Tuesday, 14 September 2010

May Sinclair: 'Field Ambulance in Retreat'

Generally, I dislike poetry anthologies which have too many authors represented by too few poems. One job of a good editor is to be discriminating enough to leave people out. Another is to give a sense of what the best poets sound like. Better to make brave choices by including just a few well-represented poets.

However, now that I am an anthologist-in-the-making, this principle is being challenged. I've stated a case in previous blogposts for various one-poem poets, such as Patrick Shaw Stewart, Julian Grenfell, T. P. Cameron Wilson and Fredegond Shove. The first three of those belong in any authoritative anthology of First World War poetry.

Next up is May Sinclair, better known as a novelist, and still better known---to me anyway---as the unwilling object of the great Charlotte Mew's affections. (Sinclair cruelly reported that on one occasion she 'leapt the bed five times' in order to escape Mew's clutches.) In 1914, Sinclair joined an ambulance unit which went to Belgium to assist the injured and the homeless. She stayed for a month, and her journal, of which there are extracts here, gives a lively description of her experiences. As Suzanne Raitt reveals in this enjoyable article, Sinclair's account may not have been entirely accurate, to say the very least.

May Sinclair remains unknown to First World War poetry anthologies, with one exception. Her poem 'Field Ambulance in Retreat' is included by Andrew Motion in his First World War Poems. That book neatly epitomises everything I don't like about poetry anthologies, but I suppose I ought to be grateful that it introduced me to Sinclair's poem. Here is the poem. Please let me know if you think that it is worth preserving.


  1. Fascinating poem, strong in its serenity but confusing in certain images and lines. Ambulances are always coming and going, taking the dead and wounded "home," so what's the message of such a vehicle in retreat? Why the half-baked religious parallels, or more accurately, words that don't quite connect? These casualties, sacred in some way, haven't earned the status of saviours, surely. But the simple, quietly lovely language for farmers and landscape is compelling enough; and the ragged-length, non-rhyming lines, as flat as a Flemish road... could they have been influenced by Whitman, minus his rolling, hovering chant?
    Or was she more likely following Eliot's success with irregular lines Wasted and Hollow? When was this "Ambulance" written/published, anyway?

    Two "beautiful"'s is two many, so to speak, and I don't like the last few lines' pathetic fallacies: "dying league," "Land/ Falls back," or the piling-it-on "sacred, dolorous Way," all rather less interesting than the earlier lines about oxen and corn-wagons and, in parentheses, that particular "retreat smile."

    Grim harvest; worthy effort. I vote yes for this odd duck-into-swan poem that can bear aloft lines as diverse in length and effect as "By the long road loud..." and "Our safety weighs us down." But, Tim, why are there so many one-poem poets?

  2. Ed --- I know it's easy to say that Cameron Wilson, Shaw Stewart and Grenfell might have written more if they had lived. In fact, Shaw Stewart's genius was as a scholar, a money-maker and a party-goer; and Grenfell was a dim bully. T P Cameron Wilson was less likely to be distracted by other more enticing matters.

    As for Fredegond Shove and May Sinclair, a cynic might say that anthologists of WW1 poetry are desperately rooting around for poems by women. I couldn't possibly comment.

  3. There are so many one-poem poets because outstanding poems are almost impossible to write.

    "Field Ambulance in Retreat" seems above average to me, especially if it was written during the war. Some good phrases are there, like "black canals, thick with heat," "safety, hard and strange," and "our dripping ambulance" with colors emblematic of blood, bandages, and the flag of St. George. (Not accidental, one hopes.) On the other hand, the "retreat smile" is perhaps self-deception: not everyone was smiling, and I suspect that those who did were flashing smiles chiefly at the English woman at the wheel. An army in retreat has little to smile about, at least in the inspirational manner that the poet suggests.

    Sinclair's language is at least as visually descriptive as Whitman's in his familiar "Cavalry Crossing a Ford." Her poem has more to say than Whitman's. I wish that she'd found time to edit it further.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. It strikes me as a snapshot that conveys what Ezra Pound called "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." Image is this poem's great strength, and for that I'd say it deserves a place in a First World War anthology. Many poets and non-poets who have experienced war encounter it throughout their later lives not in the form of an epic narrative but in such brief, vivid moments. I think war memories and poetic form are naturally analogous for this reason. This piece is an excellent example.

  5. This is indeed a fascinating poem, a muted panoramic landscape rich in detail that grows richer with rereading. The several flaws indicated by Ed Leimbacher, and the easy unimpeded rhythm, suggest rapid composition, while the wealth and precision of detail suggest the poet worked more from eye than from memory. Such effects might be accomplished in retrospect by a skilled writer, of course, but the poem conveys a strong impression of spontaneity and immediacy. I would be very interested to know whether or not it was composed during the war, but either way it certainly deserves inclusion in any WWI poetry anthology.