Monday, April 19, 2021

Blood-red roses and things that are not men

Muriel Stuart

Few today have heard of the British poet Muriel Stuart, but she was regarded as one of the best—and perhaps most unconventional—of the women writers of the early twentieth century. Thomas Hardy wrote a letter that praised her poetry as “superlatively good,” and Hugh MacDiarmid asserted, “Her power derives from her complete individuality of perception and her forthrightness of utterance. She stoops at no trimming or concealing.”*

But direct forthrightness is not universally praised in women. In Post-Victorian Poetry (1938), Herbert Palmer acknowledges that Muriel Stuart was one of the most prominent poets in the years during the Great War and immediately following, but he adds, “She seemed something of an overflow from the Yellow Nineties** a sort of female Dowson** with a dash of Keats …. She was, in particular, a poet of physical passion, expressing, too, all the disillusionment that comes from it …. She is in some of her earlier verse, like [D.H.] Lawrence, a poet of the generative forces of earth, of that dark creative passion which defies human law and convention.”***

Stuart’s war poem “It’s Rose-time Here” opens with highly traditional, almost clichéd references to roses, posy-rings, and the “pomp of May.” These are images that could easily be mistaken for lines written in the High Victorian period. But in the middle of the poem, an appalling shift occurrs that merges roses with wet blood and “things are not men— / Things shapeless, sodden, mute.”

It’s Rose-time Here…

Soul of the Rose (1908)
John William Waterhouse
It’s rose-time here . . .
How could the Spring
Be the same merry thing?
How could she sparkle April's posy-ring
Upon the finger of this widowed year?
How could she bring
Her gauds so pitilessly near?
How could she bear
To lead the pomp of May,
The primings and the promises of June
So near, so soon,
In the old happy way?
How could she dare
To prick the eyes of Grief
With mockeries of returning bud and leaf?
How could she wear
Such coloured broideries
Beside the tattered garments of despair?
Tenting the hills with April's canopies,
Setting the tulips’ spears . . .
How could she keep her tourneys through such tears?

She did not care . . .
The roses are as beautiful this year.
The lily never doffed
One golden plume, nor did the May renounce
One thrilling splendour, nor wear one pearl less.
She has not grieved—even a little space—
For those who loved her once—
For those whom surely she must once have loved.

It’s rose-time here . . .
While over there
Where all the roses of the world have blown
The blood is not yet dried upon their hair,
Their eyes have scarcely filmed against the moon,
The sun has not yet utterly gone out;
Almost the stained grass still
Is conscious of their breath—
Those heavenly roses, torn and tossed about
On the vast plains of Death.

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson
 © IWM ART 518

It’s rose-time here . . .
(How I shall always hate the Spring
For being such a calm, untroubled thing.)
While over there
Where there're no children left to pull
The few scared, ragged flowers,
All that was ours, and, God, how beautiful!
All, all, that once was ours
Lies faceless, mouthless, mire in mire,
So lost to all sweet semblance of desire
That we in those fields seeking desperately
One face long-lost to Love,—one face that lies
Only upon the breast of Memory—
Would never know it—even though we stood
Upon its breast, or crushed its dreadful eyes,
Would never find it—even the very blood
Is stamped into the horror of the mud:
Something that mad men trample under foot
In the narrow trench—for these things are not men—
Things shapeless, sodden, mute
Beneath the monstrous limber of the guns;
Those things that loved us once . . .
Those that were ours, but never ours again.

It’s rose-time here . . .
—Muriel Stuart 

Nosheen Khan admires Stuart’s skill in contrasting “seemingly sentimental context [with] the brutal realities of trench warfare,” and argues that Stuart's poem demonstrates “that women could vividly apprehend the putrefacient transmogrification that became many a lover's lot in the trenches.” Khan notes that while Wilfred Own denounces other war poets for their use of “euphemistic devices…. Stuart’s poem illustrates how such euphemisms could be adroitly used to decry war.”† 

"It's Rose-time Here" deliberately presents the romance of the idyllic pre-war pastoral so that it can be dismantled and discredited when contrasted with the gruesome realities of 1918: rotting bodies no longer recognizable as men lie scattered across the fields of Belgium and France. 

