A personal favourite poem of mine from the Great War is ‘The Mine-Sweepers’ by Editha Jenkinson : A major challenge for anyone writing ‘war at sea’ poetry at this time was that a whole generation had to get used to a different naval war. The exuberance of say Henry Newbolt’s ‘Drake’s Drum’ ,
Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
An’ dreamin arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
They shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago!
‘Drake’s Drum ‘ of course was due to sound when England was in danger of attack. The poem first appeared in Newbolt’s anthology ‘All Admirals’ from 1897. To my knowledge it was last anthologised in the National Trust published anthology ‘Ode to The Sea’ (2004) .Newbolt’s adopted Kipling’s irritating habit of dropping ‘aitches’ when trying to represent the ‘common’ voice in such lines as
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’ .
Editha Jenkinson tackles the subject of mine-sweepers, paying tribute to those who served in them with in quite a reflective fashion.
A WORLD of heaving waves, wide skies of night,
Dark blue and shadow-filled and infinite,
Blown by the salt wind’s breath.
Above — the light of stars, moon-tinted clouds,
Below — the gleaming silver surf which shrouds
The deep-laid mines of death.
And out of port and quay across the foam
Leaving familiar scenes, the joys of home.
The brave mine-sweepers go ;
Facing sea perils while our homesteads sleep,
Lone guardians of the Fleet, they vigil keep
In storm, and wind, and snow.
Signalled across the skies in flaming rift
And heralded by horns of winds which lift
Dark waves with fang-like spray
Rise heaven’s tempests, but to seaman’s gaze
No shade nor sound upon the vast sea-ways
Man’s deadlier mines betray.
Yet out across the bar with every tide
Clearing the ship’s way through the waters wide,
Fearless of storm or foe,
Guarding the traffic of the east and west,
Giving with hearts heroic of their best,
The brave mine-sweepers go.
And when the long night of the war’s dark reign
Is ended, and the skies are clear again,
Of these it shall be said
No nobler lives were given for England’s need,
Nor unrecorded shall be one brave deed
When the sea gives up its dead.
( from ONE HUNDRED OF THE BEST POEMS ON THE EUROPEAN WAR. By WOMEN POETS OF THE EMPIRE. Edited by CHARLES F. FORSHAW, LL.D., published January 1916)
There’s an almost ‘Imagist’ approach that is quite endearing, a welcome economy of words. ‘In storm, and wind, and snow’ and ‘ When the sea gives up its dead’ are not swamped with too many adjectives.
Editha Jenkinson and ‘The Malory Verse Book’
The first reference I found to the writing of Editha Jenkinson concerns ‘Poetical Tributes on the loss of R.M.S. Titanic ‘ (also) edited by Chas. F. Forshaw , London, Elliot Stock 1912. One of the poems in this work on page 156 is credited to ‘Edith Jenkinson’ , which seems likely to be the same poet, considering the Forshaw connection.
However, Editha Jenkinson also compiled ‘The Malory Verse Book – A Collection of Contemporary Poetry For School and General Use’ ,published by Erskine Macdonald in 1919.
” It would be impossible adequately to represent recent poetry without introducing themes influenced by the War. These poems reveal the soul of the nation during strenuous years, the spirit of optimism and indomitable courage of those on active service, deep love of home and country and the high ideals for which men fought and died.”
The first section of ‘The Malory Verse Book’ was titled ‘Poems about Nature and Country Life’ -which seemed to be an attempt to revive Georgian Pastoral English poetry. but section II – ‘The Heart of the Nation’- soon reverts to war poetry ; grief, loss, patriotism, Christian inspired work, are all there. But notably absent is anything resembling ‘Disenchantment’ work, no Siegfried Sassoon, or Charles Hamilton Sorely. ( Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg were also absent, but this would have been typical of a 1919 anthology.)
‘The Mallory Verses’ included five examples of ‘Great War at Sea Poetry’ , and three further poems by Paul Bewsher, who served with the Royal Naval Air Service so combined both sea and air warfare in his work.
Editha Jenkinson included one of her own poems ‘Nightfall on the North Sea’.
NIGHTFALL ON THE NORTH SEA
Lone falls the twilight on the trackless deep ;
Wild are the fading clouds that windward sweep.
Shadow and chill sea mist
Thicken the winter gloaming, but afar,
Gleaming with frosty brilliance shines a star
Through veils of amethyst.
Wan lines of foam forlornly light the dim Shore-reefs,
and on the vague horizon’s rim
Still red, storm-embers glow.
North winds blow keen, and in the sullen roar
Of waves resounding on the rock-girt shore
Storm voices mutter low.
The ‘anti-pastoral’ theme is there; however much beauty one can find at the North Sea the hostile elements ‘storm voices’ are present. The sea is also unknowable, the horizon is ‘vague’, the deep is ‘trackless’ and so on.
The poem then suddenly drifts towards the ‘War at Sea’
“Lined, motionless upon the war-dark sea.
Grim guardians of a nation’s destiny
Which gale and foe defy ;
Deep anchored where the white-foamed billows ride,
Long vigil keeping o’er the sea-ways wide.
The grey destroyers lie.
Lost are the shrouded lights of port and strand,
Darker the lampless deep by War’s command.
Deadlier the mine-strewn wave
— More terrible the wrath of guns outpoured ;
More menace-filled the shadow of the sword
Than storms the helmsmen brave.
Darkness descends, and o’er the clouds ash-grey
Sea-borne, the silvery sheet-lightnings play “……..
Again, Britain’s island advantage is guarded by the ferocious power of ‘grey destroyers’ far away from the comforting lights of ‘port and strand’ .The Great War at Sea could be about an ongoing passive hostility, which could suddenly burst into active conflict of ‘the silvery sheet-lightnings’ of shelling.
Full text of ‘The Malory Verse Book’ ( and the complete text of ‘Nightfall on the North Sea’ ) can be read here.