Saturday, November 15, 2014

Song of the Mud

TW Culbertson's photo of the Western Front
While few have heard of Mary Borden -- a nurse, memoirist, and poet of the First World War --  the mud she writes about is one of the most iconic images of the war.  Born in Chicago, Borden graduated from Vassar and married a Scotsman.  When he joined the British army in 1914, she volunteered her services with the Red Cross and was working in a military hospital in Belgium by January of 1915, despite having three children (the youngest who had been born in November).  

In a series of haunting and richly descriptive short vignettes, she writes of her hospital work in Belgium and on the Somme (where the hospital was so close to the front lines that it was in bombarded by artillery fire).  

She attempted to publish her writing as a short memoir titled The Forbidden Zone in 1917, but British authorities censored the book and halted publication, concerned that it would damage morale.  The Forbidden Zone was finally published in 1929.  Borden explained that the book's fragmentary quality was her attempt to reflect the brokenness of the war experience.  The Forbidden Zone is one of my favorite memoirs of all time -- beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable. In the vignette “Belgium,” Borden writes, “Mud: and a thin rain coming down to make more mud.  Mud:  with scraps of iron lying in it and the straggling fragments of a nation, lolling, hanging about in the mud on the edge of disaster.”  
photo by TW Culbertson

Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory provides soldiers’ accounts of the mud:  Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from his posting at the Somme in early 1917, “The waders are of course indispensable.  In 2 ½ miles of trench which I waded yesterday there was not one inch of dry ground.  There is a mean depth of two feet of water.” Another soldier wrote in his diary, “Water knee deep and up to the waist in places.  Rumors of being relieved by the Grand Fleet” (48).   Borden’s poem "Song of the Mud" communicates the sights, sounds, smells, and agonies of that morass. 

It is a wonderful poem for reading out loud – the words “feel good in the mouth.”  In the tradition of Walt Whitman and his poem “Song of Myself,” Borden’s “Song of the Mud” strings together phrases that repeat, getting stuck and unstuck as they vividly paint shifting scenes:  the sodden lanes, the sunken trenches, and the sludge of No Man’s Land, viewed from different angles and perspectives. 

The Song of the Mud

This is the song of the mud, 
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys; 
The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds; 
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the horses; 
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone. 
This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu. 
His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy; 
His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it. 
This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud, 
And his skin is of mud; 
And there is mud in his beard. 
His head is crowned with a helmet of mud. 
He wears it well. 
He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him. 
He has set a new style in clothing; 
He has introduced the chic of mud. 
This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle. 
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome, 
The slimy inveterate nuisance, 
That fills the trenches, 
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers, 
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts, 
That spreads itself over the guns, 
TW Culbertson's photo,  ambulance drivers
(Paul Borda Kurtz in foreground)
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips, 
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells; 
And slowly, softly, easily, 
Soaks up the fire, the noise; soaks up the energy and the courage; 
Soaks up the power of armies; 
Soaks up the battle. 
Just soaks it up and thus stops it. 
This is the hymn of mud –  the obscene, the filthy, the putrid, 
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men. 
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead. 
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing. 
Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men; 
Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men. 
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it, 
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence. 
Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down, 
And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud. 
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them! 
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly. 
There is not a trace of them. 
There is no mark where they went down.
 The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.
 This is the song of the mud,
 The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys. 
Mud, the disguise of the war zone; 
Mud, the mantle of battles; 
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers: 
This is the song of the mud.

There's a strange beauty in the mud: it is “glistening,” “gleaming,” and “silvery,” like satin or ermine.  Sometimes it is playful --“frothing” and “squirting” as it “wiggles,” and sometimes it is as homey and domestic as bread that is “kneaded” and “squeezed.”  

Yet this is the “disguise of the war zone,” for beneath the surface, the mud is a sinister devourer, with “slimy voluminous lips,” a “mute enormous mouth” and a “monstrous distended belly.”  This is the stuff of nightmares. 

There is a dark humor in the poem (the soldiers have “introduced the chic of the mud” as it clings to their hair, their clothing, their bodies), but the poem's somber message is much like Wilfred Owen’s in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Beauty and glory are the mythical appearances of the war, but just underneath the surface of these lies and disguises are suffering,  nightmares, and futile deaths.  
Mary Borden


  1. I really enjoyed this, thanks! Your blog has provided a great way to introduce myself to some of the lesser-known poets as part of my undergrad work on Mary Borden and her contemporaries.

  2. So glad you're enjoying some of the lesser-known poets, Hannah. I've also found the women's voices that have been lost and forgotten to be poignant and insightful. If you can find a copy of Mary Borden's "The Forbidden Zone," it's an unforgettable book. Feel free to share the blog with others!

  3. Thank you for writing about Borden. "The Forbidden Zone" is indeed unforgettable because Borden refused to hide reality from readers. It is a pity that she wasn't able to publish the book when it would have had a blistering impact on the public perception of war. Women wrote defiantly and graphically (more graphically than the war poets)about war as they experienced it. Governments feared them, thus they found their work censored -- like Borden's friend Ellen LaMotte with her Backwash of War. Women did not need to be on the battlefield to know war intimately. Do you know Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's "Shadow Shapes," her account of being severely wounded in a "man's" war? ‘Last night the ward was like a sombre tunnel, full of smoke and noxious gas; monstrous moving shadows; painful reverberation.’ She would not have known Wilfred Owen's poetry when she wrote that line.

  4. Pam, what wonderful information; I'm looking forward to researching Ellen LaMotte's "Backwash of War" as well as Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's "Shadow Shapes" - I hadn't known of either.

  5. Yes she did well in this excellent poem to identify mud as a common mute uncaring enemy to the soldiery of all nationalities - I once got stuck in the mud being a little ambitious with my car exploring a back road on the Somme - and cursed it while waiting for a friendly farmer to tow me out - and then cursed myself for my impatience as I was on my way back to comfort in 90 minutes unlike the men of my grandfathers generation.

    1. Thank goodness for the friendly farmers of the Somme! Thanks for reading and responding. :)

  6. Mary Borden is first women writer of the Great War that I had read, and just a few years ago. But I've only read her memoir. It is wonderful to be introduced to some of her poetry, too. I will have to look for more. Discovering some of these writers has made my local library dig into the stacks at time. It was quite a job to find a copy of A Diary without Dates this past summer. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog.

  7. Thanks so very much for reading and for responding -- and yay for local libraries! :)

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