In 1923, Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, visited London and met with the most famous authors of the day, among them Muriel Stuart. Monroe recalls, 

Muriel Stuart was a new acquaintance, one whose personality fulfilled the promise of her two books of verse. After all it is illuminating to meet a poet-correspondent eye to eye—something in this lady confirmed the feeling our readers may have shared with me, that she 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.††

Perhaps Stuart had already begun to realize that the demands of domestic life threatened her work as a writer. After her second child, Stuart “gave up writing poetry and took to gardening.”††† She wrote two gardening books (Fool’s Garden, 1936 and Gardener’s Nightcap, 1938) as well as contributing to gardening magazines. As Virginia Woolf notes, without money and a room of one’s own, even the most talented women writers are likely to disappear from literary history.
* The Hardy letter is frequently referenced, but the original seems to be lost. MacDiarmid’s comment appears in his essay “Muriel Stuart” (Scottish Educational Journal, 23 Oct. 1925).
** Yellow Nineties: from the literary journal The Yellow Book, the term is used to refer to the period’s permissiveness and avant-garde aesthetics. Ernest Dowson: a British poet associated with the Decadent movement.
*** Herbert Palmer, Post-Victorian Poetry, JM Dent, 1938, pp. 274–275.
† Nosheen Khan, “Women’s Poetry of the First World War,” thesis, University of Warwick, August 1986, pp. 96–97.
†† Harriet Monroe, “The Editor in England,” Poetry, Oct. 1923, v 23, n. 1, p. 38.
††† “Muriel Stuart,” biography from Persephone Books

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Unknown knitters

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith
Art Gallery NSW OA18-1960

Napoleon and Frederick the Great are both credited with saying, “An army marches on its stomach,” but commanders of the First World War recognized that soldiers’ feet were just as critical to military success. Trench foot was a serious problem, and men were advised to change their socks twice a day to avoid the painful, debilitating condition. Some reports suggest that a pair of socks lasted only two weeks when on active duty.* In the first months of the war, British commander Lord Kitchener requested the help of Queen Mary in enlisting volunteers to produce at least 300,000 pairs of socks for the troops, and by war’s end over 15 million handmade items had been supplied.**

Those who volunteered were encouraged to go about their work with cheerful optimism, for women’s emotional energies were believed to “permeate the very articles made, handled and packed.”*** Homemade garments were more than items of clothing: they were charmed talismans sent from the home front to the war: “What prayers are knitted into the socks, what hopes stitched into the pyjamas.”****

In his essay “The Unknown Sock Knitter,” Bruce Scates praises the work of those who crafted items for soldiers and sailors during the Great War: “This emotional labour is not something money can buy—it is a product of unpaid work, a thing freely given.”† 

The actual work of knitting could be tedious: it would take at least one day of uninterrupted knitting (“without life interfering”) to make a single, grey sock.†† But knitting was one way in which women could display their patriotism, and the very act of knitting also helped to manage anxiety, grief, and the frustrating loss of control that was a regular part of life during wartime.


Untitled Poster © Art.IWM PST 13401

Shining pins that dart and click
     In the fireside’s sheltered peace
Check the thoughts that cluster thick
     20 plain and then decrease.

He was brave—well, so was I—
     Keen and merry, but his lip
Quivered when he said good-bye—
     Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip.

Never used to living rough,
     Lots of things he’d got to learn;
Wonder if he’s warm enough—
     Knit 2, catch 2, knit 1, turn.

Hark! The paper boys again!
     Wish that shout could be suppressed;
Keeps one always on the strain—
     Knit off 9, and slip the rest.

Wonder if he’s fighting now,
     What he’s done and where he’s been;
He’ll come out on top, somehow—
     Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.
          —Jessie Pope

Researcher Jan Montefiore argues that much of women’s war poetry reflects “the extent to which their writers seem trapped…. living through a horrifying War whose course they are powerless to affect, often racked with anxiety about men they love but are powerless to help,” women who are “trapped not only in anxiety but in the drably unheroic existence of wartime civilians.”††† Knitting may have provided some hope and comfort.

