May was born in Oxford, the second daughter of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity College, and the Secretary of Oxford University Press, and his wife Mary Wedderburn. She and her sisters were surrounded by books, and learned to read and recite poetry very early, and indeed created their own anthology. The girls were educated first at a small school in Oxford and then at Downe House School in Kent.
As her name so clearly shows however, May Wedderburn Cannan was descended from two old Scottish families. The Cannans originated in the west Lowlands, and her mother’s family, the Wedderburns, from Dundee, with Jacobites not too many generations back. Annual sojourns with relatives in Lochaber and elsewhere in Scotland reinforced her strong sense of Scottish identity.
In 1911, when May was 18, she joined the newly-formed Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross in Oxford. The threat of war was being felt even then, and many women and girls made themselves proficient in first aid and home nursing. May took on the duties and rank of Quartermaster, and when requested by the War Office to make ready a hospital, she did just that – only to be told, upon war breaking out, that the VAD hospitals were not in fact going to be used. It was a blow for one so young and so full of enthusiasm.
The Cannan sisters were drafted in to help run the University Press which had lost many staff to the war, and May had an aptitude for the close and careful work involved. But young women as much as young men felt the call to help their country in more immediate ways, and when the chance came to volunteer at the railhead canteen in Rouen, she jumped at it: ‘I had a passport. I packed.’ In Rouen she cut endless slices of bread and ham, handed out endless bowls of coffee when the troop trains drew in and hundreds of men surged into the sheds. Her memoirs and the poem ‘Rouen’ record the enthusiasm, the relief at being useful, the hardships and the heartbreak of the situation. May wrote that she would have given anything to stay on but did not have the money to support herself there. Philip Larkin later gave the poem wide currency by including it in the Oxford Book of Twentieth century English Verse (1973), though he misunderstood her position in France. In an interview in The Listener (12 April 1973) he says he ‘found it in the Bodleian … and immediately knew it had to go in. It seemed to me to have all the warmth and idealism of the VADs in the First World War. I find it enchanting.’
The War Office later authorised Red Cross probationers to work in military hospitals; had she known of this decision, May said, she would have thrown everything to the winds and enlisted, as a way of getting back to France. Instead she returned to her work at the Press, spending the next year re-creating the OUP catalogue, and giving some time to her old VAD unit which was supporting the work of a Convalescent Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford. Grey Ghosts and Voices, May’s autobiography of the first half of her life, is an evocative description of daily life during the war years. There is little embellishment, but the picture painted is one of a desperately hard time for a nation coping with year after year of upheaval, bereavement, and the exhausting struggle to get by.
In the summer of 1918 May was offered a job in a War Office department in Paris; it was known as the ‘British Mission’ and was part of MI5. She was there when the war finally ended. Her poem ‘The Armistice’ gets across the hollowness of victory:
‘And he’s my Man, and I want him,’ she said,
And knew that peace could not give back her Dead.’
At that time May herself still had hope before her: she and her childhood friend Bevil Quiller-Couch (son of the literary critic and noted anthologist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) had corresponded throughout the war and occasionally met, and became engaged in December 1918. That happiness was not to be, as after surviving the war, he succumbed to the Spanish ‘flu in February 1919. May found herself not only part of a generation suffering from the trauma of years of violence and loss, alienated by their extreme experience, but also one of the ‘surplus two million’ – the women left without men. It was ‘back to the old, back to the empty world’.
In the hope that work would be an antidote to grief, May accepted the position of assistant editor on the Oxford Magazine, which, she said, ‘began to drag me back into life’. With the company of her friend Carola Oman, and eventually another job in the library of the Athenaeum in London, May got through the years. In 1924 she met Percival J. Slater, former balloonist in the Royal Flying Corps, by then a solicitor and Captain in the Territorial Army, who had written to her about her poetry. They were married in July of that year, and settled in Staffordshire, where May threw herself into working on their small farm, and into family life with their son.
May Cannan began to write in earnest in her early teens, and her first poems were published in The Scotsman and The Glasgow Herald. During the early years of the war she contributed to the Oxford Magazine and other periodicals. In 1917 her first collection In War Time was published by Basil Blackwell; May called it a ‘small success’, with some good reviews. She was well aware that, after the Somme, there had been ‘a change of heart among poets’, but felt that, although she ‘admired some of Sassoon’s verse … someone must go on writing for those who were still convinced of the right of the cause for which they had taken up arms.’
A second collection, The Splendid Days, was published in the summer of 1919, when the war had been won but so much had been lost. A friend called her poetry heart-breaking in its nakedness of loss. A brief review in the Times Literary Supplement, 6th November 1919 says of the poems: ‘their clearest characteristic is an intense burning sincerity.’ A few days later in the same publication another review states that though Miss Cannan’s sincerity is unquestionable, ‘At times a tinge of eloquence weakens her verse’. But the critic goes on to praise the simplicity and directness of her portrayal of love and such ‘all but art-less lines’ as ‘Now are we made most lonely, proudly theirs/The men we married.’
A third book of poetry, The House of Hope, was published in 1923, and a novel – partly fiction, partly autobiographical – entitled The Lonely Generation, appeared in 1934.
In her late seventies May gathered her memories and wrote her autobiography, the first part of which, entitled Grey Ghosts and Voices, was published after her death, in 1976. In her modesty, she never expected fame, but was glad that in her war poetry she had written ‘a salute’ to her generation.
In his foreword to Grey Ghosts and Voices, Basil Blackwell describes her writing as informed by integrity and courage, and the woman herself he descibes as ‘a rare spirit’.
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