A glimpse into Ewart Milne’s painfully intimate collection of poems.
Ewart Milne’s Time Stopped is not a book: it’s an open wound. In a prefatory note, Milne calls this collection of poems ‘the story of the narrator’s life as seen in retrospect after the death of this wife.’ The problem is that Milne’s life stopped when his wife Thelma died of breast cancer in 1964. Time Stopped is not a story but a set of circles, each returning to its own starting point, never moving away from the pain that forms the centre of its universe.
Milne was an Irishman who began writing poetry after a decade working as a merchant seaman. In 1942, he took up residence in England in 1942 with the help of John Betjeman. Betjeman felt sympathy for a fellow poet after being told that Milne had been targeted for assassination by the Germans for his vocal support of the English cause. Milne was assigned as a land manager at Assington Hall in Suffolk, where a school for refugee children had been established. There he met and became involved with Thelma Dobson, a married woman whose husband was serving in the Royal Air Force. He writes in the book’s first poem:
That summer of forty-five
The war in Europe all over and done
And the airmen soldiers from the war returning
You going to meet your first husband
Then we three speaking together
‘And I begged him not to be hurt/We had not deceived him’, Milne continues. To a man who seems to have worn his principles on his chest — couriering medical supplies to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, speaking out against the Nazis in Ireland, encouraging the work of other writers — this proves to be a significant factor in what follows.
Denis Dobson agreed to let Thelma separate, after which — at least as recounted in Time Stopped — she began her affair with Milne. Denis then went along with her application for divorce and Thelma and Milne married in 1947. She came from a family of moderate wealth and supported Milne’s writing, which brought in little money. Never part of any particular school, an outcast in Ireland and an outsider in England, he never managed to establish strong connections with either literary establishment: ‘The English see I am not English/To the Irish I am Anglo’, he wrote in Time Stopped.
In the early 1950s, Milne became acquainted with the young Irish writer and balladeer Patrick Galvin. Milne encouraged his work and they collaborated on several pieces for literary magazines. They spent a great deal of time together. And, as Milne later learned, Galvin spent a great deal of time with Milne’s wife Thelma. In 1962, thinking perhaps that he would be warmly welcomed back by his native country, Milne returned to live in Dublin. But resentment is a slow-burning fuel, and Milne’s rejection of Ireland during the war lingered in the minds of some of his old colleagues. Few doors were opened to him.
To make matters worse, Thelma was diagnosed with breast cancer. Milne was slow at first to react to the news: ‘You reproach me dead that I did not see/The gravity of your illness.’ He tries to defend himself posthumously: ‘Love I laid my palm on your breast twenty years ago/Saying truly I suspected some evil inside there.’ Already devastated by Thelma’s death, Milne was knocked down again with news that he seems to have taken just as hard. He learned that Thelma had been supporting Patrick Galvin financially, even buying half the printing of his 1960 collection, Christ in London, from its publisher, Linden Press. Even more, he learned that the two had been carrying on an affair, practically under his nose, for years.
The revelation sent Milne into a fugue from which he emerged, over 18 months later, with Time Stopped. Every poem in the book is untitled, every poem is dated: 28 Nov 1964; 11 March 1965; 15 Jan 1966. This is, in effect, Milne’s journal, but he rearranged the entries and interspersed them with short prose ‘Intermissions’ to show ‘my growth of understanding’. The result is powerful, painful, and at times almost unreadable. ‘This is my life since you left me alone/This rack this torture.’ It can seem, at times, as if we’re on that rack with Milne. And as with any torture, one only wants it to stop.
This is one of several problems with Time Stopped. Coming from a minor poet and an even smaller press, Time Stopped received few reviews, but those all spotted its core shortcoming. ‘The subject matter is painful’, wrote C. B. Cox in The Spectator, ‘and, I think, beyond Milne’s ability to control in language.’ Fellow Irishman P. J. Kavanagh gave him partial credit: ‘The attempt seems to me admirable — it is one of the things verse is for — but, alas, I cannot say it is successful. The pain stays with Mr. Milne and refuses to change into poetry.’
I don’t know if Milne did any editing on his poems beyond their sequencing, but this often reads like 160-plus pages of raw material crying out to be rewritten down to a dozen or so good poems. You know what some of the themes are going to be. They’re familiar from the vast catalogue of maudlin pop songs: How do I live without you? I hate you for abandoning me. How do you like your blue-eyed girl, Mr Death? Be prepared to see them repeated over and over and over.
But the more subtle problems stem from Milne’s blind spots. In its obituary for Milne, The Times described Time Stopped as a ‘harrowing elegy … written in the agonized recognition of her infidelity to him, revealed only after her death.’ The following week, the paper printed a letter from Douglas Cleverdon, a former BBC producer, who wrote that the comment ‘deserves a footnote’:
His own lechery was notorious. To my wife’s astonishment, he made a pass at her within 10 minutes of their first meeting; and I vividly recall his indignation and sense of ill-usage when he complained to me that, in his sixties, nubile young women actually rejected his amorous approaches. He attributed this to the selfishness of the younger generation.