Recent research has found that knitting is characterized by “movements that are bilateral, rhythmic, repetitive, and automatic…. [and that] engage more brain capacity than unilateral ones and appear to facilitate a meditative-like state more readily than unilateral movements.” As well, evidence from animals has found “that repetitive movements …. enhance the release of serotonin.”†††† In research surveys, knitters report that knitting helps them to “forget problems” or “work things out,” and that it often serves as a “defence against anxiety” or as a means of “coping with their pain.”°

In her day, Jessie Pope, the author of “Socks,” was popular for her lighthearted comic verse; she contributed over 170 poems to Punch between 1902 and 1922.°° Today, Pope is more commonly known as the target of Wilfred Owen’s sardonic criticism, as evidenced in his derisive dedication to her in early drafts of “Dulce et Decorum Est.” But as Jane Potter argues in “A Certain Poetess,” “Like many voices from the Great War, Jessie Pope’s voice creates a more complex and interesting alternate space. Her writing problematizes our view of war as a useless waste, at least for those experiencing it at the time, a great many of whom welcomed the kind of humourous, witty, and simple escape from the cataclysm.”°°°

During the First World War, women were encouraged and expected to remain positive and cheerful, and knitters were praised for the prayers and optimism that they invested in the socks they made. Those who harboured negative thoughts may have felt the need to repress their despair for fear it would infect the garments they were sending to the front.

Jessie Pope’s war writing addresses anxiety as it attempts to boost morale. Like the act of knitting itself, Pope’s determinedly positive poetry masks the strain and worry that many women were unable to outwardly express.
* “Lady Liverpool Great War Story,” New Zealand History,
** From Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild: Its Work in the Great War (1919), cited in Paul Ward, “Empire and the Everyday: Britishness and Imperialism in Women’s Lives in the Great War,” Rediscovering the British World, edited by Philip Alfred Buckner and R. Douglas Francis, U of Calgary P, 2005.
*** “Be Strong,” Red Cross Record, 12 Jan. 1916, quoted in Scates, p. 37.
****Red Cross Report from Vaucluse, Australia, 12 Jan. 1916, quoted in Scates, p. 37.
† Scates, “The Unknown Sock Knitter: Voluntary Work, Emotional Labour, Bereavement and the Great War,” p. 37.
†† Julie Power, “Purler of a yarn on how women kept troops in comfortable socks,” Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Nov. 2012,
††† “Shining Pins and Wailing Shells: Women Poets and the Great War,” Women and World War 1, edited by Dorothy Goldman, 1993, Macmillan, p. 55.
†††† Betsan Corkhill, Jessica Hemmings, Angela Maddock, and Jill Riley, “Knitting and Well-Being,” Textile, vol. 12, no. 1, p. 40.
° Corkhill et. al, pp. 39, 47.
°° W.G. Bebbington, “Jessie Pope and Wilfred Owen,” Ariel, vol. 3, no. 4, 1972, p. 91.
°°° Jane Potter, “A Certain Poetess: Recuperating Jessie Pope (1868–1941),” Landscapes and Voices of the Great War, Routledge, 2017, p. 111.

Friday, February 26, 2021

A Grave in Flanders

FG Scott at son's grave in August 1918
 Australian War Memorial E04978

Frederick George Scott was serving as a chaplain with the First Canadian Division in France when he learned of the death of his twenty-four-year-old son Henry, killed in October 1916 while leading an attack on enemy lines near Albert. After the chaos of battle, Henry’s body had been hastily buried between the lines, but could not be recovered. In late November 1916, the fifty-five-year-old chaplain set out to find his son’s remains and rebury them.

Frederick George Scott, known as the poet of the Laurentians, was an Anglican priest before the war. He volunteered as an Army Chaplain in August 1914 and recalled his thoughts when he stood in the pulpit that same Sunday: “When I was preaching at the service and looked down at the congregation, I had a queer feeling that some mysterious power was dragging me into a whirlpool, and the ordinary life around me and the things that were so dear to me had already begun to fade away.”*

Canon Scott was an atypical military chaplain, choosing to serve not near field hospitals at the rear, but instead near the front. Others report that he was “Always in the thick of the fighting, bearing almost a charmed life, ignoring any suggestion that he should be posted to a softer job ‘further back.’”** Perhaps because of his own sons’ war service (two of his sons were with the Canadians at the Western Front), Scott “made a habit of spending time with his men on the front lines, giving last rites to the dying. He often courted death to be with the soldiers, whom he saw as ‘his boys.’ Though he was commissioned as a major, he frequently went in the trenches wearing a private’s uniform with his clerical collar so as to mingle with the men more freely.”***

In Scott’s memoir, The Great War as I Saw It (1922), he recalls his time in Flanders: 

The wood [Ploegsteert] in those days was a very pleasant place to wander through. Anything that reminded us of the free life of nature acted as a tonic to the nerves, and the little paths among the trees which whispered overhead in the summer breezes made one imagine that one was wandering through the forests in Canada. In the wood were several cemeteries kept by different units, very neatly laid out and carefully fenced in. I met an officer one day who told me he was going up to the trenches one evening past a cemetery in the wood, when he heard the sound of someone sobbing. He looked into the place and there saw a young boy lying beside a newly made grave. He went in and spoke to him and the boy seemed confused that he had been discovered in his sorrow. “It’s the grave of my brother, Sir,” he said, “He was buried here this afternoon and now I have got to go back to the line without him.” The lad dried his eyes, shouldered his rifle and went through the woodland path up to the trenches. No one would know again the inner sorrow that had darkened his life. ****

It is likely this account that contributed to inspiring Scott’s poem “A Grave in Flanders.” 

