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Century of poetry and war
PART 2: the 1930s
Newsreel by Cecil Day Lewis

Enter the dream-house, brothers and sisters, leaving
Your debts asleep, your history at the door:
This is the home for heroes, and this loving
Darkness a fur you can afford.

Fish in their tank electrically heated
Nose without envy the glass wall: for them
Clerk, spy, nurse, killer, prince, the great and the defeated,
Move in a mute day-dream.

Bathed in this common source, you gape incurious
At what your active hours have willed -
Sleep-walking on that silver wall, the furious
Sick shapes and pregnant fancies of your world.

There is the mayor opening the oyster season:
A society wedding: the autumn hats look swell:
An old crocks' race, and a politician
In fishing-waders to prove that all is well.

Oh, look at the warplanes! Screaming hysteric treble
In the low power-dive, like gannets they fall steep.
But what are they to trouble -
These silver shadows - to trouble your watery, womb-deep sleep?

See the big guns, rising, groping, erected
To plant death in your world's soft womb.
Fire-bud, smoke-blossom, iron seed projected -
Are these exotics? They will grow nearer home!

Grow nearer home - and out of the dream-house stumbling
One night into a strangling air and the flung
Rags of children and thunder of stone niagaras tumbling,
You'll know you slept too long.



  the first world war
  the 1930s
This Excellent Machine GO
Port Bou GO
Newsreel GO
Here War Is Simple GO
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voices

the dream-house': the cinema
'that silver wall': the cinema screen
'pregnant fancies': ideas that 'give birth' to others
'old crocks': vintage cars
'in fishing waders': the politician has been filmed off duty, fishing in a river, to show that there's nothing urgent calling him back to London
'gannets': sea birds that dive spectacularly fast from high up to spear fish swimming close to the sea's surface
'exotics': plants that normally grow in foreign countries

This poem was published in 1938, in a collection called 'Overtures to Death'.
The poet knows war is on the way - it has already begun in Spain and the Far East, and will come 'nearer home'. In 1938 Hitler made himself Germany's 'War Minister', and German troops marched into Austria; and in the autumn they marched into Czechoslovakia as well.

This is by no means the only poem to comment on the escapist lure of movies, especially attractive to people who are poor and unhappy and can only dream of riches and success. In the darkness of the cinema, you can imagine anything, forget everything. And after the excitement and romance of the feature film, a newsreel can seem just as dreamlike: whatever is on film can be as true or fanciful as each cinema-goer makes it.

Newsreels in the 1930s were quite short (and black-and-white). Each item was dealt with briskly, with a strident voice-over delivering a headline-influenced script. Items of local interest were interspersed with whatever national or international footage was available, so that the news could jump fast, as the poem says, from fashion to fighter aircraft.

Wilfred Owen wrote in 1918, 'all a poet can do is warn'; this poem is Cecil Day Lewis's warning twenty years later. 'Don't,' he says, 'make a mistake: those diving planes and erotic guns are real. The time is coming when you'll stumble out of the cinema straight into an air-raid. You'll see children thrown into the air by bomb blasts, you'll see 'waterfalls' ('niagaras') of stone as buildings around you crumble and fall.' This was a poet's wake-up call to people ignorant of, or simply ignoring, what was happening in the world. Has anything changed?




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