"" Behind Their Lines

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Forgotten deeds of grace in wartime

Thomas Hardy by Jacques-Emile Blanche
1906 Tate N03580 10
In 1917, the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy published a poetry collection titled Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verse. Sixteen of the final poems in that collection appear under the subtitle “Poems of War and Patriotism.” Hardy was seventy-four when the First World War broke out, and his poetry expresses his ambivalence about the conflict. He celebrated the “faith and fire” of the “Men Who March Away,” mourned for the Belgium refugees fleeing “ravaged roof, and smouldering gable-end,” but wrote bitterly of national and political interests that had plunged the world into total war. 

Often When Warring

Often when warring for he wist not what,
An enemy-soldier, passing by one weak,
Has tendered water, wiped the burning cheek,
And cooled the lips so black and clammed and hot;

Then gone his way, and maybe quite forgot
The deed of grace amid the roar and reek;
Yet larger vision than the tongue can speak
He there has reached, although he has known it not.

For natural mindsight, triumphing in the act
Over the throes of artificial rage,
Has thereby muffled victory’s peal of pride,
Rended to ribands policy’s specious page
That deals but with evasion, code, and pact,
And war's apology wholly stultified.

—Thomas Hardy (from Moments of Vision)

Hardy’s poem contrasts one soldier’s simple act of mercy with the “artificial rage” that governments stir up as they send men to kill one another.  The poem argues that care for a suffering enemy is the “natural mindset,” which exposes the insincere concern for others that is used to justify power-hungry leaders’ codes, pacts, and dissembling policies. 

In Hardy’s vision of the battlefield, soldiers may not understand why they have been tasked to kill, yet often they instinctively feel compassion for others caught up in the same maelstrom. The selfless “deed of grace amid the roar and reek” demonstrates a “larger vision than the tongue can speak.” The act of offering water to a wounded enemy speaks louder than the shrill language of propaganda that calls men to arms.  

In the fall of 1916, Hardy visited “the large camp of some 5000 German prisoners in Dorchester” and the nearby “the English wounded in hospital.” Following the visit, he commented, 

At the German prisoners’ camp, including the hospital, operating room, etc., were many sufferers. One Prussian, in much pain, died whilst I was with him—to my great relief, and his own. Men lie helpless here from wounds: in the hospital a hundred yards off other men, English, lie helpless from wounds—each scene of suffering caused by the other!*

In February of 1917, Hardy wrote to the Secretary of the Royal Society of Literature, 

...nothing effectual will be accomplished in the cause of Peace till the sentiment of Patriotism be freed from the narrow meaning attached to it in the past (still upheld by Junkers and Jingoists) and be extended to the whole globe. On the other hand, that the sentiment of Foreignness—if the sense of a contrast be really rhetorically necessary—attach only to other planets and their inhabitants, if any. I may add that I have been writing in advocacy of those views for the last twenty years.**

* Florence Emily Hardy, Later Years of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, 1930, p. 173.
** Florence Emily Hardy, Later Years of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, 1930, p. 174.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

A Strong Man's Agony

 Readers may be familiar with the poem “Villanelle” that Roland Leighton wrote for Vera Brittain in April 1915 before the couple became engaged in August of that year: “Violets from Plug Street Wood, / Sweet, I send you oversea.” But Leighton wrote other war poems that deserve a wider audience. After his death, when his family went through Roland’s returned kit in January of 1916, they found his “private exercise book...containing some poems...in various stages of completeness, mostly written in pencil.”* Vera Brittain remarks in a letter to her brother that many of these poems Roland had apparently “never shown anybody.”*

Roland Leighton © 


Love have I known, and dawn and gold of day-time,
And winds and songs and all the joys that are
Known once, and as a child that tires with play-time,
Leaped from them to the elemental dust of War.

I have seen blood and death, but all has ending,
And even Horror is but made to cease;
I am sickened with Love that lives only for lending,
And all the loathsome pettiness of peace.

