The Unassuming Sky: The life and poetry of Timothy
Cambridge Scholars Publishing £39.99
Church Times Bookshop £36
(Use code CT524)
THIS first comprehensive study of a poet who died aged 20 in
1941 raises again the comparative status of "war poetry" emerging
from the 20th century's two global conflicts. From 1914-18 we
remember essentially the trench poets. Almost 70 years after the
end of the Second World War, its lower poetic profile demands
Helen Goethals responds through her study of Timothy Corsellis,
pilot and paradox. Although remembered as a war poet, he died a
civilian, in an accident, when completing an aircraft delivery from
Luton to Carlisle.
His military war ended when he received an honourable discharge
from the RAF for declining bomber training. His front line was
domestic, though harrowing - serving as an air-raid warden and
rescue worker in London during the Blitz. His resulting poetry is
equally "Home Front", more concerned about his emotional reactions
to the state of war than the reportage of personal experience.
His life was overshadowed by war and aircraft. His father lost a
forearm at Gallipoli, later becoming a successful barrister and
flying himself to court from country homes in Suffolk. He died in a
flying accident in 1930, but family connections took Timothy to
Winchester, where his first poems were published.
The young writer read voraciously. Jung and Russell challenged
his school's "Christian ethos"; Eliot and Auden broadened his
poetry. Foundations for the philosophical and political tones in
his later work were laid here. By the time he left Winchester to
begin legal training, he was agnostic: "However I'll never be an
atheist; no one who thinks ever has."
His early poetry was intellectually and structurally ambitious,
reflecting the chill in the "long afternoon" between the wars,
through poverty and unemployment, rearmament, and the Nazis'
persecution of the Jews. He retained an interest in Christian
idealism, expressed through federalism, in poems that appear
prophetic. Dark prophecy also haunts his final poems, which are
much preoccupied with death. The last, and 100th poem included
here, is "Engine Failure".
Goethals necessarily records a life and work in progress, and
her thorough investigation provides a witness statement in that
debate about the comparative poetry of the world wars. Robert
Graves, she argues, continues to "provide the general bedrock" for
the superi- ority of the trench poets. Ap- parently ignoring
Corsellis, his judgement was particularly sweeping. "It should be
added", he wrote in 1949, "that no war poetry can be expected from
the Royal Air Force."
Dr Martyn Halsall is Poet-in-Residence at Carlisle
Cathedral, and poetry editor of Third