The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

"A Flora Specific to Modern Wars": The Rhizomatic Feminine Rhetoric of Flowers

Kristina H. Reardon
University of Connecticut

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the poppies from John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915) become perhaps the most visible commemorative symbol of wartime sacrifice.1  Yet little attention has been paid to the role of gender in the writing and rewriting of floral symbolism during and immediately after the Great War. Transnationally, flowers (and the corollary floral images of leaves, stems, buds, and trees) enable both men and women to write with image what might otherwise be difficult to express in words. Usually overlooked, women’s writing often fits the ironic, sentimental, and propagandistic paradigms which Paul Fussell argues that male poets such as McCrae help establish. At the same time, women layer on traces of gendered experiences as nurses, mothers, wives, lovers, and combatants in their depictions of flowers. Rather than focus on the differences between men’s and women’s writing, however, this study focuses on the subject position of women as they challenge with botanical metaphors the heroic commemoration of violence during and immediately after the Great War. Women’s dynamic use of the flower exposes the competing and intertwined subterranean roots of the flower as a symbol of remembrance. In the international corpus of poems, short stories, and memoirs surveyed for this study, women use flowers to create a rhetoric of grief to communicate visions of visceral horror on the battlefield and at the home front. However, flowers also appear as markers of lament, exile, shock, and warmongering. Writing through floral images allows women of all nationalities, and on both sides of the war, to express their grief, angry protest, experiences of the grotesque, and excitement for battle against and alongside more dominant literary strands of somber heroism on the battlefield.

More specifically, this study exposes the rhizome of diverse, intersecting, and contradictory subterranean roots of the symbolic flowers women use in writing about World War I. In botanical terms, rhizomes are the subterranean stems of plants. Their roots, shoots, and nodes are perhaps best known in literary criticism as metaphorical tools for apprehending multiplicities and for surveying and mapping realms, thanks to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s landmark study A Thousand Plateaus (1980). As this study considers the multiple literary implications of the botanical image of the flower, it is useful to invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s well-established metaphor of the rhizome as a representation of language. They write: “Language stabilizes around a parish, a bishopric, a capital. It forms a bulb. It evolves by subterranean stems and flows, along river valleys or train tracks; it spreads like a patch of oil” (7). For a great variety of women writers during the 1910s, language stabilized around an enduring, enigmatic symbol: the flower. The bulb that language formed for them was often quite literally the bulb of a flower, pushed to the surface in verse and in brushstrokes by roots which bent and extended from one nation’s soil to another’s, on the same plateau. In Deleuze and Guattari’s conception, a plateau is a “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end” (22). It hosts multiplicity, a diversity of life and experience. Borrowing Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, this study draws attention to the vibrations through the ever-growing network of roots. It works as a seismograph for the feminine rhetoric of flowers, measuring the vibrations of literary blossoms upon the plane of floral imagery.

While it is undeniable that the particular cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic context of each woman discussed in this study remains distinct, it is equally important to acknowledge the commonality of women’s experience as second-class citizens across national borders during the 1910s. As Virginia Woolf writes in her discussion of women’s participation in war in Three Guineas, men fight

. . . to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect myself or my country. For . . . in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. (108-09)

When we consider women as world citizens, we open consideration of the shared dimension of women’s experience internationally. World citizenship appears a contradiction in terms; it is at once unifying but also denotes a vast space for experience. It is not a stable category but instead might be what Deleuze and Guattari term a “direction in motion” (21). This becomes a helpful formulation if we likewise consider dimension a “direction in motion” rather than a stable unit. Both the theoretical and the botanical rhizome are comprised of interconnected dimensions with no beginnings or ends, with the sort of multiple connections and entry points that the porous consideration of world citizenship invites. Joining the theoretical and the botanical, I propose that the network of subterranean roots which link the bulbs of floral verse and images that women create internationally during the war bear traces of each other, share the same soil, and grow on the same plateau; yet while their bulbs belong to the same genus, they blossom into different species. 

