13 June 2007

Sonnet for the Madonna of the Cherries

Somebody recently - as far as I can tell not Jeffrey nor Idle Speculations, who would be my usual suspects for this sort of thing - posted a picture of Our Lady with the wrong fruit. It had been nagging away at me for some days when I realised where I had come across it before: in a poem.

In "Other Mens' Flowers", the great anthology of poetry published by Field Marshal Lord Wavell in 1944, there is a single poem by the author. He recounts the story of how Flemish Masters who visited Italy in the early 16th Century were shown a copy of a cartoon by Leonardo and were asked to paint it, no doubt so the Milanese artists could see whether thay had anything to learn from their Northern brethren. Twelve were painted. One was eventually owned by Captain Spencer-Churchill MC, a friend of Lord Wavell's, who visited it in April 1943 at Northwick Park. (Anybody who has access to JSTOR might be able to see a photo: I can't.)

Dear Lady of the Cherries, cool, serene,
Untroubled by our follies, strife and fears,
Clad in soft reds and blues and mantle green,
Your memory has been with me all these years.

Long years of battle, bitterness and waste,
Dry years of sun and dust and Eastern skies,
Hard years of ceaseless struggle, endless haste,
Fighting 'gainst greed for power and hate and lies.

Your red-gold hair, your slowly smiling face
For pride in your dear son, your King of Kings,
Fruits of the kindly earth, and truth and grace,
Colour and light, and all warm lovely things -

For all that loveliness, that warmth, that light,
Blessed madonna, I go back to fight.

Firld Marshal the Earl Wavell PC GCB GCSI GCIE CMG MC

Not, perhaps, great poetry, but a wonderful spontaneous response to a picture. As it happens, he didn't go back to fight: on his return to London he was ordered to India as Viceroy, the penultimate Viceroy as it turned out.

And here's a thing: a Chief of the Defence Staff (we don't have Field Marshals any more) once saw a copy of "Other Mens' Flowers" on my desk at work and told me he had a copy which always accompanied him on his travels.

I like to think of soldiers who read poetry.

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