Ploegsteert Wood war cross,
image by Redvers
A Grave in Flanders†

All night the tall trees over-head
     Are whispering to the stars;
Their roots are wrapped about the dead
     And hide the hideous scars.

The tide of war goes rolling by,
     The legions sweep along;
And daily in the summer sky
     The birds will sing their song.

No place is this for human tears,
     The time for tears is done;
Transfigured in these awful years,
     The two worlds blend in one.

This boy had visions while in life
     Of stars on distant skies;
So death came in the midst of strife
     A sudden, glad surprise.

He found the songs for which he yearned
     Hopes that had mocked desire;
His heart is resting now which burned
     With such consuming fire.

So down the ringing road we pass,
     And leave him where he fell,
The guardian trees, the waving grass,
The birds will love him well.
     —Frederick George Scott, 1st Canadian Division, BEF

Nature guarded the dead just as it brought solace to the living. Scott recalls a night spent ministering to the wounded in a sunken trench near Courcelette in late September 1916:

The stars were always a great comfort to me. Above the gun-flashes or the bursting of shells and shrapnel, they would stand out calm and clear, twinkling just as merrily as I have seen them do on many a pleasant sleigh-drive in Canada. I had seen Orion for the first time that year, rising over the broken Cathedral at Albert. I always felt when he arrived for his winter visit to the sky, that he came as an old friend, and was waiting like us for the wretched war to end.†† 

Just weeks later, Scott received word that one of his sons had died in battle. His memoir records his visit to the 87th Battalion shortly after to learn the details:

When the battalion was relieved the dead had to be left unburied, but several men volunteered to go and get my son’s body. This I would not hear of, for the fighting was still severe, and I did not believe in living men risking their lives to bring out the dead. I looked far over into the murky distance, where I saw long ridges of brown land, now wet with a drizzling rain, and thought how gloriously consecrated was that soil, and how worthy to be the last resting place of those who had died for their country. Resolving to come back later on when things were quieter, and make my final search, I bid good-bye to the officers and men of the battalion and was motored back to my Headquarters.”††† 

Scott was able to return to the area near Regina Trench over a month later in mid-November, and with a runner, he found a cross marking his son’s grave. They began to dig until they exposed a hand wearing Henry’s signet ring. Removing the ring, the chaplain read the burial service, then “made a small mound where the body lay, and then by quick dashes from shell hole to shell hole we got back at last to the communication trench…. It was a strange scene of desolation, for the November rains had made the battle fields a dreary, sodden waste.”° A working party brought Henry Hutton Scott’s remains back behind the lines on Nov. 24. His father was there as they

laid my dear boy to rest in the little cemetery on Tara Hill …. I was thankful to have been able to have him buried in a place which is known and can be visited .… In June of the following year, when the Germans had retired after our victory at Vimy Ridge, I paid one more visit to Regina Trench. The early summer had clothed the waste land in fresh and living green. Larks were singing gaily in the sunny sky. No sound of shell or gun disturbed the whisper of the breeze as it passed over the sweet-smelling fields. Even the trenches were filling up and Mother Nature was trying to hide the cruel wounds which the war had made upon her loving breast. One could hardly recall the visions of gloom and darkness which had once shrouded that scene of battle. In the healing process of time all mortal agonies, thank God, will finally be obliterated.°°    

* Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It, 1922, F.D. Goodchild, p. 15.
** Llewellyn H. Gwynne, “Forward,” The Great War As I Saw It by FG Scott, p. 9.
*** André Forget, “100 years after Vimy, a chaplain’s witness to war still resonantes,” Anglican Journal, 11 April 2017,
**** Scott, The Great War, p. 101.
† Published in Frederick George Scott’s In the Battle Silences: Poems Written at the Front, Musson Book Co, 1916.
†† Scott, The Great War, pp. 143–144.
††† Scott, The Great War, p. 148.
° Scott, The Great War, p. 157.
°° Scott, The Great War, p. 158. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Verses to a Mule

