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Poet of Blitz and Home Front

21 December 2012

This study assists the debate on war poetry from 1939 to 1945, says Martyn Halsall

P51 Goethals

The Unassuming Sky: The life and poetry of Timothy Corsellis
Helen Goethals
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 discussion.

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 Way magazine.

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