Selected Poems of Clive Branson: ed. Richard Knott, Smokestack

entry picture

Clive Branson was born in India in 1907, and studied at the Slade School of Art. Five of his paintings are today in the Tate. After becoming a Communist in the 1930s he fought with the International Brigades in Spain in 1938, and spent eight months in Franco’s prison camps. Conscripted in 1941, he served as a tank commander, and was killed in action in Burma, aged 36.

He wrote poetry while in captivity in Spain. According to the introduction by editor Richard Knott to these Selected Poems, in the same year that he died a book of his letters, British Soldier in India, was published, which included some examples of his poetry. After his death his work appeared in collections, including the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse. This volume of poetry provides the first opportunity to glimpse the full range of Branson’s work.  

His Communist faith seems to have been unsullied by his experience in Spain, unlike that of fellow combatant George Orwell. The first poem in the book, ‘The International’ written in 1940, recalls singing the socialist anthem “waiting in the station yard”. ‘December 1936, Spain’, written in 1939, is a rallying cry in the fight against fascism: “That we should be insensible at such a time / Makes deafness kill and peace the bloodier crime.” ‘On Being Questioned After Capture: Alcanz’ reflects that    


     I thought of all the answers I could give

     whether death is correct or whether to save

     life for a rainy day

     and told a lie to cheat his bullet with a word

     to use a bullet afterward


In another section of the book, titled ‘Prisoner’, a nightingale represents the spirit of humanity, triumphing above the “shouting of the guard”, while this poem is unbearably poignant:  


     His face at the window

     His voice in a frame

     He ‘who ought to be shot’ and will be

     when the Nazis get him home.

     He was singing

     this German prisoner, self-exiled workman,

     common songs of the beer-garden in his home town.

                (‘To the German Anti-Fascists in San Pedro’)



In the second section of the collection, titled ‘The 1930s’, in an otherwise fairly tub-thumping poem  you come across these lines, reflecting Branson’s artistic sensibility as well as his revolutionary ardour:


     The writer who says he has no time to care

     For the daffodil or cowslip shames

     The very revolution he proclaims.



Back in London, during the Blitz, the painter and poet’s observational skills come into play in ‘The Doors of the Tube’:


     Ghostly things these doors are when they shut.

     Doors which no one shuts

     Doors which only let men willing to go out

     And close upon them entered

     Into these carriages smooth moving through modern catacombs.


In the final section of the collection, ‘Where Does Death Begin?’, Branson is horrified by what he encounters in India, and in Bombay in particular: “Pavements strewn with human bodies / That with all the other shit / The authorities forget / Even to worry about.” ‘Orders for Landing’, written in December 1943, has an understandably ominous tone, viewing the future both as a book still to be read, and as a precipice:


     Today we got our orders for tomorrow,

     A few brief sentences as a title page

     Preludes a book. Each one wonders how

     The story will turn out. What’s over the edge?


The final poem in the collection, ‘Where Light Breaks up’, was written on the Burma front, in February 1944. Branson died in that same month after being hit by enemy fire, while standing with his head out of his tank turret. Just a month later the acclaimed second world war poet, Alun Lewis, also died on the Burma front.

While I would certainly not claim that Clive Branson’s poems match those of Lewis, they deserve respect for the way they record the extraordinary times they witnessed, particularly those written about wartime captivity in Spain – and for the way that Branson fought to keep the flame of his political and artistic idealism alive.   


Selected Poems of Clive Branson, edited by Richard Knott, Smokestack Books, £8.99



◄ Not Glastonbury, but … finding poetry at a village festival just up the road

Wild Orchids: Simon Fletcher, Offa's Press ►


No comments posted yet.

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message