A. A. Bowman was a philosopher, Professor at Princeton and Glasgow Universities, an advocate of the League of Nations, a serving officer during the First World War and author of a series of poems written during incarceration as a Prisoner of War.
Archibald Allan Bowman was born in Beith, Ayrshire, in 1883, the son of an Evangelical Union Minister. He was educated at Beith Academy and the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1905 with honours in Philosophy and Classics. He taught as a lecturer at Queen Margaret College (Glasgow University’s Women’s Department) from 1906, and for several long vacations went to Germany to study under professors of philosophy there. In 1912 Bowman accepted the Chair of Logic at Princeton University, and when war broke out, applied for leave of absence to join the British Army. He was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry in 1915, and spent some time at the 52nd Training Battalion at Windygates, Fife. He saw action on the Western Front, was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Lys in April 1918, and spent the remainder of the war in captivity.
Bowman’s time in prison camp was not wasted: being fluent in German, he was able to negotiate between camp authorities and prisoners and did much to regulate prisoners’ conditions and activities. He continued correspondence with his wife (he had married Mabel Stewart in 1912) and despite censorship the letters between them paint a vital picture of life both in captivity and on the home front in the later stages of the war. And he turned to poetry to express the deep feelings engendered by experience of battle, capture and incarceration, writing a series of sonnets which was published as Sonnets From a Prison Camp in 1919.
After the Armistice, Bowman was posted to the British Army of the Rhine in Cologne, where once again his language skills proved valuable, this time working with German civilians. His strong conviction of the need for lasting peace developed into support for the League of Nations, and in the post-war years he delivered many talks in furtherance of the League’s aims. Bowman returned to Princeton in September 1919, and then in 1925 took up the Chair of Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at Glasgow University, becoming Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1927, which position he held until his death in 1936.
In the foreword to Sonnets From a Prison Camp, Bowman indicates that composing the poems was all that kept him sane in the early days of captivity, and certainly the experiences of the conflict and the march to the prison camp (Rastatt near Karlsruhe), and then the intense emotional reaction to captivity are clear. From the end of April until the end of July he wrote one, often several, tight and formal sonnets each day; it is to be presumed the discipline of both the daily mental activity and the form he chose to use were beneficial to his inner turmoil. The second half of the book is more meditative. His writings were confiscated when he was transferred to another camp (Hesepe in western Germany), but once he established good relations with his new Commandant he secured their release, and in August he was able to send the poems back to Britain where they were published. A reviewer writing in The Athenaeum in 1920 made the point that ‘The task of squeezing a description of the turbulent happenings of war into the narrow mould of the sonnet is an almost impossible one’, and in general Bowman’s sonnets have not found favour with the critics; they are thought to be overly formal and at times pedantic. But perhaps the strict confines of the sonnet do in fact echo the author’s physical confinement, and there are many interesting images to be found within the formal framework: consider the last lines of the sonnet dated May 30th, in which the author compares the quiet evening in the camp with the insane, unfathomable war that rages elsewhere:
The quiet evening nears. The beetle booms.
God blazes at the world. Hell gapes for joy.
And Europe whitens with those nameless tombs.