Monday, 10 February 2014

Jessie Pope

Jessie Pope is, of course, on my ever-growing list of Female Poets of the First World War.

Initially I supposed that Jessie was very famous and therefore did not need me to add my 'twopennyworth'.   However, I recently contacted the North London Collegiate School about another poet and discovered so much more about Jessie Pope, a former pupil of the NLCS, than I knew before - so I felt I ought to speak up.

I have spent the weekend researching Jessie by reading all of the fascinating articles so kindly sent to me by the Librarian at the North London Collegiate School - for which I am extremely grateful.

I came to the conclusion that in today's rather hyper-critical climate, Jessie has been very much misunderstood.   Most people will be aware that Jessie is the 'my friend' referred to by Wilfred Owen in his now famous poem "Dulce et Decorum est" but how many people know that Wilfred did in fact cross out her name and any mention of "a certain Poetess" from later drafts he made of the poem?

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Jessie would have been 46 years old.  She was already a famous writer and an established and published poet, loved for her humorous verse, with fans all over the world.   She was also a journalist contributing regularly to "The Daily Mail" and "Punch", both of which Wilfred Owen read regularly according to his published letters.   Wilfred, on the other hand, was aged 20 and working in France as a tutor.  At that time none of Wilfred's poems had been published.   

The most famous male soldier war poet during the First World War was arguably Rupert Brooke, although at the time, it seems that Robert Nichols felt he should have that title (see Cecil Roberts, pp 214 - 216).   Jessie carried on doing what she had always done - writing verse that has been described as 'jingoistic'  but which was aimed at keeping up the morale of a country that feared for its future.   The last months of 1914 were definitely not the time for criticism or defeatist talk, with the terrible loss of life, large numbers of wounded and the defeats and retreats the Army in France had suffered, followed by the bombardment of the east-coast towns Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby just before Christmas.   Jessie's particular brand of patriotic, rather light-hearted verse was therefore very popular, with one soldier writing to the "Daily Mail" to ask for a copy of one of her poems to be sent to his wife to cheer her up.

Jessie volunteered to work at the home for soldiers blinded in the conflict - St. Dunstan's in London - which was opened in 1915.   She wrote about the incredibly good humour of the soldiers learning to live normal lives in spite of their disability.   She continued writing at that time too and published several volumes of patriotic verse during the war years.

This has been an extremely useful lesson - never judge anything without doing your very best to find out all the facts.

With many thanks to the staff of the Library of the North London Collegiate School, one of the first schools for girls which was set up in 1850 by Frances Mary Buss and used as a model for the education of girls in the rest of Britain.

For further details, please see their website -

"The Years of Promise" by Cecil Roberts (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1968)  Roberts met Nichols in the Poetry Bookshop in London.