Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Picnic July 1917

On the Cliffs (1917), Dame Laura Knight
By the time the First World War ended in November of 1918, an estimated 80,000 men serving in the British Army had been treated for shell shock, and the number of actual sufferers was undoubtedly much higher.*

Rose Macaulay’s 1916 novel, Non-combatants and Others, vividly relates the psychological impact of the war on both soldiers and civilians. It tells the story of Alix, a young art student who becomes suddenly and violently ill after witnessing the night terrors of a shell-shocked soldier. Lying awake, Alix is tortured by the memory of the man’s moans and sobs:

 “‘What they can bear to go through…. But they can’t, they can’t, they can’t … we can bear to hear about … but we can’t, we can’t, we can’t….’ It was like the intolerable ticking of a clock, and beat itself away at last into a sick dream.”**

In her Poem “Picnic,” written a year after the novel’s publication, Macaulay provides another memorable depiction of the ways in which civilians attempted to cope with the mental sufferings of the war.    

July 1917

We lay and ate sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.
A Battery Shelled, Percy Wyndham Lewis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2747) 

Behind us climbed the Surrey Hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.

And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet …
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.

We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
“They sound clear to-day.”

We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, “If the wind’s from over there
Crashed Aeroplane,  John Singer Sargent
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1610) 
There’ll be rain tonight.”

Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.

But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away.
Dreams within dreams.

And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.

We are shut about by guarding walls:
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done.)

We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
Runner through the Barrage,
His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone
by American artist Claggett Wilson
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.

Oh guns of France, oh, guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain….
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain, …

Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain….
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.

Oh we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break … .should break….
                                    —Rose Macaulay

Under the surface of the poem’s calm, pastoral mood is the excruciating effort required to keep the horrors of the war at bay. While the picnickers seek to distance themselves from the war, images in the poem undercut these attempts and repeatedly draw connections between soldiers and civilians.

Like soldiers, the women lie on the ground and feast on pain. Hurt Wood is an actual location in rural Surrey, and hurt berries is a folk term used for whortleberries, but both names are suggestive of the dead and wounded of the Great War. Yet unlike the soldiers amidst the desolate barrenness of the Western Front, the women are surrounded by lush greenery and the quietude of rural England, broken only by the sounds of muffled artillery fire.

The war assumes a dream-like quality, and prolonged exposure to the traumas of war have normalized what was previously unimaginable.  The sound of gunfire no longer inspires fear or pity in the women, but instead prompts composed comments on the wind direction and weather.  

The soldiers and the civilians also share the experience of powerless vulnerability. The men wait to die; the women wait to learn of their deaths. Both have learned that uncontrolled emotions can lead to madness, and so they distance themselves from the central reality of their lives in order to remain sane. 

American sheet music, 1917
Secluded behind "guarding walls" that shield them from the real world, the women are confined to a fairy tale world where they play the role of Sleeping Beauty. The walls are high and impenetrable, constructed by government propaganda, newspapers’ false optimism, and the women’s own mental efforts to avoid listening to or looking at the war and the “black things done” there.  

“Picnic, July 1917” resonates with other women’s war poetry: Katherine Mansfield’s elegy for her dead brother, “To L.H.B,” written in 1916, also mixes imagery of dreams and wild berries, as her brother waits for her beside a stream, extending a handful of fruit and saying “These are my body. Sister, take and eat.” In both poems, the war has distorted the pastoral landscape into something alien and threatening. In “The Dancers,” Edith Sitwell also examines the ways in which ordinary pleasures and activities on the home front appear callous and grotesque when contrasted to the nightmare of the ongoing war: “The floors are slippery with blood….We can still dance, each night.” 

Both Sitwell’s and Macaulay’s poems explore the dilemma women faced in dealing with war trauma: patriotism and support for the men at the front seemed to demand the stoic continuation of daily life, but the pretense of normalcy often gave the impression of selfishness, ignorance, and insensitivity.† As Grogan asks in Shell-Shocked Britain, “How far can the term [shell-shocked] be applied not just to the soldiers on the front line, but to the country as a whole?  To the communities those soldiers belonged to and the families who had to live through four years of ever more desperate warfare?”††


* Suzie Grogan, Shell Shocked Britain. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2014, p. 2.
**Rose Macaulay, Non-combatants and Others.  London: Methuen, 1986, p. 19.
†See Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Glory of Women.”
††Grogan, p. 5.

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