Missouri Digital Heritage, Springfield Greene County Public Library 

In her essay “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Great War historian Lucy Betteridge-Dyson writes,  “Yet whilst the contribution of the horse is undoubtedly fascinating … it is his less glamorous cousin, the mule, who was the real equine hero of the Great War.” She continues, “what sets the mule apart from the horse and the donkey are his physical attributes combined with his personality. He is both more intelligent and diligent than the horse, in addition to being tougher and more resistant to illness and disease. It is these characteristics which made the mule an invaluable resource during the Great War.”*

Some soldier-poets even wrote poems honoring the army mule: 

Verses to a Mule**

I’d like to sing the virtues of a mule, brown, black, or gray;
To paint his personality in quite a pleasing way,
But Jim declares a mule’s beneath such eloquent respect,
And, saying which, his diction’s more emphatic than correct.

A mule-skinner is Jim, and you ought to see him drive:
The wheelers balk and, statue-like, they scarcely seem alive;
The leaders semi-circle  ’til they prance at Jimmy’s feet,
And Jimmy leaps politely up to tender them his seat.

A mule is nothing beautiful; no hymn or work of art.
It’s Jim’s belief he’s only ears and hoofs, without a heart,
Unkempt, a shaggy animal, who shies at every shack,
Who always waits his chance and kicks you just below the back.

Now, only beasts can sweat, they say, for gentlemen perspire,
But bless the tugging mules that pull your auto from the mire.
’Tis true, by conscience they object to backing where they stand—
That’s not a vicious habit in a military land.

Oh, he’s the brute who lugs your heavy rations to the door,
The brute who labors, hauling, from the quartermaster’s store,
The one who stumbles through the mud and always finds his feet,
With loads of hay and wood and coal and clothing, bread, and meat.

He looks at you as if his soul lay sleeping in his eyes,
He plods the roads as if the world for him held no surprise,
He pulls the combat wagons over ruts as high as trees,
He wallows where the others shrink and dirties up his knees.

So talk to him more gently, Jim, this homely beast of toil,
For he’s the only one can swim through Carolina soil;
And tuck him safe in bed at night and kiss him on the cheek—
And maybe, then, he’ll never kick you—more than once a week.
—Charles S. Divine*** 

British soldier & mule © IWM Q 16181

All combatant nations relied heavily on horses and mules, quickly learning that mules were more adaptable to the conditions of the First World War. From the mud of the Western Front to the barren landscapes of Gallipoli, mules transported supplies, carried the wounded, and hauled heavy artillery. The primary supplier of mules was the United States, exporting 180,000 mules to Britain alone during the war.†

When the U.S. entered the war, mules joined American troops in overseas service and proved indispensable; Pershing commented that one of the most significant logistics problems faced by the AEF was the shortages of animals. On several occasions, the service of mules and their handlers was nothing short of heroic: 

© IWM Q5773 John Warwick Brooke 
On 4 October 1918 [at Ergemont during the Meuse-Argonne offensive] all communication with artillery in the rear had broken down, and the commander sent for new telephone wire. All division trucks were bogged down in mud, and wagon horses faltered in their traces. So Sgt. Laurence M. Lumpkin loaded ten pack mules with the needed wire and headed for the forward position. German artillerymen spotted the animals and laid down a barrage that killed five of them. The remaining mules with Lumpkin did not panic, and they delivered the wire. After unloading them, Lumpkin galloped the five animals back to the point where the other mules had fallen, removed the loads from the dead mules, repacked his remaining five and brought back the rest of the wire. For this dangerous act he received the DSC, but the mules were given no official recognition. “Their behavior under fire, however, endeared them to the First Division.” ††

To learn more about military mules, see Betteridge-Dyson’s essay at this site, which also includes another example of mulish war poetry, “Musings of a Mule.”
*Lucy Betteridge-Dyson, “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Oh What a Ladylike War. Betteridge-Dyson’s article is a superb introduction to military mules.
**“Verses to a Mule” was first published in the Wadsworth Camp (Spartanburg, SC) newspaper, Gas Attack, March 2, 1918. This version appears in Charles Divine’s City Ways and Company Streets, Moffat and Yard, 1918.
***For more on Charles Divine and his war poetry, see “When Private Mugrums Parley Voos” on this blog.
†Emmett M. Essin, Shavetails and Bell Sharps: The History of the U.S. Army Mule, U of Nebraska, 2000, p. 147.
††Essin, p. 155. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Belgian Letter

Kenneth MacLeish, c. 1917

On October 14, 1918, American aviator Kenneth MacLeish, attached to British Squadron 213, was on patrol over Belgium. The squadron encountered German planes, and in the air battle that followed, MacLeish shot down at least one German plane, but he and his Sopwith Camel failed to return to base. For months, no trace of MacLeish nor his plane were found. The squadron and MacLeish’s family and friends held out hope that he had crash landed and been taken prisoner by the retreating German army.

