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.'