Timothy Corsellis

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Timothy Corsellis
Timothy John Manley Corsellis.jpg
Corsellis in 1938
BornTimothy John Manley Corsellis
(1921-01-27)27 January 1921
Eltham, London, England
Died10 October 1941(1941-10-10) (aged 20)
Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland
Resting placeOxford Crematorium
OccupationAir raid warden then a pilot with Air Transport Auxiliary (Service Number 625)
EducationSt. Clare Preparatory School, Walmer, Kent
Alma mater Winchester College

Timothy Corsellis (27 January 1921 – 10 October 1941) was an English poet of World War II.


Early life

Timothy John Manley Corsellis was born on 27 January 1921 in Eltham, London, the third of the four children of Helen (née Bendall) and Douglas Corsellis. [1] His father had lost a fore-arm at Gallipoli, but went on to become a prosperous barrister and learnt to fly his own light aircraft. Timothy went to St. Clare preparatory school in Walmer, Kent, where John Magee, the author of "High Flight" was a contemporary and Henry Bentinck became a friend. After his father's death in an air crash in 1930, Timothy was sent to Winchester College, where he contributed poems to the school magazine and fenced. [2]

Leaving school to start work as an articled clerk in the Town Clerk's office in Wandsworth, he divided his evenings between work as a resident volunteer at the Crown and Manor Club, [3] a Winchester College Settlement in Hoxton, East London and entertainment in Fitzrovia, where he earned money for drinks by "conjuring", a talent which earned him the right of entry into the exclusive Magic Circle.

Wartime experience

Strongly marked by the failure of the Munich Agreement, Corsellis registered in April 1939 as a conscientious objector on religious grounds. When war broke out he became an ARP warden. [4] After Dunkirk, he volunteered for training as a fighter pilot. His initial training in Torquay and Carlisle [5] did not prepare him for his assignment to Bomber Command, an assignment which in January 1941 he refused, on the grounds that his conscience would not permit him to take part in the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. [6] His request to join Fighter Command was met with an honourable discharge from the RAF and his application to join the Fleet Air Arm was ignored, but he was accepted by the Air Transport Auxiliary, which ferried aircraft from factory to operational squadrons. From January to July 1941, at the height of the Blitz, he worked as a full-time ARP warden, and then he began his ATA training at White Waltham in August 1941. On 10 October 1941, the aircraft Corsellis was flying stalled and crashed over Annan in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. [7] He was 20 years old. [8]

Literary life

At the time of his death Corsellis was just beginning to break into London literary circles, and in death he was not forgotten. Keidrych Rhys [9] and Patricia Ledward [10] wrote elegies for him, and included some of his poems in their anthologies, Poems from the Forces, [11] ' More Poems from the Forces [12] and Poems of This War by Younger Poets. [13] As John Sutherland [14] recounts, Stephen Spender, for whom Corsellis had found war work in Wandsworth, was haunted by his sudden disappearance, and his penultimate poem, dated 1941/1995 was dedicated to "Timothy Corsellis". [15] The American anthologist Oscar Williams championed his work, [16] and an American poet and former war pilot, Simon Perchik, has paid him tribute. [17] In 2004 the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography took a first step in establishing a literary canon of World War 2 poets by including nine: Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, Gavin Ewart, Roy Fuller, John Pudney, Henry Reed, Frank Thompson and Corsellis. Ronald Blythe wrote a moving account of his life for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , [18] while critics as well known as Andrew Sinclair [19] and D.S.R. Welland [20] have singled out his work.

In 2012, Helen Goethals's The Unassuming Sky: The Life and Poetry of Timothy Corsellis [21] made available for the first time a hundred of his poems, arranged to bring out their "unique literary and historical interest". Two reviews put them into context: those of Martyn Halsall in the Church Times [22] – "This study assists the debate on war poetry from 1939 to 1945" – and Ralph Townsend in The Trusty Servant [23] – "The place of Corsellis among the Second War poets of England is established in the anthologies. Here additional poems ... which have not before gone into print present him as an example of a young man whose education led him to take an independent moral view of things ...".

In 2014, the introduction to a War Words poetry reading by Andrew Eaton stated that "The First and Second World Wars inspired gifted writers from Wilfred Owen to Timothy Corsellis to commit to paper their personal wartime narratives. These texts, often graphic and harrowing, have gone on to become parts of the world's cultural fabric.". [24]

Also in 2014 the Poetry Society, supported by the War Poets Association and the Imperial War Museums, launched its Timothy Corsellis Prize Competition for a poem responding to the Second World War. This was directed at young poets all over the world aged 14–25, and was for a poem responding to the life and/or work of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed or Timothy Corsellis, with a short comment (300 words) explaining how the competitor responded to one or more of them. The competition will be repeated annually for at least 5 years. [25]

Excerpts from poems

When I was a civilian I hoped high
Dreamt my future cartwheels in the sky
Almost forgot to arm myself
Against the boredom and the inefficiency
The petty injustice and the everlasting grudges
The sacrifice is greater than I ever expected.

from "What I never saw" (January 24, 1941)

Under this pile of fallen masonry
Under those spillikins of beams
Where number thirty two lies shattered
There may be a body
For there may be a body.

