Sunday, 10 November 2013

May Wedderburn Cannan (1893–1973)

Love, 1916

One said to me. 'Seek Love, for he is Joy
Called by another name'.
A second said, 'Seek Love, for he is Power
Which is called Fame'.
Last said a Third, 'Seek Love, his name is Peace'.
I called him thrice,
And answer came, 'Love now is christened Sacrifice'.

May Wedderburn Cannan is very much a forgotten war poet of the First World War. She was the second of three daughters of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity College, Oxford (he was in charge at the Oxford University Press from 1895 until his death in 1919).

And she is very much my favourite of the war poets, hence her prominence on my blog today, Remembrance Sunday, for which I make no apology; but that's a story for another day.

Unlike the men, she was not at the front line, but she was certainly as close as a woman could get. She was engaged to Bevil Quiller-Couch, son of the famous "Q". Tragically, he died on a Victory March just after the war in 1918, of the influenza outbreak which decimated the population.

The story of their love, with extracts from his diaries and her writings and poetry, can be found in "The Tears of War" (he Story of a Young Poet and a War Hero) by Charlotte Fyfe, whose great-aunt she was.

The story in the Daily Telegraph tells how she came to write the book, after picking up a volume of her great-aunt's war poetry in a second hand bookshop, and what she found of their tragic love affair:

""Q", Professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, was a family friend. Charles Cannan published his Oxford Book of English Verse and the Cannan girls grew up with the Quiller-Couches' children, Bevil and his brother, Foy. Bevil was a charmer, known for his practical jokes, who rowed for Oxford; it was as an undergraduate before the war that he began to look on May with new eyes. Long after, he told her that he had been secretly amused when, in l913, she had described him earnestly to someone as "a kind of brother". He had, he told her, no intention of remaining one."

"By l914 Bevil had joined the Special Reserve, and May volunteered for the Red Cross."They called it the Golden Summer afterwards, the last summer before our world came to an end," May wrote. "I think we all knew we were saying goodbye, not only to each other, but to our youth. She was 20 when war was declared on August 4. "I remember sitting on the porch steps that Sunday and being quite unable to speak," May wrote. "It must, I think, be true that one grows up in a sudden moment of time and experience, for I grew up on that day." By the end of the month, Bevil was in battle at Mons."

"News of the trenches horrified those in England, but Bevil never complained. His letters were full of gossip about horses invading farmers' dining-rooms and requests for flypaper. The nearest he got to admitting fear was to speak of being "in a lively spot". (1)

During the war, May went to Rouen in the spring of 1915, helping to run the canteen at the railhead there for four weeks; her frustration with women and the war effort is expressed well in her book of memoirs "Grey Ghosts and Voices":

"The Medical Services in Whitehall were convinced that they could deal with the situation when actually there was a complete breakdown…. There were no motor ambulances in the advanced zone of the British Army and only one attached to the Military Hospital in Versailles…. The British Red Cross offered two hundred motor ambulances and they were refused; they offered 1,000 trained nurses and they were refused."

But their love was not to be. As Jane Potter notes in the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography"

"In December 1918 Cannan was officially engaged to her childhood friend Major Bevil Quiller-Couch MC, RFA (1890–1919), son of Arthur Quiller-Couch (Q), professor of English literature at Cambridge and editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse. Bevil Quiller-Couch survived the fighting at Mons, Ypres, the Ancre, and elsewhere, but he died in the influenza pandemic on 6 February 1919. (2)

The poem I have selected here comes from the early part of the war. As Jane Potter notes in the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography":

"In the run-up to the First World War Cannan, like many women of her class and generation, took first aid and home nursing classes. She was a member of an Oxford Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) that had been approached by the War Office to set up a hospital in the event of mobilization. She was able to procure Magdalen College School for the hospital, but it was eventually decided that military not VAD hospitals would be used and that military nurses not amateur volunteers would run them. Cannan and her fellow volunteers were summarily dismissed. With her sisters she undertook voluntary war work at the Clarendon Press, which produced pamphlets and books for the government's propaganda bureau. Cannan herself was responsible for putting together Oxford University Press's general catalogue." (2)

So she returned to help her father at the Oxford University Press for a while, and then finally returned to France in the espionage department at the War Office Department in Paris (1918), where she was finally reunited with her fiancé Bevil Quiller-Couch.

May published three volumes of poetry during and after the war. These were In War Time (1917), The Splendid Days (1919) which was dedicated to Bevil Quiller-Couch, and The House of Hope (1923), dedicated to her father. In 1934, she wrote one novel The Lonely Generation, which was semi-autobiographical.

"In 1915 Cannan spent four weeks in France running a railway canteen for soldiers, the experience providing inspiration for one of her finest poems, 'Rouen', which describes a day in the life of the busy port town. She records the incidentals of her experience from 'the coming of provisions' and 'the little piles of Woodbines' to 'the Drafts just out from England' and 'the truck train full of wounded', and thus grounds the poem in the immediacy of the war. The repetitive question 'Can you recall' combined with the insistent repletion of 'And', blend these concrete details within a lyrical memory of 'our Adventure'. Her first volume of poetry, In War Time, was published in 1917 by Basil Blackwell." (2)

Philip Larkin chose her poem "Rouen" to be included in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973), commenting that it "had all the warmth and idealism of the VADS in the First World War. I find it enchanting".

Here it is:

Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning,
And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair,
And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges,
And the empty littered station, and the tired people there.

Can you recall those mornings and the hurry of awakening,
And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way,
And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions,
And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day.

Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the city,
Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies,
And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers,
And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies.

Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee,
Heavy-laden noontides with the evening's peace to win,
And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles,
And the crushes in the "Parlour", and the letters coming in?

Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers,
All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth;
And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts,
And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth.

Can I forget the passage from the cool white-bedded Aid Post
Past the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train
To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter
And "Good-bye, and thank you, Sister", and the empty yards again?

Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad,
Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string,
And the voices of the sargeants who called the Drafts together,
And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King?

Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving,
The little group of people at the doorway of the shed,
The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness,
And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o'erhead?

Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers,
Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again,
And the shadows on the rail-lines and the all inglorious labour,
And the promise of the daylight firing blue the window- pane?

Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning,
Morning very still and solemn braeking slowly on the town,
And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak,
And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down?

Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles,
And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide,
And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool, of water,
And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside?

Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island,
And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony,
And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses,
And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea?

.When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower,
My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away;
When other men remember I remember our Adventure
And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.


1 comment:

Www1\\\\\\\\ said...

Hello Tony

Thank you for this lovely post on May

I'm her granddaughter and am setting up a website about her work.

You can find it at

Best wishes