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A Love for England: The White Cliffs of Dover

Joan loved England all her life.  She first visited there with my dad, Bob, in 1951, and continued to travel there until 2004, when my husband, children, and I lived there for a year.

She first came to love England through literature, which is, I suppose, how many of us come to love a culture and a people.

Here she is at age 14, writing about the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II’s father.

Wednesday, May 12, 1937

This day is the 12th of May in the year 1937 and it was Coronation Day. I woke up at five o’clock, turned off the alarm, awoke again at six and listened to the actual coronation. I bundled up in all my blankets, leaving one ear out, and sat on the sofa listening.

Joan's doodle of her listening to the coronation on the radio under blankets
Joan’s doodle of her listening to the coronation on the radio under blankets

I heard George pronounced and anointed King and Elizabeth queen.[1] Wonder what Edward VIII who abdicated is thinking tonight. When they sang “God Save the King,” while I was putting on my stocking, I simply listened like a loyal Englishwoman. I would have even stood up, except for the cold and I couldn’t stand on one foot. I just sort of listened and thought of the peoples of all colors in all lands who were listening and wondered what they thought. (That shows what reading Kipling[2] can do—it’s made me a better Englishman than American.) Well, Coronation or no Coronation—there was school today. . . .

[1] These are the parents of Queen Elizabeth II.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, English poet who often described the colonies of the British Empire. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is famous for books such as The Jungle Book.

She writes about the famous White Cliffs of Dover in her poetry.

June 4, 1939                                                                                                  


                     While in Britain

                     The Druid columns crumble

                     And the white cliffs rust

                     Underneath the grass

                     A Roman centurion

                     Is becoming a tree.


                     By Severn’s stream

                     The Norseman’s

                     Ripe rich mold

                     Has long been

                     A bramble hedge.


                     Only where it is quiet

                     The most ancient of all,

                     The Brit,

                     Is a hill.


                     I, too, have a gift

                     See, I give this little girl

                     To the island

                     That it may become

                     An English flower.

This last stanza references Joan’s belief she gained from science class.  There she came to believe in the conservation of matter, where “all matter goes on forever. When I die, perhaps I shall lie in the cool earth, and grass and flowers and weeds will send their roots to find food in me—in my dead body—perhaps then useless to me. But useful to the flower root—the thin, sensitive white root hairs shall enter me and use me. And the flowers will grow. And a deer will eat the flower and a man will shoot the deer and his family eat the deer and I, I shall be in them all. And who shall know me then? Will all my secret atoms ever find their way together again to form the same cohesion that made me? Such is the conservation of matter and shall my soul too find a use? Or ever cling together with my original atoms again?—In the church I looked at the wood—the hard, varnished wood of the pew and I thought, “This was once springy wood through which the sap of life went up in spring.” Oh, is nothing ever lost? It gives you a secret everlasting feeling to know part of you at least will never be lost. . . .” (written age 16, January 15, 1939).

The White Cliff of Dover become a symbol for England itself, standing firm in the wake of the Nazi onslaught.

A 1944 film with the title, The White Cliffs of Dover, features Irene Dunne as a young woman visiting England before WWI.

Passionate embrace from The White Cliffs of Dover

Passionate embrace from The White Cliffs of Dover

She loves England – and those White Cliffs.

Poster for the 1944 film The White Cliffs of Dover, starring Irene Dunne and Alan Marshall

Poster for the 1944 film The White Cliffs of Dover, starring Irene Dunne and Alan Marshal

You can see a scene from the movie here.

“The White Cliffs of Dover” also became the iconic song of the WWII era, sung by Dame Vera Lynn.

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