Lynette Roberts wrote the poem ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ between the years 1941 and 1943, although Faber and Faber only published it six years later. Roberts is, ‘in an obvious and precise sense, a war poet’, describing all aspects of the turmoil and devastation that war wreaks on the home front, but unlike other home front poets who reflect a patriotic view of the necessity of war, Roberts creates a pacifist’s argument, where the pain and discomfort of soldiers in camps, coupled with the disruption experienced by the local communities left behind, reaffirms that ‘Understanding is more important than strength’ and therefore peace a better alternative to war. To express these pacifist views Roberts utilises a ‘modern voice’, capable of asserting the brutal, futile nature of war, and in ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ she combines this ‘modern voice’ with language and imagery that represent femininity, to produce a masculine, feminine binary that enables a powerful critique of war and its effects on individuals and the community.
Roberts was unusually placed to document the war. She was born in Argentina to parents of Welsh origin but moved to England with her parents during the First World War. After marrying Keidrych Ryhs, the editor of Wales, the poetry journal, in 1939, she moved to live in a rural village on the outskirts of Swansea, a strategically important, military city in West Wales. Roberts’ view of the war is thus coloured by the fact that she is an outsider in more ways than one. Her unusual perspective is matched by her unusual writing style. The few studies on Roberts’ poetry that have been completed since the 90s comment extensively on her original and eccentric use of language and imagery, in particular her technique of ‘super-charging’ the lines, so that lines are crowded with images, often ‘dissociated ideas’, meaning that a precise interpretation can sometimes be difficult to glean. ‘Super-charging’ gives precedence to the sound of the lines over meaning, which means that often, as Eliot noted, her poems ‘communicate before they make sense’. Tony Conran explains this difficulty in understanding her work as a result of her being a ‘primitive’ poet, in the sense of being a poet without a formal education in literature, so that some of the images have a meaning personal to Roberts that is not available to the reader, but analysis of ‘Gods’ indicates that Roberts is not ‘primitive’ and that her intention was to construct a poem densely packed with ideas, not all of them obvious at first reading, to reflect the chaos of war.
Roberts admits a deliberate use of ‘congested words, images, and certain hard metallic lines’, ‘with deliberate emphasis to represent a period of muddled and intense thought’ arising from the first years of the conflict. This echoes the sentiments of early modernists, who following the First World War, in the words of Pound, felt ‘The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace / Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze’. Pound believed that a new age required a new poetry that could cope with the chaos of the upturned world, and that the old poetry, the Victorian way of writing, was not sufficient to fulfill this requirement. Roberts’ need for ‘congested words and images’ to describe the intense disruption and confusion of the Second World War echoes the need Pound found for a new ‘image’ following the First World War.
Roberts’ ‘certain hard metallic lines’ reflect an important facet of modernism, that of the predilection to use scientific, industrial and mechanical diction. As Marinetti states in his Manifesto of Futurism, the language of the new age needs to celebrate ‘the vibrating nocturnal fervor of factories and shipyards’, and the ‘violent electrical moons’. Marinetti’s description of the language required for the new poetry is the antithesis of the ‘messy, soft, vague, flowery, effusive, adjectival femininity of the late Victorians’. Roberts appears to embrace these modernist rules. In section one of the poem, as the soldiers arrive to disrupt the peace of the bay and ‘Machine sets against clay; irons a new uniform,’ the language hardens to express the change. Roberts incorporates the scientific with ‘Accelerate oxidized roads’ and the mechanical and industrial, as man, ‘On steelweb, hammering in rivets ambuscade,’ is ‘Interrupted by sirens screaming tirade’. Her ‘modern voice’ is further exposed in the fragmentary nature of the poem where the disunity of a world at war, and the disruption of order and meaning affect ordinary lives. ‘Jagged bitterns: Gradgrinds all’ gives us a fragment of the sound of guns in the bittern’s booming voice followed swiftly by a warning about the nature of man today, reliant on scientific fact alone with no room or concern for emotion. Roberts uses modernist language to describe the militarisation of her rural Welsh landscape but where Marinetti’s manifesto calls for a language that will celebrate ‘war’, a ‘love of danger’, ‘fearlessness’ and ‘aggression’, Roberts’ poem disdains war.
