29. "Tommy" at home in German dug-outs (1914-1918) by pellethepoet, under a Creative Commons licence
This month sees the publication Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914–1918 (Polygon, £12.99), edited by Lizzie MacGregor, with commentaries by Yvonne McEwen. This anthology traces the progress of Scotland’s war through poetry written by serving soldiers and those on the home front, including verse by Charles Hamilton Sorley, E.A. Mackintosh, R.Watson Kerr, Joseph Lee, Charles Murray, May Wedderburn Cannan, Mary Symon. A foreword is provided by the historian Sir Hew Strachan, an excerpt of which you can read below.
The relationship between the First World War and poetry has become symbiotic for both parties to the partnership. It was fought by a literate generation, the beneficiary of compulsory primary education, which was used to seeing verse (even if much of it was doggerel) printed in daily newspapers. Moreover, poetry carried an immediacy in conveying war’s emotional charge denied to prose.
For most Scottish poets, war rarely has a redeeming purpose. And yet that does not make the poems unpatriotic. Throughout this volume there is a strong sense of Scotland’s identity. The grief is not just personal, it is also public – a sense of the collective loss inflicted on the community by war. It is nonetheless a community that for the most part looks inwards, whose members know each other, at least subliminally. While the war went on, many citizen soldiers were sustained by an idealised vision of what they had left behind. Wartime patriotism has been redefined in the process: not so much flag-waving and more home and hearth. Today’s scholarship also sees it as nostalgic and backward-looking. And so are the poems published here. Apart from Jean Guthrie-Smith’s description of the canteen in a national shell-filling factory, the Scotland of these poets is overwhelmingly agricultural and rural, a Scotland of mountain and moor not of munitions production and ship-building.
The jobs from which the soldiers in these poems have been torn are those of shepherding and ploughing, not welding and riveting. The regret is that their passing will leave land untilled, and so agricultural – not industrial – output will fall. And yet the latter defined Scotland’s greatest contribution to Britain’s war effort: Glasgow, ‘the second city of the empire’, supplied an imperial fighting machine and many of its allies.
The poems evoke an ‘old’ Scotland in another sense too. Women’s experience of the war is refracted less through their contribution to the war effort and more through their definition of themselves in relation to their menfolk. May Wedderburn Cannan made a contribution to the war effort by working in an office. But her poem, ‘To a clerk, now at the wars’, does not trumpet her work; instead it envies the male clerk whom she has replaced because he is now freed to take an active part in the fighting.
The early poems of the war urge Scots to show the rest of Britain what Scotland can do; they tell Scots to vie with the other nations of the United Kingdom, and do so in the certainty that, while its components possess separate identities, they are also defined by a common one, that of Britain and its empire. By 1918 Scotland did not stand where it had stood in 1914 – either in its sense of itself or in its relationship to others. There is therefore a difference between poems about the war which happen to be about Scots, and poems which are more directly addressed to Scotland itself. One consequence of the war was that its experience made that distinction increasingly significant: Scots took up arms for Britain and the empire, but Scotland became more conscious of itself as it fought.
The poet who embodied that response in the later twentieth century was Hugh MacDiarmid, a veteran of the campaign in Macedonia for whom the war provoked political as well as cultural nationalism. Most of those included in this fresh and original collection are much less well-known than he. But Charles Hamilton Sorley and E. Alan Mackintosh can stand with the best of the English-language canon, and both died too soon in the war to have reached the maturity of which they were capable.
Sir Hew Strachan