Tumult & Tears: The Story of the Great War Through the Eyes and Lives of its Women Poets
(South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History, 2016) Softback £12.99
208 pp (no photos or illustrations).
List of acknowledgements/sources; list of abbreviations; plus three appendices including biographies of the poets, publishers’ list and The Birmingham War Poetry Scrapbooks Collection; and index.
Now I need to set out my fitness for purpose and place this review in context. I can make no claim to be an inveterate reader of poetry nor do I have a literary background. It was largely my passion for all things military history that initially drew me to the First World War, but once there my interest broadened to embrace all its aspects including the wider social history through to the visual and written arts. However I am a massive fan of particular female writers, notably Austen and Woolf, whom I can read from dawn to dusk. So this was my starting point as I commenced Tumult & Tears.
Make reference to poetry and World War 1 and thoughts turn immediately to Sassoon, Brooke, Owen et al; whose presentation of the war can sometimes be controversial when matched against the revisionist view of the war’s military history and the experience of the British Army and its troops. Over time I have read more widely of the poetry of the period, drawn towards such poets as Isaac Rosenberg who gave us a perspective from the ranks as well as having a working class and artistic background.
There is no doubt that the best known poetry from the war has traditionally been that written by men about men’s experiences. But as Vivien Newman states in her introduction, her research discovered that ‘of the well over 2,000 British poets whose work was published during the First World War, more than a quarter were women’. Over the course of the war, women’s poetry was published, read, praised, collected, sold (sometimes to raise funds for wartime charities), archived, sometimes critically acclaimed, and even the recipient of awards.
The genesis of this book was when the author taught an A-Level English Literature syllabus in 1996 which included an anthology of women’s war poetry. Overcoming the initial scepticism of her class she came to realise she was entering a little-researched area. In due course Vivien Newman completed a PhD for her thesis Songs of Wartime Lives: Women’s Poetry of the First World War. She works as an independent historian, speaking at national and international conferences, and publishing articles; her subjects include the role of women in the First World War. She is the author of two previous books, We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War and Nursing Through Shot and Shell.
In Tumult & Tears we find the widest possible range of women’s poetry, from mere ‘ditties’ (as the author describes them) to some which are of the highest quality. The book is intended to be more than just a collection of poems, but aims to set the poems within the context of the war and what it meant to be a woman at that time:
…my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the War for the poet – and by extension other women, rather than the intrinsic literary ‘value’ of the poem.
I am only a little girl
But I am doing my bit
By helping the grown-ups knit socks,
And God grant my prayer
To watch our boys Over There
And bring them home safe
To all longing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers,
That is a child’s prayer.
Sophie Presley Glemby
Whatever your personal interest you will find plenty of entertaining and thoughtful poems within the pages of this book.
Newman was also anxious to find out more about the poet herself, carrying out in many cases ‘detective work’ due to there being little or no information available on many of the writers. While we have all heard of Vera Brittan for example, some had enjoyed only a brief glimpse of fame when the local paper published one of their poems; others remain unknown but for that one moment of recognition. These histories were for the author an essential component of the anthology; the first appendix in the book, running for 36 pages, provides pen portraits of the featured poets. Nothing was found regarding Sophie Glemby , whose touching poem I have quoted above, beyond being born in 1908 in New York.
The book is organised across five chapters, each covering a theme and subdivided into sections. So for instance the first chapter When ‘Pierrot Goes Forward, What of Pierette? ’ includes poems describing the views of women on the home front, as they watch the men leave for the battlefield. Within this theme the poetry covers the wartime roles of women as well as specific subjects such as knitting (one of the more poignant sections, from which Sophie Glemby’s poem above is taken), food and munitions work. The other chapters cover the themes of religion, nature, women in the services, and grief (the longest of the chapters, perhaps understandably); plus a short conclusion.
Tumult & Tears demonstrates that female poets drew their subjects from their day to day experiences and beliefs – just as their male counterparts did. The poems exhibit the roles which women adopted: mother, daughter, wife, sweetheart; nurse, volunteer, war worker. And the influences which bore upon them: labour, grief, love, fear, faith, community.
The result is not just of potential interest for poetry lovers or those with an interest in women’s writing and literature, though it does tick some of those boxes. WFA members will find much of value here, not least the opportunity to take a look at the First World War from a different perspective and maybe, for some, through a less common genre. I found the book enjoyable and easy to read and I liked the thematic approach and the contextual settings provided. As the author acknowledges, the quality of the poems are extremely variable and for me this did jar occasionally. This book is not a celebration of the female poet, in terms of literary quality, depth and tone – but then this is not the author’s intention. The book is perhaps best approached as social history, albeit via a unique window through which to better understand the experiences of women during the war. It also puts down a marker that the voices of women poets provide a commentary on the war and its impact, of differing perspective but of equal value, alongside those of the men.
Who are ye that come with eyes red and weeping,
In a long, long line and silent every one?
See overhead the flag of triumphant sweeping –
‘We are the mothers and each lost a son’.
Cries of the crowd who greet their god of glory!
What of those who crouch there silent in the street?
‘We are outraged women – ‘tis a common story,
Quietly we lie beneath your armies’ feet’.
Red flags of conquest, banners great and golden! –
Who are these silent ones upon our track?
‘We in our thousands, perished unbeholden,
We are the women; pray you, look not back’.
(Lady) Margaret Sackville
Review by Dennis Williams