Lady Margaret Sackville was the youngest daughter of the 7th Earl De La Warr and his wife Constance Baillie-Cochrane, daughter of the Scottish peer Baron Lamington. Born in London, she maintained her connection with Scotland, and in her thirties and forties lived in Edinburgh, first in Duddingston, and later at 30 Regent Terrace.
Lady Margaret had been writing since childhood, and between 1900 and the end of her long life produced around 40 books, mostly poetry. In her teens, she drew the attention of Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who supported her writing and encouraged her to publish. She preferred a very traditional type of poetry, and as First President of the Poetry Recital Society in London (later the Poetry Society), extolled its emphasis on the speaking of verse and the bardic role of the poet; her own poetry at the time was firmly in the traditional lyric style. It would be easy to think of Lady Margaret as a society beauty who dabbled in literature, but other aspects of her life show her to have been a principled and original thinker. A devout Roman Catholic, she was a pacifist, and from the beginning of the First World War was a member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control. She was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and member of the British Committee of the International Women’s Congress. She had a passionate correspondence, and most probably a love affair, with the Labour leader and later Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald after the death of his first wife, though never consented to marry him.
Almost as much as in her life, there is a dichotomy in the poetry of Lady Margaret Sackville. Her output began when she was very young, and the title of her first collection, Floral Symphony (1900), seems to confirm the suspicions of modern readers that her work is ‘flowery’ and too old-fashioned to be palatable to us today. By and large that is true, but the poetry she wrote in response to the First World War is much more alive and readable. In it she unpicks the various and often contradictory emotions of the first two years of the war. Her collection Pageant of War (1916) is remarkable for presenting resolutely anti-war poetry, much earlier than that published by several of those who have come to be viewed almost as ‘official’ poets of the disillusionment of war; it is possible that the book was successfully received only because she was a woman. During the brief months of their residence at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917, Lady Margaret met Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and possibly presented them with copies of Pageant of War. The long title poem sets the scene with its procession led by War – with face so obscene it must be masked – passing down the unusually white road – made of bones. She examines the guilt of those who were not fighting, as in ‘Ora Pro Nobis’; the shame of those ‘Who sleep at ease / In a safe corner of a world in flame’. Other poems touch on the plight of refugees with compassionate insight. And ‘A Memory’, though a work of imagination, surely gives a true picture of what the reality of war – all war – must be like:
There was no sound at all, no crying in the village,
Nothing you would count as sound, that is, after the shells;
Only behind a wall the low sobbing of women,
The creaking of a door, a lost dog – nothing else.
The most well known of the war poems is ‘Nostra Culpa’, which famously denounces women who support the conflict as betrayers of their men-folk: ‘We mothers and we murderers of mankind’. Though most of the rest of her work is no longer read, Margaret Sackville is an important First World War poet. Her alternative attitudes find a sympathetic audience amongst 21st century readers, and her poems are now being examined in the light of the psychological damage inflicted by conflict and its aftermath.
Even during her life Lady Margaret seemed at times out of step with the poetry of her own age, being self-confessedly wary of Modernism. Nevertheless she was an active supporter of contemporary writers; she became the first President of Scottish PEN, and in 1930 gave a paper to the Royal Society for Literature on modern Scottish literature, championing the writers of the Literary Renaissance. She was very much a part of the literary life of Edinburgh, a regular attender of the illustrious literary ‘salons’ given by André Raffalovitch with Canon John Gray in Whitehouse Terrace.
Once she had removed to Cheltenham in 1936, she performed the same supporting role for the local literary life there. Her kindness and enthusiasm remained undiminished; during the Second World War she gave readings in aid of the Red Cross and other charities. She died in Cheltenham in 1963.