The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb

taken from the programme notes for the public performance of the musical setting

A babe was born in the reign of George
To a singular birth-bed song.
Its boisterous tune was off the beat
And all of its words were wrong ...

The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb was written just after the war, and was first published in 1962. It describes an encounter between a sailor and a new-born baby in a devastated wartime London. The poem opens with powerful images of destruction and describes the rescue of the baby by the sailor. He takes the baby to the remains of a bomb-damaged church, and there begins the dialogue between them which is the heart of the poem. The sailor is light-headed, and their dialogue is joyful, culminating in the song they sing together. But suddenly the sailor's mood changes, and he becomes filled with terror. The baby, meanwhile, in a state of exaltation, wishes to lure the raiders to this spot so that both can die together in the church. As a flying bomb approaches the baby's mood becomes ecstatic, coming to its culmination in a vision of the Virgin Mary, bowed by the world's grief. The sailor reaches an extreme of terror which, abruptly, changes into joy. His vision is of the sea, and this section of the poem is full of the most marvellous marine imagery, reminiscent of that in The Tempest.

And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

The rest of the poem is concerned with destruction, but this time the destruction has been given a meaning it did not have before.

A bare synopsis is likely to be confusing and, indeed, many interpretations can be placed upon the poems's events. While the dialogue between the sailor and the baby can be seen as a conflict between the physical and the spiritual in Man, it would be a mistake to regard the poem as an allegory. Peake himself described it as showing "man's continuing hopefulness in adversity". The poem works directly through the emotions, and while the events deal with death and destruction the overriding sense is one of optimism. In its cyclic form - reflected in the music - it conveys strongly the continuity of life.

Peake was never a pessimist, and the darkest of the war poems has a spark of optimism that cannot be extinguished. In The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb that spark becomes a fire, and the poem remains a triumphant affirmation of the human spirit.

Copyright © Langdon Jones, 1997

And out of your love, O frightened sailor
You showed me the coloured lights,
And the golden shoals of the falling stones,
And the scarlet of the streets;

And I am rich on my natal day
With such rare tragedy
That I have no fear, but only long
That you could be rich like me.

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