John Wain : poet, novelist, and critic

A Song About Major Eatherly

Extract from John Wain’s poem A Song About Major Eatherly

Hear the poet reading the poem in full here

Major Claude W. Eatherly was a pilot of a Reconnaissance plane for the flight of US aircraft that dropped the first  atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. It was reported that he was suffering Eatherlypsychological problems in later years – see interesting archive article here and another take on the story here. John Wain’s poem, one of his best,  was read on the BBC in 1959 and published in the BBC’s  Listener magazine. Photo of Eatherly by Richard Avedon.

…The wise men passed. The clever men appeared.
They ruled that hell be called a pumpkin face.
They robbed the soul of what it justly feared.

Coal after coal the fires of hell went out.
Their heat no longer warmed the rooms of time,
Which glistened now with fluorescent doubt.

The chilly saints went striding up and down
To warm their blood with useful exercise.
They rolled like conkers through the draughty town.

Those emblematic flames sank down to rest,
But metaphysical fire can not go out:
Men ran from devils they had dispossessed,

And felt within their skulls the dancing heat
No longer stored in God’s deep boiler-room.
Fire scorched their temples, frostbite chewed their feet.

That parasitic fire could race and climb
More swiftly than the stately flames of hell.
Its fuel gone, it licked the beams of time.

So time dried out and youngest hearts grew old
The smoky minutes cracked and broke apart.
The world was roasting but the men were cold.

Now from this pain worse pain was brought to birth,
More hate, more anguish, till at last they cried,
‘Release this fire to gnaw the crusty earth:

Make it a flame that’s obvious to sight
And let us say we kindled it ourselves,
To split the skulls of men and let in light.

Since death is camped among us, wish him joy,
Invite him to our table and our games.
We cannot judge, but we can still destroy.’

And so the curtains of the mind were drawn.
Men conjured hell a first, a second time:
And Major Eatherly took off at dawn.