May Wedderburn Cannan

Mrs. PG is finishing up a new book set in Britain during the years following World War I.

PG (and many others) are familiar with the names of many male war poets who wrote about their experiences – Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon will immediately come to the minds of those who are still interested in this sort of thing.

Mrs. PG was interested in female war poets, however, and found one that PG had not discovered, May Wedderburn Cannan.

Ms. Cannan was born in Oxford, England to an intellectual family. Her father was a publisher and scholar, and Cannan and her sisters created a family magazine, even publishing their own anthology The Tripled Crown (1907), with an introductory poem by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, professor of English at Cambridge, editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse, and family friend.

During World War I, Cannan volunteered with the Oxford Voluntary Aid Detachment and helped publish government propaganda with Clarendon Press. She spent a month in Rouen, France in 1915 volunteering at a railway canteen for soldiers, an experience that inspired her most famous poem, “Rouen.” When the Armistice was declared, Cannan was working for MI5 in Paris.

Cannan published three books of poetry: In War Time (1917), The Splendid Days (1919), dedicated to her fiancée Bevil Quiller-Couch who died in the influenza pandemic of 1919, and The House of Hope (1923).

August 1914

BY MAY WEDDERBURN CANNAN

The sun rose over the sweep of the hill
    All bare for the gathered hay,
And a blackbird sang by the window-sill,
    And a girl knelt down to pray:
          ‘Whom Thou hast kept through the night, O Lord,
          Keep Thou safe through the day.’

The sun rose over the shell-swept height,
     The guns are over the way,
And a soldier turned from the toil of the night
    To the toil of another day,
          And a bullet sang by the parapet
          To drive in the new-turned clay.

The sun sank slow by the sweep of the hill,
     They had carried all the hay,
And a blackbird sang by the window-sill,
    And a girl knelt down to pray:
          ‘Keep Thou safe through the night, O Lord,
          Whom Thou hast kept through the day.’

The sun sank slow by the shell-swept height,
    The guns had prepared a way,
And a soldier turned to sleep that night
    Who would not wake for the day,
          And a blackbird flew from the window-sill,
          When a girl knelt down to pray.
Source: In War Time (1917)

Rouen

BY MAY WEDDERBURN CANNAN

April 26—May 25, 1915

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 breaking 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.
Source: In War Time (1917)

After the War

BY MAY WEDDERBURN CANNAN

After the war perhaps I’ll sit again
Out on the terrace where I sat with you,
And see the changeless sky and hills beat blue
And live an afternoon of summer through.

I shall remember then, and sad at heart
For the lost day of happiness we knew,
Wish only that some other man were you
And spoke my name as once you used to do.
Source: In War Time (1917)

5 thoughts on “May Wedderburn Cannan”

    • You’re welcome, Harvey.

      I have a similar interest in this period and only recently discovered Ms. Cannan’s poetry.

  1. I add my thanks to those of Karen and Harvey.

    Despite reading a fair amount of poetry from the period I’d never heard of May Wedderburn Cannan. It feels as if poetry is one of those areas where women’s voices were forgotten, perhaps because they didn’t get selected for the anthologies that so often serve as an introduction to poetic history. Quiller-Couch may have been a family friend but he did not include her in the Oxford Book of English Verse (though Brooke, Owen and Sassoon were selected).

    I find it odd that this did not happen to female novelists. For example, were I asked to list famous 19th century authors I think the majority would be women and this is not the result of recent rediscoveries by feminists.

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