The world which women share during the First World War is contested, and “topsy turvy,” as Sandra M. Gilbert notes in her study of gender roles (425). While Margaret Higonnet and Patrice Higonnet argue that the perception of gender relationships shifts more than the roles of men and women actually do during the war (34), the topsy turvy perception of world order blurs the line between genders and even, at times, between nationalities. Ultimately, the home and the front lines appear as two intertwined roots, among many, in the larger rhizome of floral wartime experience. Understanding women’s invocation of floral imagery as pastoral and elegiac would acknowledge only one of the many roots in the rhizome of war literature. It would privilege one understanding of flora as more authentic than another and would do little to break women’s writing out of the binary model of analysis of which Higonnet and Higonnet write in “The Double Helix.” Considering multiple and even contradictory interpretations of flowers in writing allows us to “hear the polyphony of historical experience” (Higonnet and Higonnet 45) and to “attach more importance to cultural phenomena like symbolic language . . . [to] perceive history in a different way” (47). Multiple intersecting and contradictory roots in the rhizome of floral imagery also coexist within one image (the flower) in dynamic ways. Images of the flower in literature are motivated by an impetus to record lived experience in a variety of gendered locations, including the home, the battlefield, and the front-lines hospital. They differ in their expression and meaning, but one source, the war, generates what author Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu calls the “flora specific to modern wars.”2 Just as women’s experiences of war are varied and far from monolithic despite many common experiences, so, too, are the roots of the flowers many women use to express in image what might be difficult to express in words. Shattered flower petals, grotesque new organic forms, and the organic reduced to inorganic beads all suggest the distortion and breakdown of a traditional social order, as well as the material destruction of the body. These breakdowns provide new pathways into literature for the women who write war, and in writing war, they color in unexpected ways the outlines of the flowers metaphors they inherit from history and from men’s writing. 

Flowers have long held symbolic value in literature, but the particular flowers, or parts thereof, that First World War writers invoke accrue multifarious connotations. In his landmark study The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell notes that McCrae could have alluded to a number of different flowers in Flanders, including the more abundant roses, blue cornflowers, and orange or yellow poppies (247). In referencing the red poppy, however, McCrae allows for a symbolic rather than decorative interpretation of this particular flower during times of war (249). Fussell links the symbolism of the red poppy with English pastoral and elegiac traditions—as well as with love and patriotism. The emerging confluence of layered associations mobilizes the red poppy as a mechanism of irony, sentiment, and propaganda (249-50). He finds irony in the voice speaking from the grave; sentiment in the depiction of the “crosses, row on row”; affection in the men who “loved and were loved”; and recruitment messages in the call to arms: “Take up our quarrel with the foe” (249). Far from embracing the bifurcated tone of the poem, Fussell comments on its discontinuity. He maintains that its final lines, which urge potential combatants to commemorate soldiers’ deaths by fighting in their stead, read as “grievously out of contact with the symbolism of the first part” (250).  Though he remains critical of McCrae’s verse, Fussell begins to chart a taxonomy which uncovers the intersecting and divergent roots of literary flowers as symbols during World War I. Fussell’s initial step to disestablish any sense of the poppy as a monolithic symbol becomes one root in the greater, gendered rhizome of lament, exile, shock, and warmongering which exists in both men’s and women’s use of flowers as a communicative device.

Contemporary critics may look back to McCrae’s verses as influential in the canon of popular First World War poetry, but his work represents only a fraction of the greater poetic efforts during, and immediately after, the war. Like men, women compose literature to make sense of loss in this period. Margot Norris suggests that among both sexes nearly “50,000 poems were written daily in Germany as well as in Britain” during August 1914 alone (137). Though the mid-twentieth century by and large excluded women’s voices from the canonized poetry of the war, they were widely published between 1914 and 1918. Women’s literary reflections were, in fact, published before men’s accounts from the front lines reached magazines (Buck 90). As Brian Murdoch notes, “Anthologies published during the war, including the more jingoistic ones at the start, were largely not by soldier-poets, and regularly contained material by women” (12). Yet women’s writing of war experience, particularly in the poetic realm, lies outside the canon in part because soldier-poets’ accounts of battles were privileged as more authentic, once they began to appear in print in 1915 and 1916 (Buck 87). Scholars such as Lynne Hanley have challenged the way that influential twentieth-century critics of the First World War, such as Fussell, dismiss women’s and civilians’ experiences of war and instead position the educated, male soldier’s experience of World War I as authoritative (26-27). Since the publication of British women’s Great War poetry in Catherine Reilly’s anthology Scars Upon My Heart (1981), however, literary critics such as Susan Schweik (1987), Margaret Higonnet (1987), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1983; 1996), have refocused critical attention on women’s voices amidst those of more canonical male writers. They have, in rebuttal, catalogued the variety of gendered issues women consider in all genres of war writing, from fiction to poetry to journalism and letters. The tenor of such voices has been made more available with the publication of several anthologies of international women’s poetry, prose, and diaries in 1999 and 2000, among them Margaret Higonnet’s Lines of Fire, Angela K. Smith’s Women’s Writing of the First World War, and Joyce Marlow’s Women and the Great War. More recently, Tim Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology (2013) includes more women than has been common in collections of war poetry.

