Friday, September 4, 2009

Spy Poems

On a recent visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., I saw a reference to a poem used as a code by the Allies during World War II. I was fascinated by the idea of poem-codes, so I looked it up. Recitation of the first line ['Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne'] of Paul Verlaine's Chanson d'Automne alerted the French Resistance that D-Day was approaching, and the second line ['Blessent mon coeur d'une languer monotone'] meant that the invasion was eminent within 48 hours.


But that wasn't the only code-poem from World War II, not by a long shot.

Knowing that previously published poems could be decoded by the enemy, England's chief cryptographer Leo Marks wrote original poems to be used as codes. This famous poem was used by spy Violette Szabo.

Violette Szabo

The Life That I Have
by Leo Marks

The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have,
Yet death will be but a pause,
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.


Richard Armitage, who has a beautiful voice, does a great job reading the poem in this video (it's only about 40 seconds, although there's music afterward).

Bit o' trivia: What did Mr. Marks think indicated a potential for code-breaking talent? An interest in music and an aptitude for crossword puzzles.

Leo Marks wrote a biography called Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945. You can read the first chapter here.

If you're interested in seeing a movie about Violette Szabo, there's Carve Her Name With Pride.

(This isn't about Ms. Szabo as far as I know, but there's also Female Agents -- which looks like an action thriller about French Resistance agents.)

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