George John Whyte-Melville, who composed “A Child in the nursery crying” during the time he served in Crimean war (1855/56), he wrote it on Royal army stationery bearing the words “RA Mess Razmak Waziristan.” The poem’s nine verses — 36 lines — are signed with his initials. To our knowledge it has never been noted as a war-poem until now, chiefly because no-one knew Whyte-Melville composed it in Crimea. Reading the solemn lines, one can feel the angst and bitter tones of the piece. Few books were written about this war, where nearly half a million people died.
Tennyson famously wrote 'the charge of the light-brigade; but to our knowledge he was never actually present in Crimea, whilst Whyte-Melville was. The first draft of the poem clearly paints a very sombre mood indeed. It is uncanny how topical the work is, in our present day.
The Crimean War version of poem
[This the version that first appeared in Alan Bennett's first play, 1968]
A child in the nursery crying,
A boy in the cricket field – out,
A youth for a fantasy sighing,
A man with a fit of the gout.
Some sense of experience wasted,
Of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted,
And of pain that did him no good.
The sum of a life expended,
A pearl in the pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended,
And what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow,
The journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow
And a lie carved deep into stone.
The poem as published in the 1876 Temple Bar
A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.
The letter containing the poem as published in Alan Bennett's first play (1968)
Created 8 June 2015