“And then you turned to me and with low voice
(The tables were abuzz with revelry),
‘I have a toast for you and me,’ you said,
And whispered, ‘Absent,’ and we drank
Our unforgotten Dead.”
Considering the amount of attention given to the soldier-poets (and I would be the first to admit that they take up most of my interest), it’s a shame how little the women writers of the Great War receive. Aside from Vera Brittain (and perhaps one or two others), I imagine that, generally speaking, most people would find it difficult to compile a list of female poets of the time—myself included. I have a small selection of whom I am aware and fond of: May Wedderburn Cannan, Margaret Postgate Cole, Eleanor Farjeon, Eva Dobell, Charlotte Mew, Sara Teasdale, to name a few—but I could make no pretence of knowing a great deal about their lives or complete oeuvres of work. Of those listed, Wedderburn Cannan is my favourite and, actually, she is the exception to the above rule. I’ve studied a lot of her poetry from her three published anthologies (In War Time, 1917, The Splendid Days, 1919, The House of Hope, 1923), the first two of which are available to read in full online here and here, and I’ve read a little of her memoir.
For a little bit of brief, historical context, May was the daughter of Charles Cannan, who was Dean of Trinity College and ran the Oxford University Press until he passed away just after the end of the war. When she turned 18 in 1911, May trained in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, only to be later told that VAD hospitals were not going to be used. In 1915, she spent four weeks running a railway canteen in Rouen, before returning home and volunteering at Clarendon Press, producing propaganda material. She returned to France in 1918 to work in the War Office Department in Paris. Her fiancé survived the combat, only to die during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, and so, she later married Percival Slater, who had been a balloonist in the war. After her death in 1973, her autobiographical volume (Grey Ghosts and Voices), which reflects on her wartime experiences, was published.
I mentioned in a previous post that ‘Rouen’ is one of my favourite pieces to read aloud, mostly because of May’s evocative descriptions and slow exploration of each of the senses, but so many of her poems are beautifully written. The striking lines at the beginning of this entry are taken from ‘Paris, November 11, 1918’, a day which she also recollects in Grey Ghosts and Voices: “That night it was all over Paris. There were sounds of cheering and rejoicing down the Boulevards as I walked home. The Pension produced some champagne at dinner and we drank the loyal toast. And then across the table G. lifted her glass to me and said “Absent”. I did not know her story nor she mine, but I drank to my friends who were dead and to my friends who, wounded, imprisoned, battered, shaken, exhausted, were alive in a new, and a terrible world.”
May is a moving, vivid, authentic insight into the heartbreak of the home front, both during and after the war, and I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend reading some of her works, if you’re not already familiar with them.
You can read my article on May for History of War’s blog here.