American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29
Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:
Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Female Poets of the First World War:
A Study in the Diversity for the Fifth Grade
Social Studies Curriculum
Reexamining the Neglected Female Experience of War
The elementary school social studies curriculum is beginning to take
seriously the requirements of social history. The single political narrative
with its emphasis on events and personalities, or what Paul Veyne negatively
refers to as a history of treaties and battles, has shown
itself incapable of conveying the complexities of an era or event (Kusch
170). In an effort to extend the parameters of their students historical
consciousness, teachers now routinely include art history, dramatic role
playing, and literature in their social study lessons. These creative
curricular practices are validated by wholistic learning, especially in
reading the fictional writings of children, women, and minorities
groups which, for the most part, have been overlooked in the annals of
Trying to make sense of such diversity requires the exercise of considerable
historical imagination. An approach to the study of history is needed
which fosters in students the ability to find meaning in a multiplicity
of experiences without relying on any single unifying concept. History
becomes a matter of inquiry and debate, of engaging students in the process
of interpreting and synthesizing opposing discourses, and of understanding
the reciprocal effect that the past and the present have on one another.
Students who enter into a thoughtful dialogue with the past will, as Nietzsche
put it, understand that a vision of the past turns them toward the
future, . . . kindles the hope that justice will yet come and happiness
is behind the mountain they are climbing. (Nietzsche 10). Such a pronouncement
on the need to inform the future with hope, means imparting to students
the habits of intellect which allow them to question and overturn the
authority of historical texts. The challenge becomes one of constructing
new meaning in the light of recent discoveries. Believing that all historical
research is a constructive endeavor François Furet writes:
. . . todays historian must give up methodological naivety and think about
the conditions under which historical knowledge is established . . . the
mask of some kind of historical objectivity hidden in the facts and
discovered at the same time as them, has been removed forever; the historian
can no longer avoid being aware that he has constructed his facts. . . .
Womens poetry of the First World War represents one of those recently
exhumed discourses whose critical appreciation can do much to explicate
the intricate social record of the period. An instructional unit devoted
to this topic has been included in my revised fifth grade social studies
curriculum project. The purpose is to show the ways in which a historical
period is constituted through a multiplicity of forces, ideologies, and
contradictions. Children begin to understand the effect the war had on
a significant part of the population. As Frances Hallowes writes: The
sufferings of women through war . . . are seldom dwelt upon. Books and treatises
dealing with . . . war almost invariably omit to mention the damage done
to one half of the human race (Khan 2). This observation, which
Hallowes made in her book Women and War in 1914, anticipates our
present need to broaden the scope of the regular social studies curriculum.
The emotional responses of the male combatants were well documented in
the poetry of the soldier poets. Their journey from idealism to bitterness
began with Rupert Brookes sublime patriotic verse and ended in the angrily
censured poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg.
Women were also writing about their experiences of the war and documenting
the transformations in their subjectivity with clarity and enthusiasm.
Catherine W. Reillys English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography,
identified 532 female poets within a larger field of 2,225 British
war poets. Venues for womens poetry included newspapers, self-published
pamphlets and inexpensive broadsheets intended for sale to a mass market
(Reilly 1982, xxxiii).
Anthologies of war poetry did include female poets, but their contributions
rarely received the same critical attention as those of their male colleagues.
This biased assessment reflects the atavistic belief that war was the
responsibility of men, and what women had to say on the subject was trivial
and anecdotal. This becomes increasingly apparent in the vogue for verse
written by the soldier poets. Galloway Kyles Soldier Poets (1916;
second series 1917) and E.B. Osborns The Muse in Arms (1917)
were important anthologies in the canonization of poetic taste, and in
perpetuating the myth of a single war narrative comprised of the heroic
and courageous deeds of the fighting men (Hibberd and Onions
3). It was only with the advent of Womens Studies that the critical apparatus
of the Academy began to examine the multiple viewpoints of female poets.
What emerges is a complex narrative chronicling womens responses to the
exigencies of the war, from the romantic and jingoistic to the growing
militancy of the politically discontent.
