Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Gift of Gentleness

May Wedderburn Cannan is best known for her war poem “Rouen” (one of the most-anthologized war poems written by a woman), but her short poem “Since They Have Died,” written in February of 1916, has one of the most poignant first lines of any poem written during The Great War. 

Since They Have Died 

Since they have died to give us gentleness,
And hearts kind with contentment and quiet mirth,
Let us who live also give happiness
And love, that’s born of pity, to the earth.

For, I have thought, some day they may lie sleeping
Forgetting all the weariness and pain,
And smile to think their world is in our keeping,
And laughter comes back to the earth again.

        --May Wedderburn Cannan

This is a war poem that stands in the present moment looking both to the past (“Since they have died”) and to the future (“Let us who live”).  There comes a shock when Cannan juxtaposes  the incredible violence of the first industrial war with the gentleness, contentment, and “quiet mirth” that men fought to preserve (Thomas Kettle’s poem, “For My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God,” describes just one instance of this). 
Like Kettle’s poem, Cannan’s is also about a gift, the gift of the future for which men were dying.  The poem recalls John Maxwells Edmund's famous epitaph, “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”  

Cannan’s poem, written in early 1916, makes it clear that the future isn’t certain:  she is able only to hope that “some day they may lie sleeping” and may “smile to think their world is in our keeping.”  She writes from a present in which death is certain, but love and laughter are not.  Her fiancé was fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front; he survived, only to die in the influenza epidemic of 1919 before returning home. 

In this poem, any future love is "born of pity."  Wilfred Owen wrote, “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity.”  What do these writers mean by “the pity" of war?  Some argue that Owen meant that the pity of war was the tragedy that war and suffering are ineradicable parts of the human condition.  But that doesn’t seem to be what May Wedderburn Cannan means here.  

In 1915, she volunteered in France for four weeks at a railway canteen for soldiers.  Such canteens were a place for soldiers to experience sympathetic human contact in the midst of horror or impending fear.  It seems likely this experience would have forged in Cannan a strong emotional tie between love and pity, both for the new recruits who were headed to the front lines and for the wounded men who were traveling home.

This poem, however, does more than simply urge us to remember those who have died.  It mingles melancholy with smiles as it challenges each of us to make something beautiful of our lives. Realizing that others have sacrificed their world into “our keeping,” the poem urges readers to generously share happiness and love (perhaps even with those who were once enemies), so that laughter can “come back to the earth again.”  

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