Mary Borden, War-Poet and Nurse on the Western Front

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Trenches on the Western Front

Trenches on the Western Front during World War I in 1916. Photograph by John Warwick Brooke, image by Gsl.

Mary Borden (1886-1968) was the Chicago-born daughter of a businessman. Already divorced, she met Edward Spears, head of the British Military Mission in Paris, during the First World  War and they married in March 1918.

At the outbreak of war, Borden nursed in an evacuation hospital unit on the Western front where the staff expected 30% of the men she nursed to die. Borden was proud that the unit’s mortality rate was only 19%.

A Terrible War in Graphic Detail

During the war, Borden wrote lyrical verse in graphic detail about her experiences nursing on the battlefield, verse that was both argumentative and confrontational. Sometimes, she appropriated lines from male poets and inverted them for her own purpose. In Borden’s verse, there are no hidden silences; we do not need to ask what is unspoken or inferred.

These lines are from her second stanza:

“This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu. / His coat is of mud, his great, dragging, flapping / coat that is too big for him and too heavy; / His coat that once was blue and now is grey / and stiff with the mud that cakes to it.”

A Voice of Mass Experience

American poet Walt Whitman influenced Mary Borden, and like him, she developed a voice of mass emotional experience that was also highly individualistic. Despite this, her narrative is rife with the qualities for which critics condemned feminine poetry. The verse is loose, impressionistic, steeped in feeling and imagery that conveys emotion almost hysterical in its intensity.

Borden adopts not only Whitman’s long lines, his free verse and imagery of nature; for example, her tanks are “Obscure crabs, armoured toads, big as houses” – but also his liking for lists. Like Whitman, she attempts to convince readers as a voice of mass experience, and this sometimes results in language that seems overdone, laying adjective upon adjective, image upon image, as though only constant repetition is sufficiently convincing: “This is the song of the mud – the obscene, the filthy, the putrid.”

Often Borden’s style is deeply ironic and this is present in the poem’s title, “The Song of the Mud” alluding to Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The irony is that Whitman’s “Song” was a celebration, Borden’s serves as an indictment.

These lines are from stanza 3:

“And there is mud in his beard. / His head is crowned with a helmet of mud. / He wears it well. / He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him. / He has set a new style in clothing; / He has introduced the chic of the mud.”

Dramatic Irony

This unashamedly feminine language produces a strange diversion and shock in its dramatic irony. It would be a mistake, however, to think that her gender did not present Mary Borden with certain difficulties in articulating her poetic project. This is particularly relevant towards the end of the poem, which describes the soldiers disappearing without trace and leaving no mark:

‘The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.”

Borden cannot pretend that she is a participant in the actual suffering of the young men, so this appropriation enables her to speak as a woman and as an observer.

Other women wrote more conventional poetry about the war, focusing on the noble sacrifices of the soldiers, seen as symbolic of the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross, and guilt about the sacrifice that these men made on their behalf. Jan Montefiore, in her chapter:  “Undeservedly Forgotten; Women Poets of the 1930s” in her book Arguments of Heart and Mind, says: “Only Mary Borden’s poems, first published in 1917 but uncollected until 1929, denounced its brutalities outright.”

Ignored in Her Lifetime

Mary Borden lived in a time of great and terrible changes. The war made new demands on women, and out of expediency, men accepted the necessity for change. Yet, simmering beneath that acceptance, the old prejudices remained. Borden did not find fame with these poems during her lifetime because they were largely ignored.

She has now taken her proper place among the women war poets, thanks to work from Trudi Tate (Women, Men and the Great War, 1996) and by Jan Montefiore and Nosheen Khan. In the end, this iconic woman poet was, herself, a victim of the very culture she struggled to transcend.

Mary Borden was, eventually, awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.

© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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