Give me, God of Battles, a field of death,
A Hill of Fire, a strong man’s agony...
    —Roland Leighton

The unfinished poem may pose more questions than it answers, but they are good questions.

How are love and war related? The opening line of the poem situates love in the past, in a previous “gold of day-time” when songs and simple joys were woven through the fabric of everyday life. But then the speaker “Leaped from them to the elemental dust of War,” leaving behind childlike things for the desert wastelands of the Western Front. There would be no going back. 

In the second stanza, the speaker writes with first-hand experience of blood, death, and Horror. He is now “sickened with Love that lives only for lending”—perhaps because he has learned that love cannot last, that nothing can survive the war. Even peace is loathsome and petty, for when it comes, it will disappoint. The poem suggests that when the horrors of war cease—whether in the peace of the grave or an armistice agreement—all that was beautiful and whole will have died. In war and its aftermath, love is only for the lending—ephemeral and transient. 

How are faith and war related? The final, unfinished stanza of the poem is a prayer, but it does not address God as Father, Saviour, or Comforter. This prayer is addressed to the God of Battles, and it asks for neither protection or comfort, but for “a field of death, / A Hill of Fire, a strong man’s agony.” In these lines, might Leighton, like Julian Grenfell in his poem “Into Battle,” be claiming that fighting and dying in battle are what give life purpose and meaning? Or do these lines ask simply for strength to endure the agony and death that almost certainly await?  If this is the case, the poem comes nearer to the spirit of “Before Action,” written by William Noel Hodgson in late June of 1916 as he prepared for the first day’s attack at the Somme. 

How does war change a person? One scholar states that the poem is dated April 1915,***  while Anne Powell in A Deep Cry states that the poem was written in November or December of 1915. Both accounts are likely right. A few weeks after Leighton’s unit arrived in Ploegsteert Wood in April of 1915, Roland wrote to Vera of the stark differences that marked his “new life”: 

It is very nice sitting here now. At times I can quite forget danger and war and death, and think only of the beauty of life, and love—and you. Everything is in such grim contrast here. I went up yesterday morning to my fire trench, through the sunlit wood, and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path.... The ground was slightly marshy and the body had sunk down in it so that only the toes of his boots stuck up above the soil.****

Leighton’s description of the “grim contrast” between life before the war and his “new life” at the front seems to mirror the abrupt shift the poem enacts between stanzas one and two: the leap into war. Leighton also wrote to Vera of his concern that his courage would fail in battle: “I wonder if I shall be afraid when I first get under fire? (11 April 1915), and again, “Soon perhaps I may see death come to someone near and realise it and be afraid. I have not yet been afraid” (12 April 1915).† This apprehension may be reflected in the poem’s prayer for strength and endurance (if that is what the last lines suggest). By November of 1915, Leighton realized that in coping with death and the ugliness of war, he had become estranged from the man he had been. Roland wrote to Vera (who by this time had begun nursing at Camberwell Hospital), 

I wonder if your metamorphosis has been as complete as my own. I feel a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps—not at all the kind of person who would be associated with prizes on Speech Day, or poetry, or dilettante classicism ..... We go back in the trenches tomorrow.††

from FWW Poetry Digital Archive©

Later that month, he wrote to Vera apologizing for his conceit and selfishness in focusing on his own misery, then shared his sympathy for the hardships she must be enduring as a nurse:

It all seems such a waste of Youth, such a desecration of all that is born for Poetry & Beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands & sympathises it must make it all the worse .... until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better never to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way.†††

Here, Roland seems to echo the oppressive weight of the lines, “I am sickened with Love that lives only for lending, / And all the loathsome pettiness of peace.” If Leighton began the poem in April of 1915, it’s likely that he continued to revise it up until his death. On the night of 22 December 1915, while inspecting wire in front of British lines, Leighton was shot in the abdomen by a sniper. He lived long enough to be carried to the casualty clearing station, dying  the next evening.

