'But Who Considers Woman Day by Day?' Australian Women Poets and World War I

By Sharkey, Michael | Australian Literary Studies, April 2007 | Go to article overview

'But Who Considers Woman Day by Day?' Australian Women Poets and World War I


Sharkey, Michael, Australian Literary Studies


WHAT is striking about Australian women's war poetry written during or soon after World War I is the range of subject matter, variety of moods, and extent of experimentation within and beyond received form. The poetry also reflects a wide range of domestic, professional and other backgrounds of the 'ordinary people' who chose to record their reactions to the war in verse. Just as striking is the extent to which Australian anthologists of war poetry have downplayed women's contributions. It is less surprising that English and American anthologists of war poetry have ignored Australian male and female poets' productions in general, though the reason has less to do with the quality of Australians' writing than with anthologists' and others' apparent failure to familiarise themselves with the output. (1) My consequent aim is to place on record an account of some of the war-related genres of Australian women's poetry.

Some poems indicate the extent to which some (perhaps most) Australian women poets located themselves inside what Jean Bethke Elshtain calls 'prototypical emblems and identities' that war brings to the fore (3). In this view, men fight 'as avatars of a nation's sanctioned violence', while women 'work and weep and sometimes protest within the frame of discursive practices that turn one out, militant mother and pacifist protestor alike, as the collective "other" to the male warrior' (3-4). Few poems elude the nets of rhetorical practices associated with wars prior to 1914, but those few reward discovery. The exultant tone of a woman simultaneously expressing relief for her release from the power of a brutal husband as a result of his death in battle, and her pride in her new status as a hero's widow might indicate either the fulfilment or the blurring of 'anticipated reactions', depending on one's alertness to irony. It has to be emphasised, though, that studies of World War I grief and mourning rarely point up divergence from the concept of men's business as warriors--or the obverse, ' shirkers' or ' slackers'--and women' s as ' sacrificial mothers', ' Beautiful Souls', or guilt-haunted atoners for their loved ones' deaths (Damousi 26-45, Elshtain 3-12, Winter 108-13). I conceive of the majority of the collective body of Australian women's poetry published in and shortly after World War I as reinforcing, with few exceptions, Winter's 'central theme': 'The powerful, and perhaps essential, tendency of ordinary people, of many faiths and none, to face together the emptiness, the nothingness of loss in war' (53).

Two major anthologies of First World War women's poetry in English or English translation have appeared since 1981: Catherine Reilly's Scars upon My Heart. Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War, an English publication (1981), and Margaret R. Higonnet's Lines of Fire: Women Writers of Worm War One (1999), an American collection that includes poems and prose by women of nations other than Britain and the United States. The former contains several American poets but no Australian writer, and the latter only one: Olive 'Jo' King, an ambulance driver in Serbia, who is represented by a single letter written to her father. (2) In Australia, women poets of the First World War are represented by a handful of poems in three anthologies. J.T. Laird's Other Banners: An Anthology of Australian Literature of the First Worm War (1971) contains one poem by Dorothea Mackellar, two by Mary Gilmore, one by Nettle Palmer, and an excerpt from Zora Cross's Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy. (3) In his 1970 survey essay on Australian poetry of the First World War, Laird mentioned only Zora Cross and Mary Gilmore as producing 'some quite good war poetry, which included poems in the pacifist tradition' (244). Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Peter Pierce included Gilmore's 'Gallipoli' in their otherwise all-male 1984 anthology, Clubbing of the Gunfire. 101 Australian War Poems.

David Holloway's 1987 collection, Dark Somme Flowing: Australian Verse of the Great War 1914-1918 includes fifteen women poets and sixty male writers of the actual period, as well as the claim that this selection is 'not based on poetic worth' (4). …

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