Much of the poetry I found was written by women; there is hardly any need to state the sadly obvious reason for this. They were still alive, and they were still willing to take up their pens to add some postscripts to their war poems. There is much of the grief of bereavement in their writing, but also a notable amount of insight into the mutual bewilderment of all: the women – and the men who had come back.
May Wedderburn Cannan had volunteered as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) before the war, later working briefly at a troop canteen in France, and in 1918 for the War Office in Paris. She had been at her desk there when news of the Armistice came through and was able to write of the excitement and pain of that day. Almost a year later, it was a different scene. Her poem ‘Women Demobilised, July 1919’ captures a contrasting flatness then:
Now we must go back again to the world Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying, And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts, And Lovers’ crying – Back to the old, back to the empty world.
And though the fallen may sleep sound, women will never have that peace:
Now in our hearts abides always our war, Time brings, to us, no day for our forgetting, Never for us is folded War away, Dawn or sun setting, Now in our hearts abides always our war.
You can taste the demoralisation, the struggle to ‘get over’ the war. May had her own reason to find the world empty, as her fiancé, having survived the fighting, contracted the Spanish flu in February 1919 while still in Army service in Europe, and died. It is interesting to note that in her poems May does not specify that her fiancé died from disease rather than battle; she refers to him lying ‘over in Germany’. I do not in any way mean to denigrate his loss and her reaction, far from it. In fact, he was still on active service, and his name is on the war memorial in his hometown, but I do see an interesting conflation of the double scourge suffered by their generation. May’s collection The Splendid Days (1919) is full of heartbreak. Heartbreak for love lost, and for the loss of the future that was meant to be.
That terrible phrase ‘two million surplus women’ echoed flatly through the 1920s, through so many blighted lives. Widows had some status, and possibly the consolation of a family, but the ‘white widows’ – those who were only ever engaged or with merely ‘an understanding’ – were left with nothing at all. In several of her poems May Cannan talks of the girls who wish no more of life:
We were very young, we were very wise, For love is best; Beauty and youth we lost, and then our loves, (For Death took the best) And life is ours and all we ask is life's ending, To find them, and so have rest.
from ‘The Golden Age’
But May lived, and loved again, and had a family. Not all the women of that generation were as lucky. A much less likely poet, John Morrison Caie, Deputy Head of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland, gave vernacular voice to one of these many women without men – and without children – in his poem ‘The Spinster’. Her hair is ‘streakit wi’ grey’, and because the Kirk tells her to quell her anger at God, she hides her misery, but in the dark nights:
Fan the lang 'oors creep, it's than That I can see My bonny, my buirdly man An' his touzled bairns at my knee. His name's up there 'mang the deid I' the Castle Shrine, An' aneth it I seem tae read The name o' a blithesome young quine...
That is a thought – that memorials actually bear twice as many, four times as many names, when you count all the blighted lives . . .
Naomi Mitchison (whose husband survived) wrote as much in anger as sorrow, as in the final lines of her poem ‘Green Boughs’:
My young, dear friends are dead, All my own generation. Pity a youthless nation. Pity the girls unwed, Whose young lovers are dead. … But the old, the stupid had rule Over that eager nation, And all my own generation They have cast into the fire.
Naomi was perhaps ahead of her time, as befits her role as a political activist; the condemnation of those in authority is an attitude more commonly accepted today than it was then.
It is harder to think of Lady Margaret Sackville as an angry young woman in the same mould as Naomi Mitchison, but she was wholeheartedly a pacifist, and had published poems with a resolutely anti-war stance, adding to her fierce condemnation of military violence a gentle thread of sympathy for victims, and of reconciliation. In a remarkable poem published in The English Review in 1920 she wrote with much perspicacity on the difficulty of communication between former combatants and their loved ones.
‘The Women to the Men Returned’ expresses the deep divide in the first two lines:
You cannot speak to us nor we reply: You learnt a different language where men die …
And with insight a psychologist might struggle to express so well:
Now speech is vain, We cannot understand nor you explain Your passion and your anguish; we are deaf And blind to all save customary grief. How shall our foolish consolations reach Trouble which lies so deeper far than speech.
She goes on to ask forgiveness for women’s useless tears, patience and courage, recognising that while these things are laudable, they cannot close the gap:
Never such gulf divorced you from the foe As now divides us, for how may you tell What Hell is to us who only read of Hell?
The yawning gap of understanding there described is surely a perfect summary of the misery caused by what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even if not clinically apparent, the awful experiences endured by most servicemen must have dogged their rehabilitation into ordinary life and made so much more difficult the resumption of marital and family relationships.
Jean Guthrie-Smith writes more specifically of PTSD in her poem ‘The Soldier’s Wife’. Jean’s own husband had been wounded in the head at the Somme, so like the speaker in her poem, she must have awaited his return with trepidation as well as joy. The woman in the poem knows the fate of several of her neighbours:
… And two doors down the street, alone A woman lies, unreconciled To grief, whose heart beat like mine own; Whose love came back, yet came not, grown A stranger to her and her child. She only said he had ‘gone wild, Clean wild’: and with her life turned stone She watched this man, not hers, and smiled. ... And yet another tries to break Pain's barrier of silence, wears Her sorrow like a rose to shake To life his dead, dead laughter; cares For naught but this, to hear him make The old, dear jokes; yet cannot wake For all her eagerness and prayers The silent boy who stares and stares … I wait — and wonder while I wait. My lamps are lit, my door ajar; He nears, and yet he seems as far And further than he was of late. Like flower to flower and star to star Were we; and yet how strange things are To wait — and wonder while I wait!
Join Lizzie MacGregor next week for her final of three blog instalments to mark our November theme of War & Remembrance.
Throughout November we’re inviting our beloved Autumn Voices members to submit any short piece of writing about War & Remembrance. It should be no longer than 300 words and can take any form you wish. At the end of November, we’ll pick our favourite and the author will receive a copy of Codebreaking Sisters by Patricia and Jean Owtram. The publisher, Mirror Books has very kindly given us a copy to offer as a prize.
Entries are closed.
Winner announcement soon!