After reading and transcribing “Ploegsteert,” in January of 1916, Vera sent a copy of Roland’s poem to their friend Victor. Victor had earlier told Vera that while at school before the war, Roland had declared that “death in War [was] his ideal.”º Victor answered Vera’s letter, trying to make sense of Roland’s unfinished poem: 

‘And all the loathesome pettiness of peace’ is a theme he often ... discussed with me. All through the last part of his time at Uppingham he seemed to look and long for the stern reality of War and the elemental principles that War involves. He considered that in War lay our one hope of salvation as a Nation, War where all the things that do no matter are swept rudely aside and one gets down to the rock-bottom of the elementary facts of life.ºº

But just over a month later, Vera wrote to her brother that they had learned more of the specifics of Roland’s death: “It was anything but a clean bullet wound straight through, as we have been thinking; it was a terrible affair. ” Col. Harman ... did say that ‘the bullet exploded inside him & literally blew out his back.’” Roland was given "a very large dose of morphia indeed” before he was moved to the nearest casualty clearing station. There, medics “simply looked at one another & gasped ... they could not remember any wound quite so terrible. Under the surface the whole of his back was literally smashed to pulp, so that the different organs were barely recognizable.”ººº 

As further details of Roland’s excruciating death emerged, Vera again wrote her brother: ‘We know now that in those few minutes of sensible consciousness, he faced the Truth—faced the fact that He was wounded in a vital spot, faced agony, more than probably faced death itself. He got with grim exactness the answer to the prayer-poem for 'a strong man's agony.’ºººº

© Photograph of Leighton is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library. 
Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, Vera to Edward Brittain, 14 Jan. 1916, pp. 213–214.
** “Ploegsteert,” by Leighton, Roland (1895-1915). The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library / The Roland Leighton Literary Estate via First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 24, 2023, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/5614. There are two versions of the poem that appear on the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, and these differences raise still further questions. The typed version that appears on the Digital Archive is the version that I have shared and the one that appears in the few publications that include the poem (such as Anne Powell’s A Deep Cry). But the FWW Poetry Digital Archive also includes a version “transcribed in an unknown hand” from the Roland Leighton Literary estate. This version includes two significant changes in the last stanza: the adjective good is inserted to describe the “God of Battles,” and the speaker requests a Hell (rather than Hill) of Fire. There are also three additional differences in punctuation in the hand-copied version. Two appear in the second stanza: the first line of the stanza has no end punctuation, and the second line closes with a full-stop (or period), rather than a semi-colon. The other difference is in the ellipses that close the fragment: in the hand-copied version, the ellipsis extend across the page and continue even to the next line.
*** “Roland, part 2,” testamentofyouth, https://testamentofyouth.wordpress.com/nameless-glamour-2/roland-part-2/. This blog is an excellent source for those wishing to read more about Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain, and the historical context of the First World War.
**** Letters from a Lost Generation, 20–21 April 1915, Roland to Vera, pp. 86–87
Letters from a Lost Generation, Roland to Vera, pp. 77, 79.
†† Letters from a Lost Generation, 3 Nov. 1915, Roland to Vera, pp. 182–183.
††† Letters from a Lost Generation, 26 Nov. 1915, Roland to Vera, p. 190.
º Letters from a Lost Generation, 14 Jan. 1916, Vera to Edward Brittain, p. 214. 
ºº Letters from a Lost Generation, 19 Jan. 1916, Victor to Vera, p. 216. 
ººº Letters from a Lost Generation, 23 February 1916, Vera to Edward, pp. 233–234.
ºººº Letters from a Lost Generation, 27 Feb. 1916, Vera to Edward, p. 238.
© Image of “Ploegsteert,” The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library / The Roland Leighton Literary Estate via First World War Poetry Digital Archive,  http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/5614.

Monday, April 24, 2023

How alone

“Undaunted April crept and sewed
    Her violets in dead men's faces...”*

A previous post on this blog has shared Muriel Stuart’s “It’s Rose-Time Here, 1918,” a poem that mingles images of fragrant flowers with the wet blood of fallen soldiers and “things are not men— / Things shapeless, sodden, mute.” 

