Sunday Poetry – Wilfred Owen

With Armistice Day only a few days away, I’ve been reading my favourite war poets. This is a less familiar poem by Wilfred Owen with the poignant title The Next War. Unfortunately there’s always a next war. “The war to end all wars” was a phrase that was nonsense almost as soon as it was coined.

War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,-
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, -knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

Sunday Poetry – Ivor Gurney

Tomorrow is Anzac Day & I’ve been reading this new anthology of First World War poetry edited by Tim Kendall so I wanted to feature a war poet in Sunday Poetry today.
Last week I watched this excellent TV program about Ivor Gurney, one of the soldier poets of the Great War (George Simmers’s blog is a wonderful resource about the Great War, by the way). Gurney survived the war but spent the last 15 years of his life in an asylum. He was a wonderful poet & musician. He studied at the Royal College of Music & wrote some beautiful songs. Here’s a link to Bryn Terfel singing Sleep, one of Gurney’s five Elizabethan songs.

One of the poems featured in the program was this one, The Silent One. It was written long after the war, when Gurney was in the asylum. His war experience was central to his life & he revisited it in his poetry during the first years in the asylum. His failure to get his poetry published depressed him further & he seems to have stopped writing after the mid 1920s. He died in 1937.

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two  –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes  – and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music – and swore deep heart’s oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen
.

Sunday Poetry – Siegfried Sassoon

I receive a daily email from the website Interesting Literature. Five interesting things that happened on this day, five things you may not have known about a writer or a book. Last week, there was a post on their list of the ten war poems they think everyone should read. They limited it to WWI &, although there were several of my favourites in the list, there were also a few I didn’t know, including this one, Dreamers, by Siegfried Sassoon. It’s a quiet poem, with none of the rage that infuses his best-known work. I love the image of soldiers dreaming of home & normality while they’re in the middle of the most horrendous, unnatural period of their lives.

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.  
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.  
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win  
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,  
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain  
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

The Deepening Stream – Dorothy Canfield Fisher

We’ve come up with several acronyms in my online reading group, including HIU – have it unread (for books that someone mentions that other members own & immediately rush to the shelves & plan to read next). I came up with a new one just recently, RIAL – read it at last. The Deepening Stream was first mentioned in our group at least three years ago. I was enthusiastic, ordered a copy but then, by the time it arrived, I’d moved on & it sat on the tbr shelves. I picked it up several times but didn’t actually begin reading it. Then, I saw a review of it on the blog TBR 313 & I just knew I had to read it at once. I didn’t even finish reading the review for fear of learning too much about the book.

I loved this book & can’t imagine why it took me so long to get around to reading it. It’s the coming of age story of Matey Gilbert. We first meet Matey (her name is Penelope & the nickname is never explained) as a small child, living in France with her parents & siblings Priscilla & Francis. Her parents are an unhappy couple, forever trying to get the better of each other. Her father is a literature professor in the States who needs frequent sabbaticals in Europe but only French-speaking countries. Her mother takes up new enthusiasms & new friends, only to have her husband sneer at them. All three children are scarred by the experience of tiptoeing around their parents. Priscilla grows up to be afraid of relationships. When she does marry, it’s to an older widower who is looking for a mother for his children rather than a wife. Francis projects confidence but covers up his hurt with a brash exterior. Matey is more vulnerable but learns to cope by avoiding confrontation & through the love of her dog, Sumner. Only when her father is dying does Matey see the real depth of love between her parents.

As a young woman, Matey goes back to her mother’s home town of Rustdorf in Dutchess County, New York when she receives an unexpected inheritance. There she meets her extended family, many of them Quakers, including a cousin, Adrian Fort, who works in his family’s bank. Matey & Adrian fall in love & their marriage is the beginning of Matey’s blossoming. She realises that there can be a true partnership in marriage, without the game playing her parents indulged in. When the Great War breaks out, Matey & Adrian decide to go to France. Matey had stayed in touch with Madame Vinet & her family, with whom she had stayed as a child & Adrian had spent some time studying art in Paris before he decided he didn’t have the talent to be an artist. They speak excellent French & when they hear from the Vinets of the hardships that the French are suffering, Adrian decides to become an ambulance driver & Matey to help the Vinets in any way she can. By this time they have two small children &, although they have some qualms about taking their children to Europe in the circumstances, they are determined to do something. The next four years are spent helping refugees & providing a place for soldiers on leave to rest & get news of their families through Madame Vinet’s network of friends. When the war ends, Matey & her family return to Rustdorf, to recover from the trauma of their experiences & to try to make their lives valuable & worthwhile in the post-war world.

