British Women Poets and Soldier Poets of World War I

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,795 words

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[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Byles compares the World War I poetry of Britain's soldiers and female writers, focusing on a number of common themes: heroism, glory, and patriotism; pain and blood; rain; the destruction of life and land; grief, mourning, and loss; and Christianity.]

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend"

To focus on the literature of women's experience of this disastrous war, I begin with an anthology of 125 poems by seventy-two women edited by Catherine Reilly--Scars Upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War (1981; hereafter referred to as Scars). Although the war ended sixty-three years before its publication, the anthology is the first of its kind.1 As Reilly points out in her introduction, the anthologies of Great War poetry published in recent years tend to concentrate on the soldier poets who served on the western front, poets like Sassoon, Owen, Bridges, Rosenberg, Read, and Blunden.2 It is indeed hard to recall that there were women poets of the First World War, even when reading such a comprehensive book as Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) or John Johnston's English Poetry of the First World War (1964) or Bernard Bergonzi's Heroes' Twilight (1965). However, recent scholarship by women is beginning to redress this imbalance.3

Judith Kazantzis's preface to Scars suggests that the near total disappearance of women's World War I poetry has perhaps had to do with a lasting feeling that women never had any real right to speak out against a cataclysm that left most of them safely at home. However, a great many women on the home front who were writers and suffragists did speak out, as the previous chapter has shown, and thousands of others went to France as nurses and ambulance drivers. Perhaps the answer lies more in the fact that it is men who have made the anthologies, and in so doing they have consciously and/or unconsciously selected the masculine experience of the war, and by and large that has defined our experience. Or perhaps since World War I was essentially a man's world and women never experienced the actual battlefield and its scenes of horror and devastation--never experienced the kind of anger, fear, and frustration that the men felt in the trenches, conveyed to us by poets like Sassoon and Owen in particular--they could not write about it.

On the other hand, in her discussion of the impact of the Great War on women's sensibility and art Gilbert writes that although women mourned the devastation of war, their literary art was "subtly strengthened, or at least strangely inspired, by the deaths and defeats of male contemporaries."4 But this generalized claim seems dubious.5 Apart from the sense of personal loss and grief--surely the decisive emotions--most women whether artists or not would not have felt this way. It is however quite probable, as Gilbert implies, that established female writers were liberated by the war from the dominance of the male...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420097100