Women’s voices from WWI are often either overlooked or stereotyped – the ever cheerful VADs and Nurses at the front, the stoic, patriotic wives and mothers waiting patiently at home – or were dismissed at the time by those who fought as sentimental and lacking in understanding (Mr Sassoon, I’m looking at you here, with your ‘Glory of Women’). This was, and is, especially true when it comes to WWI poetry written by women – many of you will know Vera Brittain, and possibly Jessie Pope and Rose Macaulay but there are many other women who, with varing degrees of skill and competence but all with obvious sincerity, recorded their thoughts and feelings in verse. Catherine Reilly, in her book “Scars Upon My Heart” does her best to bring us as many as she can.
The anthology was first published in 1981 but it remains a favourite of mine, not just for the breadth of writing Catherine includes, but for the intelligent and insightful preface from Judith Kazantzis.
I’m going to share the three poems from the book that move me most, but I hope some of you will get hold of a copy (libraries are your best friend for this one) and read them all.
By Winifred M. Letts
You gave your life, boy,
And you gave a limb:
But he who gave his precious wits,
Say, what reward for him?
One has his glory,
One has found his rest,
But what of this poor babbler here
With chin sunk on his breast?
Flotsam of battle,
With brain bemused and dim,
O God, for such a sacrifice,
Say, what reward for him?
The mental damage war causes is still, often, overlooked today. Thus this bitter lament, or one very like it, could be spoken many families struggling to cope with PTSD today.
A Girl’s Song
By Katherine Tynan
The Meuse and Marne have little waves;
The slender poplars o’er them lean.
One day they will forget the graves
That give the grass its living green.
Some brown French girl the rose will wear
That springs above his comely head;
Will twine it in her russet hair,
Nor wonder why it is so red.
His blood is in the rose’s veins,
His hair is in the yellow corn.
My grief is in he weeping rains
And in the keening wind forlorn.
Flow softly, softly, Marne and Meuse;
Tread lightly all ye browsing sheep;
Fall tenderly, O silver dews,
For here my dear Love lies asleep.
The earth is on his sealed eyes,
The beauty marred that was my pride;
Would I were lying where lies,
And sleeping sweetly by his side!
The Spring will come by Meuse and Marne,
The birds be blithesome in the tree.
I heap the stone to make his cairn
Where many sleep as sound as he.
On many of the graves in the British cemeteries all across Belgium and northern France there are vibrant red roses growing. The image of the soldier’s blood giving them their shimmering life is one that will never leave me.
By Eleanor Farjeon
I am as awful as my brother War,
I am the sudden silence after clamour.
I am the face that shows the seamy scar
When blood has lost its frenzy and its glamour.
Men in my pause shall know the cost at last
That is not to be paid in triumphs or tears,
Men will begin to judge the thing that’s past
As men will judge it in a hundred years.
Nations! Whose ravenous engine must be fed
Endlessly with the father and the son,
My naked light upon your darkness, dread! –
By which ye shall behold what ye have done:
Whereon, more like a vulture than a dove,
Ye set my seal in hatred, not in love.
Let no man call me good. I am not blest.
My single virtue is the end of crimes,
I only am the period of unrest,
The ceasing of the horrors of the times;
My good is but the negative of ill,
Such ill as bend the spirit with despair,
Such ill as makes the nations’ soul stand still
And freeze to stone beneath its Gorgon glare.
Be blunt, and say that peace is but a state
Wherein the active soul is free to move,
And nations only show as mean or great
According to the spirit then they prove. –
O which of ye whose battle-cry is Hate
Will first in peace dare shout the name of Love?
This clearly points to the hypocrisies of war, especially a war that was often touted as the one that would bring everlasting peace. There a pain in these words that strikes to my core and I can only imagine what cause her to feel that way.