This is such an absorbing book. I admired the accuracy of Canfield Fisher’s psychological insights into the mind of a sensitive child like Matey even though I’ve never really been interested in books written from a child’s eye view. I usually skim the opening chapters of biographies too, especially when they go back several generations. However, here it was compelling. Once Matey grows up & visits Rustdorf, I couldn’t put the book down. This is where Matey begins to develop as a person, the deepening stream of her personality begins to emerge from her troubled childhood. We also begin to see her through the eyes of others, Adrian & his father, & she becomes part of their family which is also her own. On the journey to France, with the threat of torpedoes ever-present, Matey realises that no fear will ever really affect her like the fears of her childhood,

It was true. This was not her first encounter with fear. She had met it years ago, and what she felt now could not be compared to that black helpless waiting for catastrophe of the child she had been, tragically unfortified, like all children, by experience. Nothing had then come into her life strong enough to stand between her and her fear – over the oatmeal, bitter as poison on bad mornings – that there was nothing real in life but the wish to hurt. That had been true despair. But this present danger – all that was not physical in her stood apart from it, unthreatened, secure.

The war section of the book is based on Canfield Fisher’s own life as she & her husband did just what Matey & Adrian do. I know a little of Canfield Fisher’s life through reading Willa Cather’s Letters among other things but I would love to read her own letters & more of her fiction. I read The Home-Maker years ago when it was reprinted as one of the first Persephones & I’ve read some of her short stories. These wartime scenes are wonderful. I loved all the domestic detail of how Matey & Madame Vinet scrimped & saved to put food on the table, how they contrived to get news of soldiers to their families as well as the more personal troubles of the Vinets – Henri & Paul in the Army & Ziza, Matey’s closest friend from childhood, keeping her husband’s business going in the countryside but with secrets of her own that estrange her from her mother. Matey identifies so much with the Vinets & the French people that she struggles to understand her brother, Francis, when he arrives in Paris with a delegation when America enters the war. His priority is to use America’s wealth to win the war & if he makes a profit out of it, all the better. Another instance of how their childhood experiences have shaped their lives. Francis sees his money as a shield against trouble while Matey uses an inheritance from her great-great-aunt Constance to finance the trip to France & their war work. I felt as exhausted as Matey & Adrian when they finally return home & have to pick up the threads of their old lives. There’s a real sense of peace at the end of the book which is very satisfying,

Her years with Adrian answered that question, stood before her, beckoning her on. She walked forward again. Had Adrian ever needed words to share with her all she had learned from him? The medium for the communication of the spirit is not words, but life.

Sunday Poetry – Rupert Brooke & Vera Brittain

I finished rereading Testament of Youth last week so two more poems, both quoted in the book, before I move on to something else.

Vera quotes this sonnet by Rupert Brooke, Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, in the aftermath of Victor’s death. He was blinded at Arras & Vera returned home from nursing in Malta with the idea of marrying Victor & looking after him. However, Victor died soon after she returned &, as she admits, such a marriage would have been a disaster for both of them.

Not with vain tears, when we’re beyond the sun,
We’ll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air,
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering ghost-forgotten nook, and there

Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know, and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes.

In 1919 Vera returned to Oxford to take up her studies. After four years away, she felt lonely & depressed. She was also suffering from what would today be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She had dreams of Edward & Roland returning or that they were still alive but so badly wounded that they didn’t want to be seen. She also had hallucinations, imagining that her face was changing & that she was growing a beard, like a witch. This almost unbearably sad poem, Boar’s Hill, October 1919, was written at this time & later published in the 1920 edition of Oxford Poetry.

Tall slender beech-trees, whispering, touched with fire.
Swaying at even beneath a desolate sky;
Smouldering embers aflame where the clouds hurry by
To the wind’s desire.

Dark sombre woodlands, rain-drenched by the scattering shower,
Spindle that quivers and drops its dim berries to earth —
Mourning, perhaps, as I mourn here alone for the dearth
Of a happier hour.

Can you still see them, who always delighted to roam
Over the Hill where so often together we trod
When winds of wild autumn strewed summer’s dead leaves on the sod,
Ere your steps turned home?