In her same collection (The Cockpit of Idols, 1918), Stuart included another poem that explores the burden of loss that those on the home front continued to bear, long after the war had ended. 

From World's Work
June 1922
When I grow old and my quick blood is chilled,
And all my thoughts are grey as my grey hair,
When I am slow and dull, and do not care,
And all the strife and storm of Life are stilled;
Then if one carelessly should speak your name
It will go through my body like swift spears
To set my fireless bosom in a flame,
My faded eyelids will be bright with tears;
And I shall find how far my heart has gone
From wanting you, how lost and long ago
That love of ours was: I shall suddenly know
How old and grey I am . . . and how alone.
—Muriel Stuart

Upon first reading, the poem seems to mourn the death of a soldier. But the war birthed another kind of loss: In his poem “They,” Siegfried Sassoon asserts that every man who has served “will not be the same.” And Vera Brittain, in her essay “War Service in Perspective,” also describes the “barrier of indescribable experience” that the First World War erected between the men who had fought and the women who loved them.  

Muriel Stuart Irwin married Guy Neville Minnitt in 1912. Little is known of Guy Minnitt’s war experience except that he served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and survived the war. In 1923, Harriet Monroe wrote of meeting Muriel Stuart in London, noting that the writer is “the most interesting of the younger English poets. Her first adventure in motherhood—in private life she is Mrs. Minnitt—had just been successfully passed when I reached London; she was not sure whether a book or a baby was the more important achievement.”** 

In 1926, Guy Minnitt and Muriel Stuart divorced. She remarried Arthur William Board in September of 1927 and never published another book of poetry. 

A biography of Stuart published on the Persephone Books website states,

Muriel Stuart was a successful and well-known poet during and just after the First World War (she is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography because of her poems). She then had two children, gave up writing poetry and took to gardening with enormous enthusiasm and dedication. She wrote only two books, Fool’s Garden (1936), about creating a garden in Surrey, and the one we have chosen to reprint, Gardener’s Nightcap. After the war, for thirty years, she was a well-known columnist for gardening magazines. Although a great beauty, Muriel Stuart was shy and self-contained – and happiest in her garden.

What caused Muriel Stuart to exchange poetry for gardening? We will probably never know why one of the most promising young women writers, a poet whom Thomas Hardy described as “superlatively good” turned from poetry that reflected on “the weight of social expectations on women” (see for example her poems “Words” and “The Bastard” ) to prose and perennials.
*from “Thèlus Wood” by Muriel Stuart, in Miscellany of Poetry, 1919, edited by W. Kean Seymour.
** “The Editor in England” by Harriet Monroe, Poetry, Oct. 1923, v 23, n. 1 p. 38.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A Forest Offering

Attack Developing in the Champagne, Blanc Mont Sector 
Claggett Wilson, ca. 1919 Smithsonian American Art Museum

 What scene typifies the Great War? Perhaps the trenches of the Western Front or the cratered landscape of No Man’s Land come to mind. Yet soldiers’ accounts are rich in descriptions of trees and woods, such as those at Ploegsteert, Delville, Mametz, Belleau, and High Wood. Lieutenant Richard Talbot Kelly fought at Loos, the Somme, and Arras; he recalled, “To me, half the war is a memory of trees: fallen and tortured trees, trees untouched in summer moonlight, torn and shattered winter trees, trees green and brown, grey and white, living and dead.”*

Private Norman Edwards, serving with the 1/6th Gloucestershires, was also haunted by the woods of the Great War:
Thou Shalt Not Steal
John Singer Sargent, 1918

How can I describe the spell at Ploegsteert Wood, not the horrors of which I have just written, but the living impalpable beauty of that place? To the men of the 4th Division who captured it and held it in the winter it was doubtless a place of evil memory, but to us who were fortunate enough to occupy it in May when the earth was warm with spring and the enemy comparatively quiet, it was a peaceful spot. To turn one’s back to the parapet and watch the edge of the wood take on the pale golden glow of dawn, later to lie down amid the forget-me-nots in the warm sun or stand naked and bathe in a shell-hole filled with water, were experiences that aroused one’s aesthetic facilities to a high pitch. One realised how close one was living to nature ... and the thought that possibly each dawn might be the last accentuated the delight.** 

