War Horse Poetry

Officer judging the special competition ((35) D.1572 ). Image from National Library of Scotland CC-BY

Poetry of the First World War mentions horses rarely. Hardy’s ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”‘ and Thomas’s ‘As the team’s head-brass’ describe horses ploughing the English countryside, and there are passing references to horses at the Front in Hardy’s ‘”And There Was a Great Calm”‘, Borden’s ‘At the Somme’, Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ and Gurney’s ‘Pain’. The last of these is particularly powerful:

Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.

The story which comes closest to full-blown Spielbergian sentimentality, however, is told by Charlotte Fyfe in The Tears of War, an account of the doomed love affair between May Wedderburn Cannan and Bevil Quiller-Couch (son of Q). In August 1918, Cannan was working for a branch of M15 in the War Office Department in Paris. Two days after the Armistice, she became engaged to Bevil Quiller-Couch, who had come to Paris on leave to propose. Having survived the War and won the Military Cross, Quiller-Couch rejoined his battery in Germany early in 1919, but became ill in early February, and died of pneumonia following flu. The poems in Cannan’s second book, The Splendid Days, chart the descent from the exhilaration of the Armistice and reciprocated love, to the devastation caused by her fiancé’s death.

Q acquired his son’s warhorse, Peggy, at auction, and brought her back to Fowey where she lived out her remaining years. On first meeting her, Q felt the bond: ‘Whether or not she detected something familiar in my footstep when I went into the loose box, she was waiting for me. Took no notice of the stableman, but came straight to me, snuffled me all over the chest and then bent down her neck like “Royal Egypt”. While I stroked her, she nuzzled my wrist and back of my other hand… It sounds silly, but it seemed as if the creature really did know something and was trying to say it.’

May remained close to her would-have-been father-in-law, and rode Peggy on her visits to Fowey. She wrote a 32-line poem called ‘Riding’, which is published only in The Tears of War:

The roads are narrow in Cornwall and set between
Stiff wind-cropped hedges that shelter as you ride;
They were sadder roads and bare that he knew in France
The poplars on each side…

He must have ridden her often, felt the lilt
Of the sure swift strength moving between his knees,
And I came near him a second, riding so,
Dreams, but Love lives by these.

Any other horses?

Origianlly posted on the ‘War Poetry‘ Blog on the 19th January 2012.

Cite : War Horse Poetry (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=112) by Tim Kendall (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/author/tkendall/) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)

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About Tim Kendall

I am Professor of English at the University of Exeter. I have written mainly on twentieth-century poetry from Britain, Ireland and America. My most recent publications have focused on war poetry: Modern English War Poetry, a monograph, appeared from Oxford University Press in 2006; and in early 2007 The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, a 37-essay collection which I edited, came from the same publisher. Previous works include studies of Sylvia Plath and Paul Muldoon. My monograph, The Art of Robert Frost, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in April 2012. I am currently completing an anthology of First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics. Also under contract are a book on war poetry for OUP's Very Short Introductions series, and (with Philip Lancaster) a three-volume edition of Ivor Gurney's Complete Poems for Oxford English Texts. An essay on Charlotte Mew is forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry.
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