Daniel Swift’s paternal grandfather died during World War II, at the age of 30, while on a bombing mission for the Royal Air Force over Germany in 1943. In the course of research about his grandfather’s life and death as a bomber pilot, Swift, a literary critic and English professor, began to explore the relationship between the bombers and poetry. Discussion of the role of bombers is a sensitive subject for many because of the great devastation and the death of many civilians on the ground. As Swift notes in his illuminating personal and literary journey, Bomber County, “The poetry of air bombing requires a particular imaginative sympathy absent from other war poetry, and it must play between telling and deferring the tale: between the poet who survived and the others who died that night.”
Swift is concerned with bomber poetry written from several perspectives. He focuses on the work of noted bomber poets such as James Dickey and John Ciardi, but he also wants us to read poetry by those engaged in bombing runs who had not been poets but felt compelled to write poetry because of their experience, including Michael Scott and John Riley Byrne. He explores, too, the war poems of Randall Jarrell, who trained others to be pilots but did not see action himself. He considers in detail poetry by civilians moved by the terror of air raids. T.S. Eliot was an air raid warden in London, and “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, is directly concerned with living in a bombed city. Dylan Thomas thought that he could write poetry only in peacetime. Although not a combatant, Thomas wrote hauntingly about the distinctive grief of aerial bombardment in “Ceremony After a Fire Raid” and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” as did Stephen Spender in “Responsibility: The Pilots Who Destroyed Germany, Spring 1945.”
As Swift continues to find out more about his grandfather’s life and death, he discusses the very different views of the bombing raids, ranging from “atrocities pure and simple” to “one of the decisive elements in Allied victory.” He does not shy away from discussing the morality and ethics of the bombers’ missions: “Bombing can be both bright purpose and dreadful duty; both horror and great joy; tourist and killer, proudness and fear.”
Bomber County is a stimulating and insightful investigation into the poetry of a particular time as well as a unique personal quest to understand a grandfather’s legacy.