Before the war, F.W. Harvey roamed the hills and woods of Gloucestershire with his school friend Ivor Gurney. Both enlisted and served on the Western Front, and both were witnesses to trauma and death. Each man struggled in the war’s aftermath. Gurney was declared insane in 1922, living the next fifteen years of his life in mental hospitals until his death in 1937. Harvey married, had children, and continued to write poetry, but as his physician noted, “His years in the prisoner of war camp had inflicted psychic trauma from which he never really recovered. He had been permanently scarred. He was a war casualty although he would have been the last to admit it.”*** 

Ten years after the war’s end, Harvey composed a poem for those whom he had loved and lost to the war. According to researcher J.G. Repshire, Harvey recited the poem at the local Yorkley Armistice Day ceremony each year,† but the poem wasn’t included in any of Harvey’s subsequent poetry collections. Harvey died in 1954; the poem, along with letters, scrapbooks, and numerous other unpublished works, was found in 2010 his home overlooking the Forest of Dean.****

To Old Comrades, A Forest Offering

Knowing that war was foul, yet all a-hunger
For that most dear companionship it gave,
Dirleton Memorial, East Lothian Courier
I wished myself once more on lousy straw;
And in a trice was there; and ten years younger, 
With singing soldiers scornful of the grave:
The tough mates, the rough mates that lay on lousy straw,
And since have laid them down in earth ...
                    I saw
Again their faces flicker in the light
Of candles fixed most dangerously in rings
Of bayonets stabbed in wooden beams, or stuck
Down into the floor’s muck ...     
                    The woods are bright  
With smouldering beech. Only a robin sings.
Alone to-day amid the misty woods,
Alone I walk gathering fallen leaves,
For it is Autumn and the day of the dead.
I come to where in solemn silence broods
A monument to them whose fame still rings
(Clear as a bugle blown) to him that grieves,
And lay my leaves for crown upon each head
Here, my old Forest friends, are your flowers!
Beautiful in their death as you in yours;
Symbol of all you loved, and were, and are.
Beautiful now as when you lived among us!
And in their heart I place this spotted fungus,
Symbol of war that slayeth all things fair.
    —F.W. Harvey

In the spring of 1930, Harvey published a newspaper article titled “Robbing the Soldier of His Treasured Memories,” in which he wrote, “The most lonely man in the world today is the old soldier. Most of his friends were killed. The newer generation growing up knows not him or his.”††  

In Gloucestershire, the county he loved, Harvey is still remembered as “The Laureate of Gloucestershire” or more simply, “The Forest Poet.” 
* Richard Talbot Kelly, A Subaltern’s Odyssey: A Memoir of the Great War, 1915–1917, Kimber, 1980. 
** Norman Edwards, quoted in Richard van Emden’s Tommy’s Ark, Bloomsbury, 2010, p. 84. 
*** Bill Tandy, A Doctor in the Forest, quoted in Anthony Boden’s FW Harvey: Soldier, Poet, History Press, 2016, p. 413. 
**** With thanks to the family of FW Harvey and the Harvey Society for permission to share this poem. 
† James Grant Repshire, F.W. Harvey and the First World War: A biographical study of F.W. Harvey and his place in the First World War literary canon, dissertation 2016, Univ. of Exeter., p. 262. 
†† Cited in Repshire, p. 265. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Hieroglyphic of silence

The Harvest Moon, Harvey Dunn (Smithsonian AF.25720)

Words are soldiers of fortune
Hired by different ideas
To provide an importance for life.
           —Maxwell Bodenheim, from "Sappho Answers Aristotle”* 

In 1914, twenty-two-year old Maxwell Bodenheim published his first work in Poetry magazine. That same year, his poem “The Camp Follower” was one of fourteen chosen for the magazine’s war issue. The magazine’s editor, Harriet Monroe, later recalled Bodenheim as a “blond youth [who] used to appear at the office now and then, bearing innocent young rhymes written out in an incredibly large round babyish hand.”**

Four years later, Bodenheim published his first poetry collection, Minna and Myself. His work was well reviewed, and his poems appeared alongside those of other rising young writers such as Carl Sandburg and TS Eliot. His poem “Soldiers,” first published in the Pagan Magazine Anthology (1918), was included in Minna and Myself.   


