Picnic, July 1917 : Rose Macaulay

I haven’t yet been able to find a permanent replacement for Helen Hunt Jackson as a purveyor of monthly poems, but here is a guest poem for July from Rose Macaulay.  
Macaulay was a prolific literary journalist and the author of numerous novels (none of which I’ve read, I’m afraid).  Before the First War, she was a friend of Rupert Brooke’s (he was a pupil of her father’s).  During the war she worked for the British Propaganda Department : after it she was a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union.  During the Second War, her flat, with all her possessions and her library in it, was destroyed in the Blitz.
Virginia Woolf described her – vividly, but unkindly – as:
“Too chattery chittery at first go off; lean as a rake, wispy; & frittered. Some flimsy smartness & taint of the flimsy glittery literary about her: but this was partly nerves, I think; & she felt us alien & observant doubtless.”
(Which, doubtless, they were.)
I suppose the events described here would have been a year after the Battle of Somme.
Picnic, July 1917 
 We lay and ate the sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.
Behind us climbed the Surrey Hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.

And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet….
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.

We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
‘They sound clear today’.

We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, ’If the wind’s from over there
There’ll be rain tonight’.

Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.

But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away.
Dreams within dreams.

And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.

We are shut about by guarding walls;
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done).

We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.

Oh guns of France, oh guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain….
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain…..

Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain……
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.

Oh we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break…….should break……….


(Making my way to Desborough’s cricket ground last week to watch Leicestershire’s Second XI play Northamptonshire’s, I came across this field of poppies.  A very typical thing in Northamptonshire in late Summer, but, perhaps, a little early in the year?)       


5 thoughts on “Picnic, July 1917 : Rose Macaulay

  1. Powerful stuff. It’s interesting how writing in a slightly ‘fey’ way about serious subjects can make them more horrific than using start, realistic language.

    I have been looking for a field of poppies to photograph but have only seen them from afar with no time to stop. They are quite wonderful aren’t they.

  2. That is very true.

    There is a quite spectacular poppy field near Brixworth that you might have seen on your way to Pitsford the other day. I believe they’re opium poppies – apparently there’s a shortage of opium for medicinal purposes (perhaps because of the war in Afghanistan?) and farmers are being given licences and encouraged to grow the stuff over here.

  3. A Poppy

    If I could be a poppy I think my life would change
    I could honour all the fallen who fell where I remain
    The souls would not be forgotten least not while I stand
    The soldiers whose lives were given here on this bloody land

    My petals would fall each evening to remind you of those we lose
    Then renewed with each new morning as I cried the moist of the dew
    My only fear is my petals I doubt there will be enough
    To remember the lost and forgotten the generals send to the dust

    © David McDonald 2011

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