with him in the desert) and despised by Churchill, and was the next to last Viceroy of India. Wavell was no Call of Duty keyboard commando; he was the real thing.  Archibald Wavell: Britain’s first wartime victor | National Army Museum (nam.ac.uk)

Most of what passes for poetry now is self-obsessed, self-pitying wailing scribbled in free verse, which, of course, is not poetry at all.  But this was not true in Wavell’s Victorian youth, when poetry was written and read as a literary art, not therapy.  After the disasters of the First World War, the flu epidemic, the economic collapse and the deaths of millions, poetry generally ceased to be structured, artistic, aesthetically pleasing, or encouraging, but many individuals resisted the chaos and maintained the strength and determination of their upbringing.

Indeed, for millennia, almost all literature in all cultures was poetry. The greats we studied in school were soldiers, statesmen, businessmen, and agriculturalists first; writing poetry was a leisure activity, but also something expected of every man or woman of substance. Prose as art comes to humanity late; the argument has been made that Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the first prose novel.

Thus, Wavell’s love of poetry was an inheritance of 10,000 or more years of civilization. One cannot imagine him spending an evening staring at a glowing screen. Like Patton, Rommel, and other military leaders, Wavell wrote scholarly articles and books on the practices of war, but reading poetry was his after-hours hobby and late in his life, he edited a volume of his favorite poems entitled Other Men’s Flowers. One can only regret that his editor did not change that unfortunate title, for this is a volume of poetry mostly by men and mostly for men. The book, after all, is an anthology of a soldier’s personal favorites while on campaign and not a compendium of quota-driven scribbles.

Because this is an anthology, one simply opens the book and finds a poem (they are all short ones). If one poem won’t do, then another one will.  Best of all, Wavell chose poets who respect the reader.

Both the hardback and the paperback are out of print, but they are still available cheap on That River Dot Com. We spend much of our lives waiting for others or riding in the passenger seat, and it’s going-against-the-stream fun to be the only one in a waiting room with a book instead of the omnipresent little Orwellian telescreen made in Shanghai. We might as well catch up on the eternal wisdom of our ancestors instead of obeying the transient lights and noises of programmers.

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