On a little-known poem of the First World War
Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922) was Canadian, although she was born in London. She was regarded by some as the greatest Canadian poet of her generation, and her short poem ‘Marching Men’ is a moving religiously inspired response to the sacrifice being made by thousands of men every week in the First World War.
Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by.
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to Calvary.
Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.
With souls unpurged and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death.
And for each one, far off, apart,
Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart.
We often talk about the sacrifice made by soldiers during the First World War, and for the Canadian poet Marjorie Pickthall, writing about the Canadian involvement in the war, such a sacrifice was specifically Christian in nature: ‘I saw a thousand Christs go by’. These marching men going off to war are like Christ carrying his cross on the way to Calvary to be crucified.
Such a poem as ‘Marching Men’ may strike us as akin to the jingoistic verses put out by people like Jessie Pope in Britain during the First World War. Pope was the writer of patriotic doggerel that Wilfred Owen had in mind in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. But Pickthall’s poem, whilst embracing the propagandistic line of such poets, also honours the men already putting their lives on the line, rather than actively harrying unconscripted men into doing the same.
‘Marching Men’ offers a more thoughtful response to the First World War than we find in the work of Jessie Pope and many others. It deserves to be better known outside of Canada than it is, as it is an interesting example of a ‘war poem’ written during the First World War, but by a female civilian rather than a male combatant.
Image: Canadian soldiers returning from trenches during the Battle of the Somme (photo: W. I. Castle, November 1916), via Wikimedia Commons.