J D Davies

Endless Poetry

‘…this damned war: the mud, the noise, the endless poetry.’ 

(Lord Flashheart, Blackadder Goes Forth)

There are very, very few similarities between the First World War and the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7). One of them, arguably, is that both wars generated a substantial amount of memorable poetry, albeit of very different kinds. Having known and loved the literature of the Restoration period from my youth – I studied Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel for A-level, not something that I suspect many British sixth formers encounter these days! – I was keen to reference it in the Quinton series, and The Blast That Tears The Skies, the first of the four books that will be set against the backdrop of the second war, provided an ideal opportunity to do so. Thus each chapter begins, not with my words, but with an epigraph consisting of a verse or two from some of the ‘war poetry’ of the age (or, in some cases, with verses from other poetry of the time, and even from popular songs).

The epigraph at the very beginning of the book is taken from Edmund Waller’s Instructions to a Painter:

First draw the sea, that portion which between

The greater world and this of ours is seen;

Here place the British, there the Holland fleet,

Vast floating armies, both prepar’d to meet!

Draw the world expecting who shall reign,

After this combat, o’er the conquer’d Main.

Waller’s biographer says of this work that it ‘turns the inconclusive battle of Lowestoft into a second Actium and the duke of York into a peerless hero of romance’; a few years later, the Earl of Rochester said of Waller that

He best can turne, enforce, and soften things,

To praise great Conqu’rours, or to flatter Kings.
Not surprisingly, Waller’s gushing hyperbole drew forth critics. 1666 brought forth Second and Third Advices to a Painter, followed in September 1667 by the Last Instructions to a Painter. The latter was certainly by the brilliant poet and satirist Andrew Marvell, the former two probably so, and I have attributed them to Marvell in the various epigraphs taken from the Second Advice. Marvell certainly pulled no punches. Here, for example, is his description of Sir William Coventry, secretary to the Lord High Admiral and a character in The Blast That Tears The Skies; Coventry was widely accused of corruption, notably the sale of naval offices.
Then, Painter, draw cerulean Coventry,

Keeper, or rather chanc’llor, of the sea;

Of whom the captain buys his leave to die,

And barters or for wounds or infamy…

Marvell had been to sea, albeit principally as a passenger, and his role as MP for Hull meant that he was well versed in maritime affairs. This is reflected in a passage which shows a clear grasp of the nature and horrors of naval warfare at the time:
They stab their ships with one another’s guns,

They fight so near it seems to be on ground,

And ev’n the bullets meeting bullets wound.

The Noise, the Smoke, the Sweat, the Fire, the Blood

Is not to be expressed nor understood.

The war also brought forth many lesser poets and song-writers. Most of these were unashamedly patriotic, and penned verses of varying degrees of awfulness. Here, for example, is an offering from the author of England’s Valour, and Holland’s Terrour (1665):
Our ships are bravely rigged, and manned with seamen stout,

Our soldiers good will spend their blood to bang their foes about:

They long to be a dealing blows, delay doth vex them sore,

With delight, they will fight, when the cannons loud do roar.

My personal favourite from this sub-genre is John Bradshaw, rector of the tiny village of Cublington, Buckinghamshire, many miles from the sea, who in 1665 was moved to write Some Thoughts Upon the Dutch Navies Demurr and upon the First Squadron of the Kings Royall Navy. This consisted principally of a succession of dreadful puns and couplets derived from the names of the ships in the Red Squadron of the Duke of York’s fleet. He excelled himself with his reference to the Royal Oak, named after the tree in the grounds of Boscobel House, Shropshire, where Charles II hid while fleeing from the Battle of Worcester in 1651:

I see not what your force can do to Penn

In th’ Royal Charles with all your ships and men.

Know that the sturdy famous Royal Oak

Fears not your artificial thunder stroke.

But if she should miscarry, we could fell

(If it were lawful) more at Boscobel.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War also saw some verse from men on the front line. But this certainly isn’t the savage war poetry produced by the men in the trenches. For example, Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, later the sixth Earl of Dorset, was one of the great court wits of the age (not to mention having become a murderer at the age of nineteen, escaping only thanks to the king’s indulgent pardon). Like many young Cavaliers, he volunteered for service in the fleet in 1664-5, hoping to see some action against the Dutch in order to gain a military reputation. As it was, though, the only service of any sort that Buckhurst seems to have performed was to pen ‘To All You Ladies Now on Land’, which became wildly popular at Charles II’s court:

To all you ladies now at land,

We men at sea indite;

But first would have you understand,

How hard it is to write;

The Muses now, and Neptune too,

We must implore to write to you.

                        With a fa, la, la, la, la.

Elsewhere in The Blast That Tears The Skies, I’ve chosen chapter epigraphs that more generally reflect the mood of the time and the chapter itself. Here, for example, is a verse from a popular song of the early 1660s, which neatly encapsulates the age-old lament that things used to be so much better in the ‘good old days’:
New fashions in houses, new fashions at table,

Old servants discharged and the new not so able,

And all good custom is now but a fable,

And is not old England grown new?

While working one day on a manuscript volume from the 1660s in the Medieval glories of Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian, Oxford, I came across a neat little poem from the decade which perfectly encapsulates the cynicism of the age and thus provided the ideal epigraph for one of the land-based chapters of The Blast That Tears The Skies:

Good people draw near,

If a ballad you’ll hear,

Which will teach you the right way of thriving.

Ne’er trouble your heads

With your books or your beads

Now the world’s rul’d by cheating and swiving.

In something of a belated nod to my A-level English lessons, I also called on a couple of quotations from Absalom and Achitophel, notably his famous description of Charles II, with its brilliant double entendre about the king’s ‘extended wand’:

Auspicious prince! at whose nativity

Some royal planet rul’d the southern sky;

Thy longing countries’ darling and desire,

Their cloudy pillar, and their guardian fire,

Their second Moses, whose extended wand

Divides the seas and shows the promis’d land…

The literature of the age provides a wonderful resource for any student of the times. I’ll certainly be providing epigraphs from  the poems, songs and plays of the Restoration era in the fifth Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages, which I’m currently writing; set against the backdrop of the Four Days Battle of 1666, the year in question provides not only more acid satire from the Advices to a Painter but also John Dryden’s epic Annus Mirabilis. The poetic epigraphs are also likely to feature in the sixth book, and they’ll certainly appear in the seventh, which will centre on the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667 – a disaster that inspired Marvell to write probably his most devastating verse of all.