Thursday, November 10, 2016

Love go lonely

Paris celebrates the Armistice 1918
As the church bells of Shrewsbury rang out on November 11th, 1918 jubilantly announcing the end of the Great War, a telegram was delivered to an address on Monkmoor Road.  While others celebrated, Tom and Susan Owen received the tragic news that their son Wilfred had been killed just one week before peace was declared.* For all who had lost friends, sons, husbands, brothers, and sweethearts, news of the Armistice was bittersweet.  The war had ended, but the long and lonely work of adjusting to a world irrevocably changed by grief and loss had just begun.**

On the morning of the Armistice, twenty-five-year-old May Wedderburn Cannan was “doing her bit” as a clerical worker in the British War Office located in Paris. As acting head of the women’s espionage section in Paris (a branch of MI5), Cannan recalls that day:

I was called into the Colonel's room ‘to take some notes from the telephone’.... A voice, very clear, thank God, said ‘Ready?’ and began to dictate the Terms of the Armistice. They muttered a bit crowding round me and I said fiercely ‘Oh, shut up, I can't hear’ and the skies didn't fall.
I wrote in my private short-long-hand and half my mind was in a prayer that I should be able to read it back. I could feel my heart thumping and hear the silence in the room round me. When the voice stopped I said mechanically ‘understood’ and got up. I made four copies of what I had written and took them in and went back to my little office staff and told them. I can't remember much what we said: I can only remember being so cold, and crying, and trying not to let the others see.†

Sometime soon after, she captured the mood of that first Armistice day in a poem.

Paris, November 11, 1918
Army chaplain tends graves, Carnoy Valley
©IWM (Q4004)
For G.A.H.

Down on the boulevards the crowds went by,
The shouting and the singing died away,
And in the quiet we rose to drink the toasts,
Our hearts uplifted to the hour, the Day:
The King – the Army – Navy – the Allies –

England – and Victory.
And then you turned to me and with low voice
(The tables were abuzz with revelry),
‘I have a toast for you and me,’ you said,

And whispered ‘Absent,’ and we drank
Our unforgotten Dead.
But I saw Love go lonely down the years
And when I drank, the wine was salt with tears.
                        --May Wedderburn Cannan

As Paris celebrates, two women sit in a café. Throughout the day, they have listened to the boisterous songs and shouts of the crowds, until the deafening celebrations finally begin to die away.  The hour is most likely late, but as the day winds to a close, the women rise from their seats to toast the momentous, world-changing occasion.  Raising their glasses, they list seven abstractions, perhaps echoing the shouts they have heard throughout the day. Acknowledgements and praise are offered to the King, the various branches of the military, the countries of the Allies, their victory, and the day of peace. Even though the surrounding tables are “still abuzz with revelry” the two women stand apart, walled off from the boisterous mood of joy.

May Wedderburn Cannan
And yet resonating down through the years above the shouting and singing of that day is this one private toast: “Absent.”  The women whisper the word, perhaps because the mention of their lost loved ones might spoil others’ joy or taint the peace. Then, quietly and reverently, as if enacting a rite of communion, the women drink their “unforgotten dead.”

The last two lines of the poem are italicized, perhaps to distance them from the celebrations that surround this private scene of grief. Against the backdrop of Parisian gaiety, Love stands alone, gazing into a future of dark emptiness, and the wine has become a cup of bitter passion, brimming with tears. This is a toast not only to the dead, but also to lost futures, dreams never realized, marriages never consummated, children never born, joys never shared. 

Cannan dedicated the poem to “G.A.H.” While the identity of this person is unknown, the poet’s account of her time in France frequently mentions “G.”, a co-worker in the British War Office and fellow lodger at a Paris boarding house. The two women became friends, and in her autobiography, Cannan describes the evening of the Armistice and her return to the small hotel they shared:  

“The Pension produced some champagne at dinner and we drank the loyal toast. And then across the table G. lifted her glass to me and said “Absent.” I did not know her story nor she mine, but I drank to my friends who were dead and to my friends who, wounded, imprisoned, battered, shaken, exhausted, were alive in a new, and a terrible world.”††

*Wilfred Owen, by Guy Cuthbertson.  Yale University Press, 2014.
**Other poems on the subject include Margaret Sackville’s “Reconciliation,” Marian Allen’s “Out in a gale of fallen leaves,” Mary J. Henderson’s “The Seed Merchant’s Son,” and Anna Gordon Keown’s “Reported Missing.”
†From Cannan’s autobiography, Grey Ghosts and Voices. Roundwood Press, 1976.
††From Cannan’s autobiography, Grey Ghosts and Voices. Roundwood Press, 1976.

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