Distorted corpse once breathed slum air
Lived in the grey dust where it died;
Is it for this that bending we strived
And fought in other's blood and other's sorrow
To reach these wretched mangled remains?
Is it for this that we ached in the darkness
Not knowing that nearby
Another house had fallen
To the blast of that same bomb.
Sweat fell, we were not the strong and young
They were out training, preparing,
We are the best of those remaining
We are the mellow and the hardened
And though our backs are hard of bending
Under aloofness our souls bend rending
The sorrow out of the bereaved father's breast
Tearing it out and holding it in our own hands
Adopting it to our own bodies
Caring for the children we had never seen

Sometimes we pray to be hardened and callous
But God turns a deaf ear
And we know hate and sorrow,
And we do not mind dying tomorrow.

from "Dawn after the raid" (April 20, 1941)

I will not sing the song of others
In other people's words;
I will not see the world of others
Through other people's eyes.
But blue, far into space,
I'll hurl my judgment of the human race
Upwards to the unassuming sky,
Farther than any bird can fly.

from "It is not you, pale lonely star" (August 22, 1941)

And for the gifts that you can proffer
Hope and love and power and pride
Take from me all I can offer
Weakness and some words beside.

from "The gifts" (August 28, 1941)


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  1. "Timothy John Manley Corsellis". Webrarian. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  2. Goethals, Helen (2012). The Unassuming Sky: The Life and Poetry of Timothy Corsellis (PDF). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 5–19. ISBN   978-1-4438-3975-4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  3. Leslie, Ian. "History of the Crown and Manor Club". online extract from a unpublished memoir. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  4. Williams, Oscar (1945). The War Poets (PDF). New York: John Day Company. p. 466.
  5. Fussell, Paul (1989). Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War . Oxford University Press. pp.  79–80.
  6. Ferrar, Marcus (20 December 2011). "Timothy Corsellis – a war poet's struggle with conscience" . Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  7. "A.T.A. Casualties". The RAF Lichfield Association. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  8. Connell, Tim (8 July 2011). "Review of Mervyn Peake". Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  9. Rhys, Keidrych (1942). The Van Pool and Other Poems. Routledge. p. 33.
  10. Colin Strang and, Patricia Ledward (1947). Retrospect 1939–1942. Falcon Press. pp. 42–44.
  11. Rhys, Keidrych (1941). Poems from the Forces. Routledge. pp. 11–17.
  12. Rhys, Keidrych (1942). More Poems from the Forces. Routledge. pp. 52–60.
  13. Colin Strang and, Patricia Ledward (1942). Poems of this War by Younger Poets. Cambridge University Press.
  14. Sutherland, John (2004). Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography. Viking. pp. 560–561. ISBN   9780195346381.
  15. Spender, Stephen (2004). New Collected Poems. Faber and Faber. p. 373. ISBN   9780571222797.
  16. Williams, Oscar (1945). The War Poets: An Anthology of the War Poetry of the Twentieth Century. New York: John Day Company. pp. 3, 4, 8.
  17. Perchik, Simon (2008). Hands Collected. Columbus: Pavement Saw Press. p. 81. ISBN   9781886350861.
  18. Blythe, Ronald. "Timothy Corsellis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 14 July 2012.
  19. Sinclair, Andrew (1989). The War Decade. Hamish Hamilton. pp. 48–9, 109–111, 227. ISBN   9780241125670.
  20. Welland, D.S.R. (1987). The United States: A Companion to American Studies. Taylor and Francis. p. 314. ISBN   9780416281507.
  21. Goethals, Helen (2012). The Unassuming Sky: The Life and Poetry of Timothy Corsellis (PDF). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN   978-1-4438-3975-4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  22. Halsall, Martyn (21 December 2012). "Poet of Blitz and Home Front". Church Times. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  23. Townsend, Ralph (November 2012). "Book review". The Trusty Servant: 19–21. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  24. "War Words: poetry inspired by the First and Second World Wars". PRONI, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Retrieved 25 August 2014.
  25. "The First Annual Timothy Corsellis Prize". Poetry Society. Retrieved 25 August 2014.