Contributed by Dr Vivien Newman
According to its own website, International Women’s Day ‘celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.’ I admit to being skeptical about the extent to which the celebration of those achievements actually occurs in the wider world. Be that as it may, in this blog, I celebrate the ‘cultural’ achievement of one woman who, during the darkest days of the Great War, found a voice in which to highlight her own and her gender’s suffering for, when the drums of war beat, it is women who shoulder the burdens of separation, loneliness, deprivation and grief but their thoughts have remained largely hidden to history.
Alexandra Grantham was a “protest poet”. Of course, for the majority of people, “Protest poetry” has become synonymous with the Trench Poets. The cynicism of Siegfried Sassoon, the pity of Wilfred Owen and the tragedy of Ivor Gurney have become part of the War’s cultural fabric. Yet protest poetry is far wider-ranging, at times more sophisticated, than the writings of uniformed males some but not all of whom served at the Front; women at home poeticized and published their feelings – but this, like so much of women’s contribution to the war – or indeed their campaigns against it, is a largely forgotten story.
A slim volume entitled Mater Dolorosa, was one of thousands of poetry volumes published between 1914 and 1918. Yet it and the author, A.E.G.,’s subsequent publications, tell a complex story of love, grief and sedition; there is far more to Alexandra Ethelreda Grantham and her writing than meets the eye.
In 1908, Alexandra’s eldest son, Hugo, (born 1895) entered Cheltenham College, imbibing the British Public Schools’ emphasis on the manly qualities of sport and warfare. In a 1914 school debate, ‘In the opinion of this house, war is a necessary evil’, he successfully argued, ‘War is useful in killing off the superfluous portions of the human race. The army provides work for the unemployed. Without war, this College could not exist because there would be no military side.’ (i)
Aware of the provenance of Hugo’s smug views, in Mater Dolorosa Alexandra condemns those ‘misguided rulers’ who succeed in ‘luring young men to death with cries of fame/Danger, duty, sacrifice.’ (ii) The wartime price for mothers ‘in every nation’ of these so-called manly virtues is unbearable grief. War is neither Just nor Holy, nor should it be constructed as such. Yet, this Cambridge-educated feminist poet needed to exercise extreme caution in her writing. Seditious ideas had to be couched in patriotic discourse. She MUST appear totally behind the War Effort because, despite both her husband, Frederick, and 19-year-old Hugo serving in HM Army, to many people she was ‘an enemy’. She was by birth German.
One poignant, seemingly ‘patriotic’ poetic scene depicted in Mater Dolorosa is one repeated innumerable times across all combatant nations, a scene in which women played a major part. As she joins other mothers at the station to bid farewell to loved ones leaving for Gallipoli, she advises, ‘When their sons towards far fights are starting/By the loud train be mirth, not moan of fears.’ If men march to war supposedly to protect womankind, in that moment of parting a gender-reversal occurs, she must protect him, lest he should ‘sorrow too, seeing thine own mother cry’. Fighting back tears, women ‘wave with trembling hands’ till the train, and probably their man, disappears forever.
With her husband Frederick on the Western Front, wifely fears briefly supplant maternal ones. On May 9th 1915, Frederick was reported wounded, probably taken prisoner. A better option than putrefying in No Man’s Land. She poetically anticipates ‘sweetness’ when her ‘Wounded’ man ‘long mourned as dead’, reappears. Would her ‘endless longing’ for him ‘each night on lonely bed’ culminate in the joy of physical reunion? Unusually for the era, she openly confronts another theft war inflicts upon women, the loss of their sexual partner.
Soon, her thoughts return to Hugo. Maternal fears and hegemonic pride vie for poetic space. She is momentarily elated when he is Mentioned in Dispatches; war briefly becomes a time of ‘marvellous endeavour’. On June 28th, Hugo was again in action. Supported by too few guns, he and his men were, as Alexandra learnt, torn to shreds. Never again, ‘on this wide earth’ would her mother arms enfold ‘nor strain to my heart’, this beloved ‘son first born’. Then, another shift, Hugo becomes ‘my hero son’. ‘Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh’, their consanguinity gives her an entrée into his masculine world of brave deeds and manly actions. She would castigate herself for momentarily accepting propaganda which constructs ‘lawless lust of conquest as righteousness’, thereby sending to be ‘killed or maimed a nation’s flower.’