The Themes of Womens War Poetry:
A Diverse Sampling
The varied and complex female experience of the First World War finds
expression in the poetry women were writing throughout the conflict. Any
attempt to see women as preternaturally compassionate and tenderhearted
maintains a pattern of subtle discrimination and inequality. Even a brief
survey of the major themes in womens war poetry discourages the reader
from imagining there could be anything resembling a monolithic female
experience of war. What this means for students is that a number of accessible
avenues into the complex social structures of the First World War are
now open to them.
This is not to assign grades of high meaning to mens poetry and low
meaning to womens poetry. The difference in meaning resides in the use
of metaphors and not solely in a sex/gender distinction. Female poets
tended to use the traditional metaphors of departing husbands and dead
sons and brothers to express feelings of loss and sorrow, images which
children are capable of responding to with a degree of authentic understanding.
The soldier poets, on the other hand, objectified their overwhelming sense
of grief in verse laden with graphic descriptions of the wars atrocities.
The poetic productions of women during the First World War encompassed
the entire political spectrum from patriotic fervor to pacifistic opposition.
Female poets were writing the same popular jingoistic verse as their male
colleagues, but they were also capable of rivaling the best efforts of
such soldier poets as Sassoon, Owen, and Rosenberg the recognized
masters of realistic unsentimentalized war verse. Women were now in a
position to offer a stringent critique of the institutionalized belief
that females relate to the world through subjective love relationships
while males find purpose and meaning through their superior pragmatic
intellects. This sexist pronouncement can be seen in Georgette Agnews
1914 poem The Mother (Khan 156): Men live/ In every
noble word and deed/ More than in flesh . . ./ Ah! mothers need those smiles
Trembling females begging for protection from stalwart males were popular
images at the beginning of the war, but the horrors of the Western Front
did much to subvert the idea of specific gender-based responses. Male
combatants writing emotionally charged love elegies to dead comrades was
a common poetic trope for the soldier poet. Ivor Gurney, who survived
the trenches only to slip into total madness in 1922, eulogized his fallen
comrade in the poem To His Love (Lehman 90):
Hes gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
Well walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
. . . .
Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of membered flowers
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
In their capacity as nurses and field amulance drivers female poets quickly
dispelled the myth of their natural hysteria. Recovering the
dead and wounded from the battlefield as well as tending the sick and
dying in hospitals were responsibilities managed to a large extent by
women. Their intimate knowledge of suffering and death influenced women
to write verse stripped of the sentimental and jingoistic. Winifred M.
Letts, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (V.A.D.), describes in her poem,
Screens (In a Hospital) a scene she must have witnessed on
numerous occasions (Reilly 1982, 62). A dying soldier treated with hushed
deference expires unseen behind the obligatory red screens:
They put the screens around his bed;
a crumpled heap I saw him lie,
White counterpane and rough dark head,
those screens they showed that he would die.
The put the screens about his bed;
We might not play the gramophone,
And so we played at cards instead
And left him dying there alone.
The covers on the screens are red,
The counterpanes are white and clean;
He might have lived and loved and wed
But now hes done for at nineteen.
An ounce or more of Turkish lead,
He got his wounds at Sulva Bay
Theyve brought the Union Jack to spread
Upon him when he goes away.
Hell want those three red screens no more,
Another man will get his bed,
Well make the row we did before
But Jove! Im sorry that hes dead.
For the female poet, the hospital was the site where caregiving and
indignation met to constitute an important new sub-genre of war poetry.
In many ways our collective memory of that entire hospital experience
of the First World War can be reconstructed in the writings of the female
poet nurses. Deep feelings of frustration and anger abound in the sentimental
images they used to protest the incomprehensible suffering of the soldiers
in their charge. In Night Duty Eva Dobell evokes feelings
of compassion and pity in her description of the hospitalized soldiers
she encountered daily as a V.A.D. (Reilly 1982, 32):
The pain and laughter of the day are done
So strangely hushed and still the long ward seems,
Only the Sisters candle softly beams.
Clear from the church near by the clock strikes one;
And all are wrapt away in secret sleep and dreams.
. . . .
Here one cries sudden on a sobbing breath,
Gripped in the clutch of some incarnate fear:
What terror through the darkness draweth near?
What memory of carnage and of death?
What vanished scenes of dread to his closed eyes appear?
And one laughs out with an exultant joy.
An athlete he Maybe his young limbs strain
In some remembered game, and not in vain
To win his side the goal Poor crippled boy,
Who in the waking world will never run again.
