A Day in Eternity John Gillespie Magee Jr. Author of "High Flight"

Brave New World

A Sonnet by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

“High Flight” was not John Gillespie Magee Jr’s only literary achievement. He wrote more than a dozen poems in his brief life, but he was most proud of his sonnet, “Brave New World,” which won the Rugby Poetry Prize in 1939. Chapter Eight of my novel A Day in Eternity imagines how he composed the sonnet along the North Devon shoreline. The novel’s title comes from a line in Magee’s sonnet: “We were but a day in Eternity … still, we believed … .” It is re-printed in it’s entirety here.

“A sad and great evil is the expectation of death
And there are also the inane expenses of the funeral
Let us therefore cease from pitying the dead
For after death there comes no other calamity.”


What Agony of Beauty! — How the sad
Long look of moonlight troubles all this place!
A crazy sweetness fills my head, until
The mind is swamped with fullness of the soul …
How will this beauty, at the time of death
Come sweeping back, come flooding over me!
How will this quiet hour in after years
Engulf the mind that once beheld its form!
What more could man desire?
— Quiet, and Peace,
You I would have flow over me like water
As some cool wave upon a sun-dried sand —
Here is a soothing rest for the troubled mind
In evening’s coolness, fingers of the wind …
For here, in this freshening hour of breeze and night-birds
Here is the source of our constant sanity
We who spend years in offices and cars
Who though the slaves of Time can yet sustain
The balance of our twisted nerves and notions
As a heated lover —
hearing the song of a bird
Is still, — hears too, perhaps, though undefined
The haunting drift of death in the sombre wind …
How many generations loved this place,
And, passing, left to us this privilege?
So we who have come, continuing in their stead
Inherit the spirit and phrase of ancient sagas
Hearing, perhaps, in the whisperings of leaves
Tales that our fathers told when they were here
Feeling, perhaps, at evening in this place
Loves of the morning that our fathers knew
Here where the valley is filled with voices and pine-winds …

Soon, soon you too will pass the way they trod
When the sweet air goes bitter at the mouth
When cold birds mourn the leaf that falls from the twig
Then Life goes out, leaving no power to hold him
All men go out at the End as the flowing of water
Carries the leaves down ?
none remember it
For even then the time of Youth will be taken
The dogs will bark at evening by his tomb
The moaning curlews wheeling over it
Then in the time of death and evening’s strangeness —

The time of Youth is but as a sun that sails
Behind the clouds of time —
or a flickering light
That leaves the earth as soon as it has shone
And memory dims with the coming of age and greyness —

Yes, and the time will come
When you will shuffle with the leaden feet
Of Age the shallow fallen leaves before you
And you will not understand why suddenly sweetness
Fills in the heart of you — nor why the tears
Spring into your eyes, for you will not remember …
And you will say Where and When did I know such happiness
But you will not remember —
You will feel the freshening wind on your throat
And it will tug excitedly at your shirtsleeves ?
And you will sweat in the effort to recall as one
Who reads a book at night
by candle-light —
And stares
At the black print until the page is blurred …

There will be little enough to forget then ?
A woman’s eyes —
And waves breaking ?
The way the wind blows —
You will find it hard to remember
Her lips —
And the lamplight on the street-corner
You who have known
Flame of the sun’s rising —
Flight of swallows —
A lover’s nearness —
For the soft rains of time will wash them away
Siftings on siftings in oblivion —
Till change has broken down and obliterated
Even these sweet memories to the hard grey bones
But the grey bones will not remember …

Man is but a fire breeding out of himself
Ashes, a momentary incandescence
That gutters into death, a fatuous flame
Leaving nothing, for the ashes will not remember.

I fear the time of death and evening’s strangeness
I, as the dead, will forget the place of my loves
There will be nothing remembered in that day
Only the mouldered smell of a dust that was mine.
What will remain? What will remain but the
Sun in that time; the wind then; and the moon’s
Pale wanderings in those leaf-fallen nights
— The memory of a life once gladly lived …?
And shall there only then remain of me
A scent as of a grass a long time dead?