Early June morning, Claggett Wilson, Smithsonian
The smile of one face is like a fierce mermaid
Floating dead in a little pale-brown pond.
The lips of one are twisted
To a hieroglyphic of silence.
The face of another is like a shining frog.
Another face is met by a question
That digs into it like sudden claws.
Beside it is a face like a mirror
In which a stiffened child dangles ... 

Dead soldiers, in a sprawling crescent,
Whose faces form a gravely mocking sentence. 
—Maxwell Bodenheim

The poem offers a vivid contrast to lines from TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets: Little Gidding” (1942),  in which Eliot writes, 

What the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

In Bodenheim’s “Soldiers,” the dead communicate in messages of opaque distortion that are impossible to decipher. A fantastic creature who has perished in a small pond smiles fiercely, and the twisted lips of a dead man offer a “hieroglyphic of silence” — but the dead speak only in questions and “gravely” mocking sentences. 

In the Foreword to Minna and Myself, Louis Untermeyer wrote, 

Words, under his hands, have unexpected growths; placid nouns and sober adjectives bear fantastic fruit.... Among the younger men he has no superior in his use of the verbal nuance. But it is not merely as a word-juggler that Bodenheim shines. He has an imagination that he uses both as a tool and as a toy.... In the realm of the whimsical-grotesque, Bodenheim walks with a light but sure footstep.***

In 1925, Harriet Monroe reviewed Bodenheim and his work in Poetry magazine. While she praised Minna and Myself, she found less to admire in Bodenheim’s subsequent publications. She wrote, “One watches the development of his art with much the same feeling which a gaping crowd lavishes on a tight-rope athlete dancing over perilous abysses.” By this time, Bodenheim was better known for his boorish arrogance and lechery than his writing; Monroe concludes the review with questions about Bodenheim’s future: 

What drop of poison in this poet’s blood, embittering his thought, threatens to nullify the higher reaches of his art? .... What Freudian tragedy of suppression and deprivation through this poet’s childhood may have turned his blood to gall, and the wine of his satire to vinegar? Will he never work himself free of the inferiority complex which twists his art?† 

Today, Bodenheim may be best known for the circumstances surrounding his death.†† In February of 1954, after Bodenheim and his wife were found murdered in a flophouse, the New York Daily News reported, 

They found him with his mouth open and his eyes staring and a bullet hole in his chest, while near him lay his wife, with four knife wounds in her back. They lay, in the stiff and contorted attitudes of violent death, in a dirty furnished room, tenanted by an idiot and lout with the occasional thunder of a passing El train which, when it passes, drowns all sound, including poetry. ††† 


* Maxwell Bodenheim, “Sappo Answers Aristotle,” Poetry, vol. 18, no. 2, 1921, p. 63.
** Harriet Monroe, “Maxwell Bodenheim,” Poetry, vol. 25, no. 6 (Mar. 1925), p. 320.
*** Louis Untermeyer, “Foreword,” in Minna and Myself, by Maxwell Bodenheim, Pagan, 1918.
† Monroe, “Bodenheim,” pp. 324, 326, 327.
†† See previous post on Bodenheim on this blog (“The Camp Follower”), particularly biographer John Strausbaugh’s comments.
††† Kermit Jaediker,“The Last Bohemian,” New York Daily News, 28 Feb. 1954. The full story can be read here

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Surplus Women

Vestal Virgin, by Antonio Canova (Getty Museum)

