Poem of the Week #4 – The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth, A.I.F. by John Manifold (1915-1985)

Last week was ANZAC day in Australia, a day that commemorates and celebrates the exploits of the Australian and New Zealand armed services throughout the world. The occasion for the most part brings surreal memories of school-day observances: the minute silences, the Last posts and Reveilles, the raising of flags, salutes, etc. Not unlike the obsequies of school prayers and eucharists, they were rites to which were attached an almost religious significance, and like the religious motions we went through, they were equally as difficult for me to comprehend. One just did them without asking why–a mentality which was unfortunately far too dominating during those school-days in general.

It is now that I look back in a certain horror at what all those things signified. The solemnity of ANZAC day assemblies did not, unfortunately, seem to be grounded in a remembrance of the tragedies of war and a desire never to repeat them as much as they were a celebration of the glory and honour of, innocent men who sacrificed their lives to kill other young, innocent men who had done them no harm whatsoever. Worse than that–it was an exaltation of the perpetuation of this great injustice by indoctrinating us into believing that this was something right and beautiful.

And with this I mean absolutely no disrespect to those who did and currently do serve (among them my ancestors, I should note). I rather pity them for having been pawns to the greater powers who gamble with what is most precious in the world. Even if one comes out physically unscathed from war, I can hardly imagine anyone not experiencing great trauma for having participated in something so wicked, no matter how justified the cause seems.

How can one honour those victims, then? The question brings to mind one of the finest pieces of Australian poetry I know, The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth, A.I.F. by John Manifold, himself a veteran of World War II. It’s a poem written not in honour of a flag, a monument or moral cause nor a sentimental lamentation on the pity of war. It is an elegy for a mate who became a tragic victim of circumstance.

Form: Terza rima – eighteen tercets in iambic pentameter

The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth, A.I.F. – John Manifold (1915-1985)

This is not sorrow, this is work: I build 
A cairn of words over a silent man,
My friend John Learmonth whom the Germans killed.

There was no word of hero in his plan;
Verse should have been his love and peace his trade, 
But history turned him to a partisan.

Far from the battle as his bones are laid 
Crete will remember him. Remember well, 
Mountains of Crete, the Second Field Brigade!

Say Crete, and there is little more to tell 
Of muddle tall as treachery, despair
And black defeat resounding like a bell;

But bring the magnifying focus near
And in contempt of muddle and defeat
The old heroic virtues still appear.

Australian blood where hot and icy meet 
(James Hogg and Lermontov were of his kin) 
Lie still and fertilise the fields of Crete.

Schoolboy, I watched his ballading begin:
Billy and bullocky and billabong,
Our properties of childhood, all were in.

I heard the air though not the undersong, 
The fierceness and resolve; but all the same 
They’re the tradition, and tradition’s strong.

Swagman and bushranger die hard, die game, 
Die fighting, like that wild colonial boy – 
Jack Dowling, says the ballad, was his name.

He also spun his pistol like a toy,
Turned to the hills like wolf or kangaroo,
And faced destruction with a bitter joy.

His freedom gave him nothing else to do 
But set his back against his family tree
And fight the better for the fact he knew

He was as good as dead. Because the sea 
Was closed and the air dark and the land lost, 
‘They’ll never capture me alive,’ said he.

That’s courage chemically pure, uncrossed 
With sacrifice or duty or career,
Which counts and pays in ready coin the cost

Of holding course. Armies are not its sphere 
Where all’s contrived to achieve its counterfeit; 
It swears with discipline, it’s volunteer.

I could as hardly make a moral fit
Around it as around a lightning flash.
There is no moral, that’s the point of it,

No moral. But I’m glad of this panache
That sparkles, as from flint, from us and steel, 
True to no crown nor presidential sash

Nor flag nor fame. Let others mourn and feel 
He died for nothing: nothings have their place. 
While thus the kind and civilised conceal

This spring of unsuspected inward grace 
And look on death as equals, I am filled
With queer affection for the human race.


The poem launches in full speed and without sentimentality. Being an elegy for a fallen comrade this is a strange way to begin. The poet feels it is his duty to write this poem about his friend who was a victim of circumstance–verse and peace should have been the hallmarks of a long life otherwise cut short by war. The ungloriousness of war is evoked where Manifold writes: Say Crete, and there is little more to tell/ Of muddle tall as treachery, despair/ And black defeat resounding like a bell. This is nonetheless contrasted with the heroic manliness Manifold identifies in the individual of John Learmonth–on the one hand an artistic soul (I watched his ballading begin) but also a tough-as-nails man of the bush who fought not for his country but out of a individual, ferocious fight-till-the end mentality (That’s courage chemically pure, uncrossed/With sacrifice or duty or career). The last four tercets of the poem move away from the figure of Learmonth to the poet trying to understand the purpose behind Learmonth’s death. Beyond the tragedy of his death, the poet concedes that there is no moral–he is not interested in writing another lament for a victim war but rather a poem commemorate him for who he was.

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