In late January of 1919, two months after the war had ended and more than three months since Kenneth had disappeared, the family received information that had come from a Belgian landowner. Kenneth’s brother Archibald MacLeish wrote of the impact of that news:

A Belgian Letter

Madame, it is my duty to make known
The brave death of a soldier. I had gone
Today, the Christmas morrow, to my farm
Hard by the town of Bruges, to see what harm
This wind of war had made among my walls
And in my garden, where the blackbird calls
First always in the spring. Madame, I went
With two old friends, an architect of Ghent
And one that had a factory of cloth
At Bruges before the war, true Belgians both
And truer friends to me: they'd not endure
That I should go alone. ‘You're never sure,’
They said, ‘what thing the Boche has left behind,’
And so they came. The road was hard to find
Even for me that sixty years or more
Have trudged each market day from Bruges to Schoore,
And all the farm was ruin, and a pool
Of horrid water — not a cart or tool
Nor any wall upstanding, save the stack
That shivered in the wind and warned us back.
In all that place there was no living thing

From The First Yale Unit, by David Paine
Save that the sudden gusts made stir and ring
Within the stark door frame the summons bell,
And on the hearth the water dripped and fell.
We went about the house to where the barn
Had fallen inward and the earth was torn
With shreds of iron; there both the stave
Of broken wood we found — you must be brave,
Madame — we found the body of a man,
An officer, and on his breast the span
Of golden eagle wings. There was a case
With papers and your name, and then the place,
The other side of the world, whence he had come,
And pictures that we thought must be his home.
Madame, we made a casket out of boards
And buried him — the merchant has the words
In Flemish, of the service for the dead,
For all his sons were killed, and these he said,
And then we made a grave above the foss
Within the garden wall, and set a cross
Marked with his name, and when the spring comes North
To heal the land with flowers, and the earth
Is clean again of the war, it will be good
To lie there by the wall, and feel the blood
Of rose and currant stirring in the loam,
And know that in the earth he has come home
Whatever home he sought; and where, one time,
Within his brain old questionings did climb,
Now will th’ unwondering roots of summer’s rose
Thrust, — and the beauty of the world unclose.
        —Archibald MacLeish (1920)

The British authorities who received the news wrote to the eldest MacLeish son that M. Rouse, the Belgian farmer, “had presented the plot on which the grave was situated to your mother, in case she desires to allow the body to remain in its present location…. One of your brother’s former classmates, Lieutenant John C. Menzies, is installing to-day a small headstone, properly marked, which we obtained in Calais. I can assure you that everything that can possibly be done is being done.”*

But everything possible would not bring back Kenneth MacLeish. His brother Archibald MacLeish, who served in the First World War as a field artillery officer with the American army, would go on to become one of America’s prominent 20th-century writers and a three-time awardee of the Pulitzer Prize. But he never forgot his younger brother’s death. In interviews conducted in the last years of his life and published in Reflections (1986), MacLeish shared his personal views of the First World War: 

Archibald MacLeish
What happened in the middle of the twenties was that it became pretty apparent, even to people my age and even to the people who had been involved in the war as I had, that the war, the Wilsonian rhetoric, and the British propaganda which my brother bought, was all an enormous fraud and fabrication; the war was nothing but a commercial war. There was no reason for it except reasons of commercial competition. There were no moral reasons, no humanitarian reasons, no humane reasons. Nothing. It killed millions of men. It slaughtered an entire generation. It's the most disgusting thing that has happened really in the history of this planet. Vietnam is just a smear beside it.**

Poetry helped MacLeish to make sense of his family’s tragedy. In the same end-of-life interviews, Archibald MacLeish spoke of what poetry meant to him: 

