Monday, 19 July 2010

Fredegond Shove: 'The Farmer, 1917'

A number of Great War poets prove that it is possible to write one short masterpiece and nothing else of any note. In the case of Patrick Shaw Stewart and Julian Grenfell, their early deaths allow speculation that they might have written more, had they lived. That excuse will hardly serve for Laurence Binyon: all that survives of his countless collections of verse is one stanza from one poem. John McCrae has fared only fractionally better: two of his stanzas are known and loved. These canonical oddities cannot be ignored by anthologists --- Jon Silkin even pays Grenfell the reluctant compliment of including him under protest --- and yet there is no possibility of talking about poetic development or the peculiarities of a unique voice. The poems resist all the usual blandishments of literary criticism.

Fredegond Shove (1889-1949), pictured right, does not deserve to be elevated even to these not-especially-exalted heights. If her work is encountered at all, it is probably via Ralph Vaughan Williams's song cycle, 'Four Poems by Fredegond Shove'. (As luck would have it, Shove was the niece of Vaughan Williams's first wife.) Fredegond Shove provides a case-study in how poems can linger at the edge of the canon, handed down from anthologist to anthologist, long after the poet herself has been forgotten.

Shove was well-connected. After her father's death, her mother married Charles Darwin's son, Francis, and she herself married the anti-Keynesian economist, Gerald Shove. A sense of her social milieu comes from the fact that the photograph above was taken by Ottoline Morrell, some of whose other images of the Shoves can be found here. Sir Edward Marsh included four poems by Shove in the 1918-19 edition of Georgian Poetry. Then, her work disappeared, almost. One poem turned up in Ian Parsons' Men Who March Away, and that same poem was reprinted by George Walter in his Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Anthologists read anthologists. Perhaps Walter agreed that it is the only poem by Shove worth saving. Perhaps, given the paucity of good women poets writing about the war, and given, too, the unspoken politics of anthologising, editors of First World War poetry are especially keen to accommodate the works of women poets.

I had better find out for myself, by reading all Shove's work, before my own anthology of Great War poetry is submitted to Oxford.

Here is the poem, anthologised as 'The Farmer' by Parsons and 'The Farmer, 1917' by Walter. Please post below your comments on its worth. For the record, it seems very ordinary to me.

The Farmer, 1917

I see a farmer walking by himself
In the ploughed field, returning like the day
To his dark nest. The plovers circle round
In the gray sky; the blackbird calls; the thrush
Still sings---but all the rest have gone to sleep.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
Where the new corn is sown, but not yet sprung;
He seems to be the only man alive
And thinking through the twilight of this world.
I know that there is war behind those hills,
And I surmise, but cannot see the dead,
And cannot see the living in their midst---
So awfully and madly knit with death.
I cannot feel, but know that there is war,
And has been now for three eternal years,
Behind the subtle cinctures of those hills.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
And as I look, imagination lifts
The sullen veil of alternating cloud,
And I am stunned by what I see behind
His solemn and uncompromising form:
Wide hosts of men who once could walk like him
In freedom, quite alone with night and day,
Uncounted shapes of living flesh and bone,
Worn dull, quenched dry, gone blind and sick, with war;
And they are him and he is one with them;
They see him as he travels up the field.
O God, how lonely freedom seems to-day!
O single farmer walking through the world,
They bless the seed in you that earth shall reap,
When they, their countless lives, and all their thoughts,
Lie scattered by the storm: when peace shall come
With stillness, and long shivers, after death.


  1. I quite like the opening nine lines... but after that it seems less interesting. The farmer as a trigger for her imagination seems somehow unbelievable, unconvincing. It's also hard to reconcile the 'woman poet' aspect of the work with the poetry itself which would lead me to wonder whether it's predominant value is as a poem by a woman during wartime rather than as a poem per se.

