Friday, March 31, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

The Soldiers at Lauro

Young are our dead

Like babies they lie
The wombs they blest once
Not healed dry
And yet - too soon
Into each space
A cold earth falls
On colder face.
Quite still they lie
These fresh-cut reeds
Clutched in earth
Like winter seeds
But they will not bloom
When called by spring
To burst with leaf
And blossoming
They sleep on
In silent dust
As crosses rot

And helmets rust.

– Spike Milligan (1918-2002)

I was reminded by Sumana's recent Midweek Motif post, Mirror, that Spike Milligan – best-known as a brilliant comedian and one of the Goons – was also a poet. Most of his poetry is, as you might expect, comic, often written for children. But he suffered from severe depression at times, and in those times wrote more serious poetry.

The one I have chosen is a sad protest about soldiers dying young – because it is the young whom we send to war. Sadness can be beautiful, and I think this is a beautiful poem, even though a sombre one. (And do notice, what excellent rhyming!)

I say it is a protest, and yet his words do little but state the facts. There are very few emotive words or phrases, apart from 'babies' and 'too soon'; nevertheless the poem is full of emotion – I would even say, of horror. Although it is not stated outright, the final lines suggest futility. As my Dad used to say about distressing situations, 'It'll all be the same in 100 years.' 

My Dad meant personal situations, and intended to be cheery; but Milligan seems to suggest that in the future our old wars will very likely turn out to have achieved little beyond the waste of young lives.

He himself experienced war first-hand. The Wikipedia account of his life informs us that he actually wrote seven volumes about his experiences in the Second World War, beginning with the memorably-named Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. He was in the artillery. 

Before, during and after the war he was also a musician. Having started with the cornet, he became a jazz vocalist and trumpeter.

He was also a serious actor, a painter and a cartoonist. It's not hard to see why writer-producer-director Bernard Miles said of him: 

... a man of quite extraordinary talents ... a visionary who is out there alone, denied the usual contacts simply because he is so different he can't always communicate with his own species ... 

Barry Humphries, who once performed in a play with him, said afterwards that Milligan stole the show every night.

His poems, mostly humorous, can be found at PoemHunter, and he has an extensive Amazon page.

I have long owned Small Dreams of a Scorpion and Open Heart University, both of which contain brilliant short poems of black humour or just plain black, often with a touch of the surreal; along with his own strange and clever drawings, some cartoony, some weirdly beautiful and somewhat reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright)

The photo used in this article is from Wikipedia, and is made available for fair use.


  1. These lines make this poem most profound:
    "As crosses rot
    And helmets rust"
    An amazingly effective poem! Nothing can grow from such wasted seed.

  2. What an intriguing poet, Rosemary. The poem is even more potent for him having been a soldier. He knows whereof he speaks. I really like Bernard Miles' quote about him, so different he cant always communicate with his own species. Smiles. Sounds like a poet to me. The poem is very moving, the more so for being stated simply and starkly. The cutting down of the young men like winter seeds that would not bloom is especially powerful.

  3. The poem you selected, unfortunately, seems like one that will be the same a hundred years from now. He writes of truth and it's a truth he lived. I like the apparent simplicity of his words that evoke such strong feeling. Good choice Rosemary.

  4. What a wonderful poem! I like to read other poets who write in rhyme and do it well. A very sad write about something that will never change. Sobering.

  5. This is a very powerful and very relevant poem, Rosemary. A good reminder of the horror that war can bring when a bunch of old man decide to send young men to war.

  6. I'm glad you all appreciate the poem so well. And I get a sense, from what your comments don't say, that the poet's name was unfamiliar to you. What? You didn't all grow up listening to The Goon Show from BBC radio, and falling about laughing? No, I guess if you grew up in America, you didn't. (Not even Canada?) It was standard fare in Australia, via our ABC. We listened to many repeats and never tired of them. Just the title-phrase of the song, 'I'm Walking Backwards for Christmas' makes me smile even now, and I can still do the funny voice for 'Ying-tong ying-tong, Ying-tong ying tong, Ying-tong iddle I po.' (Both can be found on Youtube.) The Goons' humour was characterised by absurdity. You would perhaps only know of one of them, Peter Sellers, who went on to be a film actor, first in England then in Hollywood.

    1. Also it was of an era, and I'm probably older than most of you, lol.

    2. I can hardly believe I missed out on that!

  7. Thank you for sharing a bit about this poet, who was actually more than a poet. It is sad that the young are sent to war and often die without really living. Here's a gun welcome to reality! Makes my heart grieve.

  8. This particular poem reminds me of Wilfred Owen, killed, shell shocked in the WW-I. In his poem Futility, specially one could identify the same note, the same stunning images and the same sigh over this organized butchery of young lives. Thank you Rosemary.

    1. I think Owen was the war poet par excellence. And how tragic that he himself was killed in battle just before the war ended. I hadn't read Futility. Now that I have, I see why the Milligan poem reminds you of it!

  9. War poems have a certain strength, but most I have read are written in anger or angst... This one is somehow even more effective... and I so wonder why a poem can't stop it from happening again and again.

  10. Overwhelmingly sad, but oh so beautifully written. "Crosses rot and helmets rust" ... profoundly put. Thanks for sharing this one.

  11. Very interesting. I did not realize that Spike Milligan wrote poetry - and this is such a powerful and haunting piece. The loss of so many young lives - most on the cusp of adulthood - is an incomprehensible horror than humankind (for reasons that are unfathomable) continues to acquiesce to.


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