Great Expectations: Rehabilitating the Recalcitrant War Poets

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Formulating a definition of 'good' poetry is, and should be, impossible. Yet women's poetry of the First World War seems generally to have been condemned as 'bad'. It inspires an ambiguous response from readers who recognize the value of its historical, social and psychological content, but shudder at the limitations of its form. However, I believe that a much more fruitful reading of these 'recalcitrant' texts is possible. It is not my intention to deny either their problematic nature, or the diversity and complexity of male responses to the war, but rather to emphasize that women's experience of the First World War was radically different from that of men, and we should not therefore be constrained by the traditional parameters of 1914-18 criticism when we explore these works. This article examines a selection of this poetry in the light of the psychological processes of grief and bereavement, and in so doing indicates other areas in which constructive readings of these texts might be made.

Why do we expect the articulation of a radically new and uniformly consistent poetic voice from what was a large and diverse group of women? The expectations of modernism ironically have created a literary 'mainstream' out of a selection of experimental, and largely male, writing. I hope to show that the 'failure' of these women to conform to our textual 'great expectations' is irrelevant. The single most characteristic feature of these women's experience of war was isolation. Their position had neither the homogeneity of the trenches, nor the intense intellectualism of experimental circles. Predominantly middle class, alienated by absence and bereavement, they attempted to articulate the unprecedented nature of their experience. That their experiments were not wholly successful is perhaps indicative of the near impossibility of the task they undertook.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-65
Number of pages25
JournalFeminist Review
Publication statusPublished - Oct 1995




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