On August 14th 1915, a Memorial Service was held for Lieutenant Hugo Grantham. Meanwhile, the Royal Munster Fusiliers were bringing in corpses decomposing in No Man’s Land since May 9th. One dog-tag bore the name Captain Frederick Grantham; his body had simply disappeared. So overwhelming was Alexandra’s maternal grief that she had no emotional energy left, the typical grief reaction, anger, informs her few lines of verse directed towards him: he has failed her when she most needs him, ‘See before you a mother weeping for her son’. All her grief is concentrated on their dead child.
By May 1918, the nascent philosophies of Mater Dolorosa had crystallized. Yet the censor failed to notice that Pencil Speakings from Peking, outwardly an exploration of Chinese philosophy, was in truth a powerful indictment of war and Western nationalism with its ‘bubbles of poison-gas fermenting on a swamp of ignorance and fear’. (iii)
Her verse-play The Wisdom of Akhnaton presents a ‘Pacifist Pharaoh’ whose ‘wisdom’ stems from his passionate, ‘reasoned protest against the spirit of aggressive nationalism’. (iv) Now Alexandra has distanced herself totally from concepts of war, nationalism and hegemony and from the Big Words which encourage humans to ‘howl for … blood’. If in Mater Dolorosa there was brief consolation in portraying war as ‘a time of marvellous endeavour’, with at least some ‘glory’ in ‘thy young blood spilt’, the struggle is over. In chivalric terminology, soldiers might ‘laughing leap[…]/Into that death none but a hero dies’ in reality, their ‘gorge[s] rise[…] at the stench of severed flesh,’ they ‘slip down dazed in [their] own vomit’. (v) Rupert Brooke’s comforting ‘foreign field that is forever England’ is a lie; Hugo and the myriad of other mothers’ sons’ are not ‘Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home’ (vi) , their bodies lie rotting in a distant land, their flesh ‘disintegrating in the hideous darkness of an airless narrow grave.’ (vii)
With Europe embarked upon its second conflagration, Alexandra recognized that the price for women, remained identical: ‘drum-taps’ call ‘blood-intoxicated mobs’ to ‘brutal battles’, mothers powerless to ‘shield their sons from death.’ (viii) The bloody twentieth century dealt the ageing poet its final blow. On June 21st 1942, Pilot Officer/Flying Instructor Godfrey Grantham, Alexandra’s ‘last, beloved, perfect son’, was killed. (ix) Wearily she accepted that she was just one of the international multitude of
Mothers who with old and trembling hands
Grope in the darkness waiting
For sons who will never return. (x)
Alexandra did not live to see the lasting peace between her native and adopted counties; she died in February 1945.
Want to know more?
Alexandra and 90 other female poets feature in: Vivien Newman’s Tumult and Tears: The Story of the Great War Through the Eyes and Lives of its Women Poets available through Pen and Sword or Amazon
Vivien Newman We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First War available through Pen and Sword or Amazon
Vivien Newman Nursing Through Shot and Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story available through Pen and Sword or Amazon
Visit Viv’s website: www.firstworldwarwomen.co.uk
(i) Information about Hugo’s school career is from Cheltenham College Records
(ii) All quotations are taken from Mater Dolorosa Heinemann (1915) unless stated otherwise
(iii) Quoted by A Clutton-Brock Pencil Speakings from Peking in Times Literary Supplement May 30th 1918, p. 253
(iv) see TLS May 13th 1920 p. 290 (erroneously reviewed as being by Mr Grantham)
(v) Wisdom of Akhnaton John Lane London, 1920
(vi) Rupert Brooke ‘The Soldier’ http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/1914-v-the-soldier/
(vii) Alexandra Grantham Godfrey Grantham ‘Through Death to God’ Oxford, (1942) p. 13
(viii) Godfrey Grantham ‘Through Death to God’ Oxford, (1942) p.13
(ix) Godfrey Grantham ‘Shadows’ p. 9
(x) Godfrey Grantham ‘After my Death’ p. 35