The cliffs, the cliffs.
Historically iconic, the cliffs, for all of British history has been the last thing seen leaving home and the first sight coming back, especially during the great World Wars.
The cliffs played an enormous role in the excavation of Dunkirk during WWII as the massive tunnels in the cliffs safeguarded 100’s of thousands of English, French, and Belgian troops. The White Cliffs have been the frontline for war and today you can tour the tunnels and grounds of the Dover castle where long-range guns were constructed along the English Channel.
Now for me, war as the English have known it is unthinkable. War is a distant beast. The cliffs could only trigger my imaginative gears as I ran along the coast for 2 miles on a 30 minute bus break on the way back to London.
And, trigger the imagination the cliffs have, over and over again. Both a symbol of peace and a formidable defence against war, the cliffs have inspired Shakespeare and the like.
Who could forget the blinded Earl of Gloucester?
“There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep. Bring me but to the very brim of it,. And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear…” – Earl of Gloucester, King Lear
But perhaps no one captures the exact sentiment of an American in England than Alice Duer Miller in her poem “The White Cliffs”. The poem tells the story of an American tourist who marries an Englishman and has her entire life uprooted by World War I. The poem itself had a powerful effect upon America’s view on the war and is said to be one of the key inspirations for the US entering into the fray.
Here’s a link to the entire poem.
The traveler stands on the cliff,
“I have loved England, dearly and deeply,
Since that first morning, shining and pure…”
“Startled I found there were tears on my cheek. I have loved England, and still as a stranger…” acknowledging that England is not her own however she might think it beautiful.
She captures the sentiment of English people as I experienced them in London so well,
“The English are frosty
When you’re no kith or kin
Of theirs, but how they alter
When once they take you in!
The kindest, the truest,
The best friends ever known,
It’s hard to remember
How they froze you to a bone.”
And she even marries England, so to speak — her John — and they live and travels together in Cambridge, the Kew Gardens, and to John’s family in Devon. But the war changes her and she experiences England’s loss personally as news of the war reaches her:
“I knew John was dead.
All done and over—
That day long ago—
The while cliffs of Dover—
Little did I know.”
As she raises her child, who is now England too, she heartbreakingly agonizes over the fate of her little boy she is left alone to raise:
“My child, my child,
Why should you die for England too?’ He smiled:
‘Is she not worth it, if I must?’ he said.
John would have answered yes— but John was dead.”
At the poem’s conclusion Miller heartbreakingly and completely expresses her feelings as England comes to her darkest days.
“And were they not English, our forefathers, never more
English than when they shook the dust of her sod
From their feet for ever, angrily seeking a shore
Where in his own way a man might worship his God.
Never more English than when they dared to be
Rebels against her-that stern intractable sense
Of that which no man can stomach and still be free,
Writing: ‘When in the course of human events. . .’
Writing it out so all the world could see
Whence come the powers of all just governments.
The tree of Liberty grew and changed and spread,
But the seed was English.
I am American bred,
I have seen much to hate here— much to forgive,
But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.”
Here’s a link to the entire poem.
The cliff itself is constantly in decay, slowly, little by little, as its exposed wall is at the mercy of the elements.
I don’t really understand war. But for now, I just want to take in all the history of those who were inspired before me.