Sunday Poetry – Vera Brittain

I’m rereading Testament of Youth again after seeing the new movie version last weekend. I enjoyed the movie, Alicia Vikander was wonderful, & the changes to the story didn’t irritate me as much as I thought they might. But, it didn’t affect me emotionally as reading the book always does. It’s been a few years since I last read it & I find something different in every reading. This time, I’m noticing how much foreshadowing Vera does in her telling of her story. The shadow of Roland & Edward’s deaths are there from the very beginning & I wondered how much the first readers knew of her story before they read the book. She certainly doesn’t lead up to the tragedy gently by painting a picture of pre-war paradise. Maybe that’s what makes reading Testament of Youth such a personal experience.

I’m up to December 1915. Vera is nursing in London & about to go on leave to meet Roland in Brighton but she won’t be meeting him because he dies of wounds just before he was due to go on leave. I don’t know when Vera wrote this poem, but I think it would have been very soon after Roland’s death, the feelings are so raw.

Perhaps –
(To R.A.L. died of wounds in France,
December 23rd, 1915)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago
.

Sunday Poetry – Roland Leighton

I’ve spent the last week absorbed in reading about Vera Brittain & yesterday, on Anzac Day, I saw the new film of Testament of Youth. As scenes of parting at railway stations seem to be central to so many stories of WWI, here is a poem Vera wrote after saying goodbye to Roland.

St Pancras Station, August 1915

One long, sweet kiss pressed close upon my lips,
One moment’s rest on your swift-beating heart,
And all was over, for the hour had come
For us to part.

A sudden forward motion of the train,
The world grown dark although the sun still shone,
One last blurred look through aching tear-dimmed eyes – 
And you were gone.

I can’t resist adding one of Roland’s poems as well. I’ve always loved this one, with its wistful poignancy. He was killed just a month later, just before Christmas 1915.

Hedauville, November 1915

The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill,
Are waiting for you still.

Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples round your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, Sweet.

And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go –
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)
It will be better so
.

Vera Brittain and the First World War – Mark Bostridge

The new movie based on Vera Brittain’s autobiography Testament of Youth is just about to be released in Australia. Testament of Youth is one of my favourite books & I’ve already posted about it here so there’s not much chance that I won’t go along to see the movie (you can see the trailer here). Mark Bostridge co-wrote a biography of Vera with Paul Berry, her literary executor & he was a consultant on the new film. This book, which combines biography with the story of how Testament of Youth was written & the afterlife of the book as television series, ballet & now film, is a useful introduction to Vera Brittain’s life.

I have to say that this book is probably most useful to someone who sees the movie & wants to know a little more about Vera’s life. Having read everything I can get my hands on by & about Vera since reading Testament of Youth in the late 70s, there wasn’t anything very new here. The first chapters tell the story of Vera’s life as a provincial young lady in Buxton, her struggle to be allowed to study at Oxford, her close relationship with her brother, Edward & her meeting with Roland Leighton, the young man she fell in love with & who was killed just before Christmas 1915. Vera had decided to postpone her studies to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse & worked in hospitals in London, Malta & France. After the war, when she had lost everyone who was closest to her, Vera returned to Oxford, meeting Winifred Holtby, who became her closest friend, & becoming a writer & lecturer, living in London. Vera married George Catlin in 1925 & had two children, but her wartime experiences never ceased to occupy her thoughts & she tried many different ways of telling her story.

War memoirs weren’t wanted in the immediate aftermath of the war & it wasn’t until the late 1920s that people wanted to read about the war. Vera had tried to reimagine her experiences as fiction; she tried to have her wartime diary published but finally she decided to write a memoir of her life which would take in more than just the war years. Testament of Youth covers 1900-1925, Vera’s childhood in Buxton, her desire to study & the years after 1918 when Vera tried to make a new life for herself after the shattering experiences & losses of the war. At the core of the book, however, are those four years of the war & the very personal story she tells of her love for Roland, her friendships with two other men, Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow, her love for her brother, Edward, & her own war service as a nurse. As well as telling her own story, Vera wrote the book as a tribute to the men she lost & also to emphasize the fact that women & women’s work played a vital part in the war effort. Testament of Youth was one of the first books to explore women’s experiences of the war. It may not have been the first book to do so but it was certainly the most successful.

