Rose Macaulay: ‘Many Sisters to Many Brothers’

The great thing about research is that you go looking for one thing, and you find another.

I was following a hint in a comment on this blog that Arnold Bennett’s The White Feather had appeared in the Saturday Westminster Gazette in 1914, before its American publication. There it was, indeed, on September 19th, as promised. Thanks, Jess!

But I started looking through the volume of the Westminster, to see what else they published, and eventually came across the first printing of a poem that has often puzzled me – Rose Macaulay’s Many Sisters to Many Brothers. It’s a poem that I find hard to square with the pacifism of Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others.

The excellent anthology The Winter of the World, edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, is arranged with the poems in chronological order, and puts this one right at the end of 1914. The note says “Published in Poems of To-Day (May 1915), but perhaps first published in a 1914 periodical.” No need for that “perhaps”. It is in the Saturday Westminster Gazette for October 31st. The text is slightly different from the 1915 version. Here it is:

(Suggested by “Any Grandsire to Any Grandson.”)

  When we fought campaigns (in the long Christmas rains)
    With soldiers spread in troops on the floor,
  I shot as straight as you, my losses were as few,
    My victories as many, or more.

  And in naval battle, when, amid the rattle
    Of cannon, fleet met fleet in the bath,
  My cruisers were as trim, my battleships as grim,
    My submarines cut as swift a path.

  Or, when it rained too long, and the strength of the strong
    Surged up and broke a way with blows,
  I was as fit and keen, my fists hit as clean,
    Your black eye matched my bleeding nose.

  Was there a scrap or ploy in which you, the boy,
    Could better me?  You could not climb higher,
  Ride straighter, run as quick (and to smoke made you sick)
    . . . But I sit here, and you're under fire.

  Oh, it's you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck:
    You were born beneath a kindly star;
  All we dreamed, I and you, you can really go and do,
    And I can't, the way things are.

  In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
    A hopeless sock that never gets done.
  Well, here's luck, my dear; ― and you've got it, no fear;
    But for me . . . a war is poor fun.

So it’s in six four-line stanzas, not three eight-line ones, and there are some slight variations in wording (I think the 1915 improvements are good ones.) And it has the subtitle, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in later versions of the poem.
What is “Any Grandsire to Any Grandson.”?

It turns out to be a poem in the previous issue of the Saturday Westminster Gazette (October 24th). It is by H. Hutchinson (No, I’d not heard of him, either, but he writes articles for the Westminster about nature, golf and other topics.) and it goes like this:<

Child, look into my eyes and tell me,
What think you of the world today?”
“The flowers are bright, the sun is shining,
Grand-dad, let us go out and play.”
“Aye, to play in the golden sunshine ―
Fitting work for your hand and mine!”
“Grand-dad, grand-dad, why are you crying?
Great big tears on your eyelids shine.”
“Child, I cry for the pain and the pity ―
Friends are falling in fight today.
Here sit we in the sunshine idle ―
All we can ― to go out and play!”
“Go you play, and forget the trouble.
Live your life of the passing hour.
Would that I too might play light-hearted,
Glad of the sun though war-clouds lour.
“Bitter the weight of the years upon me,
Bitter the shame to know others die,
Face to the foe, on a field of glory.
Bitter here in my chair to lie.
“Go you play, for the years will bring you
Fights to wage in the needful hour.
Weep I must, seeing far behind me
Lie the days of my manhood’s power.
“Aye, go play, and forget the trouble,
Yet from your game a moment stay ―
This at least may the years allow me ―
Kneel a moment with me, and pray.”

This is probably not a poem likely to appeal to many modern readers of war poetry, but it clearly struck Rose Macaulay forcibly enough to make her want to write a response to it in time for the next issue. The relation of combatant to non-combatant was clearly on her mind. In that same issue of the Westminster (October 24th) she has an essay called The Unperturbed West, in which she writes about the farm in which she is living, but in comparison with the War:

The farm is a long way from everywhere and everything. Miles of soft silence shut it from a world at war.

