Battlelines: women's poetry from the first world war

According to literature from the RCN Library and Heritage Centre, 'women’s poetry related to the experiences of the First World War has been seriously neglected'.

Long-standing college member and poet Audrey Ardern-Jones helped rectify this disparity on Friday, July 3, with her exploration of work from almost 20 women poets writing during, and about, the war years, 1914-1918.

The poems she read covered a number of themes, many of them as relevant today as they were a century ago: jingoism and heroism, patriotism and propaganda, life in field hospitals, the loss of loved ones, individual tragedy and wider social commentary.

'Every one of them has something important to say,' she told me just before her hour-long performance. 'I can't choose a favourite one.'

Perhaps though Helen Hamilton’s The Jingo Woman might be in an Audrey Ardern-Jones top ten. It's about a supporter of the now-notorious Order of the White Feather, aimed at shaming men out of uniform into enlisting: 'I'd like to wring your neck,/I really would!/You make all women seem such duffers!'

Or an untitled piece from Irene Rutherford Mcleod's The Darkest Hour, about two former enemies conversing, one asking the other: 'What is this thing we've killed each other for?'

Also performing were flautist Lucas Jordan and guitarist Fabricio Mattos, who have worked with Audrey for the past four years. They played a variety of pieces, including favourites of mine Gymnopédie No 1, by Eric Satie, and Badinerie, by JS Bach.

As well as alternating with Audrey's reading, which gave a chance to reflect on the poetry, they accompanied her too, for example playing John Dowland's In Darkness Let Me Dwell as Audrey read two passages from Mary Borden's At the Somme: The Song of the Mud.

This stood out one of the few of the evening’s pieces in which the poet imagines herself in the front line: 'Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead./Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.'

All pretty intense, but the combination of verse and music worked well, offering an intimate space for reflection and contemplation, more than overblown sentiment.

Overall a rewarding evening, which Audrey ended with two of her own poems. One was a ‘found poem’ in memory of the RCN nurses who died in the first world war, and inspired by the current exhibition at the college’s London headquarters; the other, entitled To Do One’s Duty, is dedicated to war heroine nurse Edith Cavell, executed 100 years ago this year.

I'd recommend going to a future performance but dates have yet to be firmed up. Details will go up on Lucas and Fabricio's website when they are.

  • The RCN Library and Heritage Centre is running the last of its first world war seminar events on August 27: Argonauts of the Eastern Mediterranean: Military Nurses during the Gallipoli Campaign. For details, go to Military Nurses during the Gallipoli Campaign

NIck Lipley is editor of Emergency Nurse and Nursing Management