During his time at the Royal Australian Naval College, Ben Howells wrote short stories, poems and plays. His love of reading and writing literature sustained him through his life. These poems, reproduced with the kind permission of the Howells family, were written during his time at the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay.
I was sitting down, resting awhile, with Stanley's Through the Dark Continent upon my knees. Dreamily I ruminated on the romantic life he had lived. I wished to be an explorer such as he had been, and flee away from the depressing trivialities of civilized life; so I had lain the book aside and was trying to imagine myself as a traveller, alone, in a strange land. This had proved an arduous and unpleasant task so I gave it up, and settled myself down to await inspiration. I had not long to wait for shortly a most fantastic vision was screened against the curtain of black before me.
I saw a weather-beaten though determined looking traveller standing on the edge of a lake. He was gazing longingly across to a small emerald island in the far distance. Instantly the scene changed and I saw him rapturously treading the springy turf of the island. He seemed uplifted to a purer atmosphere for an expression of sweet and calm repose seemed radiating from his face. I saw him reclining 'neath shady trees dreamily listening to tender and exquisite music, which seemed to float upward from the grass, and downward from the trees, mingling to form a cadence of incomparable softness and sweetness. It was the song of nature.
Lo, the scene again changes, tempestuous night reigns supreme. I see my traveller caught by wind and wave, hurled now upward into the unkindly air, now downward into the raging deep. His face is white and calm, he seems as one dead. The mighty winds catch him and with cruel relentless grasp snatch him from the deep and, and fling him far into the night. He falls through the unsubstantial air and sinks into the irksome deep. Again he rises and upon the cruel waves is lifted up, then once more plunged into its foaming depth. The wind catches him and twirls and twists him round in wicked sport. Thus buffeted by wind and wave I see him at last thrown up by a mountain wave upon a rocky coast.
The weather quietens and I see my traveller rise slowly from his bed of rocks. Suddenly savage yells rend the air and I see hundreds of shiny black forms come dashing wildly up. There they stand grotesquely dancing and brandishing their fearsome weapons, while my hero with a calm resigned look upon his now angelic countenance, speaks words of peace to them. The heartless savages take no notice of his words, but with ear-splitting shrieks dash upon him, and with one accord hurl him up high above their heads. He falls with a heavy thud; again they throw themselves upon him, and again I see his storm-wracked body fly upward into the cold clear air. Again he falls and I see by the drawn and haggard look upon his upturned face that consciousness has again left him. The savages are about to rush upon him again when a low warning shout is heard. I see the savages disperse in all directions leaving my hero lying almost lifeless upon his back on the hard grey stones. The waves come up and play about him, then spurn him and recede into their mother deep. The light winds come and gentle his curls, then as though in fear bound upward to their moaning mother. All becomes quiet, blackness comes up from the deep and surrounds him. It becomes intense - it lifts him up and carries him away. All is black, a depressing black.
Suddenly the curtain of black is rent in twain. Slowly it rolls aside, and behind I see the light. Gradually the ill-defined figures in the back take form. For an instant I see my hero, then again he fades away and the blackness returns. With him and enfolded in his arms I see a tender and beautiful woman. Their faces were turned toward me and upon his face I saw shining a light serene, of sweet contented wonderment, upon hers, a face of soft delicate loveliness, an expression of universal sympathy. Even the momentary view I had of it was sufficient to make me feel that there I could unburden all my sourness and be comforted and understood.
Intense blackness for a time and then another scene gradually becomes screened. I see my hero walking midst fairy powers, now walking gaily by a sweetly tingling brook, now plunging into scented thickets to emerge upon a lawn of softest green. Again nature's song is heard, this time while he is reclining on the grass near a gliding crystal stream. The stream is flowing o'er its bed of soft green grass and murmurs sweetly songs of concord and of love pursued undisturbed. The trees, the grass and flowers, the birds and all the earth, together mingle voices and sweetly sing to him. He listens to the song in adoration, and seems to rise into the air, when suddenly a shadow flits across his face. His brow wrinkles and all is dark. Birds and flowers, river and all, fade away and are replaced by the eternal black.
