Saturday, August 2, 2008

James Honeyman

James Honeyman was a silent child;
He didn't laugh or cry:
He looked at his mother
With curiosity.

Mother came up to the nursery,
Peeped through the open door,
Saw him striking matches,
Sitting on the nursery floor.

He went to the children's party,
The buns were full of cream,
Sat there dissolving sugar
In his tea-cup in a dream.

On his eighth birthday
Didn't care that the day was wet,
For by his bedside
Lay a ten-shilling chemistry set.

Teacher said: "James Honeyman
Is the cleverest boy we've had,
But he doesn't play with the others,
And that, I think, is sad."

While the other boys played football,
He worked in the laboratory,
Got a scholarship to college
And a first-class degree,

Kept awake with black coffee,
Took to wearing glasses,
Writing a thesis
On the toxic gases,

Went out into the country,
Went by a Green Line bus,
Walked upon the Chilterns,
Thought about phosphorus,

Said: "Lewisite in its day
Was pretty decent stuff,
But, under modern conditions,
It's not nearly strong enough."

His Tutor sipped his port,
Said: "I think it's clear
That young James Honeyman's
The most brilliant man of the year."

He got a job in research
With Imperial Alkali,
Said to himself while shaving:
"I'll be famous before I die."

his landlady said: "Mr Honeyman,
You've only got one life,
You ought to have some fun, Sir,
You ought to find a wife."

At Imperial Alkali
There was a girl called Doreen,
One day she cut her finger,
Asked him for iodine.

"I'm feeling faint," she said.
He led her to a chair,
Fetched her a glass of water,
Wanted to stroke her hair.

They took a villa on the Great West Road,
Painted green and white;
On their left a United Dairy,
A cinema on their right.

At the bottom of the garden
He built a little shed.
"He's going to blow us up,"
All the neighbours said.

Doreen called down at midnight:
"Jim, dear, it's time for bed."
"I'll finish my experiment,
And then I'll come," he said.

Caught influenza at Christmas.
The doctor said, "Go to bed."
"I'll finish my experiment,
And then I'll go," he said.

Walked out on Sundays,
Helped to push the pram,
Said, "I'm looking for a gas, dear,
A whiff will kill a man.

"I'm going to find it,
That's what I'm going to do."
Doreen squeezed his hand and said:
"Jim, I believe in you."

In teh hot nights of summer,
When the roses all were red,
James Honeyman was working
In his little garden shed.

Came upstairs at midnight,
Kissed his sleeping son,
Held up a sealed glass test-tube,
Said: "Look, Doreen, I've won!"

They stood together by the window,
The moon was bright and clear.
He said: "At last I've done something
That's worthy of you, dear."

He took a train next morning,
Went up to Whitehall
With the phial in his pocket
To show it to them all.

He sent in his card,
The officials only swore:
"Tell him we're very busy
And show him to the door."

Doreen said to the neighbours:
"Isn't it a shame!
My husband's so clever,
And they didn't know his name."

One neighbour was sympathetic,
her name was Mrs Flower:
She was the agent
Of a Foreign Power.

One evening they sat at supper,
There came a gentle knock:
"A gentleman to see Mr Honeyman."
He stayed till eleven o'clock.

They walked down the garden together,
Down to the little shed:
"We'll see you, then, in Paris.
Good night," the gentleman said.

The boat was nearing Dover,
He looked back at Calais,
Said: "Honeyman's N.P.C.
Will be heard of some day."

He was sitting in the garden,
Writing notes on a pad:
Their little son was playing
Round his Mum and Dad.

Suddenly out of the east
Some aeroplanes appeared.
Somebody screamed: "They're bombers!
War must have been declared!"

The first bomb hit the Dairy,
The second the cinema,
The third fell in the garden
Just like a falling star.

"O kiss me, Mother, kiss me,
And tuck me up in bed,
For Daddy's invention
Is going to choke me dead!"

"Where are you, Jim, where are you?
O put your arms round me,
For my lungs are full
Of Honeyman's N.P.C.!"

"I wish I were a salmon,
Swimming in the sea,
I wish I were the dove
That coos upon the tree."

"O you are not a salmon,
O you are not the dove:
But you invented the vapour
That is killing those you love."

"O hide me in the mountains,
O drown me in the sea:
Lock me in a dungeon
And throw away the key."

"O you can't hide in the mountains,
O you can't drown in the sea,
But you must die, and you know why,
By Honeyman's N.P.C.!"

W.H. Auden, August 1937

1 comment:

David said...

"As I Walked Out One Evening" into a wet and rainy Seattle nite, I thought of how Miss Gee might have lost her hair and survived her cancer if she was able to take a dose of the many chemotherapeutics made from nitrogen mustard poison gases created between WWI and WWII. Poor James Honeyman, for he did not foresee how there could be humanitarian utility in a thing so toxic.