Flowers and botanical images factor into the excitement of women’s experience of combat on the front lines, illuminating the bellicose root in the rhizome of women’s floral writing. British soldier Flora Sandes’s own name inspires a floral comparison, but it is her 1916 memoir, An English Woman Sargeant in the Serbian Army, which brings gardens and potted plants into her descriptions of excitement at being a sergeant.3 Sandes places herself as a subject in her memoir and evades all questions of authenticity through her direction alignment with male soldiers in combat. Toward the end of her memoir, Sandes recalls a garden an orderly builds for her, something she describes in detail: 

My orderly built a foundation of stones about 2 ft. high, with the chinks filled in with earth, and pitched the tent on top of that, so that it was quite high enough to stand up in and also to hold a camp bed and a rubber bath, and he then made a nice little garden and planted it with shrubs and flowers, with a little wall all round ornamented with red bully-beef tins with plants in them, and it looked awfully nice. (213)

Sandes interjects this anecdote about flowers, her garden, and the plants in the red bully-beef tins into a larger narrative of camping near Corfu, and she does not dwell on the scene, or on flowers, before or after this moment. Setting up camp resembles homemaking in some ways, and the scene reveals a heightened awareness of a woman’s presence in an all-male brigade. Sandes herself does not construct the garden; it is the male orderly who feels compelled to provide a sense of floral beauty for Sandes, though she does not request this. She admires his efforts but does so dismissively; he likely spent several hours earning Sandes’s “awfully nice” assessment. Sandes presents her own concerns as decidedly more militaristic. She ends her memoir at the moment she must go home for leave, but insists that she anticipates returning and is “eagerly looking forward to the time when we could get another whack at the enemy” (242). Sandes’s experiences and her militaristic ambitions extend the scope of floral imagery to include the bellicose, integrating a sense of the home on the front lines that refracts the vision of the front lines other women use to animate metaphors of flowers at home. 

During and immediately after the war years, however, women were acutely aware of their own authorial position as less “authentic” than that of men who had experienced the war first-hand, on the front lines. Jean Gallagher writes of the traditional view of women as audiences rather than authors of war narratives, noting that Edith Wharton’s short story “Writing a War Story” (1919) satirically “suggests that when they participate in the discourses of war, women must always be either the mimics of a soldier’s voice or pure image, the silent objects of a soldier’s desiring gaze” (13).4 Wharton’s story helps theorize the role of women, writing, and the invocation of floral imagery that finds itself at the nexus of this discussion; it draws the reader’s attention to the way that a general readership critically engaged with female authors during the war years. In the story, “a pale gentleman” invites the American nurse Ivy Spang to contribute a piece to his publication The Man-at-Arms, which is to be distributed at British hospitals. Wharton writes with a good deal of irony when she notes that he asks for: “A good rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment, of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. . . . A tragedy with a happy ending—that’s about the idea” (392). He asks her to write based on her “large experience of hospital work” which has allowed her to “know just what hits the poor fellows’ taste” (392), ignoring her own experience of war as a nurse. She begins to read magazines of war stories for inspiration and can imagine a story springing from the line: “Lee Lorimer leaned to him across the flowers. She had always known that this was coming. . . .” Yet Ivy dismisses the female subject—and the flowers she seems to find inspiring—telling herself that “she had promised to write a war story . . .” (393). In Ivy’s mind, a war story must take a man on the front lines as its subject, particularly if it to be published for a largely male audience in a journal entitled The Man-at-Arms. For the average woman like Ivy—Sandes remains an exception—experience in combat was conjured fictionally in verse. 

In Ivy’s rejection of Lee and flowers, Wharton moves toward articulating the way that flowers integrate themselves into a culture of mourning and grief in women’s writing and in women’s lives. In this way, she brings to light the rhizomatic root of the sorrowful flowers. After rejecting the initial begininng, Ivy is forced to contemplate why she has done so.  She concludes that “in a war story the flowers must be at the end and not at the beginning” (393). Ivy implies a strict connotation of flowers with the end of something: the end of a story, the end of a life, or perhaps the end of a war. She thus obliquely references rituals of grieving, something which poetry in the vein of McCrae’s supports. Photographs of women bringing flowers and garlands to fallen soldiers’ graves proliferate in the media (Figure 1), and several women’s poems invoke flowers as tools of post-mortem commemoration. 

