This was the first war cemetery I ever saw, at Bayeux. It gave me a terrific shock. I lost my father as a result of the First World War and I'd never been in a British war cemetery. I don't think I'd ever been to France before. That's what promoted me to try to write this poem which I called:
At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux
I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red air away.
‘I am Christ’s boy,’ I cried. ‘I bear
In iron hands the bread, the fishes.
I hang with honey and with rose
This tidy wreck of all your wishes.
‘On your geometry of sleep
The chestnut and the fir-tree fly,
And lavender and marguerite
Forge with their flowers an English sky.
‘Turn now towards the belling town
Your jigsaws of impossible bone,
And rising read your rank of snow
Accurate as death upon the stone.’
About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay.
‘What gift,’ I asked, ‘shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?’
Take, they replied, the oak and laurel.
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.
I was deeply shocked when I went there. Absolutely awful. They had tried to make the landscape sort of rather British there – English flowers and all that but it didn’t matter. I went to Singapore to give some readings and I visited the cemetery there where a lot of the British boys had been buried, you know, and I went with a young chap there and he said to me, ‘They’re just kids – they’re so young.’ Awful.
From Collected Poems 1951-2000 (Picador, 2000), © Charles Causley 2000, used by permission of the author’s Estate