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
Development Project



Randy Cummings

Ghosts Among Us/Ancestral Voices:
“What’s Past is Prologue”

Terry Moreland Henderson

Reflections on Lives Past
Fredric Lown

Poetry from the Far Side
Phyllis B. Schwartz

The Overwhelming Question:
Integrating the ACLS Curriculum Project,
“Teaching for Understanding,” and
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prucock”

Joan S. Soble

A Matter of Trust
Richard Young

Female Poets of the First World War:
A Study in the Diversity for the Fifth Grade
Social Studies Curriculum

Randy Cummings

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 traditional history.

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:

. . . today’s 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’. . . . (Furet 20)

Women’s 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 Brooke’s 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. Reilly’s 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 women’s 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 Kyle’s Soldier Poets (1916; second series 1917) and E.B. Osborn’s 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 Women’s Studies that the critical apparatus of the Academy began to examine the multiple viewpoints of female poets. What emerges is a complex narrative chronicling women’s responses to the exigencies of the war, from the romantic and jingoistic to the growing militancy of the politically discontent.

The Themes of Women’s 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 women’s 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 men’s poetry and low meaning to women’s 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 war’s 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 Agnew’s 1914 poem “The Mother” (Khan 156): “Men live/ In every noble word and deed/ More than in flesh . . ./ Ah! mothers need those smiles and eyes.”

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):

He’s gone, and all our plans
    Are useless indeed.
We’ll 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 he’s done for at nineteen.

An ounce or more of Turkish lead,
    He got his wounds at Sulva Bay
They’ve brought the Union Jack to spread
    Upon him when he goes away.

He’ll want those three red screens no more,
    Another man will get his bed,
We’ll make the row we did before
    But — Jove! — I’m sorry that he’s 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 Sister’s 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 foeman’s 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.

Michael’s 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 Tynan’s commitment to the rhetoric of patriotism indicate their willingness to accept patriarchy’s 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 one’s 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 33):

There’s a woman sobs her heart out,
With her head against the door,
For the man that’s 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.

There’s a crowd of little children
That march along and shout,
For it’s fine to play at soldiers
Now their fathers are called out.
    So its beat, drums, beat;
    But who’ll find them food to eat?
    And its blow, trumpets, blow,
    Oh, its little children know.

There’s 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.

There’s a young girl who stands laughing
For she thinks a war is grand
And it’s fine to see the lads pass,
And it’s 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 women’s 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 Brock’s “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 country’s honor, as brave sons of old.

He was her All, and ill too,
But for her country’s 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-Clarke’s 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 son’s untimely death, received and offered up by the mother on the altars of nationalism.

Written after reading Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s 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 women’s war verse. Why this should be the case has to do not only with the relative dearth of American women’s poetry, but also with America’s physical and emotional distance from England’s 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 men’s 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 —
    It’s 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 Teasdale’s 1918 poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” written in 1918 takes up the theme of nature’s 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 student’s 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 student’s experience with the text, the past loses its fixity in time and reveals itself as the undeniable corollary of the present.

Jessie Pope’s “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):

Who’s for the trench —
  Are you, my laddie?
Who’ll follow French —
  Will you, my laddie?
Who’s freeting to begin?
Who’s going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
  Do you, my laddie?

Who’s for the khaki suit —
  Are you, my laddie?
Who longs to charge and shoot —
  Do you, my laddie?
Who’s keen on getting fit,
Who means to show his grit,
And who’d rather wait a bit—
  Would you, my laddie?

Who’ll earn the Empire’s thanks —
  Will you, my laddie?
Who’ll swell the victor’s ranks—
  Will you, my laddie?
When that procession comes,
Banners and rolling drums —
Who’ll 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 women’s 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.

Works Cited

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. Women’s Poetry of the First World War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Kusch, Martin. Foucault’s 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: Women’s 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 1993–94 ACLS teacher fellow.

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