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Between the lines

We need more focus on the women poets of World War I

Members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. PA/PA Archive

We’ve become very accustomed to connecting World War I with its soldier-poets. And the centenary celebrations in Britain have very rightly reminded us how important key figures such as Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon were to their own generation and continue to be for future generations.

But for all that I was struck by actress Penelope Keith’s reading of Rose Macaulay’s poem, Many Sisters to Many Brothers at Westminster Abbey’s candle-lit vigil. It was refreshing – not least because Macaulay is an author often edged off the literary map. But despite this I was left wondering whether this particular poem was the right poem to choose.

Macaulay’s 1914 poem expresses women’s envy of men’s freedom to go to war (service being voluntary until conscription began in 1916). The sister of the poem voices her frustration to her absent brother at not being able to play her part:

In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
A hopeless sock that never gets done.

This feeling was not a rare one. Vera Brittain, another young woman aspiring to equal her brother, had felt similarly. In her war diaries she records how she felt in 1914: “To-day I started the only work it seems possible as yet for women to do, the making of garments for the soldiers. I started knitting sleeping-helmets.” And while she struggles to knit, her brother volunteers for military service.

To us, this envy might appear naïve. But we need to bear in mind that these young middle-class women were caught up in that initial romaticisation of the war which followed the declaration. And this was before women had been granted the vote and entry into many professions – these were freedoms that would only come after the war. It was also before either Macaulay or Brittain had the opportunity to join the war effort as Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses from 1915 – an experience that Brittain would later describe in her war memoir, Testament of Youth as “the tutelage to horror and death”.

At this time, a century ago, no one could guess at the tragedy and bereavement war would bring. Brittain lost not only her brother, but also her fiancé and two close male friends. Macaulay’s brother survived, though badly wounded, but she was to feel keenly the loss of her poet-friend Rupert Brooke.

And so we need to be cautious about reading Macaulay’s poem as somehow representative of women’s literary responses to the First World War. It is after all only a snapshot. These early desires to be rid of the knitting and to find glory in war were short lived, as Macaulay’s more disillusioned and critical war novel of 1916, Non Combatants and Others, was to show.

We need to ensure that we don’t risk perpetuating that sense of antipathy between the woman poet and the soldier-poet which became apparent when Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est in response to the jingoist verse of Jessie Pope.

As scholarship continues to reveal, the breadth and scale of women’s responses to the war was diverse. Catherine Reilly’s Scars Upon My Heart has become a landmark anthology for re-assessing women’s poetry about the war. Alongside Jessie Pope, it presents poets who contest patriotic ideals. Margaret Postgate Cole, for example, answers Rupert Brooke’s “corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England” by imagining the beloved dead and buried with “the sole stay of a nasty corner”.

Other poets adopted a working-class perspective to challenge the summons to national unity. Emily Orr asks:

What has your country done for you,
Child of a city slum,
That you should answer her ringing call

And some women, rather than shaming non-combatants with the white feather, used poetry to empathise with them. “In all the length of all this eager land/ No man has need of me”, Cicely Hamilton writes: “That is my hurt – my burning, beating wound.”

The inclusion of Macaulay’s poem in the centenary commemoration is ultimately a good thing – it acknowledges the broader spectrum of war experience beyond the soldier-poet, and should encourage us take in a broader spread of war poetry. Paying attention to poetry written by men and women, combatants and non-combatants, can only help us to begin to better understand the profound social, cultural and psychological impact of war.

Looking back to Macaulay’s poem, my thoughts turn to thinking about what poetry means for women living through the present-day conflicts around the world. The women of the Kabul Poetry Club for example, find expression for their dissent through two-line folk poems called landai which they recite in secret. Emergent war poets from Syria such as Najat Abdul Samad write how they find strength to continue their work: “When I am overcome with weakness, I bandage my heart with a woman’s patience in adversity.”

But in a world where women now serve in the armed forces, it seems we have yet to fully appreciate what the women soldier-poets of today can share of their war experiences.

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