Again I see him wandering along the sea shore, midst the raging of the storm of sea and wind. They seem to murmur words of comfort, and no longer spurn him aside. Suddenly, as before, I again hear the fierce cries of the savages. They rush upon him brandishing their arms. He meekly awaits their arrival. His face is once more resigned and calm. Then he is again hurled and tossed about, and especially of all the shiny black warriors I notice one with an impressing personality. His face is striking in its tutored ugliness. On his prognathous head he carried a mop of wiry, woolly hair. His body was thick and in all its movements demonstrated strength. He, I saw grasp my traveller, and with stupendous strength twirl him round as though he were a feather. The remainder of the figures fade into the black, leaving these two, the white and the black, in the foreground. Then I see my hero subjected to awful torture till consciousness seemed to have left him to return no more. Finally he is dashed with terrific force upon the hard earth.
The great black savage disappears and the battered traveller lies alone. He is just fading away into the black, when suddenly he is brought into relief by a flood of light. He is no longer alone. Stooping over him I see the woman with a look of tenderest pity upon her angelic face. She bends over him and seems to breathe life into his nostrils. He trembles - his eyelids quiver, then open and his soft melancholic eyes look up into her face. A trustful look - an expression of sweet contentment and love radiates from his delicate features. She catches him in her arms and lifts him; at first her task is easy, her empassioned love strengthens her to unprecedented exertion. But now she staggers 'neath the growing weight. The scene fades for an instant, then reappears. The beautiful one lets her burden sink lower and lower, till in a mist I see a couch take form beneath him. She lays him gently down, and with an expression of exquisite tenderness bends over him. Her hair of silken gold falls in a wavy flood about her face - she bends lower - her hair plays softly about his face, mingling with his dark brown ringlets. Her lips touch his, and the intensity of the mutual love is demonstrated in one enthralling, clinging kiss.
Time passes unawares - that scene of pure and tender love, sweet innocence, and passion that survives all trouble, pictured on the screen, burned into my inmost soul, and remained there unerased. Entranced by this one vision I did not notice other shadowy ones slip past to be lost in the all-pervading black. Slowly, however, my mind became disenthralled, this scene like all the others fades away to be lost in the dim eternity, from which with unworthy effort I have striven to recover them. It fled at last, and in its place was black, a dense black that would not be uplifted. Stubborn dark wall that hid a vision beautiful, I almost cried in humiliated anger.
At last peace came o'er me and with it light. The wall was rent asunder, and disclosed the same sweet scene, thou' different. I see my hero has passed through a severe period of sickness. His time on earth is almost finished. I almost cry in pity, that he should be saved. I see the breath of life slowly leaving him.
The beautiful Love stands over him and with soft resignéd eyes watches him expire. A chill comes over me and I feel as though I am about to faint; when Lo I see him rise and stretch forth both his hands toward his ever-constant Love. She clasps him to her bosom and slowly draws him from the bed. Behind him on the bed I see a second body. It is himself, his outer shell, which he has left behind.
His cleansed self is close embraced within the loving arms of his fair Love, and gradually becomes imbued with strength. Then one last long embrace, and they slowly fade in the distance. Darkness is burst asunder, and they recede into an element strangely similar to and consistent to themselves, an element of pure refinéd light.
I still sit in a kind of trance. Intermittent visions of them are disclosed to me. I see my hero once more lying on the sea-shore, now bordered with soft green grass. The tingling waves creep up to him, and play gurgling round him. The zephyrs from heaven come softly down and float his curly hair. The savages come with joyous chant, and with one accord surround, and bow the knee.
- written at Jervis Bay in March 1915
The blank veil of darkness which confines me
Slowly recedes, and with uneven speed
Disperses - fading to a gloaming light;
This weirdly substantiates, and forms
A waxen curtain, fraught with light obscure,
Suggestive of a radiant source beyond;
And now slight rivulets of twinkling light
Dart through, like meteors o'er a moonlit sky,
Illuminating with quick, sharp flashes
The leaden screen: The Fount of Life beyond
Grows more apparent, and increases fast
Its gloom-dispelling tendrils of pure light,
And, lo! pervades entire the sombre wall
Of black intense, that stood before my sight.
I feel a mellow fragrance stream within -
Enfold my very soul and waft me up
Until I reach a flood of flowing light,
Substantial, crystal, gliding to a lake.
A wave of sadness lifts like steaming fog,
Immerses me and bears me on its flux;
It sucks me down and fills me with strange woes,
Then buoys me up and treats me to repasts
Of blissful pleasures, intermixed with pains.