In the podcast episode “Surplus Women,” Caroline Campton says, 

In 1921, the British government published the results of a census. It recorded that there were just over 44 million people in total in the country, an increase of around two million from a decade before, despite the loss of life during the First World War. The figure that attracted the most attention at the time, though, was a striking disparity between the numbers of men and women. For every 1,000 men, there were 1,100 women, or “an excess that amounts to 1,906,284,” as one newspaper put it at the time. At this point, the First World War had been over for three years. 700,000 British men had been killed. The casualties were disproportionately young, unmarried and from the middle or upper classes.*

Campton continues, “Some characterised these women as ‘imaginary widows’, unmarried yet mourning the husbands they should have had.” Perhaps the best-known poem on the subject was written by Vera Brittain: “The Superfluous Woman.”  It opens with the lines, “Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years” and closes with the cry of “But who will give me my children?”

Irish author Katharine Tynan (m. Hinkson) was a generation older than Vera Brittain. Her reputation as a poet had been established years before, and she was a friend of WB Yeats, Christina Rossetti, and Alice Meynell. At the start of the Great War, Tynan was married with three children, two of them grown sons. Her sons enlisted with the British Army, Theobald (“Toby”) serving in Macedonia and Palestine, while Giles (“Bunny/Patrick”) was in France. Both survived the war, but Tynan knew many men who did not. In her autobiography, she recalls that during the First World War, “at one time, I was writing a hundred letters a week to the bereaved of the war.** 

Tynan’s youngest child, her daughter Pamela, grew to adulthood during the war: she was a 14-year-old child when war was declared, and an 18-year-old young woman when peace was settled. During the war and the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916, Pamela Hinkson lived in a world of anxious uncertainty, reading casualty lists and waiting for news of her brothers. 
Before the war ended, Katharine Tynan realized that the Armistice and the return of the surviving soldiers would not end women’s experience of war. Her poem “The Vestal” appears in Herb O’ Grace (1918).  

The Vestal

She goes unwedded all her days
   Because some man she never knew,
Her destined mate, has won his bays,
   Passed the low door of darkness through.

Sometimes she has a wild surmise
   Of what dear name he used to have,
And what the colour of his eyes,
   And was he gay, or was he grave.

Or if his hair was brown or gold,
   Or if his voice was low and clear
To tell his love with, never told
   To hers or any woman's ear.

His voice is lost upon the wind
   And when the rain beats on her heart
His eyes elude her, warm and kind,
   Where the dim shadows steal apart.

What of their children all unborn?
   What of the house they should have built?
She wanders through her days forlorn,
   The untasted cup of joy is spilt.

She lives unwedded, — as for him
   He sleeps too sound for any fret
At their lost kisses, or the dream
   Of the poor girl he never met.
            —Katharine Tynan

Pamela Hinkson
In a letter to a friend, Tynan had written, “My Pam sometimes goes to bed & turns her face to the wall for comfortlessness. Only this week we have heard of the death of a dear friend, captain Johnston.... He was a dear big simple boy.” In another letter Katharine wrote, “All our hearts are opposed with this nightmare war, dragging on & on. I am going to be a Suffragist after the war, for women must never again permit such a horror as this. Every day the young, the beautiful, the brave, are falling around us like the leaves of Autumn.”***

Like her mother, Pamela Hinkson became a writer; her novel The Ladies Road (1932) was a popular success as it “explores with delicacy... the predicament of that lost generation who... came into youth during the War.”† In 1995, research identified her as the author of two additional post-war novels, The Victors (1925) and Harvest (1927), written under the pseudonym of Peter Deane. She never married. 

