Friday, May 29, 2015

May 1915: Like a divine surprise

By May of 1915, the war that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914 had dragged into its tenth month.  That spring, the horror of the first use of poison gas on the Western Front occurred in April, and the list of dead and wounded grew to staggering numbers following the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915), the 2nd Battle of Ypres (April 1915), the start of the Gallipoli campaign (April 1915), and the 2nd Battle of Artois (May - June 1915).  Charlotte Mew's poem "May 1915" provides a snapshot of that moment when both soldiers and those on the home front began to recognize that for this war, there was no end in sight.

Enjoy listening to Mew's "May 1915," read by Alexandra Burton.  The text of the poem appears below for those who wish to read along. 

May 1915 by Charlotte Mew

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the wounded trees
Wait with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun, and even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in their hands
Eyes in their eyes
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things
And changing skies.

The poem opens with an imperative command:  "remember Spring."  Speaking for the grieving  -- the widows, children, bereft mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and soldiers themselves – the poem points to the "scorched, blackened woods" as a visible reminder of the war's destruction, but also as an exemplar for responding to that destruction.   

The woods and the wounded are joined by the repeated alliterative w's that intertwine them both in the effort of waiting for healing and renewal.  The word "Wait" itself is capitalized and cut off from the "wounded trees" and the sense of line two by enjambment (when line endings separate words that work together to create meaningful phrases), highlighting both the importance of waiting as well as its isolating loneliness.   

"Solitude," Percy Smith
Three times the word "sure" is repeated in lines 4 and 5, underscoring the trees' faith in Nature and in God, sure that Spring will return, confident that the changing seasons will bring new growth and life, certain of the repeated miracle of nature's rebirth that is always a "divine surprise." 

The poem shifts its focus in line 5 and again in line 8, when the wounded trees are compared with humans who grieve, with "those who sit today with their great Dead" – the "us" of the first line.  The bereaved who clasp the hands of the fallen, who stare into their eyes ("hands in their hands/Eyes in their eyes") are one'd with the "great Dead," united with Love and with Grief.  These are mourners who have lost themselves because of the ways in which they are intimately joined to those who have died.  In this world of loss, the mourners exist in a place where time itself seems to have stopped.   They are blind to the fragments of life that surround them in their brokenness, unable to see or believe that anything will change. 

While the first half of the poem looks to the promise of Spring, its second half is blunt and unsparing in describing the mindlessness of grief.  Yet even these last lines hold out hope for the future, looking ahead to "when God shall please," when regeneration will arise even out of the blasted brokenness of the war. 

Charlotte Mary Mew
Tim Kendall, editor of Poetry of the First World War, has called Charlotte Mary Mew "scandalously underappreciated" as a poet.  Admired by other writers such as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and Siegfried Sassoon, Mew writes of sorrow with both honesty and grace.  

The tone of "May 1915" speaks like the comforting touch of a friend's hand on a shoulder, offering the greatest gift of sympathy: a patient willingness to walk alongside in the anguish, no matter how long it lasts.    


  1. Going to comment here, if I can. I agree with many of the points, but here are my thoughts. In the first 5 lines, the word "Sure" is a fact to the trees. But then the word "Surely," is not a fact, but a hope for the future. The line"Surely, the Spring, when God shall please,"contains two conditional events (in my reading) both the "Surely" and the "When God shall please," because here we are in the middle of a terrible war, and what is God doing about it? Just sitting there deciding when or if to intervene? Will Spring ever be a "divine surprise" to the bereaved? I am feeling great doubt here.The trees will recover, but the dead will not come back. The last 4 lines are so heavy; simpler than the preceding lines (fewer adjectives) and a blunter tone. "Heavenly" and "healing" are replaced with "scattered" and "changing." Why is the word "hands" put immediately after "great Dead," on the same line? In my mind, it describes the leaden feel of death, perhaps dead hands, dead eyes of grief of both the dead and living? So, for me, this poem is much darker, although I agree with many of your points.

  2. Carol, I really enjoyed your reading and its focus on doubt and uncertainty. The repetition of "sure" and "surely" -- are they affirmations or instances of protesting too much (asserting a hope that one cannot believe)? Your rich insights and thoughtful interpretation is sincerely valued and appreciated, and I agree that the darkness of the second half of the poem calls into question the hopefulness of the poem's start.

  3. This is a wonderful exchange and a gorgeous poem. I love what's been said here and would only add that sure contains a suggestion or implies a steadiness and certainty (the r sounds at the end support that), surely is so lyric almost like a prayer but wistfully so -- hope is coupled with divinity, not a human trait but one bestowed by God. This makes me think of Emily Dickinson's hope being a thing with feathers -- also a suggestion of something beyond human experience or understanding--there is a suggestion of reverence for me at the end a rising up in sound with skies that leaves me on a hopeful note. Connie this poem is enigmatic in the best sense. Thank you so much for posting and thank you Carol for your thoughtful comments--they deepened my engagement. It's a poem I'll return to.

  4. Thank you both. I will also return to the poem and to Mews.

  5. Tess -- ah, your attention to the wistful sounds of the lines is beautiful, as is the comparison with Emily Dickinson's work. I do love enigmatic women writers -- including you! Your poetry cracks open the world .... so that hope, like a thing with feathers, can escape and soar. For others reading this who don't know of Tess's poetry, you're in for a treat!