  2. What might have been a brief and probably still mundane poem (like those single-stanza other candidates you mention) instead wound up padded and stretched and finally attenuated into a series of irritating commonplace observations. I admire a few images ("madly knit with death," "subtle cinctures of hills," "sullen veil," even the layered "twilight of this world"), but they belong in a poem of eight or ten lines. Fie on all anthologists who settle for being generous rather than rigorous, politically correct instead of poetically courageous, more completist than critical. (Step lively there, Tim... But please don't stop; your samples are instructive, enlightening, and great fun to enshrine--or shred. No wonder you have over 72,000 visits counted!)

  3. Thanks, both. Yes, you confirm me in my opinion that it's not much good. There are flickers of interest, but why take up a page of an anthology with this when anything (ANYTHING!) by Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Jones, Blunden, etc., would be more interesting?

    1. I do not find that Wilfred Owen's poem, "Nocturne'' (June-August 1915) is 'more interesting' than Shove's "The Farmer". Neither you nor your readers seem to have recognised Shove's use of 'seed' as a metaphorical reference.

  4. "I had better find out for myself, by reading all Shove's work". You'll search in vain, I think. None of her other work touches as explicitly on the war. An oblique reference in 'A Man Dreams That He Is The Creator', perhaps (incidentally published by the pacifist journal War and Peace).

    It might be worth pointing out that the Shoves were working for Philip Morrell at Garsington as a condition of Gerald's conscientious objector status. Juliette Huxley writes: "In those days of mixed emotions, sweet and sour, grim with war news, I saw a good deal of Fredegond Shove, Gerald’s wife, who lived like a Spartan at the Bailiff’s Cottage while he worked as a CO on the farm. The work was mostly cutting logs with Aldous, and the two of them did not form a happy team. Gerald was sacrificing his intellectual prospects to his pacifist principles with a grim taciturnity – hardly lightened by his visits to the Manor." Austin Robinson also comments that the Shoves "endured all the miseries of being ... pacifist in a world that was war-mad”. So while it is true that the Shove's were 'well-connected' in some ways, their situation was not quite perhaps as 'Crome Yellow-ish' as you imply.

  5. I've been teaching the Vaughan Williams settings to a singing pupil of mine. It suddenly struck me that the poems are execrable nonsense. Came across your analysis via Google, and now feel justified! Thanks!

  6. I agree it's not a good poem. But I find it interesting, all the same. I agree with Dawn about the first nine lines. They are plain and interesting for being plain, and notably un-Georgic . When she gets to line ten the 'that' is a bad sign -- iambic padding, and after that her iambics, though they DO reflect the farmer walking over the feel, start to be sinisterly regular. At the same time, I rather like the way the farmer recurs several times. In fact, I find her repetitions deliberate, patterned and interesting. This poem would not make me despair of her. She is trying to hard and comes a cropper. How awful for the poor woman to have married a man called Shove. It wasn't worth being well-connected to get a name like that. She should have stayed a Maitland.

    1. Can you give me an example of a good poem please?

  7. @nellbeaton Shove is pronounced to rhyme with mauve rather than love; perhaps that makes her fate a little better. In any case, they loved each other their whole lives long, as her memoir makes clear.

  8. I'm a little surprised at the chorus of agreement here; when I first came across the poem, it struck me as being very good, and repeated readings have done nothing to shake that feeling. In fact I was wondering earlier in another Forum why it's neglected, hence my having been (belatedly, as it turns out) directed here by another member. People seem to be trying to find things to criticise, as, for example, the peculiar claim that the "that" in line 10 is mere padding for the sake of the metre -- as though she would otherwise have left out "that" in line with more recent practice (though not with mine). Perhaps if the initial blog entry had been more positive, so too would have been the comments?

    1. I agree with Peter J. King. The initial blog by the anthologist seems to invite readers to concur with his view of 'The Farmer', yet he himself does not explain why he thinks this poem is 'very ordinary'.

    2. Agreed. I like this poem of hers, and the few others I've read. And there aren't many poets I really rate.