She describes the activity in the farm kitchen in loving detail (“bread in the making rises in a big bright pan with yeasty fragrance”), and makes it seem very real – but then is struck by the thought that the horrors of battle have an equal reality, but one that it is difficult to believe existing at the same time as the farm:

Which is the dream – for one is surely so – your battles or our peace?

Her Many Sisters poem considers the separation between peace and war in a different way. When Macaulay was young, she had been a tomboy, and what the poem says about girls’ engagement in boyish pursuits seems to be autobiography.
What worries me most about the poem is the line “Oh, it’s you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck”. It seems to show a writer I greatly admire completely failing to imagine what the “blood and muck” must really be like. But maybe there’s a bit of an excuse for it this early in the War. By Non-Combatants and Others she could certainly imagine it.

Or should we take the poem as a dramatic monologue, remembering childish games and reverting to the language of childhood?

Seeing it in its original context gives a couple of clues about the poem, but certainly doesn’t solve all its puzzles.


  1. Elisabeth Carnall
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I have just read – not quite finished it – Non-Combatants and Others. My copy is a paperback, found with pleasure in a charity shop. The title page, and therefore the date of publication on the reverse, has gone so I was looking for that. And found your very interesting note on these two poems.

    Yes, Rose Macaulay’s poem does seem to reflect the heroic, over-by-christmas, unreality of the early war. Note the date, September 19th, still in the second month since the start. It reflects her feminism rather than her pacificism.

    But I don’t know about her feminism; I had read all her novels except for this and the earlier 1912 one. I have to think, how feminist are her novels? I suppose, as Alix says somewhere in Non-Combatants, she was one of those who took for granted that women should have the vote.

    Well, thank you for this.

    friendly greetings.
    E. S. C.

    PS I am startled that your email system automatically produces my name.

  2. Posted May 14, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I’d say that Macaulay’s feminism is not dogmatic, but is often expressed by her refusal of standard gender roles for her often androgynous heroines.
    It’s the WordPress system that knows your name. Maybe you’ve commented or otherwise interacted with another blog previously?

  3. Posted May 27, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I checked the essay you referred to (for which you’re thanked in the footnotes of the book which I’m writing), and its not about Macaulay’s Land Girl service farm, it’s a transposition of her visit to Alberta to see her brother before the war, set during wartime. Its a curious essay, making the point that for many people the war is so remote as to make it irrelevant who is fighting whom.

    • Posted May 27, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Kate. I think I remember being slightly puzzled by the description of the landscape in this piece. If it’s an imagination of Canada, that makes sense.
      But would wartime Alberta really have been indifferent to who was fighting whom?
      According to L.M.Montgomery’s ‘Rilla of Ingleside’, the people of Prince Edward Island at least had very definite views on the matter.

      • Posted May 27, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        I shouldn’t think that RM worried too much about that. She was reusing experiences to make a point about remoteness and the absorbtion of agricultural work (I don’t think she was yet a Land Girl by this point), but with a very poetic slant.

  4. Posted May 30, 2016 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Update! RM was visiting her brother Will in Alberta in August 1914, so the poem is from the life, as it were.

    Also, RM was a phenomenal feminist, if you read her magazine essays and feature articles from the 1920s onwards (v little is collected, but my forthcoming book on RM will have an annotated bibliography. Her fiction is a pale shadow of her journalism in this respect.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Sitting in the flickering candlelight, watching the service that was broadcast from Westminster Cathedral in the hour before 11pm, I was particularly struck by one of the poems read during that service (by the excellent Penelope Keith).  It was “Many Sisters to Many Brothers”, by British novelist and writer, Rose Macaulay, who wrote it in the autumn of 1914.  (The full poem, and some interesting background discussion about it can be found at George Simmers’s research blog, Great War Fiction.) […]

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