In “Anniversary of the Great Retreat” (1915), Isabel C. Clarke reflects on fallen soldiers of France: “Now a whole year has waxed and waned and whitened / Over mounds that marked grim advance / The winter snows have lain, the spring flowers brightened / On those beloved graves of Northern France” (20).5 Though it is unclear whether Clarke refers to the growth of flowers over men’s bodies in mass graves, or whether she refers to the placement of bright flowers near crosses or headstones, Clarke’s use of the image of graveside flowers fits into Fussell’s split emotion/propaganda paradigm. She links the natural cycle of death and rebirth with flowers, and her use of “beloved” illustrates attention to sentiment and grief, while “brightened” suggests a sense of hope or a propagandistic turn toward patriotism. Clarke establishes a literal (rather than metaphorical) connection between flowers and death. 

As women consider loss in literature and in art, their sense of authorship expands to encompass their own lived experience as well as the stories they hear from the front lines. They often relocate women to the subject position in their writing. The botanical connotations of Ivy’s own name seem to metaphorically restrict her; she never considers that women’s experiences and stories from the front line might intersect in the way that Sandes does. Instead, Ivy bases her fiction on notes her governess jots down nightly after working with soldiers. Ivy thus constructs a narrative that erases her original thoughts on flowers and which also erases her own subject position as a woman. Her eventual first sentence reads: “A shot rang out…” (394). The fictional shot and the war it represents thus becomes the subject of Ivy’s prose more than any person in the story. She voices distaste for this beginning in terms of its aesthetics, calling it a “silly sentence” that “polluted” her page (394); yet she keeps this as a first line and attempts to ventriloquize a man’s experience on the front lines in her fiction rather than giving voice to the flowers and to the fictional Lee. When the soldiers read the end result, they smile. They are distracted by the photo of Ivy that accompanies her text. When she asks one soldier his opinion on the fiction itself he remarks: “You’ve got hold of an awfully good subject . . . but you’ve rather mauled it, haven’t you?” (400). Aside from the first line, the reader is not privy to the details or style of Ivy’s prose, and as a result, the reader’s attention is focused on Ivy’s writing process rather than the product. Rather than the prose of the story, Wharton draws the reader’s attention to the rift between the representations of men’s and women’s experiences and the perceived lack of authority a woman may hold in narrating any war story, much less her own. 

Wharton’s Ivy Spang, like other women who write during and after the Great War about the experiences of war at home or on the front, uses the drafting process to reimagine life on the front lines. Indeed, several women reconceive of the mournful battlefield as a plateau of delight, or as an adventure that awaits them. They consider the flower as a metaphor for the vibrant exuberance they experience there. Another shoot off the node of bellicose flora thus becomes illuminated in this enthusiasm for war. In a letter home, British Muriel Dayrell-Browning writes to her mother of an air raid in 1914, where “the glare lit up all London and was rose red.”6 Far from feeling terror or shock, Dayrell-Browning reports excitement: “It was magnificent the most thrilling scene imaginable” (255). Her descriptions of the sky as rosy red match those of French writer Colette who narrates her “beautiful terrified journey” to Verdun in a journalistic piece entitled “Verdun,” published in the newspaper Le Matin in 1914-15.7 Here Colette describes an “impatience to arrive” and, like Dayrell-Browning, a “rosy glimmer on palpitating on the horizon toward the northeast.” She hears thunder coming from the direction of the “rosy glimmer” and soon realizes it is the sound of shelling on the front lines, not far away. She recounts: “. . . Sometimes on the horizon a flare sprayed its floral bouquet and splintered the night” (132). Colette writes scenes of violence as elegant and even beautiful through her use of floral metaphors. She ends her narrative with an anecdote about “excitedly watching the fighter planes” (136). As she watches, she describes the puffs of white smoke from aerial bombs as “five white bouquets [that] blossom in a wreath.” She continues: “. . . our guns fill the azure with white roses . . .” (135). While she acknowledges death and destruction in her writing, and her description of surviving a German aerial bombardment may read as terrifying, the tone of her essay is buoyed by a sense of inquisitive and eager exploration. 

Colette and Dayrell-Browning use flowers to convey a sense of exhilaration to their readers, underscoring before and afterwards in direct terms the thrill of modern warfare. Russian Maria Siniakova illustrates this sense of excitement in her watercolor series produced between 1914-16 (Budanova 192). In two of these images, both entitled “Voina” (war), flowers loom in the upper parts of the canvas, and one might see Dayrell-Browning’s vision of bouquets in the puffs of smoke.8 Critic Natalia Budanova argues that “. . . Siniakova’s watercolour represented the sheer horror of the bloody massacre. This is the war seen through the terrified eyes of a citizen who experiences, at best, expulsion from the security of an established everyday existence, or at worst a horrid death” (193). In the 1914 “Voina” pictured on the cover of Higonnet’s collection Lines, Siniakova depicts the bomb bursts which inspire grief and bodily injury in her mass of human subjects as distinctly floral. The explosions appear as shaded lines and circles, but arching lines of brown smoke circle together in the shape of petals around a red, exploding center that appears as a flower’s stigma. In the 1916 “Voina” (Figure 2), flowers loom over a bloody scene where German and Austrian aggressors murder innocent peasants. 

