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:
MANY SISTERS TO MANY BROTHERS (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:<
ANY GRANDSIRE TO ANY GRANDSON
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.