Gavin Ewart introduced his first collection of poetry, Poems and Songs (1939), with a dedication:
Now start the terrifying rumour
That lust and cruelty have no sense of humour.
Under much of his trademark light-hearted, comic and stylish verse there lurked a serious poet who had much to say that was interesting and relevant:
The secret police are recruited from people you read of in Freud,
and some police that aren’t secret are fellows you want to avoid.
A classical case —the Gestapo. And Stalin’s more hidden blokes.
All ordinary, ordinary people, but murders were duties or jokes
to all of these solid citizens.
His poems “…often manage to say something serious within the framework of an elaborate comic conceit,” Julian Symonds wrote in an obituary. And for Clive James “…his fertile abundance of technical and thematic invention is no less weighty for being entertaining.”
Ewart was born in London and educated at Wellington College and Christ’s College, Cambridge. At age 17 he contributed poems to Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. Auden, Eliot and Pound were early influences. With the onset of World War II, Ewart enlisted and received a commission in the Royal Artillery. He served in North Africa and Italy, completing his military service with the rank of Captain. He was demobilized in 1946.
His wartime verse was first published in journals and anthologies, including Horizon, Poems from the Forces (1941), Poetry in Wartime (1942) and Poetry from Cambridge in Wartime (1946).
Immediately after the war, Ewart worked for Tambimuttu’s Poetry London and later for the British Council. He also worked as an advertising copywriter. The war disrupted his writing career, and it was London Magazine editor Alan Ross who encouraged him to start writing poetry again. Encouragement also came from Peter Porter. His first postwar collection, Londoners (1964), contains much of his war poetry. “Incident, World War Two,” a poem about a training mishap Ewart unearthed years later, which caused the death of his cousin and four other officers, was published in The Collected Ewart 1933-1980.
Ewart told Oscar Williams early in the war that he felt the best war poetry had already been written; anything new would be rewriting what Owen had said. “I find myself very shy of the war as a subject… the poet lays himself open to the charge of sentimentality….All we can do is provide footnotes, the small, detailed cameos of our own experience.”
The themes of his war poems are anti-heroic. Ewart’s echo Alun Lewis’s and somewhat Roy Fuller’s, which document the horrors, absurdities and boredom of army life without looking for broader meanings. In “Officers’ Mess” Ewart reflects on these absurdities as well as prejudices he encountered:
You probably know the amount of gin he’s [the major is] in the habit of sinking—
And then that new M.O. came in, the Jewish one, awful fellow,
And his wife, a nice little bit of stuff, dressed in a flaming yellow.
Looked a pretty warmish piece, old boy….”
In Italy, Ewart wrote a lament for dead soldiers in which he set aside his usual witticism:
He lies like used equipment thrown aside,
Of which our swift advance can take no heed,
Roses, triumphal cars—but this one died.
Once war memorials, pitiful attempt
In some vague way regretfully to atone
For those lost futures that the dead had dreamt,
Covered the land with their lamenting stone—
But in our hearts we bear a heavier load:
The bodies of the dead beside the road.
Ewart’s most anthologized poem, “When a Beau Goes In,” is directed at the indifference and stupidity of mindless civilian patriots, with euphemisms using Service jargon. One can hear in these lines echoes of Sassoon:
When a Beau goes in,
Into the drink
It makes you think,
Because, you see, they always sink
But nobody says ‘Poor lad’
Or goes about looking sad
Because, you see, it’s war,
It’s the unalterable law.Although it’s perfectly certain
The pilot’s gone for a Burton
And the observer too
It’s nothing to do with you
And if they both should go
To a land where falls no rain nor hail nor driven
Here, there or anywhere,
Do you suppose they care?…
Ewart went on to write almost two dozen published poetry collections, much of these innovative and irreverent. He was chairman of the Poetry Society 1978-79 and received the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry in 1971 and the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse in 1991.
The Collected Ewart, Century New Editions, 1982.
Gavin Ewart, Penultimate Poems, Hutchinson, 1989.
Stephen W. Delchamps, Civil Humor: The Poetry of Gavin Ewart.
Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2002.
Paul Fussell, Watime – Understanding and Behavior in the Second
World War. Oxford Univ. Press, 1989.
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War.
The Woburn Press, 1976.
Andrew Sinclair, War Like a Wasp – The Lost Decade of the Forties.
Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
The Poetry Archive: Gavin Ewart.
National Register of Archives, Gavin Ewart