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Scars Upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and…

Scars Upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War

by Catherine Reilly

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I'm glad there's a collection of women's poetry from WWI. There are some great poems here and some not-so-good ones, but the collection does give a broad view of what women were doing and thinking during the war. ( )
  Sareene | Oct 22, 2016 |
Although the quality of the verse here is a bit more variable than might be hoped, as a whole this is a wonderful collection that really does fill a gap in the literature; I am rather outraged that more of these poems are not routinely included in general First World War anthologies.

In fact, so completely forgotten are many of these poets that not even the barest biographical details can be given; some are simply omitted from the Biographical Notes, and of those that remain, the information provided for Eleanor Norton (‘b. 1881. Lived in London’) is not untypically sparse.

And yet these women's poems are an absolutely necessary part of understanding how society reacted to the War. Many of them were in service themselves in various ways; it was a revelation to me to discover how many nurse-poets there were alongside the solder-poets we're all familiar with, serving in VADs in various clearing-stations on the Western Front and becoming intimately familiar with the worst things that war can do to the human body. But equally if not more fascinating to me were the voices from back home, women who experienced the war as a constant background misery, straitened circumstances, missing loved ones, altered employment opportunities.

It's a much more compelling picture of the Home Front than the one you get from reading male poetry – just think, for instance, of ‘The Glory of Women’ by Sassoon (admittedly a poet who was constitutionally unromantic where women were concerned)—

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

And so on. In fact, the trope of the ‘white-feather’ woman urging men on to war from her position of civilian safety is present here as well, and roundly attacked by many of these poets. Helen Parry Eden's ‘A Volunteer’ can stand for several examples expressing a mixture of shame and vitriol:

Why had he sought the struggle and its pain?
Lest little girls with linked hands in the lane
Should look ‘You did not shield us!’ as they wended
Across his window when the war was ended.

This is just one way of coping with the pressure of living safely at home while your friends and family members are being shelled in France; there are many other responses to the same basic idea, which was one of the key ways in which the War separated men from women. Nora Bomford's ‘Drafts’ – for my money the best poem in the book – sums this up in a couplet: ‘They go to God-knows-where, with songs of Blighty, / While I'm in bed, and ribbons in my nightie.’ She goes on to rail against the apparent arbitrariness:

Sex, nothing more, constituent no greater
Than those which make an eyebrow's slant or fall,
In origin, sheer accident, which, later,
Decides the biggest differences of all.
And, through a war, involves the chance of death
Against a life of physical normality—
So dreadfully safe! O, damn the shibboleth
Of sex! God knows we've equal personality.
Why should men face the dark while women stay
To live and laugh and meet the sun each day.

Elsewhere the responses are many and varied. There is fury on behalf of all those who who had no say in the war:

‘Fight on!’ the Armament-kings besought:
Nobody asked what the women thought.

(‘A Fight to a Finish’, S Gertrude Ford)

There is the direct assumption of soldiers' voices:

One minute we was laughin', me an' Ted,
The next, he lay beside me grinnin' – dead.
‘There's nothin' to report,’ the papers said.

(‘Nothing to Report’, May Herschel-Clarke)

There are the feelings of outraged motherhood (how common must this have been):

When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me?…
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me…
If, someday,
It should be taken away
To War. Tortured. Torn.
Rotting in No Man's Land, out in the rain—
My little son…
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.

(‘A War Film’, Teresa Hooley)

And, most of all, there are just many good poems that seem otherwise to be completely unknown. Catherine Reilly, who edited this anthology, deserves most of the praise for this, as the whole collection seems to have sprung from her own doctoral thesis into quantifying war poetry. I am very grateful for it and I hope it becomes much more widely read. Here's one more of my favourites to finish, by Nora Griffiths (about whom we know nothing at all).


In the wake of the yellow sunset one pale star
Hangs over the darkening city's purple haze.
An errand-boy in the street beneath me plays
On a penny whistle. Very faint and far
Comes the scroop of tortured gear on a battered car.
A hyacinth nods pallid blooms on the window sill,
Swayed by the tiny wind. St. Catherine's Hill
Is a place of mystery, a land of dreams.
The tramp of soldiers, barrack-marching, seems
A thing remote, untouched by fate or time.
…A year ago you heard Cathedral's chime,
You hurried up to books – a year ago;
—Shouted for ‘Houses’ in New Field below.
…You…‘died of wounds’…they told me
…yet your feet
Pass with the others down the twilit street.
( )
  Widsith | Jan 14, 2015 |
Poetry written by women during WW1 full of mourning and grief. It fills a gap - for many of us read male WW1 poetry at school like Sassoon and Owen & Rupert Brook with his young heroism., but none by women. There's been a great invisibility of women's poetry on the Great War and it's been said it stems from the "white feather" syndrome. Perhaps it's the same which generates a general lack of interest in women's wartime experience, including the endlessly repeated tragic one of bereavement.

There are 79 women represented. Not all unknown. ie Nancy Cunard, Edith Sitwell, Eva Dobell, Amy Lowell, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sackville.
( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0860682269, Paperback)

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart' wrote Vera Brittain in a poem to her beloved brother, four days before he died in June 1918. The rediscovery of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH has reminded a new generation of the bitter sufferings of women as well as men in the terrible madness of the First World War. This, the first anthology of women war poets for over sixty years, will come as a surprise to many. It shows, for example, that women were writing protest poetry before Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and that the view of 'the women at home', ignorant and idealistic, was quite false. Many of these poems come out of direct experiences of nursing the victims of trench warfare, or the pain of lovers, brothers, sons lost. Poets include: Nancy Cunard, Rose Macaulay, Charlotte Mew, Alice Meynell, Edith Nesbit, Edith Sitwell, Marie Stopes, Katharine Tynan. Here, as elsewhere, 'the poetry is in the pity' - a moving record of women's experience of war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:07 -0400)

This anthology of women war poets shows that women were writing protest poetry before Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Many of the poems come out of direct experiences of nursing the victims of trench warfare, or the pain of lovers, brothers, sons, lost. Originally published: 1981.… (more)

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