Roberts uses her ‘congested words and images’ not to glorify war but to show the futility of war. The soldiers are described as, ‘CONGRIEVED. CONSTRAINED. / CONDEMNED’ as they leave their families to fight; they are to be pitied as much as the villagers who have had their locality sequestered by the military; the capitalizing of the words emphasizing the extent of their pain. Roberts uses Marinetti’s modern language but not to Marinetti’s purpose. To further emphasise the soldiers’ futile position, as they ‘fall to arms’ and are ‘stemmed to die’, Roberts describes them fulfilling domestic tasks. As some soldiers hammer rivets, others are ‘below in well shafts’, where they ‘squat and cark, / Shell and peel pods and spuds’, or later, wash ‘like flies to pin of elbow’ and ‘polish / Bayonets’. Thus Roberts takes another step further from Marinetti’s Manifesto; she not only condemns war but seeks to highlight her condemnation by using a mundane imagery of peace, and language that bears no relation to ‘struggle’. Even the Swansea raid takes place in ‘Aubergine Hills’ that ‘Wounded, lie heavily in the dishwater tributary.’ Roberts thus reduces the aggression of war to the domestication of washing up.
In ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ Joan Riviere introduces the conception of womanliness as a mask that can be donned or withdrawn, implying that gender identity is not fixed but constructed to facilitate safe functioning in society. Judith Butler further argues that gender is a series of ‘performative’ acts; words, acts and gestures that are repeated to construct a gender identity. Acts such as shelling, peeling, washing and polishing are all associated with women’s work; these are ‘acts’ that can signify female and thus the words convey a sense of femininity. Many of the words chosen by Marinetti to espouse his Futuristic Manifesto have masculine connotations, words such as ‘aggression’, ‘war’, and ‘assault’. These words, combined with the language of science and mechanics give the language of modernism the perception of masculinity as they reflect actions that are predominantly performed by men. Yet Roberts does not use these perceived masculine words to describe the soldiers, instead, Roberts’ soldiers, the epitome of masculinity, are described in terms of feminine actions; they ‘suffer’, ‘fall’ and are ‘purred’ to fight, and shell, peel and wash. Thus Roberts creates an effective masculine, feminine binary that she uses to emphasise the futility and brutality of the soldier’s position.
This masculine/feminine binary in ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ enables Roberts to present a scathing attack on war, and the threat to future civilization from war, which contrasts with the patriotic view, that to fight for King and country is noble; as Wilkinson notes Roberts is a ‘home front poet ‘at odds’ with a London perspective’ For Roberts, it is life that is noble, as she notes in the argument to Part IV, ‘the birth of flesh and blood is everywhere a noble event’ and the ‘lives of all nationalities must be considered sacred – not to be callously destroyed.’ ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ demonstrates that war and the military do ‘callously’ destroy lives, not only the lives of the enemy but also the disrupted lives of those at home. Roberts describes how the situation of the soldiers, stationed in army barracks, far from home, crushes their health, their spirit and their ability. The men become ill, ‘With food chyles constricted in their stomach’ and are treated in ‘shuttered wards’, but are treated for ‘the wrong event!’ The symptoms present as stomach upsets but the disease that needs to be treated is the soldiering itself. Roberts uses the feminine image of nursing to reveal the true nature of the problem. The persistent falling of bombs and the ‘Grisaille’ grey, ‘freezes the sense’ of the soldiers and the constant boredom of cleaning out the urinals ‘Fells skilled discipline to halls of humidity.’ The poem highlights that men should not be living in these conditions or forced into battle; any battles to be fought, ‘should be / Fought at Home’. Soldiers should be ‘trencher-companions’, sharing a meal with a loved one, rather than trench companions, stationed together in army barracks.
Roberts also uses the juxtaposition of ‘feminine’ language versus a militarized masculine language to highlight the loss and disruption wreaked on the landscape and wider community by war. The masculine, dangerous, hard, ‘Father Precipice of Denbigh Rock’ contrasts with the feminine, caring, fluid, ‘Mother Mild of Pembroke Streams’, as the landscape of war contrasts with the landscape that precedes war. In the opening stanzas she writes ‘Saline mud / Siltering, wet with marshpinks, fresh as lime stud / Whitening fields, gulls and stones attending them’, describing the landscape before the soldiers arrive, the bay bathed in a nurturing ambience as the gulls ‘attend’ to the salt. The choice of the word ‘attending’ lends a kind and caring perspective, reflective of the communitarianism expressed later in the poem where she references people’s names and the local pubs and shops. This is at odds with the destructive nature of the war about to erupt on the landscape. The word ‘attending’ can be perceived as feminine as it suggests nurture and care, both attributes associated with the feminine. Thus the landscape of yesterday, before the onset of war, is aligned with the feminine, whereas the landscape of today, a landscape at war, is aligned with the masculine and military; a place where ‘Men slave, spit and spade’ and the bay is ‘full of spitshine and brass’. Even the herbs of the kitchen garden, the ‘Colonnade of angelica, chervil, fennel, parsley, aniseed’ and ‘yarrow’ are ‘culled’ to make way for ‘the stinking / Goosefoot, Foetid Hawk’s-beard, Black Horehound, Bloody-veined Dock, Blue Broomrape, and Bastard Toadflax’ in much the same way the ‘simple bay’ is pined for once war arrives. Roberts uses language and imagery perceived as feminine to highlight the changes to the landscape and the loss of community and life of peace before war.
