Saturday, 27 November 2010

Jessie Pope: 'War Girls'

'I suppose that of all the victims of the War', writes George Simmers, 'the one we should be sorriest for is Jessie Pope.' As a marker of A level exam scripts, George is well placed to report on the opprobrium directed at that most convenient of scapegoats. Never mind that Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' makes no mention of Jessie Pope. The best-known fact about the poem is that its earliest draft was ironically dedicated to her. Why this piece of apparently arcane information should be so widely emphasised is a question which ought to give us pause. Not wanting to be implicated by Owen's indictment, we hastily reinstate the dedication so that we can safely remain as disapproving judge and jury. If Owen is accusing Jessie Pope, he can't be accusing us.

Pope was no poet, but she wrote fairly accomplished verse. 'War Girls' shows her at her best:

War Girls

There's the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
  And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There's the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
  And the girl who calls for orders at your door.
      Strong, sensible, and fit,
      They're out to show their grit,
    And tackle jobs with energy and knack.
      No longer caged and penned up,
      They're going to keep their end up
    Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

There's the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
  There's the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There's the girl who cries 'All fares, please!' like a man,
  And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.
      Beneath each uniform
      Beats a heart that's soft and warm,
    Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
      But a solemn statement this is,
      They've no time for love and kisses
    Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back.

There is no point in breaking butterflies upon wheels. Yet 'War Girls' does merit attention on sociological grounds, for the skilled way in which it responds to contemporary anxieties. Ought women to tackle male roles? Can they do them well? Will they lose their femininity and become 'like a man'? The poem makes a virtue of necessity, celebrating the war girls' 'energy and knack' and reassuring readers that 'Beneath each uniform / Beats a heart that's soft and warm'. These girls are, of course, the sexual reward for returning soldiers (see the contemporary music-hall songs below), so Pope also stresses that 'They've no time for love and kisses / Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back.'

But what happens when the men do come back? Love and kisses are all very well, but who takes the job on civvy street? 'War Girls' had already made clear, in a piece of social criticism unusual for Pope's poetry, that gender politics prior to the War had oppressed women: they had been 'caged and penned up'. Never again can that situation be permitted. For all its attempts to allay fears, 'War Girls' exposes a conflict between the rights of women and the rights of soldiers to return to their pre-War jobs. 'Where are they now?', Ivor Gurney would come to ask of his comrades in a poem of 1922, before bleakly answering his own question: 'on state-doles'.


  1. Jessie Pope's presence in a draft dedication to Owen's poem is a godsend to a certain kind of pedagogue. Students who find the poem difficult, tedious, or horrifying can learn to "enjoy poetry" in a Pickwickian sense by recoiling from the dimwitted Establishment Tool (or Cunning Propagandist - both views are current) who lied to Owen's men and tortured and killed them. "For shame!"

    Pope thus becomes a stand-in for all war apologists from Horace onwards. "When will they ever learn?"

    The choice is clear: the lying Jessie or the truth-telling Wilfred? The jingly, popular airhead or the sober, suffering victim? The Glib Versifier or the Inspired Poet?

    Intended lesson for poetry-averse youngsters: truth is not always pleasant, and poetry is, above all, truth.

  2. Whatever else Pope wrote (drinking deep and tasting not), this one doesn't merit such butterfly-breaking; she's more concerned with women's changing roles than soldiers' unchanging dreams of hay-rolls... Really now, where does Jessie "lie" (whichever meaning you choose) in this jingly bit of verse to which others seem so averse? It seems to me more about commerce than patriotism; those rewards would be for returning, not for going off to war. So, absent some backstory or biographical data here, I'm just left curious: what did she do to earn Owens' and later critics' opprobrium?

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  3. I agree with Ed. While no-one would argue that Jessie Pope is a great poet, she does at least observe current reality rather than dealing in grandiloquent abstractions and the language of the age of chivalry, as most of the WWI jingo poets do--her poem about the decision to continue with the FA Cup competition being a case in point. (It would make a good starting point for a classroom discussion--I'm sure at least some of the students would consider Pope's argument valid, and besides, "leather-lunged" is a good way to describe football fans.) Pope's "Lads of the Maple Leaf" is one of the few widely-circulated poems in the patriotic-heroic vein that actually celebrates "heroic" action, rather than subscribing to the common belief that to be a hero you have to be dead.

  4. I'm interested in the female infantrymen and engineers I've met and how they negotiate gender in war. I've observed a really fascinating blend of machismo and ├╝ber-femininity, e.g., the blond with the long braid, mascara, a machine gun and a wad of chew in her lower lip. Amazonian.

    addressing what happens when the "boys" (this term includes women) come back? this is a huge challenge as the boys often return to no jobs esp. as there is nothing analogous to being a rifleman. even reservists sometimes come back to the fact that their "day" job has disappeared as they've been away training for and going to war.

    thanks Tim as always for this