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The Intersection of Modernism and the First World War in Women’s Poetry

1 September 2021

Edel Hanley, University College Cork

While women’s First World War writing reveals that women’s war experience was as psychologically scarring as the combatant experience of trench warfare, little work has considered the relationship between women’s war poetry and modernism. Having not served at the Front, women were presumed incapable of understanding war. Claire Buck highlights the problems associated with women’s war poetry claiming that, “readers have often found it disappointingly backward-looking in both style and subject matter, many poems reiterating a version of femininity rooted in home front experiences of waiting and mourning”. [1] In this article, however, I examine the ways in which women poets deploy modernist and Georgian tropes [Romantic literary tradition popularised early in the reign of King George V) to register war experience. Georgian writing emerged in the 1910s with the publication of Edward Marsh’s anthology, Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912, which featured combatants poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. The anthology established a new style of poetry which modernists would regard as backward-looking, traditional, and overly sentimental in terms of form and content.

As a volunteer in the Munro Ambulance Corps in Flanders in 1914, aged fifty-one, May Sinclair was one of the first women to witness the actualities of war for Belgian soldiers. Sinclair utilises modernist experiment and Georgian tropes to register the impact of war, with her poem, “Dedication” (1915), reflecting the need for a new language to translate the actualities of war for nurses. Throughout the poem, Sinclair uses a stream of consciousness to contemplate war’s destruction on the battlefield, where soldiers go “Under the thunder of the guns, the shrapnel’s rain”.[2] However, we are given a more intimate glimpse into Sinclair’s emotional turmoil as a nurse-figure through her convoluted description of the men’s indifference to her presence at the front: “Your faces are turned aside as you pass by./ I am nothing to you.”[3]

“Dedication” also invokes the modernist fragmentation of self through the swapping of pronouns. This not only creates a sense of confusion in the poem, but produces multiple selves who are different, yet indistinguishable:

Your faces are like the face of her whom you follow,
The Beloved who looks backward as she runs, calling to her lovers,
The Huntress who flies before her quarry, trailing her lure.
She called to me from her battle-places,
She flung before me the curved lightning of her shells for a lure;
And when I came within sight of her,
She turned aside,
And hid her face from me.[4]

In relation to the use of multiple selves in Sinclair’s novels, specifically Mary Olivier (1919), Howard Finn argues that “[f]or the reader, the overall effect of these constant pronoun shifts is to make Mary appear to be a divided self or a multiplicity of selves, something she recognizes in adolescence when she has ‘queer glimpses of the persons that were called Mary Olivier’”.[5] Sinclair’s multiple selves in her poetry, however, convey the identity crisis brought on women by war, allowing her to appear both as soldier and civilian, participant and bystander, struggling to justify what she describes.

Winifred Letts likewise served abroad as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse during the First World War. Although she is typically associated with Georgianism, Letts, too, combines modernist strategies and Georgian tropes to articulate women’s war experience. In her poem, “The Spires of Oxford” (1917), Letts begins by reflecting on the wartime period in hindsight:

I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The grey spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.[6]

Despite the passing of time, the speaker is unable to divorce herself emotionally from a glorified past, a struggle which provokes her privileging of men’s suffering, her heart forever “with the Oxford men/ Who went abroad to die”.[7]

However, Letts conducts a modernist experiment through her manipulation of chronology, as she drifts between past and present to capture the losses of war from her present standpoint. Time disrupts the structure of “The Spires of Oxford,” marching on without end in the same way as the men going to war: “The years go fast in Oxford,/ […] But when the bugles sounded war/ They put their games away”.[8] As Andrew Frayn argues, in relation to war novels, “[t]he sense of the length of the war as an imponderable, with time becoming elongated due to sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and the repetitive nature of life in the trenches, is a key facet of many novels discussing the war”.[9] The duration of war in Letts’ poem first appears never-ending, yet the suspension of time eventually comes to an end when the dead soldiers arrive in “a fairer place/ Than even Oxford town”.[10] However, the above poets, like others, blend these opposing styles, demonstrating that the use of modernist and Georgian tropes alongside each other results in more accurate representations of war trauma.


[1] Buck, Claire. “British women’s writing of the Great War.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War. Edited by Vincent Sherry, Cambridge UP, 2006, pp.89.

[2] Sinclair, May. A Journal of Impressions in Belgium. Macmillan, 1915, Accessed 27th May 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Finn, Howard. “Writing the Lives of Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Gertrude Stein.” The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel. Edited by Morag Shiach. Cambridge UP, 2007, pp. 197.

[6] Webster, Edward Harlan. “The Teaching of Poetry.” The English Journal, vol. 15, no. 8, 1926, JSTOR, Accessed 27th May 2021, pp. 598.

[7] Ibid, pp. 598.

[8] Ibid, pp. 598.

[9] Frayn, Andrew. “’THIS’ BATTLE WAS NOT OVER’: ‘PARADE’S END’ AS A TRANSITIONAL TEXT IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ‘DISENCHANTED’ FIRST WORLD WAR LITERATURE.” International Ford Madox Ford Studies, vol. 7, 2008, JSTOR, . Accessed 25th May 2021, pp.211-2.

[10] Webster, pp. 598.

Cover image: Norah Neilson-Gray, The Scottish Women’s Hospital: In the Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont (1920). © IWM Art.IWM ART 3090.


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