. . . .
Sarah Macnaughton came to know the violence of the war intimately while
serving in a hospital unit in Belgium and France from 1914 until her death
in 1916. In her book My War Experiences in Two Continents
published posthumously in 1919 Macnaughton condemns the savagery
of trench warfare:
It is madness to slaughter these thousands of young men. Almost at last,
in a rage, one feels inclined to cry out against the sheer imbecility
of it. Why bring lives into this world and shell them out of it with jagged
pieces of iron, and knives thrust through their quivering flesh? The pain
of it all is too much. I am sick with seeing suffering. (Khan 109)
While many female poets were attempting to deal with the madness of the
war in realistic verse, there were those poets whose propagandistic intentions
glorified death in battle. Constance Ada Renshaw typifies the latter group
in her desire to attach a higher moral purpose to the war. Her romantic
sonnet The Noble Height compares the waste and ruin of the
trenches to the chivalric adventures of a medieval knight (Khan 13). The
nobility of war and the honor of suffering and dying in a great moral
contest reflect the kind of naive patriotism that popular poets used to
glorify the war.
He tossed his shield in the bleak face of Fate;
He dreamed of riding out on splendid quests,
Threading dim forests . . .
Thundering at some foemans stubborn gate.
His heart throbbed like a sea. Romance was great
In him: His soul was lustful of red war;
. . . .
Desires are fled, dreams richly sacrificed;
Romance ebbs with is blood into the night
. . . .
The metaphor of the soldier as medieval knight enjoyed great popularity
throughout the war. Its strong association with the traditional male virtues
of endurance and self-sacrifice made explicit its association with the
righteousness of the national war effort. The lone knight confronting
some mythical beast of menacing size appeared on the propaganda posters
of all the belligerent nations. It quickly became the recognized signifier
of the national psyche in its struggle against the enemy as embodied evil.
Utilizing the image of the knight Katharine Tynan romanticizes the horrors
of the war in her poem New Haven of 1915 (Foxcroft 148):
Paradise now has many a Knight,
Many a lordkin, many lords,
Glimmer of armor, dinted and bright,
The young Knights have put on new swords.
Some have barely down on the lip,
Smiling yet from the new-won spurs,
Their wounds are rubies, glowing and deep,
Their scars amethyst-glorious scars.
Michaels army hath many new men,
Gravest Knights that may sit in stall
Kings and Captains, a shining train,
But the little young Knights are dearest of all.
Paradise now is the soldiers land
Their own country its shining sod,
Comrades all in a merry band;
And the young Knights Laughter pleaseth God.
Renshaw and Tynans commitment to the rhetoric of patriotism indicate
their willingness to accept patriarchys prescribed categories of behavior.
Portrayed as selfless wives and mothers or as faithful sweethearts
women continued to signify all that was worth fighting for and comforting
about ones homeland. Their poems achieved sentimental effects by casting
women as the helpless uninformed victims of political events far beyond
their understanding. Winifred M. Letts The Call to Arms In our Street
takes up the theme of the physically and emotionally restrained woman (Foxcroft
Theres a woman sobs her heart out,
With her head against the door,
For the man thats called to leave her,
God have pity on the poor!
But its beat, drums, beat
While the lads march down the street,
And its blow, trumpets blow,
Keep your tears until they go.
Theres a crowd of little children
That march along and shout,
For its fine to play at soldiers
Now their fathers are called out.
So its beat, drums, beat;
But wholl find them food to eat?
And its blow, trumpets, blow,
Oh, its little children know.
Theres a mother who stands watching
For the last look of her son,
A worn poor widow woman,
And he her only one,
But its beat, drums, beat,
Though God knows when we shall meet:
And its blow trumpets, blow
We must smile and cheer them so.
Theres a young girl who stands laughing
For she thinks a war is grand
And its fine to see the lads pass,
And its fine to hear the band,
So its beat, drums, beat,
To the fall of many feet:
And its blow, trumpets, blow,
God go with you where you go.
