Nowell Oxland - Alston’s War Poet
(A shortened version of this biography and the poem ‘Outward Bound’ appeared in the Alston Moor Newsletters of Winter, Issue No.83, 2012/13 and No.84, Spring 2013)
If Nowell Oxland had lived he would surely have become famous as one of the First World War poets, but sadly his life was cut short during the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.
Stephen Cooper, the author of ‘The Final Whistle - The Great War in Fifteen Players’, a book about the lives of fifteen soldiers who also played rugby for Rosslyn Park Rugby Club, contacted me while he was researching Nowell Oxland, and it was then that I realised Nowell’s full significance.
In St. Augustine’s Church there is a portrait on either side of the altar depicting a knight in armour, each with a halo, each with the face of Nowell Oxland. In one he is St. George, having slain the dragon, and the other he is St. Alban, Britain’s soldier-saint. Both portraits have middle-eastern scenes in the background, but neither has the name of the artist. Part of the dedication beneath the left hand portrait reads ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ (‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.)
Nowell Oxland was born on 21st December 1890, the son of Rev. William Oxland, M.A., R.N., and his wife Caroline Amy. Like several other vicars of Alston, Revd. Oxland was a naval chaplain appointed by the Greenwich Hospital, Lords of the Manor of Alston Moor. In 1883 he had been one of a group of officers on the training ship H.M.S. Boadicea. In 1893 he was chaplain and naval instructor on H.M.S. Ganges, a training ship for boys at Flushing, then in 1902 Revd. Oxland was appointed vicar to Alston.
In 1903 Nowell went to a private school in Durham, where he rowed and played rugby. In 1909 he went to Worcester College, Oxford, and joined Rosslyn Park Rugby Club. When he came home to the vicarage at Alston during school and university holidays, Nowell was very much part of Alston’s ‘young set’ and a member of the social scene; he used to play tennis with the St. Augustine’s Club, and the mother of Joan Walton, a well-known Alston resident, used to go cycling with him. From his poem ‘Outward Bound’ we can see just how much he loved walking in the fells. Nowell’s sister Caroline, known as ‘Poppy’, married Arthur Derry, D.S.O. (Boer War), O.B.E., at Alston on 9th December 1902. Arthur’s mother and Mrs. Oxland were friends as well as in-laws. Mrs. Derry evidently stayed every summer with the Oxlands and sometimes accompanied Nowell’s mother to Clarghyll Hall to visit her friend Helen James, the widow of Revd. Octavius James, late vicar of Kirkhaugh. Nowell would occasionally accompany one or both of his parents on their visits to Clarghyll, and once or twice visited on his own.
Nowell was studying history at Oxford when war broke out and he joined the 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment. Because he was a vicar’s son he was one of the gentry and straightaway he was able to join with the rank of Lieutenant. On the night of 30th June 1915 the battalion departed from Liverpool for the Dardanelles, the Straits at the entrance to the Sea of Marmara in Turkey at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. While the troop ship was leaving England, sailing down the River Mersey, Nowell was on night watch and it was then that he wrote his best known poem ‘Outward Bound’, with Homer’s classic in mind. The poem, which was later published in ‘The Times’ newspaper, went through several titles including ‘Night Watch’ and ‘Farewell’, but perhaps the latter title was too poignant to be used for publication at the time, and something more dynamic was required. His potential to be one of the war poets was acknowledged when ‘The Times’ published ‘Outward Bound’.
Nowell took part in the allied landing at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the 7th August 1915. Two days later, on 9th August, he was killed fighting the Turks. Nowell was twenty-four years old; he had sailed from England less than six weeks before. When his body was found it was buried in Green Hill Cemetery.
The name of Nowell Oxland is on Alston’s War Memorial and it is included on the Roll of Honour in St. Augustine’s Church. The handbook to St. Augustine’s, revised by Rev. John Hardy in October 2007, tells us that;
“The two panels on each side of the sanctuary were given in memory of Nowell Oxland, son of the Revd. William Oxland who was vicar of Alston from 1902 to 1917. Nowell died on active service during the Great War. The north side panel’s inscription includes a familiar Latin tag, from Horace’s Odes, which the poet Wilfred Owen famously used in a very different context of anti-war protest: ‘In loving memory of Nowell Oxland of Worcester College, Oxford. Lieut. 6th Battalion Border Regiment. Killed at Gallipoli, August 9th, 1915. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.)
On 28th August 1915 the Mid Cumberland and North Cumberland and Westmorland Herald reported Nowell’s death and included a photo. On the 11th September the Herald printed ‘Outward Bound’, with the following introduction:
“The following poem, reproduced by permission of the Editor of the “Times,” has a melancholy interest, because it was written by Lieut. Nowell Oxland, son of the Rev. W. Oxland, Vicar of Alston, on his departure from England. Lieut. Oxland has since fallen in the Dardanelles, his photo being reproduced in the “Herald” a fortnight ago.