The hostility of Cleverdon’s letter and The Times’ decision to print it, stirred up a kerfuffle that was noted by papers on both sides of the Atlantic. T. E. Utley, the obituaries editor, justified printing the letter: ‘In the obituary we revealed a fact about his wife, which was very damaging; people wrote to say that he was totally awful, and justice seemed to be required.’
When Cleverdon was asked to comment, he did clarify that he hadn’t seen Milne in over 20 years, but ‘I never liked him very much: He was conceited and absolutely shaken that girls wouldn’t lie down in front of him. But then you know what these elderly Irish poets are like.’
Perhaps the relationship between Milne and Thelma Dobson was chaste until they asked for Denis Dobson’s consent, but if it was true what other people said of Milne (and here I am assuming that T. E. Utley didn’t use ‘people say’ in the way Trump does), then his reaction to his wife’s affair with Galvin is melodramatic and unjust to say the least:
Oh women women women
Charismatic the womaniser approaches
Pretended feminist matey-like says
‘Be emancipated love come to bed
What of it what of that husband of yours
You are free woman come to bed’
And you fall for it every time bang flat on your backs
So, was Milne saying that Thelma was just a sucker for a smooth operator, just like all women? Knowing Milne’s history, one has to wonder who was the womanizer he had in mind: Galvin or himself? Milne undermines his own righteous indignation in revealing at times, perhaps thoughtlessly, his own inclinations:
Do you remember • together sawing the fallen branches
I joked and said I’d like to make love to your daughter
When she grew older
We weren’t married then
Your daughter was a small child
And you answered gaily that we would all go wild
When once the war was over
And everyone be free to love
And no one be hurt at all
As you were not by what I said
I confess that I almost stopped reading at this point. Time Stopped has been described as confessional poetry, but usually confessional poets are conscious of the things they’re confessing to. I may be guilty of 20/20 vision in looking at these lines from 1965, but one cannot deny that there’s a certain hypocrisy at work here — one that becomes even more apparent from the extent to which Milne turns Galvin into his bête noire:
Spawn of monstrous mouth
Thief of the world
Treachery is his name
Flatters friendlike • takes his friend’s wife
Flatters his friend’s wife • takes her purse
Take her body from her husband’s bed to his own
‘May he burn for his fooling you/May he burn and double burn.’ The Times was not alone in describing Time Stopped as Milne’s reaction to his wife’s infidelity, but if one actually reads the book, it’s hard not to see it just as much as his reaction to Galvin’s betrayal of his friendship with Milne. Thelma comes across as a dupe, not a wilful adulteress. Galvin, on the other hand, is a snake with two apples: offering love to Thelma, friendship and trust to Milne. Galvin’s acceptance of Thelma’s financial support is nearly as infuriating to Milne as his seduction:
And for his pseudo-aiding me
He got payment of handouts from you
Over and over he got paid
Till your handouts became a habit to you
Became his way of life.
Which begs the question, of course: hadn’t they become a habit to Milne, too? Milne was a strenuous writer of letters to the editor, to numerous editors and on all sorts of topics, and in the years after Thelma’s death, their frequency and pitch both increased. In the same year that the book was published, Milne wrote a letter to The Times dismissing the protest of several young poets who burned a stack of poetry books outside the Arts Council’s offices in St. James Square. ‘Some of us elder poets’, he intoned, saw the Council’s embrace ‘as the kiss of death.’ He concluded haughtily that ‘Poetry is its own reward. If it isn’t I suggest they try another trade….’ It is, of course, so much easier for poetry to offer its own rewards when aided by a wife’s independent wealth — most of which, by the way, Thelma passed along to Milne.
Milne introduced the • character in Time Stopped as a way of indicating a slight pause, rather like a rest character in written music. The character also captures how one responds to this book. You stop, flip through its pages and in a matter of minutes get a clear sense of the unguarded, unfiltered, unedited nature of this poetry. And at that point, I suspect most browsers will pause, think better than continue and return the book to its place on the shelf.
I came across Time Stopped when doing just this—browsing in the stacks of a well-stocked library, taking out and flipping through any odd volume that caught my eye. I didn’t know Ewart Milne or his work when I opened the book, but you can’t read more than a poem or two from it without recognizing its extraordinary character. Milne obviously intended Time Stopped to be published and read, but it has much more of the feel of a diary never meant to be shared: raw, awkwardly shaped, and both honest and self-deceiving in the way we all are when we try to be candid. It may not be literature — but unforgettable it most certainly is.
Time Stopped, by Ewart Milne
London: Plow Poems, 1967