Our lives were strange and noble; we believed
In the feel of the earth beneath us, trusted the sun
As it played on the leaves and flowers; and we conceived
Truth and true Beauty, End of things begun …
We, too, have laughed and sung our hundred songs
The sons we bore were perfect in our eyes
We hoped for them, but did not realize …
We saw them slain, — with faith we bore our wrongs
Watched we the clouds, and did not understand
We longed for happiness; we knew despair,
Lay, with our dreams, in the gutters; and were deceived
By eyes of women; whispered hand in hand,
And loved the moonlight on a lover’s hair …
We were but a day in Eternity … still, we believed …

Believed in what?

The Will of God.

How shall a man endure the Will of God and the
Days and the silence? In the years before him
Will he become as a ship that is lost at sea,
And drifting many ages in the deep
Can he believe in any Captain’s skill,
The white gulls wheeling on the plight of him?

We who are wise beyond your dreams of wisdom
Watched our “immortal” moments fade like grass —
Our visions deadened with the weight of years
We have gone forth beyond your bounds and borders
Our dwelling now is in Eternity
Where Time is shriveled down to nothingness
We learnt our lesson in the day we died —
Life’s not a game of money, banks, and houses,
No mere pretence that plays at love and mating
Of cheeks grown sunken and glad hair gone grey —
There is a subtler meaning in Existence
Who can but look on the stars and not believe?

It is hard to believe, not knowing, day to day
The first day’s end, nor starting of the next,
Nor through dawn-mist to catch a glimpse of evening …
The tawny sands we tread in this short life
Washed in the surgings of Eternity
Can never hope to rise above their state
Of calm submission to the seas of Fate.

There is a greater power than that of Fate
— The power of Love —
As red leaves follow where the wind has flown
So all men follow love when love is dead
And when the scent returns on the breath of the wind
Then in the faint scent of leaves at the year’s ending
Come only the memories of the loves they bore …

In the morn of my years there came a woman
A trembling upon the twilight of my life
Who came with the dawn of my time
as moonlight calling
As the moon calls to the tides she summons me —
This is the only Love that I have known
This brought me happiness;
In after years
I will remember this the love of any life
Cherishing the memory as no other —

So you think that you are “in love” as you say?
But the years will show you how you were mistaken
You will recall perhaps the way her hair
Curled round her ears
But she will be a Sweet Memory as you will say
In the long after years of forgotten love.

Frequently we have known the ecstatic agony
We too have known the abandonment of bliss
Sensing the heart through the lips that press
Coolly against one’s own —
striving, across the pain
To send some feeling of the inward love.

That was long ago in the time of your living
You thought that Love was all there was of pleasure
But now they search the avaricious features
Seeking a sign of the old remembered feeling
But finding nothing left of the love that was there
— Sixpence the price, it seems, for a change of passion
Cupid astride a compact, — powder puff —
Smoking a cigarette —
they are unable
To pierce the crust of a cheap, unreal beauty
To the Wealth of Love that lies, they’re told, beneath.
These are the lures of women, harlot-habits
Who, half alive, invite to a fuller life
And never loving would be loved by them
For now the love of vanity persists
Each striving to outdo the other’s attractions
Fantastic clothes (if any) entice and kindle
The smouldering flame of desire in the other sex
They try to stir to new affections hearts
Already purged and drained of all their love
Invoking a world of passion,
watch their years
By the permutations of their frocks and fashions
All designed to give the desired impression —
Freshness of body that belies the soul.

But what of those who in proud and beautiful poems
Have praised the beauty of women —

— Expecting Time
To falter in his stride beholding them,
Who call for a sudden hush in the ballroom of Life
As each respective beauty sweeps the stair!

