»  Gavin Ewart's "When a Beau Goes In"


When a Beau Goes In

by Gavin Ewart, 1916-1995


•  Background

The poetry of the Second World War is much less well known than that of the First. Though the Second was of course far more destructive in simply physical terms — entire cities laid to waste, greater atrocities against noncombatants, and so on — it was less of a shock to the spirit. People knew in advance more or less what to expect, which was not the case with World War One. Indeed, some of the prewar imaginings were worse than what actually happened — the widespread fears of gas attacks on civilian targets, for example.

The Second World War was also more mechanized, the dead correspondingly more distant and shielded from sight by vehicles and machinery. This made abstraction and detachment easier for everyone.

Hardened and disillusioned by the First war, people set about the business of mass killing with a grim let's-get-it-over fatalism, doing what they felt had to be done, with as little reflection as possible. The British in particular were less innocent and less religious than they had been in 1914. Hence the detachment and the irony. Hence also the comparative paucity of poems. Poetry begins with feeling. When you feel less, you versify less.

This poem describes a plane, a Bristol Beaufighter, crashing in the sea and sinking. Though too big and heavy for carrier-based operations, the Beaufighter was certainly used against enemy shipping, so I suppose the sight of "a Beau going in" was not all that uncommon to men of the Navy, Marines, or Merchant Marine. I'm bound to wonder if Ewart ever witnessed it, though, as he did his war service in the Royal Artillery. Perhaps he was working from something he'd been told. Nothing wrong with that: Tennyson did not witness the charge of the Light Brigade.

•  Notes

"the drink" — the sea. Common British military slang.

"gone for a Burton" — Brewer says: "It is now difficult to ascertain the origin of this phrase which, starting among flying men in World War II, has now taken its place in the language. It probably suggests that the missing airman has gone for a pint of Burton ale or stout. Its meaning is always sinister, implying that whoever has gone for a Burton has crashed or come to grief in some way." Burton crops up all over in the ale context: see here and here.

"observer" — the second crew member, in the dorsal turret.

"lark" — "a spree or frolic" (Brewer).


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

When a Beau goes in,
Into the drink,
It makes you think,
Because, you see, they always sink
But nobody says "Poor lad"
Or goes about looking sad
Because, you see, it's war,
It's the unalterable law.

Although it's perfectly certain
The pilot's gone for a Burton
And the observer too
It's nothing to do with you
And if they both should go
To a land where falls no rain nor hail nor driven snow —
Here, there, or anywhere,
Do you suppose they care?

You shouldn't cry
Or say a prayer or sigh.
In the cold sea, in the dark
It isn't a lark
But it isn't Original Sin —
It's just a Beau going in.