I rise borne by the mists which softly waft
In peaceful undulations ever up:
Perfect repose - I fall into a sleep -
A slumber dreamless, sweet, serene, and cool:
The dew distils and glistens in my hair.
I wake as from a trance; self is supreme,
It weighs me down; I strive - and stop - and stay;
A something light within me buoys me up
In throbbing desperation; evolves quick heat
Which courses through my body like thin fire;
I feel myself dissolving into flame;
Its source within me pulsates, pants, and strives
To tear a passage through my flesh, and reach
The unconfinéd space beyond: I faint
My body softens, unsubstantiates,
And forms like to the mist: A crystal ball
Of radiant light floats from me into space;
My conscious self clasps at it, but, too late;
I catch the flowing tendrils - rays of light,
Streaming from the luminous orb above;
I cling to them with feeble grasp, and feel
New life infused into me, so that I
Can draw myself with struggle sharp, away,
And cleave a passage through my body's mist:
This sinks now down into the reeking void;
Leaving me enlightened, free, unpent,
To climb the silvery tendon, till I reach
Its crystal source: My soul(1) attaining it
Is closed in moist embrace, and slowly sinks
To calm oblivion, 'midst the liquid mass:
Bathed thus in dewy light I seem to sleep,
And rise a silent wraith, borne by the orb
Which floats through fragrant airs, aetherial, still:
As I inhale, the breath in billowy waves
Expands and fills, and overwhelms my soul
With Life, fresh, pure, and soft: Long pants of bliss;
Ambrosial airs within, lift, buoy, and tug
To waft me to the Light beyond the Stars.
I wake; celestial morning breaks, and shoots
Its tender rays of light serene, to bathe
In warming airs my body chaste; and kiss
With fragrant breath, narcotic dews away.
I stir, then lie in hesitancy sweet
Upon a silken couch, within a boat,
Which glides in dreamy silence o'er a stream
Of limpid water. I lie in blissful peace,
Transcending sleep but not awake - listless,
Lingering 'twixt the hostages of dreamland
And plain life. Slowly gaining consciousness
I rise in childish wonderment, and list'
To the warbling songsters perched on shady trees,
Springing gracefully from lawns of green
Which slope up gently from the stream: I feel
Enlightened, freed from self, serene and pure;
Immune from earth's impressions, gently strong;
Endowed with power divine, and sympathy
For all things inarticulate: The air
Irradiates melodious sounds, which flowing
Softly, gently, through and through, attunes my soul
To the grand, sweet, strains of slow, celestial harmony.
With countenance serene, and tranquil mind -
Devoid of clinging, earthy flesh, which drags
The aspiring soul from heavenly musery -
I float down o'er the widening stream of Life.
From bigotry, and sensual ideals low,
My Being rose up through chaotic night,
Arriving in a land of pearly day
Where it may live, enfreed from petty doubts
And fears, and worries dire, which blight
The innocence of mind that strives to pierce
The wondrous mysteries of the universe:
Released from these, my quintesssence departs
To wander 'mid celestial realms; and feel
Concordant with the fair, the pure sublime.
- written at Jervis Bay in August 1916
(1) Ben annotated: By "soul" I mean both the conscious and unconscious mind.
Alone within a vast, black Universe
Which heaves in unrestrainéd grandeur, wild
Like Ocean; As Ocean, unconditioned by those laws
Which bind the surplus energy, gives vent
To mighty passions, surges high, and spurns
The frail constructions of weak parasitic Man;
So this dark Universe, forbidding, grim,
Rolls wildly round my helpless tossing barque.
Slowly I dissolve into a liquid mass -
A shimmering substance - radiating light serene
The crystal shell likewise dissolves, and spreads
And forms a sphere of thin transparent glass:
Within, enshrouded by this liquid light,
I float, a point, a thought, intangible,
A spirit of perception, calm, secure.
Against the firm protecting sphere of glass
The rolling, mounting, flood of blackness beats
Persistently, relentlessly, in vain.
My shield, the barque which bore me faithfully
The long long voyage, hurls back the raging waves
And scornfully mounts up the treacherous swell
Which threatens every moment to submerge
And suck us down into the seething void.
Confusion reigns supreme o'er boundless wastes
Of heaped up blackness swirling through the night.