The success of Testament of Youth changed Vera’s life. I enjoyed reading about the way Vera went about writing the book, because I love reading about how writers work, the changes she made to her feelings & responses to events as shown in her diaries & letters of the time & the way she shaped the narrative. The most interesting section of this book was the description of how Testament of Youth was rediscovered in the 1970s (unfortunately after Vera’s death) by Virago which led to the wonderful TV series with Cheryl Campbell. The feminist movement was instrumental in rediscovering books like Testament of Youth that described the experiences of women in a conflict dominated by the war memoirs & poetry of men – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon & Robert Graves. I didn’t know that a ballet, Gloria, by Kenneth MacMillan, had been based on the book.

The production of the new movie is described with Bostridge’s personal experiences of being on the set. There’s also a chapter taken from Lives For Sale, a book about the experiences of biographers edited by Bostridge that explores in more depth the death of Edward Brittain & how Bostridge wrote his biography in collaboration with Paul Berry. Lives For Sale, by the way, is an excellent book about the writing of biography with chapters by Antonia Fraser, Hermione Lee, Lyndall Gordon, Margaret Forster & Claire Tomalin among many others. Bostridge also includes a Gazetteer of the places associated with Vera’s life & there are many photos included throughout the text as well as colour plates from the new film. So, I would have to say that this book is really only for the Vera Brittain completist (like me) or for someone who sees the film & wants to explore Vera’s life a little more. I’d be more inclined to say, read Testament of Youth, I’m sure I’ll be rereading it after seeing the new movie but if 600+pp is a little daunting, this book does concentrate on the period of the film.

On a bit of a tangent, I came across this wonderful blog, A Bluestocking Knits, where I read this fascinating post on the accuracy or otherwise of the knitwear in the new film. There’s also a link to this article in Harper’s Bazaar on the costumes, including some gorgeous hats. (Have a look at the Bluestocking’s post on the TV series Outlander as well – haven’t seen the series but loved the first four books before I lost interest). I’m sure I’ll be nitpicking about any changes to the book in the screenplay but the clothes look fabulous.

Sunday Poetry – Vera Brittain

Next Saturday is Anzac Day & I’ve been reading about Vera Brittain this week so I thought I would post one of the poems she wrote during the Great War. They were published as Verses of a V.A.D. in 1918 & the subjects range from her war service in London, Malta & France to laments for the young men she lost. This poem was written in response to the death of Geoffrey Thurlow, one of the four men Vera knew well who were killed. It’s taken from Because You Died : Poetry and prose of the First World War and after. edited by Mark Bostridge.

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T
(Killed in action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
and thoughts of you rose often – longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth right’s offering to the sword.

So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Beyond the Battlefield : women artists of the two World Wars – Catherine Speck

This beautiful book describes the lives & careers of some of the many women war artists who produced work during World War One & Two. Catherine Speck is Professor of Art History at the University of Adelaide & she has brought together the work of 62 artists from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada & the US. All were professionally trained but rarely officially employed or sanctioned.  Official schemes employing war artists were dominated by men working in the field & on the front line. The paintings, drawings & photographs produced by women artists concentrate on the Home Front but also include scenes in factories, the women’s services & hospitals. There are some famous names here – Margaret Preston, Laura Knight, Lee Miller, Stella Bowen. More often, I’d never heard of the artist but the work reproduced in this book is always interesting & often very moving.

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book & I’ve had to return it to the library because it was reserved so here are just a few pictures showing the wide range of work & subject matter in Beyond the Battlefield.

This is Sybil Craig’s picture of women working in a cordite factory in Maribyrnong, Melbourne in 1945.

Olive Mudie-Cooke was a British artist who was in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) during WWI & served in France & Italy. I love this watercolour on brown paper of an ambulance. After the war, she was commissioned to produce this work of her time as a nurse.

Ethel Gabain was commissioned during WWII to document the aftermath of bombing raids in London. This is called Bombed Out Bermondsey, 1941.

This is a famous picture by Dame Laura Knight, Corporal J D M Pearson, GC, WAAF, 1940. Daphne Pearson was the first woman to receive the George Cross for gallantry. She rescued a pilot from his burning aircraft when it crashed on landing at an airfield in Kent. when the plane’s bombs exploded, she sheltered the pilot with her body & used her steel helmet to protect his head.

I’ve put myself back in the reservation queue for this book as I’ve only had a chance to skim the surface of the fascinating stories of the women artists that Catherine Speck has researched & recovered from obscurity.