…poetry is the inward of the thing that history is the outward of. Poetry is constantly examining the human possibility. It is constantly examining the emotional life, which is by far the most moving part of human life. It's constantly in search of the question of man. What is man? What is man? What is man? History sees the end result. It sees what happens when a Franco collapses power down on a country like Spain. Poetry is inside that and sees what the destroyed possibility would have been, because a great part of our past is the past of failures.*** 

Flanders Fields American Cemetery, 
photo from Beinecke Library, Yale
*Ralph D. Pain,“Kenneth MacLeish’s Path to Glory” in The First Yale Unit: A Story of Naval Aviation, 1916–1919, v. 2, Riverside Press, 1925, p. 363. Kenneth MacLeish was reburied in the Flanders Fields American Cemetery in Belgium. 
**Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, U of Mass P, 1986, p. 232.
***Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, p. 142.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

His flying was a poem

Jeffery Day

Miles Jeffery Day was one of the best-known poets in the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War. His war poems were published in the London Spectator, and he had earned widespread recognition for his prowess as a pilot. His air combat victories qualified him as a First World War ace, and another officer remembers, “I had heard him spoken of as a young pilot in a seaplane carrier who could do things with an aeroplane that nobody else could do.”*

One of Day’s published poems was written in memory of his elder brother Dennis Ivor Day, a keen oarsman before the war who rowed for Cambridge (bow) in their win against Oxford in the 72nd Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race of 1914.  Five years older than Jeffrey, Dennis enlisted early in the war with the Royal Field Artillery. He was shot in the eye by a German sniper at Vermelles September 25, 1915 and died without regaining consciousness on Oct. 7, 1915. He was 23 years old. 

Jeffery Day’s tribute to Dennis intertwines his love for his older brother with a nostalgia for the fenland scenes of their boyhood home in St. Ives, Cambridgeshire. 

To My Brother**

Winter River At Dawn, Rad Dougall
This will I do when peace shall come again—
peace and return, to ease my heart of pain.
Crouched in the brittle reed-beds, wrapped in grey
I'll watch the dawning of the winter's day,
the peaceful, clinging darkness of the night
that mingles with the mystic morning light,
and graceful rushes, melting in the haze,
while all around in winding water ways
the wild fowl gabble cheerfully and low
or wheel with pulsing whistle to and fro,
filling the silent dawn with sweetest song,
swelling and dying as they sweep along,
till shadows of vague trees deceive the eyes,
and stealthily the sun begins to rise,
striving to smear with pink the frosted sky
and pierce the silver mist’s opacity;
until the hazy silhouettes grow clear
and faintest hints of colouring appear,
and the slow, throbbing, red, distorted sun
reaches the sky, and all the large mists run,
leaving the little ones to wreathe and shiver,
pathetic, clinging to the friendly river;
until the watchful heron, grim and gaunt,
shows ghostlike, standing at his favourite haunt,
and jerkily the moorhens venture out,
spreading swift, circled ripples round about;
and softly to the ear, and leisurely,
querulous, comes the plaintive plover's cry.
And then, maybe, some whispering near by,
some still, small, sound as of a happy sigh
shall steal upon my senses, soft as air,
and, brother! I shall know that thou are there.

Then, with my gun forgotten in my hand,
I’ll wander through the snow-encrusted land,
following the tracks of hare and stoat, and traces
of bird and beast, as delicate as laces,
doing again the things that we held dear,
keeping thy gracious spirit ever near,
comforted by the blissful certainty
and sweetness of thy splendid company.
And in the lazy summer nights I’ll glide
silently down the sleepy river’s tide,
listening to the music of the stream,
the plop of ponderously playful bream,
the water whispering around the boat,
and from afar the white owl’s liquid note
that lingers through the stillness, soft and slow;
watching the little yacht’s red homely glow,
her vague reflection, and her clean cut spars
ink-black against the stillness of the stars,
stealthily slipping into nothingness,
while on the river’s moon-splashed surfaces
tall shadows sweep. Then, when I go to rest,
it may be that my slumbers will be blest
by the faint sound of thy untroubled breath,
proving thy presence near, in spite of death.
       —Jeffery Day

Written in early 1918, “To my Brother” was one of Day’s last poems, written when he was just twenty-one years old. On March 8, 1918, the Huntingdonshire Post carried news that Jeffery Day and his plane had been shot down over the English Channel: 

