Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Alice Meynell: 'Summer in England, 1914'

Alice Meynell (1847-1922) was a poet, essayist and campaigner for women's suffrage. She converted to Catholicism in her twenties, and that religious faith inspired and sustained her writings for the rest of her life. Her interests ranged from the terrifying wonders of the threshing machine to a passionate denunciation of trousers as 'of all garments the most stupid'. She was a friend and supporter of other poets such as Francis Thompson and Coventry Patmore, the latter of whom grew so besotted with her that she was finally obliged to break their friendship.

Meynell's own poetry is underrated. Among her best-known works is 'Summer in England, 1914', which contrasts the idyll of that last innocent summer with the terrible fall into war.

Summer in England, 1914

On London fell a clearer light;
Caressing pencils of the sun
Defined the distances, the white
Houses transfigured one by one,
The 'long, unlovely street' impearled.
O what a sky has walked the world!

Most happy year! And out of town
The hay was prosperous, and the wheat;
The silken harvest climbed the down:
Moon after moon was heavenly-sweet,
Stroking the bread within the sheaves,
Looking 'twixt apples and their leaves.

And while this rose made round her cup,
The armies died convulsed. And when
This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league-long throb of pain.

Flower following tender flower; and birds,
And berries; and benignant skies
Made thrive the serried flocks and herds.
---Yonder are men shot through the eyes.
Love, hide thy face
From man's unpardonable race.

Who said 'No man hath greater love than this,
To die to serve his friend'?
So these have loved us all unto the end.
Chide thou no more, O thou unsacrificed!
The soldier dying dies upon a kiss,
The very kiss of Christ.

Focusing on seasonal change from summer to autumn, the poem measures the sudden catastrophe of war by means of a 'rose ma[king] round her cup'. Natural cycles continue, flower following tender flower, while armies die convulsed and men are 'shot through the eyes'.

The final stanza is Meynell's attempt at consolation, a grafting of Christian reward onto the soldiers' death. It opens with a question to which, of course, Meynell knows the answer. The soldiers who are dying for their friends are dying the most Christian of deaths, and as a consequence they receive the 'kiss of Christ' as a image of salvation.

Wilfred Owen may have been thinking of Meynell's poem when he wrote 'Greater Love'. He complained in a letter of 1917 that 'There is a mote in many eyes ... that men are laying down their lives for a friend. I say it is a mote; a distorted view to hold in a general way.'


  1. Well met by sunlight! Parts of this are brilliant and lovely: the opening stanza entire; stanza 2's images of "harvest climbing the down" and moon "stroking the bread within the sheaves"; the harsh last three lines of stanza 4, shot through and unpardonable). But the rest... too much in some standard key of "C," kissed by unchaste corruption, convulsed by clamorous Christianity but unconsoled.

  2. But was the weather of summer 1914 really as good as that?
    I don't know about the hay harvest, but according to
    June was sunny but rather wet. July had a spell of mainly dry sunny weather for a few days after the fourth, but it then became cooler, cloudier and changeable, and breezy during the last week.
    August seems to have been better.
    It's a good poem, but she's maybe going for dramatic contrast rather than meteorological exactitude. I don't blame her.

  3. Very nice write up. Easy to understand and straight to the point.

  4. In response to Simmers, that's a very interesting observation. I do strongly support the idea that the poem was done somewhere in August or even early September, which is technically still summer as, as far as I know, Autumn starts late September, at least in England. This would support the imagery of things ripening before harvest, and would also be historically correct; The Battle of Marne and the first trenches being built both occurred early and mid September.

    I find the poem title clever given this perspective. Just as things are coming to harvest, England is beginning its battle of attrition with Germany. The harvest is born just as soldiers are beginning to die.

    If anyone has deeper insight on the background of the poem and if it was written at the time of the title or in reflection, I would personally love to hear.