Last year, while recording with the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow I unpacked an old suitcase of papers belonging to the largely unknown Second World War poet Timothy Corsellis. Among the papers were notebooks containing over 100 unpublished poems, many on the subject of the war itself. I’m delighted to say that the poems have now been published, as part of a masterly biography by Helen Goethals.
Pilot Timothy Corsellis died at the controls of his plane when it crash-landed on October 10th 1941. He was not yet 21. The poems he left behind were recognised for their quality and importance, with a small number appearing in anthologies of war poets. He also receives a brief notice by Ronald Blythe in ODNB. In life he was recognised as a rising talent, and attracted the notice of contemporary poets, including Stephen Spender who he met and who penned a posthumous poem in tribute to him.
The story told by the 100 poems we found in the Roadshow suitcase was too complex to tell in all but the briefest details in a few minutes of screen time. Corsellis trained with the RAF as a fighter pilot as the Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies above Southern England. Like so many young men of his generation he wrestled with the morality of war. While fully convinced of the evils of the Nazi regime, Timothy’s deeply-held Christian values were challenged by the onset of war. He was initially an objector, then enrolled with RAF.
In 1940 Corsellis was assigned to bomber training; at which point he was hit, head-on, by the moral dilemma which would ultimately end his life. The dilemma is prescient, even in 2012, as debates over the ethics of bombing civilians in war are ever present, not least in the context of the memorial to the pilots of the Second World War’s Bomber Command, constructed only this year in London.
Corsellis requested a transfer to a fighter squadron or the Fleet Air Arm, where his targets would, at least, be military. His request was met with refusal and an honourable discharge from the RAF. As a relief worker in London’s East End he then observed the realities of civilian casualties during the Blitz; which he recorded in some of his best poems, such as ‘Dawn after the raid’. Having described the discovery of another body among the ruins, he asks:
‘Is it for this that bending we strived
And fought in each other’s blood and other’s sorrow
To reach these wretched mangled remains?
Is it for this that we ached in the darkness
Not knowing that nearby
Another house had fallen
To the blast of that same bomb.’
Like others of his best poems, it evokes the terrible realities of death in war and the fresh dilemmas facing the living at every turn. Corsellis tackled these questions bravely; always with a human background. This is one reason why his poetry remains so relevant today.The poet then saw service as a transport pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary (A.T.A.), delivering planes and supplies, and it was during a routine flight from Luton to Carlisle that his Miles Magister L8268 stalled, crashed, and ended his life.
The Unassuming Sky includes 100 poems presented within the framework of a sensitively researched biography by Helen Goethels, who was granted full access to the family’s papers and personal memoirs. Her study is alive with interconnections and influences which helped to shape the work of this important war poet.
The credit for bringing the poems to publication after more than 70 years goes in large part to the poet’s brother, John Corsellis. It was he who brought the suitcase to the Antiques Roadshow and who created such a memorable impression while discussing on camera what the artefact meant to him. It was the broadcast of this discussion which found the poems an agent and led to publication with the Cambridge Scholars Press.
The book can be ordered direct from the publishers or from all good bookshops.