The Steyning Poem
Chance memory

Pages 1 . 2 . 3

 

Mouse Lane
2nd Lt Purvis

Above: Mouse Lane, Steyning and 2nd Lt John Stanley Purvis, 3 August 1914 on the eve of the Great War at Tidworth camp with Cranleigh Officers Training Corps

I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summer time, and on the Down how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and Oh the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat infested ditch
When every shell may spare or kill - and God alone knows which.
And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair.
My God! I never knew till now that those days were so fair.
So we assault in half an hour, and, - it's a silly thing -
I can't forget the narrow lane to Chanctonbury Ring.

This poem has haunted many people since it was first printed by the Daily News in June 1916. The name of the poet was given as Philip Johnson. The fate of this man, who turned to poetry half an hour before 'going over the top' to face the guns of World War I, was unknown for over 50 years. Did he survive?

The poem appears in several war poetry anthologies and accounts of life in the trenches. The author Ernest Raymond (1888-1974) was deeply affected by the Steyning poem. In his autobiography published in 1970, Good Morning, Good People, he revealed a remarkable piece of information. The passage is worth quoting in full:

In 1916, having recently escaped from the mud and filth of Gallipoli, I was with my brigade in the Sinai Desert, where we were slowly laying a railway through the sands towards Gaza, making straight in the desert a highway to Jerusalem. And one day I chance upon an old tattered copy of the Daily News and read in it a brief poem, whose final couplet seemed to me - I have said this in articles and on platforms and in private talks for over half a century - to capture an English soldier's native patriotism with simpler or more perfect words than any other lines in that luxuriant yield of poetry which sprang from the First World War. Ever a lover of the bare, sweeping downs of Sussex which find their crown in the ring of noble trees on Chanctonbury, I was caught, I suppose, by the title From Steyning to the Ring. I read the poem once - twice or thrice maybe - and have been word-perfect in it ever since. It was printed over the name 'Philip Johnson', and never from that day in 1916 till two mornings ago, in 1969, fifty-three years later, have I known who 'Philip Johnson' was, or heard of him.

I know now. The writer of the poem was a young officer in the 5th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment serving in France, and this was his poem.

I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summer time, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and oh, the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,
Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.
And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair -
My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair,
And we assault in half-an-hour, and it's a silly thing:
I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

I don't know how many times I've walked up that lane quoting this last couplet to those walking with me, or how often I have mentioned on platforms and in articles the whole magical little poem by an author unknown.

And two days ago there comes a letter from a Miss Purvis, saying,

Since the death of my brother, Canon J.S. Purvis, in December I have been searching the family news cuttings albums to find an article which you wrote in the Sunday Times of 22nd May 1927. My mother preserved our copy at the time for she knew the pen name Philip Johnson was that of her elder son John Stanley. Through the years I have often thought that I should like to reveal to you the real name of the author who wrote this poem.

The words were sent without my brother's knowledge to the Press by his friend, a Quaker doctor, serving with the Red Cross. Please forgive me if I have bored you with these reminiscences but I have always wanted to uncover the anonymity of my noble brother 'Philip Johnson' and to thank you for the words in your article which gave so much pleasure to my mother and to me.

So 'Philip Johnson' was really John Stanley Purvis who became Canon Purvis of York and internationally famous for his versions of the York mystery plays. He died last year, 1968, and at his Memorial Service in York Minster the Dean said, 'We are met to give thanks to God for the life and work of John Stanley Purvis, Canon of the Cathedral Church, a Yorkshireman whose faithful Christian witness and devoted scholarship have enriched the hearts and minds of many in this County and beyond it.'

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20 March 2017

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