The theme of the emotionally fragile woman finds its ultimate expression in the pathos-filled sub-genre of the grieving mother. The anguish mothers endured in sending their sons off to war or in burying them found ample expression in the poetry of the period. Poetry dedicated to the suffering mother attempted to make sense of the massacre of a generation of womens young sons, but its popularity as a poetic trope had significance far beyond that of simple national catharsis. It had something basic to say about the position of women in a society which desperately required the preservation of the myth of the long suffering woman/mother figure in order to continue the war. Blanche Adelaide Brock is representative of a large group of jingoistic female writers who celebrated, in high-blown patriotic verse, the sorrows of grieving women as the noble trophies of national pride. The imperialist tone of those fervently patriotic female writers clearly reveals itself in Brocks British Mothers (Khan 153):
For she was formed of British Mould
And never would have known content
Had her son not his aid have lent
To save his countrys honor, as brave sons of old.
He was her All, and ill too,
But for her countrys Faith and Truth
She bravely helped him to prepare
To face the foe, and bear his share
Of hardships, and of Glory, like true British youth.
May Herschel-Clarkes 1917 poem The Mother is a melancholy reverie about the fate of a distant son (Hibberd and Onions 121). The mournful elegiac tone of the poem is typical of the verse written to memorialize the sorrows of grieving mothers, but the conventions of the poetic form required a grateful acknowledgment of the sons untimely death, received and offered up by the mother on the altars of nationalism.
Written after reading Rupert Brookes sonnet, The Soldier:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That theres some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
If you should die, think only this of me
In that still quietness where is space for thought,
Where parting, loss and bloodshed shall not be,
And men may rest themselves and dream of nought:
That is some place a mystic mile away
One whom you loved has drained the bitter cup
Till there is nought to drink; has faced the day
Once more, and now, has raised the standard up.
And think, my son, with eyes grown clear and dry
She lives as though for ever in your sight,
Loving the things you loved, with heart aglow
For country, honour, truth, traditions high,
Proud that you paid their price. (And if some night
Her heart should break well, lad, you will not know.)
Why the suffering mother theme should persist in popularity requires a complex polemical response. The reverence owed maternity as the source of life was easily transferable in the popular imagination to the state in its capacity as the progenitor of political life. Louis Raemaekers, an American political cartoonist of the First World War, conveys the strong sense of nationalism contained in the figure of woman in a charming 1917 drawing. Columbia, the personification of America, embraces her older sister Marianne, as the symbolic representation of France, with the caption When I Was A Child It Was You Who Saved Me.
American women made significant contributions to the poetic discourse of war, but their poetry has always been considered adjunct to British womens war verse. Why this should be the case has to do not only with the relative dearth of American womens poetry, but also with Americas physical and emotional distance from Englands horrific and prolonged suffering. After 1917, the poetic forms American writers used either to praise or condemn the war had already been thoroughly exploited by British writers. The American writer Ruth Comfort Mitchell stresses the division that existed between the fighting mens brutal reality and the sentimental deceptions of the civilians in her poem He Went For A Soldier (Reilly 1982, 75):
He marched away with a blithe young score of him
With the first volunteers,
Clear-eyed and clean and sound to the core of him,
Blushing under the cheers.
They were fine, new flags that swung a flying there,
Oh, the pretty girls he glimpsed a-crying there,
Pelting him with pinks and with roses
Billy, the Soldier Boy!
. . . .
Soon he is one with the blinding smoke of it
Volley and curse and groan:
Then he has done with the knightly joke of it
Its rending flesh and bone.
There are pain-crazed animals a-shrieking there
And a warm blood stench that is a-reeking there;
He fights like a rat in a corner
Billy the Soldier Boy!
There he lies now, like a ghoulish score of him,
Left on the field for dead:
The ground all around is smeared with the gore of him
Even the leaves are red.
The Thing that was Billy lies a-dying there,
Writhing and a-twisting and a-crying there:
A sickening sun grins down on him
Billy, the Soldier Boy!