The Sydney Morning Herald published this review of Harvest in 1927: 
“Harvest” is a collection of powerful short stories by Mr. Peter Deane. The title is symbolical; the miseries of war do not end with the war itself; there is a grim aftermath to be reaped. The setting of several of these stories is the occupied zone in Germany, where, we understand, the author himself served with the British force, and he skillfully communicates the atmosphere of tension and suspicion.... Other stories deal with conditions in post-war Germany, and paint a dark picture of poverty and distress. In most of them women are the chief sufferers. As one of the characters ironically remarks: ‘War would be much simpler without women.”††
* Caroline Campton, transcript of “Surplus Women,” SheDunnit, 13 Oct. 2018, https://shedunnitshow.com/surpluswomentranscript/
** Katharine Tynan, Years of the Shadow, Constable and Company, 1919, p. 176. 
*** Katharine Tynan, The Selected Letters, edited by Damian Atkinson, Cambridge Scholars, 2016, pp. 413, 425. 
† John Wilson Foster, “Postscript: ‘The Ladies Road’: Women Novelists 1922–1940,” in Irish Novels 1890–1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction, Oxford UP, 2008. 
†† “New Fiction,” Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1927, p. 10

Image of Tynan from New York Times, 2 Nov. 1913. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Christmas 1917: What our weary hearts desire

Aline Kilmer with Kenton, c. 1909
(Joyce Kilmer House & New Brunswick Historical Society)

Joyce Kilmer was a rising American poet, famous for his 1913 poem “Trees” when he decided to leave his writing career, volunteering to fight in the First World War. Thirty-years-old with four small children and a fifth on the way, Kilmer enlisted in April 1917, despite being exempt from service due to his status as a family man. According to biographer John Covell, when Kilmer was asked how his wife Aline felt about his decision to join the fight, he answered, “She’s game.”*

Aline Kilmer, alone and expecting their fifth child, was left to care for their four young children, one of whom was dying. Their daughter Rose Kilmer, born November 15, 1912, had “suffered an attack of infantile paralysis” as a very young child, and despite the care of specialists, the little girl died at home, on September 9, 1917, just shy of her fifth birthday. According to a published obituary, the tragedy occurred “as her father was preparing to go South with his regiment.”**

Less than three weeks later, on September 29, 1917, Aline gave birth to their third son, Christopher. Her husband set sail for France with his regiment on October 31, 1917. 

As Aline Kilmer prepared for Christmas that year, she wrote a poem that describes quiet moments of melancholy and memory, juxtaposed with a season of bustling good cheer. 

Rose Kilmer's grave,
Elmwood Cemetery, New Brunswick NJ


“And shall you have a Tree,” they say,
“Now one is dead and one away?”

Oh, I shall have a Christmas Tree!
Brighter than ever it shall be;
Dressed out with coloured lights to make
The room all glorious for your sake.
And under the Tree a Child shall sleep
Near Shepherds watching their wooden sheep.
Threads of silver and nets of gold,
Scarlet bubbles the Tree shall hold,
And little glass bells that tinkle clear.
I shall trim it alone but feel you near.
And when Christmas Day is almost done,
When they all grow sleepy one by one,
When Kenton’s books have all been read,
When Deborah’s climbing the stairs to bed,

I shall sit alone by the fire and see
Ghosts of you both come close to me.
For the dead and the absent always stay
With the one they love on Christmas Day.
—Aline Kilmer

The poem continues to resonate with those who suffer the loneliness of the season, whether because of the absence or death of loved ones. “Christmas” was first published in the Catholic periodical Messenger of the Sacred Heart in January of 1918 and was included in Aline Kilmer’s first book of poetry, Candles That Burn (1919). That volume is dedicated “To Joyce” — her husband was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918. 

Aline Kilmer lived until 1941. On her gravestone in Stillwater, New Jersey, are inscribed lines from her poem “Sanctuary”: 

Kilmer's original grave is on the right
There all bright passing beauty is held forever
Free from the sense of tears, to be loved without regret
There we shall find at their source music and love and laughter,
Colour and subtle fragrance and soft incredible textures:
Be sure we shall find what our weary hearts desire.

Joyce Kilmer is buried in France at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery.  

* Cited in Peter Molin’s “Aline Kilmer: When the War Poet’s Wife is a Poet Too,” in Beyond Their Limits of Longing, Milspeak, 2022, p. 111.
** “Dr. F.B. Kilmer Loses His Granddaughter” on the Find A Grave website (article most likely from a New Brunswick, NJ newspaper).