- written at Jervis Bay around September 1916
That night upon a foreign shore I stood
An inland lake of Afric, dark and drear,
A lonely place; within a lonely land
Where Romance with a golden glamour veils
The chilly fears; mid forests black and cold
The calm lake nestled, steely grey, and cruel;
The restless waves lapped weirdly at my feet
And seemed to bear strange messages of woe
From distant shores: the moon's bright silver path
Across the mystic deep was as a bridge
To bear my failing limbs to peaceful lands
Where liquid light would bathe, and lift from me
The dark depressing cloak of loneliness
Which weighed upon my soul. A hope forlorn
Of comfort to be found across the sea,
Where, bathed in moonbeam smiles, I could recline
Upon the perfumed grass, devoid of care,
And fear, and self-contempt, and all those ills
Which swarm up from the introspective mind.
Far, far away, a dark black mass appeared
In contrast sharp, with the enfolding white;
A solid pile of grim, embattled rock
Whose crown, lit up by moonbeams, smiled at me,
And seemed to bid me cross the hushéd sea
And seek repose upon its silent shores;
The solemn grandeur of its rugged might,
The awful stillness of the listening night,
Possessed my soul strange, unearthly fears,
That fascinated - like the fickle winds
When thunder roams abroad - I breathless stood,
And gazed awhile upon its towering bulk:
Its mighty crest, high rearing into night,
Seemed fixed in tranquil grandeur to survey
The passions that, like shadows, chase across
The restless bosom of short mortal life.
And as I gazed a sweet serenity
O'erspread my countenance, my mind partook
Of the sublime transcendent spirit of rest
That shrouded that lone isle; I seemed a part
Of its pulsating being; bursting through
This frail and earthy crust of clinging flesh,
My soul was free to soar the tranquil airs
Of peaceful heaven, illumed by starry thoughts:
But bliss was short, the effervescing fears
And doubts and vain misgivings which arise,
Like fetid breath, from the self-conscious mind
Tore down my fettered soul, and plunged it deep
Into the seething vortex of despair.
And anguish fierce and bitter, keen reproach
And loathing madness filled my soul; as one
Who compassed round by unrelenting foes
Who now cajole that they may gain reward,
And this received repay with sneers and blows;
Is slowly dragged down to a Hell of woe,
Till in despair he seeks to end his life:-
So on this fearful night that fell desire
Possessed me: Maddened by the spiteful thrusts,
The nagging fears, of my sick soul, I sped
Toward the sea, but ere I fell, my sight
Was caught by that unchanging bulk, and fixed:
A spell fell on my mind, nor could I move,
Nor shift my stony gaze from that vast pile:
At length the spell was lifted, but with it,
The evil passion fled and left me calm;
But when my gaze its object shifted to
The dark foreboding sea, old doubts arose,
And half-quelled fears demanded, once again,
Entrance, through the tottering ports of Will,
Into my harassed brain. Sundered, again
My tired eyes sought out that silent pile
And found relief: And still it beckoned me
Till, fascinated by its silent might
Which boded lasting peace of mind, I rose
Stepped on the spanning pathway of the moon
And felt, a virile power creep through my limbs
And spread, and, flowing round my troubled mind,
Soothed it to sleep.
- written at Jervis Bay in October 1916
The morning is chilly and clear; slowly faint traces of approaching light become apparent. The mooney darkness wanes and gives place to the twilight of morn. The silver light beyond the vault flickers and dies out - the stars fade, and give place to the mysterious power of dawn. The steely heavens are hard and cold, an unvaried prison roof. Chilly dullness pervades the world. Slowly the heavens assume characteristic variations, huge cloudy masses are visible lining the horizon. Light slowly replaces the clinging greyish mist. Lo! in the far east a rosy tinge appears and grows, diffusing a mellow light upon the earth. The skies relent, assume a softer warmer grey, which slowly turns to azure blue. The rosy glow spreads abroad over the whole cloud-strewn east. Stretching up high into the sky it impinges on the heavy grey folds of slow moving clouds, and a glistening raiment of snowy white, [seven indecipherable words] at the upper edge [four indecipherable words] sheds its pearly glow. Slowly the golden orb uprises till with a silent bound it springs into full life above the billowy coverlet.
- written at Jervis Bay in July 1915