On the 27th February he was flying a single-seater aeroplane, accompanied by one other aviator in a similar machine, and was scouting about 20 miles north of Dunkirk, when the two aviators were attacked by a German squadron, and in the fight which followed Mr. Day’s machine was brought down. The other airman escaped and returned to Dunkirk and reported that he had seen Mr. Day’s machine fall in the sea, and had seen Mr. Day climb out of his seat on to the back of the aeroplane as it floated, and that he had a Gieves belt on. A patrol was sent out as soon as practicable, and later on the same day a second patrol was sent out, and on the following morning a third, but all returned without being able to find any traces either of Mr. Day’s aeroplane or of him. As it was reported by the aviator who accompanied that no surface craft were in sight, the only hope that remains is that Mr. Day may have been picked up by a submarine and may possibly have been landed as a prisoner in Germany.***

No trace of Day or his plane were ever found. On March 15, 1918, the local paper printed an excerpt from the letter his parents received that informed them of their youngest son’s death: 

He was fearless and selfless, and his perfectly charming and open personality made him beloved by every one. He was as perfect a pilot as ever existed, his flying was a poem and his influence in the squadron was really priceless. He is a very serious loss to us, and I can perhaps only faintly realise the loss he is to you.†

Royal Naval Air Service take-off from ship

Had he lived, Jeffery Day planned to write a book on flying. A draft manuscript included these notes:  

I had quite made up my mind when I came down from my first flight I would sit down forthwith and with very great ease write some most superior verses on the thrill and grandeur of flying. Accordingly I immediately proceeded to evolve magnificent and fine sounding phrases describing what I felt sure it would be like, and to search diligently for suitable rhymes. However when I did come down, my only thought was to go up again …. and anyhow, why write verses when you might be flying? …. my mind was very full of half-grasped impressions, like a small bag packed tight with young eels, and out of that seething mass I couldn’t have picked one solid, sensibly worded impression for the life of me. It was silly of me to expect to write directly after my first flight, for one doesn’t sit down to write a rhapsody on strawberries and cream with a belly full of ‘em but with an empty bell, and a great desire for them.††

In their tribute to the pilot-poet, the Spectator wrote that his family had “lived for generations by the Ouse, and his boyhood was passed in the company of the river. It was his path into the kingdom of the imagination; it led him to poetry.”†††
*Edward Hilton Young, “Memoir,” Poems and Rhymes, by Jeffery Day, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919, p. 10.
**A 36-line first stanza was added to the poem when it was included in Day’s posthumously published Poems and Rhymes (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919).
***“Flight Com. Day Missing,” Huntingdonshire Post, 8 Mar. 1918. 
† “Flight Com. M.J.D. Day: As Perfect a Pilot as Ever Existed,” Huntingdonshire Post,15 March 1918. Just one month later, the Day family received word that their eldest son, George, had been severely wounded by shrapnel. The local paper wrote, “Mr. and Mrs. Day have hope, which will be shared by everyone who knows them, that one of their gallant sons may be spared.” George survived his injuries and returned to St. Ives, dying in 1974.
††Jeffery Day, “Notes,” Poems and Rhymes, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919, pp. 65–66.
†††“The Late Flight Commander Jeff Day [From the “Spectator”],” Huntingdonshire Post, 12 April 1918. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

An Anthology of Lost Voices


It’s not coincidental that one of my favorite words is serendipity, “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” The journey of writing, editing, and publishing International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices has been a circuitous one along twisting roads and unmarked paths, and I am grateful to everyone who has provided direction and sustenance along the way. This book would not have been possible if not for the support of so many who contributed to the surprising discoveries that are at the heart of the anthology. 

The kindness of strangers was one of the best of these discoveries, such as the generous review provided by the poet Ian McMillan:

Here is a superb anthology and work of scholarship that, in an astonishing feat of literary archaeology, cuts through the smoke and noise of the First World War to present us with poems that have been hidden in history's unforgiving mud for far too long. The poems are illuminated and set in context, and I hope that they will now take their place alongside the small number of First World War poems that everyone knows so well. Here is poetry’s abundance in the face of horror. 

What McMillan describes as “literary archaeology” often felt more like happy mudlarking as I searched the foreshore of archives and second-hand bookshops with an eye to spotting poems that were lost, discarded, or forgotten. Some of the finds are rather ordinary, perhaps even common, yet they tell rich stories about the past. Others are true treasures, but it is the search and excavation that have offered such delight. This project’s work has been a happy adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding valuable and agreeable voices, histories, and poems in this collection. 

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is published by Bloomsbury Academic Press. It can be ordered online at at a 35% savings by entering the discount code GLR TW5 on the first page at checkout.