Women's Politics, Poetry, and the Feminist Historiography of the Great War

By Bell, Amy | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Women's Politics, Poetry, and the Feminist Historiography of the Great War


Bell, Amy, Canadian Journal of History


   Let me go far away so I shall not hear
   The deep insistent throbbing of the guns; they beat
   Forever day and night--my tired heart and brain
   Can find no rest, but beat and throb in unison. (1)

In her poem "The Sound of Flanders' Guns," Mary Beasley describes the physical proximity of southeast England to the soldiers in the trenches during the Great War of 1914-18. The metaphor of the speaker's heart beating in unison with the sound of the guns emphasizes the inescapable emotional and physical links between those at home and those at the front, and the shared tension and suffering they implied. The connections between home and front and between men and women form an integral theme of British women's poetry written during and about the Great War. Such connections have been recently explored in works on wartime citizenship by Nicoletta Gullace, Laura Nym Mayhall and Janet Watson, who argue that the war created new models of citizenship in which women of many political backgrounds sought a greater stake. (2) In this paper, women's wartime claims to participation in economic and political spheres during the war will be explored through their poetry.

British women were active subjects during the war, working, organizing, observing, and writing. (3) in this article, I want to go beyond a historiographical assessment of the war that sets up a boundary between the Western Front as a producer of meaning and authentic experience and the home front as essential and uncomprehending. The public civilian realm was the arena in which the causes and meanings of the war for Britain were first articulated, and new readings of civilian culture offer insights into how the war was conceived and waged at home, and how women presented their roles in war and politics. Thus I will read women's published poetry of the Great War as political and as feminist. (4)

Poetry was one of the most popular cultural forms of the 1914-18 war. As the Times noted, "In a time of stress like this, poetry's ancient claim to be the great consoler, the great lifegiver, justifies itself. And any poetry which has something to say, and says it truly and finely, is more read now that it has been for a long time." (5) The Georgian poets, anthologized by Edward Marsh from 1912 to 1922, had created and fed a new appetite for modern poetry, which the "psychological changes during the world-war" amplified. (6) Poetry was thus a powerful cultural and political medium, in which the contested meanings of the war could be expressed in metaphor and allusion. Poetry was also an art form accessible to British women. The arts had traditionally been more open to women than politics or science, and in the nineteenth century women writers had staked out their literary territory on a wide political spectrum. Women were a substantial part of the poetic tradition in wartime Britain, as writers and readers, and their wartime works offer an opportunity to examine how women writers positioned their sex as central to the war effort.

Poetry also had the advantage of being widely read and easily reproducible in newspapers, other periodicals, and anthologies. Volumes of poetry were perceived as good reading to bring or send to the soldiers at the front--small volumes could fit into a pocket, unlike a bulky Victorian novel, and poems could be read in short bursts. Even more important, poetry is a powerfully allusive form, in which poets refer to larger cultural traditions of which they claim to be a part. Poets could refer to classical and national military victories and a national literary canon in order to instill pride and to make the Great War a part of military tradition. Poetry was thus a large part of what Vincent Sherry identifies as the "public civilian culture of English War." (7)

Of two thousand wartime poets, Catherine Reilly has identified over five hundred women poets; their work accounts for a quarter of all verse published in Britain between 1914 and 1918. …

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