I have read and heard read poetry —
some of women
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and eyes
Praising the young stride and the sweep of garments —
I too have tried to speak coherently
Watching the smooth shoulders and the veiling hair
To others the sound of these pen-whispered words
Is madness —
who have not seen the moving lips
Nor felt the soothing quiet of a girl’s breathing
Knowing the hand’s strain and the difficult labour
In the effort to coax from the heart the stubborn words —

You think you are a poet, — preen yourself
On the obscurest reveries of the inward gaze
Lifting a wordy mirror of your affection
To some poor common girl you made a goddess —

In the other days,
the deep clear stars befriending,
It was not hard to produce these lover’s poems
Praising a woman’s beauty with a pencil
Confident in the continuance of your living
Believing that you would meet with lips and hands
In some cool-scented paradise together
But now —
She who could never live without her lover
She who would never die without her charmer
Gone soon far from beyond the reach of hands
The unforgettable, unforgotten features
Soon lost within the emptiness of space.

Yes, lost for ever
— for soon there will have come
A grinding discord in the tune of Life
Infinite things desired, lofty visions
All find their end with the coming of War
and instantly
A paradise is hurled to nothingness —

And in the brutal holocaust of war
Swept by the lurid posters, roll of drums
His chapped hands fumbling rifle, hand grenade,
Each youth has time to contemplate his Soul
Feeling, perhaps, uneasy as his bullet
Pierces a stomach in the opposing trenches …
And there, where quietness is seldom known
While armies clash they move and feel the sun
As crushed plants take their respite gratefully
Whispering among them “The fair dead
Must all have known such moments, when the sun
Is warm and soothing to the frosted hand”
Enjoying the last glad wavering hours they know —
Soon all the lovable thoughts that moved from them
Swept from the mind of them in their departure —

Where is the bravery of these youths in their dying?
Brought up to battle we took the offensive quickly
We kept our pride —
paid for it with our lives
We found the nadir we had shunned in dreams
Falling from the cliff among the shrieks of gulls
Reaching the crags below before we woke …

These fought bravely for their country
Even some disbelieving
Some quick to battle
Some eager for adventure
Some from fear of weakness …
Died some “pro patria”
Walked bravely to hell for their country and traditions —
But now men have forgotten anger, and ambuscade —
The heated hand on the sword and the blood’s rising
These have made killing their only business
Bored to an inch of extinction in the killing …

Now is the time to flee while the danger is absent
The days of life forbid the ravelling of lengthy
Night and the fabled Dead are near —

The still before the storm … I cannot wait for the
Crushing wave to swamp my happiness
The sky is ocean-deep and colourless
A ghastly still’s in the air …
impending thunder
What if the storm should break and find us unready? …
This tells the ears what filters through my veins
The sense of doom …
this fatal clarity
Is sent to warn me of the destruction to follow —

Men’s fates are already set
There is no need of asking fortune-tellers
They will have brought this evil on themselves
For here are a million people surly with traffic
Each with his hereditary dower of instability
Each on his way to become a commercial corsair
Each with his fill of hollow aspirations
Competing with one another in the tawdry
Glitter and speed of machines, — mechanical mania —
Unable in the supervening blankness
Of middle age to sift the good from evil
Taking it all as one —
their only dread
Unpopularity and social inconsequence …
These need a cleansing, some all-purging tempest
To shake the stagnant pool of their convictions
Leaving with them fresh hopes as after a nightmare
For then the strange night-wonder will be upon them
These will stare as dream-awakened men in wonder
As in the Bardo the smug earth-passion dies
For now the moth-hour of their day is upon them —

Yes and soon will come the cathartic energy
Which, skating on the slender ice of their life
These wrought themselves
in over-confidence
Trusting the thin weak crust of their melting traditions
To keep them from the icy depth below
But suddenly the ice will melt from under them
Plunging them into the vast abyss of War
Victims of their own self-germinated hell …

Then it seems that I am doomed to meet extinction
And all my loves and hates will die with me
No force is left to save me from this waste
This careful shaping of a life in vain
Which must, before it lives, find time to die!

