“Poetry never saved a single Jew from Auschwitz.”
So said an elderly Professor of Biology, at a meeting of the Debating Society I attended in my student days. At the time, I was following a degree course in English Literature so the words, which for all their dogmatism had been mildly uttered, stung me with the force of a calculated insult. I was on my feet in an instant to refute them.
“How do you know? How can you be sure?” I demanded, certain the House would back me as I championed the civilising power of the literary arts against scientific Philistinism.
But the venerable, charming old man, proved a cunning and tenacious opponent. At exactly the right point in his argument, and showing commendable restraint, he revealed that he had been orphaned in the Nazi era. His father had perished quickly and heroically, defending some ghetto in eastern Europe; his mother, following deportation, was murdered in the Gas Chamber of a minor Death Camp. He himself was the only one of the family still alive when the liberating allies finally arrived.
“The inmates had a secret orchestra,” he wound up. “And a poetry society. And the Commandant was a literary man. I believe he never lay down to rest after his day’s work, without reading a passage of Goethe……., or Shakespeare.” He resisted the temptation to employ the usual orator’s trick of ending with a rousing flourish. Instead his voice dropped almost to a whisper as he resumed his seat.
Noting the solemn hush he had conjured in the auditorium, and the wild applause that followed it, I felt the force of the argument swing away from me. In the end I had no hypothesis sufficiently robust to face down his appalling personal experience.
The votes were counted. The Union consigned Poetry to the dustbin, along with dying for one’s country, fox hunting, belief in God, and countless other perceived Establishment causes-célèbres. I gathered my notes, shook a few proffered hands and left the floor.
Knocked down I certainly was, but not knocked out. Time and again I re-played that debate in my head, hoping, I suppose, to hit on some previously overlooked flaw in my adversary’s method that I could turn to my account, leaving him confounded, and myself in command of the hearts and minds. Eventually – inevitably, my perseverance was rewarded with what seemed like a winning formula.
My thought processes are at their most inventive in the early morning. In that silent, limbo period, long before the alarm clock’s shrill summons, images, impressions, flights of fancy have free rein. I lie awake, watching pale light filtering between curtain edge and window frame. Softly, the bed below me, the dull outlines of furniture, the shapes of discarded garments seem to disintegrate and I float unencumbered by reason’s baggage. Troubling issues, insoluble problems are turned over in a free thought flow, emerging clarified.
In this mode I see answers. And in one such interval my imagination fathered a kind of vision, about a life spared, because of ... poetry.
* * *
I saw a city – anywhere, nowhere – and a man on the run. He stepped into being under the livid orange glow of a street lamp, turning up his collar against an invading ooze of fine, clinging rain seeping from a starless sky. He was in the wrong part of town, and it was very late.
In this city people had put up walls to keep his sort separate from their neighbours. His own “turf” was clearly marked. How had he come to miss the way? It had been no calculated act of defiance: a shortcut over a patch of waste land, a perilous stumble through the brick-littered ground floor of a derelict house, a missed turn and here he was amid gathering darkness, in an unfamiliar avenue of squat terraced houses.
He kept walking. Somewhere he had read that the person who steps out confidently is less likely to become a victim than the nervous, hunted-animal type. A woman passed, glancing at him. Curiosity, or a hostile stare?
His aim now was to find his way back to the patch of No Man's Land where he had unwittingly crossed over. But he had lost his bearings and knew he might pay dearly for it. Most of all he dreaded falling into the clutches of the Death Squads: watching thugs who roamed the city's internal "border" areas, on the hunt for strays like himself.
He pressed on past unlit windows that seemed like blank, pitiless eyes, thankful that at least there were no more passers-by. Gradually his nerves steadied, his sense of vulnerability eased. Who could think him anything other than a resident hurrying home out of the wet?
Without warning, three men stepped from a doorway into his path. He didn’t wait for their challenge. As he broke into a run he heard a gun cocked and the crack of a bullet. It ripped through his jacket without touching flesh, its acrid burning smell stinging his nostrils. He hit the ground, desperate to avoid further shots, rolled over, then was up and away in an instant. The darkness of an entry beckoned. Instinctively he plunged down it.
