Poets have always found inspiration in war: from jingoism to lamentation to bitter denunciation. Remembrance Day commemorations may cite sentimental lines, but there are many others that recognise the ultimate futility of war.
The best known First World War poets are men, soldiers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden, John McCrae and Robert W. Service. Little is heard of what the agony of war and its countless deaths meant to women.
Yet women were writing poems before war began and long after – lamenting the “tinsel platitudes” (the expression is American author Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s) that created havoc in their lives.
The poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” comes from the 1920 collection Flame and Shadow by the American lyrical poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933).
“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”
The English writer atheist, feminist, pacifist, and socialist Margaret Postgate-Cole (1893-1980) was a pacifist during the First World War and contrarily an active supporter of the Second World War. Her poem “The Falling Leaves” was written in November 1915:
“Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.”