In the final part of the poem Roberts extends the masculine/ feminine binary to explore the possible outcomes of the war. The setting is arctic desert where air is ‘white with cold’ and a ‘Cycloid wind prevails’. Roberts posits two possible outcomes. The first has men who ‘shine darkly’ and ‘magnates’ who build ‘Chromium Cenotaphs’, working the market towards a nuclear age of ‘Chinese blocks of uranium’. These images are described with chemical and metallurgical language, the modernist diction of Marinetti’s futurism. The other outcome involves a ‘conclave of architects’ who ‘shall bridge stronger / Ventricles of faith.’ The architects of the future embrace the new world but not as ‘Gradgrinds’, merely interested in fact, these architects embrace the new world with emotion. By choosing to use the word ‘ventricles’ Roberts utilises a modernist scientific sounding word but one that has connotations with the heart and therefore love and femininity. Wilkinson describes Roberts’ poetry as ‘frostwork’; poetry where the ‘language not only alters what we see, but is a part of it, needing itself to be rendered’, and in this instance the associated meaning of the scientific word ‘ventricles’ allows another layer of interpretation.
As Roberts notes in her letters to Robert Graves, ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ was written with the intention of ‘using words in relation to today – both with regard to sound (i,e,; discords ugly grating words) & meaning’. The ‘discords’ and ‘ugly grating words’ reflect the upheaval of the times but by describing these words as ‘in relation’ to today, Roberts is referencing yesterday, a time before war, when ugly, discordant words were unnecessary. Throughout the poem Roberts make reference to Welsh myth and earlier writing, acknowledging the historical context into which her work fits, reflecting the views of T.S. Eliot, who argues that to construct an original voice of ones’ own, one needs to have a clear sense of what has gone before. In ‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ Roberts utilises both historical Welsh myths and stories, and the modernist language of her immediate predecessors, to which she adds language that can be perceived as feminine, to construct an original voice of her own, one that she utilises to great effect.
Roberts’ use of a female perspective in the poem effectively allows her to critique the war but does the inclusion of femininity reflect a position on women’s place in society? In the final section of Gods, she describes the lovers ascending to a ‘fourth dimensional state’, where the girl is ‘contented’, as she works, ‘slightly below him’. The girl seems to revel in her occupation of sewing her lover’s shirt, her nails painted in ‘Chanel shocking’ and her ‘Ears jeweled.’ This is clearly not a picture of the New Woman, emancipated from domestic work, living as an equal with her man. Instead this image appears to champion a reversion to the status quo before the chaos of war, with domesticity and femininity essential as a precursor for peace. However by italicizing the word ‘below’, perhaps Roberts is acknowledging the disparity between the sexes and acknowledging that despite the upheaval and turmoil of war this disparity is unlikely to be remedied.
‘Gods with Stainless Ears’ describes the disruption, dislocation and loss endured by those on the home front during the Second World War, where the ‘Heroes’ are not only the soldiers on the battlefield but all those stationed far from home, and the wives and families left behind. Roberts utilizes hard, futuristic modern language to reflect the disruption and turmoil of war but intersperses this with language and imagery that reflects femininity. This language is not the modernist idea of flowery, Victorian, feminine language, but can nevertheless be perceived as feminine, relying as it does on an association between domestic acts that are perceived as feminine and the language that signifies these acts. Roberts merges this perceived feminine language and imagery, with modernist language and military imagery, to create a masculine/ feminine binary that highlights the brutality of war on both a personal and a wider level. The poem idealises an era of peace before the war and criticises war itself, which is perhaps why Eliot chose not to publish the poem until well after the end of the war.
JOSEPHINE WEINBERGER is a third year English Literature undergraduate at Kingston University, UK. Born in 1964 she has a Biology degree from King's College London and currently lives in South West London.