The late Lieut. Oxland’s poem, “Outward Bound”, which appears in the “Herald” to-day by the permission of the Editor of the “Times”, was the author’s last literary work. It was composed when he was on night-guard on board the transport sailing down the Mersey. It originally bore the Latin inscription: “O terque quarterque beati” (Thrice and four times blessed), and the word “harbour” in the fourth verse read “Mersey.” It was not very well known in Alston that Lieut. Oxland possessed such remarkable literary talent as is manifest in this poem. He was of a quiet, retiring disposition, and never sought the eulogies of public life. Much of his work from time to time appeared in the “Saturday Review.” “Outward Bound” gives a beautiful insight into his character, and a soul that gave expression to such fine passages must have had a wonderful vision of life. We trust that his friends will be prevailed upon to publish his manuscripts in book form.”
There’s a waterfall I’m leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There’s a pool for which I’m grieving
Near the water-ouzel’s home;
And it’s there that I’d be lying,
With the heather close at hand,
And the curlews faintly crying
‘Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise,
I can hear the river singing
Like the saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounder sinking
By the bridge’s granite span.
Ah! to win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the river’s stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through cloud-rifts rent asunder,
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world.
Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.
Great their happiness who, seeing
Still with unbenighted eyes
Kin of theirs who gave them being,
Sun and earth that made them wise,
Die and feel their embers quicken
Year by year in summer time
When the cotton grasses thicken
On the hills they used to climb.
Shall we also be as they be,
Mingled with our mother clay
Or return no more it may be?
Who has knowledge who shall say?
Yet we hope that from that bosom
Of our shaggy father Pan,
When the earth breaks into blossom
Richer from the dust of man,
Though the high gods smite and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace:
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
Where the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river
Sun distilled in dew and rain
One with Cumberland for ever,
We shall go not forth again.
INSIGHTS INTO ‘OUTWARD BOUND’
‘Outward Bound’ has eight verses that were composed on the night of 30th June 1915 as Nowell’s troop ship sailed down the River Mersey and out to sea towards the Mediterranean.
In the first three verses, while on duty he remembers the hills and rivers of his beloved Alston Moor. There are features in the poem that tell us about the locality:
- the waterfall with heather close at hand – this was Ashgill Force according to Joan Walton.
- the half-pounder is the trout.
- the bridge’s granite span. There aren’t many bridges on Alston Moor to choose from. It might have been the Brewery Bridge at Alston or the bridge at Garrigill or perhaps the railway viaduct over the South Tyne near Alston.
- the ridge and hollow rolling under to the fringes of the world - anyone who has stood on the hilltops around Alston Moor knows exactly what he’s talking about.
In the fourth verse Nowell comes back to the present. He is on night watch and his troop ship is sailing down the Mersey and to war.
In the fifth and sixth verses Nowell reflects on mortality, on the spirits of people who had gone before at home on Alston Moor.
The sixth and seventh verses start with a more determined note as he thinks about the approach to the Dardanelles and Gallipoli across the Gulf of Saros in the eastern Mediterranean. He compares his own voyage with that in Homer’s Iliad, of King Menelaus of Sparta, father of Helen of Troy.
Elizabeth Vandiver in her book ‘Stand in the Trench, Achilles – Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War’ writes on page 323 that “Nowell Oxland’s ‘Outward Bound’ appropriates classical scenes as a means of mediating the grief of burial abroad.” She continues;
“… its dominant mood is clearly one of resigned leave-taking. ‘Outward Bound’ combines love of England, expressed in quintessentially English description of nature and the details of the flora and fauna in the poet’s native Cumberland, with references to the soldier’s destination near Troy and the implications of military service so far from home. The poem ends by voicing the longing that, though the modern soldier’s bodies will not come home again, their spirits somehow may.”
In the eighth and final verse Nowell returns to reflection of a homecoming, whatever his own future might be. Elizabeth Vandiver writes that he focuses on the likelihood of his own death and on what he as an individual will lose (p.243). It is as if he foretells that it will be his spirit that “the self same winds”, referred to in the previous verse, will bring home.
After Nowell’s death, Revd. Oxland commissioned the portraits of his son for St. Augustine’s. But Nowell’s mother Caroline did not like the portraits at all and found them too upsetting to attend church. Joan Walton’s mother also felt uncomfortable when she went to church and saw Nowell’s portraits from the altar rail.
Revd. William Oxland suffered a breakdown, a Committee of Inquiry was held at Alston into his alleged neglect of duties. Rev. Oxland did not appear in person but sent a letter of resignation on grounds of ill health and on the advice of a doctor. The Inquiry was adjourned. Revd. Oxland resigned his duties and in 1917 he and his wife Caroline left Alston to live in Portsmouth. In March 1918 Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust and composer of the Samuel King’s School song ‘Children of the Breezy Moor’, gave a lecture in Keswick entitled ‘Alston’s Soldier Poet – Nowell Oxland’. Then finally, in 1920 Nowell’s friends published his ‘Poems and Stories’ for private circulation.
It was Nowell’s interest in rugby that led to his inclusion in ‘The Final Whistle - The Great War in Fifteen Players’, by Stephen Cooper, which tells of the lives of fifteen young men who played rugby for the same London club, Rosslyn Park, and did not return from the First World War.
‘The Final Whistle’ was published on 1st August 2012 by The History Press. Story No. 5 is ‘Nowell Oxland: A Green Hill Far Away.’