I sometimes feel that of all the victims of the War, the one we should be sorriest for is Jessie Pope.
I’ve just finished marking A-Level scripts about Great War literature, and our modern judgmental teenagers have no doubt at all about what they think of Jessie. She is the villain of the War. Many candidates have harsh words for Generals (without exception condemned as unfeeling, incompetent and living in luxury while the men suffer) and Oh What a Lovely War was often adduced as incontrovertible proof that Douglas Haig was inhumanly eager to sacrifice lives wantonly, but the sins of the top brass fade into insignificance besides those of Jessie.
She, according to the products of modern education, was hired by the government to write patriotic poems. These were so persuasive and potent that thousands of naive young men enlisted entirely because of them, apparently having no idea that war might turn out to be more horrible than a game of football. (After the Battle of the Somme, all of these young men became disillusioned, and immediately stopped being patriotic, according to many candidates.)
In the minds of students, Jessie Pope was an amazingly powerful woman – ‘the most respected poet in England’, one of them told me. Another, writing of Helen Hamilton’s horrible hectoring Jingo-Woman, decided: ‘This woman is probably Jessie Pope.’
The real Jessie, of course, was a writer of light verse and humorous articles for Punch and various newspapers, and of jolly children’s books like Tom, Dick and Harry: their Deeds and Misdeeds.
Had it not been for the war, her verse would now be utterly forgotten, but she would deserve an honoured place in literary history as the discoverer of Robert Tressell’s great socialist novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. In 1913 (two years after his death) Tressell’s daughter was nurse to one of Jessie Pope’s neighbours. She showed the manuscript to Jessie, who was so impressed by it that she touted it around the publishers. Grant Richards finally accepted it, on condition that it was shortened. Jessie Pope took on the task of reducing the sprawling 250,000 words to a more saleable 100,000. In the process she also made the book more acceptable to contemporary taste by some bowdlerisation, and snipping the most radical passages. Tressell enthusiasts have seen Pope’s work as vandalism of a masterpiece – but it was probably the necessary condition for getting the book into the public domain. Since then, of course, full versions of the novel have been published.
When War came, Jessie Pope was faced with a problem that must have troubled all writers of the lightly comic. What do you do with your talent when the times are dark and tragic?
Some writers opted for silence. A. A. Milne wrote a rather pacifist piece for Punch the week before the war broke out, then joined the Army and wrote no more comic pieces until peacetime returned. Max Beerbohm refused all requests to turn his cartooning skills to the subject of the War, knowing that his talent was unsuited to the subject. Anthony Powell described Max as one of those writers who were never the same after the War, and I think this is right. Before the War, Max’s humour was usually up-to-date and topical. During wartime he retreated into writing about the past, and that is where he mostly stayed for the rest of his life. P.G. Wodehouse solved the problem by staying in America, where he spent the War years collaborating with Jerome Kern on shows that invented the twentieth-century American musical.
Jessie Pope made the opposite decision, and went with the times, adapting her skill with light verse to the patriotic mood of 1914. The Daily Mail was her main outlet for verse at this time, and she produced cheerful bouncy rhythms that made the war seem like fun:
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.
The breezy style that before the War had been ideal for describing leisure crazes like tennis and motoring, or writing jolly stories for children, is now set to a task for which it has to be inadequate. That line about coming back with a crutch is the sort of pretend-insensitive phrase that would not be inappropriate to use about someone with his leg in plaster after a game of rugby, but it grates when applied to an amputee. A certain insensitivity is built into the style, whose rhythms over-ride all cautions and caveats. In peacetime such a style might seem jolly; now it’s just insensitive, and even bullying, though she probably didn’t mean to be.
And she was sincere – or at least, she followed her own example. In poems like ‘Who’s for the Game’ she is urging men to give their talents to the War, whatever the cost, and that is exactly what she did herself.
The cost, of course, was the total loss of her posthumous reputation, and it’s all because of Wilfred Owen. Some of the drafts of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ are headed with the dedication ‘To Jessie Pope, etc.’, or ‘To a Certain Poetess’. That poem made the canon, and now every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows one thing about the Great War: Jessie Pope was wrong and Wilfred Owen was right.
After the War she kept on writing. I’m going to get hold of her 1919 novel Love- on Leave, to see what it’s like. Much of the information in this post comes from the ODNB article by Jane Potter.
Update: After writing this, I did indeed check out Love on Leave, which, contrary to the information in the ODNB, turns out to be not a novel, but a book of short stories. Most of them are love stories, and many feature the love of a woman for a wounded soldier. They are much less jolly than the poems, but suggest the same kind of rather naive sincerity.