We who are gone where the grey winds call to you
— You, flesh-shrouded frame that bears the secret —
Beseech you not to leave it undiscovered
A short time hence you will be dead as we are
And the secret, hardly known, will die with you
Returning useless with your dust to rot
Returning as a taunt to all the dead
Reminding us of our own great failure, who
Have lived and died
— and left the truth unfound
For after death it is too late to discover
The secret that the living must unveil —
You cannot dig men’s hearts up from the dust
And think to tell their secrets from their bones
You cannot stare between their eyepits thinking
To solve the riddle of Eternity
For when you are dead you will become as we are
Rising again but formless in the rising
Intangible fluids that were once alive
Who once had trod the avenue of Life
As you do now —
we strove in vain to find
The secret of our living
for without it
Each buried dust and mouldered skeleton
Finds in the grave fit mould, fit place of rot.

Now I have heard the voices of the dead
I have read out the writing on the wall
And wearied out my brain upon the secret
And torn my mind against the jagged dark
And still I find no answer to it all!

All that is asked of you is Trust and Hope
Without these Man is as some animal
That gropes in sea-pools with its tentacles
That reaches up and out for Truth beneath
The slow green surgings of the underwave
Until abandonment of self to God
Brings hope into the algae of the soul.
Here is the secret of your time of living
Given to you to find before your dying
Without it you can never find that faith
Which all must have before they come to their God.

What hope is there that I shall live again?
— For Life bore in, soon it must bear away
Can I, a wretched puppet of a man
With death before him struggle to improve
This hollow shell within himself —
this soul
This fabrication built of Autumn roses
Which soon must wither on the ground?
—What is
Religion but an anodyne to Life?

Above the bones and the grave
Motionless, placed for ever
Motionless, even in Time
Safeguard of Grief
Defense of Despair
There stands the Highest Paragon of Men
Whom some call Love or Truth —
and others God;
And from that Fount of Sense Untenable
There springs the Source of Life and Happiness
A cool Oasis in the Desert of Life
Where all that lives spreads out from the hands of God
In wider circles through the Lake of Night
In which His hand has dropped the stone of Life.

Can He give me dawnlight at evening?
Can the Twilight of my hopes be turned to morning?
Can He let form within my hands once more
The present, cradled as a glass of wine
Before it drains to a modest nothingness?
Great minds have sought Him
— lacking someone else
He has been second always. Pitiful?
— A God who’s always taken second place
That might prove useful and yet never proves
That never fits a corner or shows use —

Did you forget so soon, O faithless man,
How in the time of winter’s frost and snow
One coming
gave His life that you might live
And saved the soul of you?
He came with kindness
With freedom on his lips,
but, scorning, you
Believed Him not —
Whose words you might have learned
But now must read unseen —
Can you not hear
A Gentle Voice that sounded down the Ages
Coming a long way off as over water.
“I am the Way, the Truth, the Light;
no man
Cometh unto the Father but by Me”?

At last I see! The whirling tissue of thought
Grows firm beneath me —
now can be seen the motive
That led the saints down their forbidden roads
Who leaped the toothed and cragged crevasse of Death
At their Ordainer’s word
ignoring Time
Whom they left to hone and whet his blade alone.
What faith is this, that trusts when hope is dead!
What hope is this, that hopes when faith has flown!
Their eyes are as those of a maid to her lover. These
Questing and passive bore His news to their brothers
Who had no thought for themselves in the face of danger …
Now that these haunting fears have gone their way
— Importunate talons that clutch my heart in vain —
I am glad of a life no longer fugitive,
Glad of the accident of being alive!

Give you His glories their longevity
Brave you the strange vicissitudes of Time
And thank Him for the abandon of His giving
Cease doubting what is shadow, what is flesh
What matters it to you except that God
Has pierced your stubborn heart, — and come alive?

Source: The Complete Works of John Magee, The Pilot Poet, This England Books, 1989

Read more about A Day in Eternity. Currently available in all formats on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and most places where ebooks are sold.
Softcover, 5.5×8.5, 280 pages, Print ISBN: 978-0983983828, Digital ISBN: 978-0-9839838-3-5.

One reply on “Brave New World”

Comments are closed.