Thursday, June 14, 2018

Little Things

British women at war graves in France 
In the midst of the Great War, a short piece titled “They Help One to Forget the War’s Burden” appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror on the feature page “Women and The Home”:

The little things, after all, are the great things. Let us, in this time of the nation’s agony, these days of horror, anxiety, and breaking hearts, come back to some remembrance of the eternally beautiful little things.  Surrounded by the Great War – great battleships, great armoured cars, great armies, let us spare a moment now and then for getting alone with the stars—just a moment’s silent watching.  You cannot think of rising prices, or overcrowded tramways, or wearying office-work, and see the pale Pleiades and a rising moon at the same time – thank God, the little things help us to forget!  You can feel lonely and sad, perhaps, but it will not be a hopeless loneliness—you will be looking at something Eternal.

Looking for the Eternal in wartime was often an attempt to combat hopeless loneliness. 

Evelyn Underhill was an established writer when war was declared, the author of Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) and The Path of Eternal Wisdom (1912). She published her second volume of poetry, Theophanies in 1916; a quotation from John Scotus Erigena appeared on the title page: “Every visible and invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God.”
Evelyn Underhill

The majority of Underhill’s poems take as their central themes the natural world and spiritual questions, but eight of the last nine poems in Theophanies are war poems.  In these, Underhill struggles to find glimpses of God in the midst of war. The book was not well-received, and a critic for The Literary Digest wrote,
Miss Evelyn Underhill is a student of mysticism who writes best when she avoids her favorite subject.  In her “Theophanies: a Book of Verse” …  the poems on spiritual themes are not convincing, but “Any Englishwoman,” altho it is a slight thing for so great a tragedy to inspire, seems to be as sincere as it is imaginative and well phrased.*

Any Englishwoman
May 1915

            England’s in flower.
On every tree speared canopies unfold,
And sacred beauty crowns the lowliest weeds
Lifting their eager faces from the mould:
            Even in this hour
The unrelented pressure of the spring
Thrusts out new lovely life, unfaltering—
            Toward what deeds?
        What dreadful blossoming?

Ah, the red spines upon the curving briar,
            They tear the heart
            Great with desire
        And sick with sleepless pain
        For one that comes not again.
There’s horror in the fragrance of the air,
Torment in this intolerable art.
        White petals on the pear!
            Yet peering there,
I see beyond the rapture of the young green
        And passing of pale fire
The glutton Death, who smiles upon the scene.

Grave in No Man's Land, Margaret Hall,
c. 1918-19, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Last night there was a sudden wind that blew
        My joyful branches through.
Yesterday a rich blossom on the spray,
All the sweet promise of life is vanished away:
Yea, of its ardent petals just a few
        White on the ground
            I found.
Bury them quick—I must not see them decay.

Others may know the triumph of the year
        And coming of the clear
Still days of autumn to redeem our grief.
For them the colored bough, the noble sheaf:
            But I shall see
The petals that fell too soon from the blossoming tree,
            And the stain
There on the path, where they rest in the sorrowful rain.
            —Evelyn Underhill

This is not T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and yet the “unrelented pressure of the spring” with its “dreadful blossoming” foreshadows the first lines of that poem: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land.”

Grieving Woman with medals c. 1918
City of Toronto Archives 
For many English women, the fallen petals of spring recalled countless men who had died too soon. For them and for their beloved soldiers, “All the sweet promise of life is vanished away.” Both men and blossoms lie “White on the ground,” an intolerable sight that provokes the anguished plea, “Bury them quick—I must not see them decay.” Where is the Eternal to be found in these stains on the rain-spattered path?

The war changed Underhill, for as one scholar writes, “Her rather optimistic theology was unable to explain the cruel realities of World War I.”  In the years following the Armistice, she sought spiritual direction from Baron Friedrich von Hügel, one of the most respected theologians in Europe at that time and moved toward “more Christocentric thought and a growing balance between God’s immanence and transcendence.”**

In the interwar period, Underhill became increasingly committed to pacifism. Shortly before her death in 1941, she wrote to a friend,
Christianity and war are incompatible, and . . . nothing worth having can be achieved by “casting out Satan by Satan.” Never theatrical herself, she urged that people of her persuasion not be “controversial, or go in for propaganda.***
In the same letter she “characterized Hitler as a ‘scourge of God,who could be countered by two means: war or the cross – ‘And only a very small number are ready for the Cross, in the full sense of loving and unresisting abandonment to the worst that may come.’”
* “Current Poetry, The Literary Digest, 7 March 1917, vol. 54, p. 714.
** Todd E. Johnson, “Life as Prayer: The Development of Evelyn Underhill’s Spirituality,” Fuller Studio,, Accessed 13 June 2018.
*** Robert Gail Woods, “The Future We Shan’t See: Evelyn Underhill’s Pacifism,” Religion Online,, Accessed 13 June 2018.

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