“Roun’ the back!” he heard them shouting. One would remain in the street while the others tore in his wake to catch him in the narrow passageway behind the houses. He had one hope, a desperate one: he knew not everybody supported the killings.
He flung himself over a high yard wall breaking his fall on a coal heap. The damp dust he had disturbed streaked his face and hands, choked and tickled his windpipe, until he feared a cough he couldn’t stifle might betray him. On his feet once more, fumbling past the outside lavatory, he listened to the baying of his pursuers, just feet away.
“I thought I hit him.”
“Start searchin’ the yards!”
That was enough. This was his only chance. He crept to the back wall of the house whose territory he had breached, and reached out to the kitchen window. Faintly, he tapped on it, praying someone would be inside and awake. He knew he was handing the occupant the power of life or death over him.
Someone dragged open the heavy door – a girl. Her face was tense, but she betrayed no surprise.
“I heard the shot,” she told him. “Get up the stairs and keep quiet.” In the kitchen the dripping of a tap struck him as unnaturally loud. He passed on, through the dark parlour and up the narrow stairway to the two bedrooms above. One door was closed. The other, her room, he entered.
Within seconds he heard the knock on the back door. Had she trapped him for them? He listened for their feet tramping through the house and pounding on the stairs.
But no sound came. Drained, he sank down on the narrow bed, too shaken to concern himself about leaving on her sheets the evidence of his recent close acquaintance with the coal heap. She had been reading by the light of a small study lamp when the shot disturbed her – a book of poems. Her place was marked with a photograph.
In the aftershock of his brush with death his body wilted like a roadside plant crushed under a steam roller; he was loth to move. Despite this, curiosity to understand the woman who had opened her door to such a hunted stranger as himself, prompted him to reach for the book. He removed the photograph, bent back the soft spine, and took in the words. They recorded a hatred and a conflict as old as the one in which he found himself. She had underlined the last verse:
When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, How long till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother’s curse? 
The picture, marked “Mum and Dad”, was of poor quality. A tall man, straight-backed, stared hard at the camera. The youngish woman leaning on his arm, as if in need of the support, was thin enough to seem bordering on emaciation. It was a black and white photograph, very small, a d.i.y. job, and over-exposed. The smiles had a forced look. This was not a happy family snap. Beyond that it was impossible to discern much about the personalities of the pair.
A soft footfall caused him to start nervously. He looked up. The girl was at the bedroom doorway. When she spoke her voice was flat, unemotional.
“They wanted to know if I’d heard anythin’ in the yard. You’ll have to stay quiet here a few days until they give up lookin’ for you.” Then she paused and, softly, to herself as much as to him, said, “They won’t suspect me of helpin’ you.”
“You know them then?” There was surely a story here. A tale connecting the girl, the poem and the photograph.
“Friends of my father’s”, she said briefly. “He died… last year. My mother had been ill for years – nerves, you know. She followed him soon after.”
There was a long pause while he took this in. He didn’t dare to ask the question that had formed in his head.
Wearily, she raised both hands to push her long, curling auburn hair back from her temples.
“You can sleep here. I’ll be across the landing. Put out the light.”
His breathing eased, as obediently he lay down in the bed warmed for him by the daughter of a murdered Death Squad commander.
* * *
And so my meditation ended. I had seen all I needed to. I knew that some days later he would slip from her front door in the early evening, find the crossing place and fade away into his own territory. They would not meet again, but he would take with him the memory of a troubled, lonely girl, and the fragment of verse that had saved his life.
A neat, satisfactory conclusion, surely. Good enough to wrest the laurels from my elderly professor. Like a movie director re-taking an awkward scene, I let the action roll in my head. In this version, as my delivery closed, the House rose, applauding, cheering in adulation. This time my opponent, after a brief handshake, was first to step down from the dais. The camera that was my mind’s eye swung away from the cheering ranks of my peers, to follow his retreating, dwindling back. The shouts faded into the background. I opened my mouth to recall him, but my tongue was dry.
As I focused on the old man’s stooping, diminished figure, I seemed to see him for the first time – bereft, haunted, cheated now even of the dignity of victory. Abruptly, my absurd mood of self-congratulation shattered. Grief was clutching at my heart – for his loss … and for all the lost ...
Winning the argument wasn’t important.
 A Shropshire Lad, A.E.Houseman.