The poets and the World War: "The farmer, 1917" by Fredegond Shove

Fredegond Shove
(née Maitland)
Gerald Frank Shove
© National Portrait
Gallery, London
There are several reasons to share here the reading experience of a poem by Fredegond Shove (1889-1949). Firstly, the text we chose reminds us that the war poetry was not only a men thing. Her poetry was selected to be part of the Georgean poetry series edited by Edward Marsh which eventually turned into the canon for a certain time. Today we can appreciate the new feeling and scenario she puts in front of us among the other poetry contributions. Shove was one of the few women writing about First World War (or at least one of the few we know today) and her contents seem to be totally distant from the most common themes we can find out in a book like The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by George Walter (by the way, he also selected Fredegond Shove). If the diversity of voices and tones is a matter of fact in the legacy of the War poetry, we have to conclude that this poem by Fredegond Shove allows us to enter a separated world, the life of the protagonist of this text (“I see a farmer”…, “I see the farmer”…, “O single farmer walking through the world”) and the awareness of “war behind those hills”, of invisible dead and living “in their midst / So awfully and madly knit with death.”. Her fortune was basically ups and downs, but we think that this poem features many elements that shall be treated as innovative, for example "returning like the day", "the subtle cinctures of those hills" or "The sullen veil of alternating cloud". Last but not least, her life leads us to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composer who landed on both feet on World War One things with his Pastoral Symphony. Anyway, let's go step by step, we'll come back with Vaugham Williams later on. Verses like "know that there is war behind those hills", "I cannot feel, but know that there is war" feature a kind of cubistically reinvented reality and the final part of the poem ("And they are him and he is one with them") is simply astonishing. We fear that the real value of this poem has not been fully recognized...


I see a farmer walking by himself
In the ploughed field, returning like the day
To his dark nest. The plovers circle round
In the gray sky; the blackbird calls; the thrush
Still sings---but all the rest have gone to sleep.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
Where the new corn is sown, but not yet sprung;
He seems to be the only man alive
And thinking through the twilight of this world.
I know that there is war behind those hills,
And I surmise, but cannot see the dead,
And cannot see the living in their midst---
So awfully and madly knit with death.
I cannot feel, but know that there is war,
And has been now for three eternal years,
Behind the subtle cinctures of those hills.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
And as I look, imagination lifts
The sullen veil of alternating cloud,
And I am stunned by what I see behind 
His solemn and uncompromising form:
Wide hosts of men who once could walk like him
In freedom, quite alone with night and day,
Uncounted shapes of living flesh and bone,
Worn dull, quenched dry, gone blind and sick, with war;
And they are him and he is one with them;
They see him as he travels up the field.
O God, how lonely freedom seems to-day!
O single farmer walking through the world,
They bless the seed in you that earth shall reap,
When they, their countless lives, and all their thoughts,
Lie scattered by the storm: when peace shall come
With stillness, and long shivers, after death.