Listening to the Guns – ‘Picnic: July 1917’ by Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

Title: Rose Macaulay
Description: wikipedia by-nc

Written by Carole Garrard

Such was their thunderous noise, the rumble of the guns and the blast of detonating shells on the Western Front were audible in southern England on a still day or if the wind was in the right direction.  Rose Macaulay’s poem, ‘Picnic: July 1917’, evokes the experience of hearing the (by then) familiar sound amidst the wild beauty of the Surrey hills.

We lay and ate the sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.

Behind us climbed the Surrey Hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.

And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet….
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.

We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
‘They sound clear today’.

We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, ‘If the wind’s from over there
There’ll be rain tonight’.

Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.

But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away.
Dreams within dreams.

And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.

We are shut about by guarding walls;
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done).

We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.

Oh guns of France, oh guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain….
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain…..

Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain……
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.

Oh we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break…….should break……….

 

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), is better known as a novelist than a poet, although the quality of this poignant and elegiac poem The Picnic suggests it should be otherwise. Macaulay’s first novel, Abbots Verney, was written in 1906 and her final and most famous work The Towers of Trebizond, was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956. She was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1958, the year of her death. After her death it was revealed through private letters and diaries that in 1918 she had fallen in love with a married man, Gerald O’Donovan, a former Jesuit priest, and that, despite her religious convictions and moral scruples, they were lovers until his death in 1942.

Rose Macaulay was born in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1881, the second of the seven children of G.C. Macaulay, an acclaimed classics scholar and teacher at Rugby School, and his wife Grace Mary Conybeare. Her early childhood was spent in Italy near Genoa and after the family’s return to England she attended Oxford High School for Girls and later entered Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern History. After her graduation in 1903 she lived briefly in Aberystwyth where her father was working at the university but in 1905 the family again moved, this time to Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire. Rose’s father had been invited to join the English department at Cambridge University, where he became a lecturer and founded the Modern English Review. Her circle of acquaintances included many of her father’s friends at the department and past pupils including Rupert Brooke with whom Rose had a close friendship and with whom she corresponded and shared her early poetry.

In these years before the outbreak of war Rose was writing novels and publishing poetry in the Westminster Gazette. Her first novel Abbots Verney appeared in 1906, followed by another six before 1914, including The Lee Shore, for which she won a Hodder & Stoughton competition. With the prize money and with help from an uncle she was able to move to London, breaking away from what had become an increasingly stifling and restricted existence dominated by her father, and bought a flat in Southampton Buildings, off Chancery Lane. With introductions by Brooke she was soon moving in the top literary circles of London, including the Bloomsbury set of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. It was also in 1914 that she published her first book of poetry, The Two Blind Countries.

At the outbreak of war Rose worked as a nurse and briefly as a land girl, returning to London to work as a civil servant, first at the British Propaganda Department, and later at the War Office, with responsibility for exemptions from service and conscientious objectors. One of her closest friends was Naomi Royde-Smith, who worked at the Saturday Westminster Gazette as literary editor, the first time a woman had held this position. Royde-Smithe published the early work of, among others, Rupert Brooke, D. H. Lawrence, and Graham Greene. The two women were renowned for their well-attended literary parties at Naomi’s flat in Kensington which attracted writers, politicians and academics including Hugh Walpole, William Beveridge, Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and Naomi’s lover Walter de la Mare. The two women also liked to spend time out of London at Naomi’s cottage in Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking, where the married De la Mare could visit more privately. It is from this cottage that they would have taken walks through the Surrey Hills including Hurt Hill where the poem is set. In one of her letters to De la Mare Naomi described Hurt Wood as ‘the peacefullest and silentest and sweetest-smelling place anywhere’.

In a literary analysis of the poem Kate McLoughlin suggests that the poem is an early depiction of ‘compassion fatigue’. She argues that in the same way that modern viewers’ compassion can be dulled by too much exposure to horrific events graphically portrayed by modern TV and media so the picnickers of the poem long to ignore the harsh reality and pain, the ‘hurt berries’, of the war that intrudes even whilst they try to enjoy a simple outing in the countryside. Their attempts to disregard the faraway sounds of the guns, to forget, if only for an afternoon, the destruction of their friends across the Channel, are shattered by the associated memories and realities of what those distant sounds of the great guns on the battlefields of Flanders embody. The final stanza reveals the poet’s deep understanding of the psychological stress all of them are enduring even though they are not physically on the battlefield, and how close they are to breaking under the strain.

References

Wikipedia article

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

McLoughlin, Kate.Rose Macaulay, Hurt-Berries and Compassion Fatigue (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=2279) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)

Poem is © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Rose Macaulay.  The poem is protected by copyright and may not be used for commercial purposes without permission from the copyright holder

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