Friday, October 24, 2014

Crafty Women and the Great War





The poetry of World War I often caricatures the women at home as naive jingoists: Sassoon’s poem “The Glory of Women” says, “You worship decorations; you believe/That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace,” and an early draft of Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.”), is dedicated to Jessie Pope, best known for her poem that encourages enlistment, “The Call”:  Who’s for the trench--/Are you, my laddie?/Who’ll follow French--/Will you, my laddie?/Who’s fretting to begin,/Who’s going out to win?/And who wants to save his skin--/Do you, my laddie?

Because women experienced the war vastly differently from the men in the trenches, however, it surely does not mean that their lives were unaffected.  In fact, there was one aspect of the war that both men at the front and women at home shared:  The Great War was made up of vast stretches of tedious and tense waiting.    

While the deafening sound of shelling and gunfire was the constant background music to life in the trenches, the clickety-clack of knitting needles played quietly underneath the daily life of the women who waited, in public places like church and tearooms, as well as at home by the fireside. 
There are many excellent blog posts and on-line resources on women’s knitting during WWI, but I particularly enjoy Jane Tynan’s insights shared on the University of Oxford’s blog “World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings” as her comments complicate the view of women expressed by well-known male war poets: 

Wartime knitting may have had a feminine image, but it was not timid. What started as a response to small gaps in uniform supply became a mass knitting frenzy, which made government very nervous about the quirky, un-military garments reaching soldiers at the front.... Knitters were doing what the army could not: making a creative intervention in a difficult situation. The problem was that the success of mass war knitting projects highlighted army failures. 

Knitters were not necessarily conservative. They sought to bring some humanity to a brutal and unpredictable war. On one hand, the mobility of knitting made it the perfect symbol of civilian enthusiasm for the war effort. On the other, when the passion to knit comforts brimmed over, it threatened to become an anti-establishment protest. The sheer scale of the effort, its anarchic spread nationally and internationally, gave wartime knitting political potential, with parallels in the craftist projects of today.

To send something personal, and lovingly homemade, to a relative in real mortal danger, gave knitters the satisfaction of making a direct intervention, but crafting such personal items also meant contemplating fear and loss. This was not what the authorities wanted. Wartime knitting was supposed to be cheerful and optimistic, not dark and ponderous.

I attended a reading of women’s war poetry where Violet Gillespie’s “Portrait of a Mother” was shared.  During the event, I jotted down the title, but it was nearly impossible to find the poem, as it has simply disappeared, another lost voice of the Great War.  Published in Poetry Review in 1918, it seems to have last appeared in 1919 in The Malory Verse book, an American poetry anthology “for school and general use.”  I’ll let the poem speak for itself and respond to the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon: 


Portrait of a Mother by Violet Gillespie

Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire and knit again.
And oh, my son, my only son,
I think of you in wind and rain,
In rain and wind, 'neath fire and shell,
Going along the road to hell
On earth in wind and rain.
My little son, my only son . . .
Knit two and purl one ;
Stir the fire and knit again.
 
Knit two and purl one ;
Knit again and stir the fire.
And oh, my son, my only son,
I work for you and never tire ;
I never tire, but work and pray
Every hour of night and day.
Awake, asleep, I never tire,
My little son, my only son . . .
Knit two and purl one ;
Knit again and stir the fire.

Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire and knit again.
And oh, my son, for another’s son
My hands are working. The wind and rain
Are shrill without.  But you are gone
To a quiet land.  I shall come anon
And find you, out of this wind and rain;
But I’m working now for another’s son,
Knit two and purl one;
Stir the fire and knit again. 

3 comments:

  1. Such a moving, heartbreaking poem.

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  2. Thanks for tracking this down, really interesting!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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