Being so far removed from the trenches allowed American women the luxury of examining the war with a kind of intellectual remoteness. Their intention was to reach the center of absolute understanding through the metaphysical contemplation of nature. Sara Teasdales 1918 poem There Will Come Soft Rains written in 1918 takes up the theme of natures disinterest in the affairs of warring nations (Reilly 1982, 110):
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Readers Making Meaning:
From Response to Interpretation
Is it really possible to have children understand the dynamics of a historical period by reading its poetry? For children teetering on the brink of adolescence, their intellectual and emotional development predisposes them to a symbolic exploration of the world through their passions. David Bleich believes that the subjectivity of literary responses precedes the seemingly objective analysis of a work: The separation of conscious judgment from its subjective roots is false and artificial (Bleich 49). Within this context of selfish motivation the poem affords students the opportunity to articulate their feelings and judgments about experiences outside their ego-restricted view of reality. Wordsworth speaks eloquently of the power poetry possess to moves us beyond ourselves:
All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. . . . Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing . . . its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives strength and divinity to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from he same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature. . . . (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, 36)
The benefits of linking literature with history are most apparent in a students ability to bring to bear a number of viewpoints on a single topic. This means that the poem must be seen as something other than a mere body of knowledge waiting to be imparted; that its real worth lies in its ability to elicit responses from students regarding the biases and flow of history. By honoring the significance of the students experience with the text, the past loses its fixity in time and reveals itself as the undeniable corollary of the present.
Jessie Popes The Call, read by my fifth-graders as an example of jingoistic verse, provoked their responses to the difficulties of chauvinistic loyalty and patriotism during war time issues about which students have opinions (Reilly 1982, 88):
Whos for the trench
Are you, my laddie?
Wholl follow French
Will you, my laddie?
Whos freeting to begin?
Whos going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin
Do you, my laddie?
Whos for the khaki suit
Are you, my laddie?
Who longs to charge and shoot
Do you, my laddie?
Whos keen on getting fit,
Who means to show his grit,
And whod rather wait a bit
Would you, my laddie?
Wholl earn the Empires thanks
Will you, my laddie?
Wholl swell the victors ranks
Will you, my laddie?
When that procession comes,
Banners and rolling drums
Wholl stand and bite his thumbs
Will you, my laddie?
I asked the following questions:
1. If you knew beforehand what a terrible place the trenches were, do you think you would be excited about going there?
2. Do you think those young men who were afraid to go to France to fight were unpatriotic or cowardly? What does patriotic mean? What does cowardly mean?
3. In line eleven, the poet makes it sound like fun to be charging into battle shouting and shooting. What do you think your response might be in a similar situation?
4. In line fifteen, the poet describes the embarrassment those men who refused to fight will feel when the returning soldiers are greeted with banners and rolling drums. What do you think the soldier might be feeling while marching in a victory parade? What do you think the soldier might say to the man who never enlisted, or vice versa?
Armed with a reading of the poem that was fuller and more thoroughly reasoned, students began the process of interpretation. Before this unit, the political story of the war had been balanced by a fairly comprehensive examination of the artistic productions architecture, painting, sculpture, music and dance of all the belligerent nations. This experience prepared students for their final task of analyzing the poetry, by this time sufficiently interpolated with a certain amount of social meaning. The goal was to have students see the poem functioning symbolically that is, to trigger responses in their minds. Reading womens poetry opens up the story of the First World War to the variety of student responses, and shows them that the complexities of the period cannot be restricted to a single political narrative.
Bleich, David. Readings and Feelings. An Introduction to Subjective Criticism. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1975.
Foxcroft, Frank, ed. War Verse. New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1918.
Furet, Francois. "Quantitative Methods in History," 1985, trans. D. Denby, in Le Goff and Nor, eds. Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 12-27.
Hibberd, Dominic and John Onions, ed. Poetry Of The Great War. An Anthology. New York: St. Martins Press, 1986.
Khan, Nosheen. Womens Poetry of the First World War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Kusch, Martin. Foucaults Strata And Fields. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.
Lehman, John. The English Poets of the First World War. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981
Nietzsche. The Use and Abuse of History. trans. Adrian Collins. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.
Raemaekers, Louis. America in the War. Cartoon. New York: Century Co., 1918
Reilly, Catherine W. English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography. New York: St. Martins Press, 1978.
,ed. Scars Upon My Heart: Womens Poetry and Verse of the First World War. London: Virago Press, 1982.
Wheeler, W. Reginald. A Book of Verse of the Great War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1917.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. London: Macmillan Press, 1972.
Randy Cummings is an elementary school art specialist with undergraduate and graduate degrees in Classics and Art History. Diverse experiences, from teaching Latin in a private school to being a university fine arts slide curator, preceded his present public school position. The cultural life of the twentieth century has always been of special interest to him. He was a 199394 ACLS teacher fellow.