The two flowers may represent the peasants’ fields, which soldiers now occupy, but they also capture a sense of movement which causes chaos for the subjects of the painting. Siniakova focuses the viewer’s attention on centrally placed naked women in both the 1914 and 1916 version; the women appear in close proximity to the flowers. The women’s features are partially obscured by red streaks of blood, and Siniakova projects an image of imminent danger in both images. Excitement does not mitigate the danger, fear, or grief of war; on the contrary, for Siniakova, Colette, and Dayrell, Browning, excitement heightens these emotions. 

Yet other women obsessively meditate on their perceived sense of soldiers’ memories of home, highlighting another root in the rhizome: the pastoral, something which Fussell asserts is both an invocation of home and of elegy (236; 253). Lilian M. Anderson writes of a man’s imagined return to his dutiful wife in “Leave in 1917,” published in 1930: “. . . here daffodils / shone amber in the firelight; here the breath / of violets and rosy hyacinths / clung heavy to the blue and bitter incense / of lately kindled logs. And sweet, sweet, sweet / the finches singing in the orchard dusk!” (5).9 Her repetition of “sweet” and the dim lighting suggested through dusk and firelight contribute to the sentimental quality of “Leave.” The presentation of the pastoral flower aligns with Claudia Siebrecht’s understanding of the use of flowers in many German women’s artwork when she observes that “. . . the beauty of the flower helps balance our emotional response to the perceived ugliness of death. Flowers help soften the raw imagery death leaves with survivors” (121). Anderson uses flowers as images of peace at home to soften death symbolically through sentimental verse. Such softening often appears as one subterranean root among many in the rhizome of floral imagery. 

In contrast, Alice Corbin develops another shoot of the pastoral node as she simultaneously evokes elegiac pastoral longing, violence, a mother’s breast, and a sexual encounter in her construction of a scene of battle in “Fallen,” published in 1916.10 She begins: “He was wounded and he fell in the midst of hoarse shouting. / The tide passed, and the waves came and whispered about his ankles, / Far off he heard a cock crow—children laughing, / Rising at dawn to greet the storm of petals…” (25). Memories of a rural landscape with a cock and laughing children bring the narrator to a sentimental sense of home. Yet Corbin also uses the image of the “storm of petals” to illustrate a sense of chaos that precipitates and endures during peaceful reflection. The petals become the visual representation of the “hoarse shouting” and the passing of the tide that the fallen soldier experiences. Flower petals, though delicate—and potentially elegiac, feminine, and soothing—are nevertheless represented as disembodied in these lines: parts of a destroyed whole that are, like the soldier, losing life and now falling. Violence and chaos serve as a contrast to simultaneous retreat into peaceful memories. In the midst of a second storm of petals later in the poem, Corbin’s male narrator hears a cry and “. . . turned again to find the breast of her” (25).  The image evokes a sense of comfort, perhaps at a mother’s breast, though it might also recall a sexual encounter. The chaos of the battlefield transforms into a multi-layered experience in this moment. The breast image opens questions of childhood, sexuality, and violence at once, and the storm of petals might equally represent blood from injury in a chaotic warzone, tears from childhood, or a sexual climax. When the soldier sinks “confused with a little sigh” (25) into the imagined bosom, he feels the ubiquitous “her” with him and dies. Corbin writes that “wreckage was mingled with the storm of petals” (25); this is a wreckage passed onto the reader through an active reimagining of the connotative possibilities of flowers beyond the pastoral and elegiac.  

Many of the women characters featured in poems appear as objects of an authorial gaze rather than as active subjects. Their inaction is linked with flower metaphors and tempers any traces of the bellicose therein. The woman invoked in Corbin’s poem is largely the object, rather than the subject of the narrative; Corbin orchestrates a parallelism between the image and the experience of the imagined soldier as a way to fictionalize an event to which she has no direct access. Her beginning reads much like Ivy Spang’s “a shot rang out” entry into narrative. Corbin begins, as Ivy advises in her notes, in medias res in battle. Corbin’s, and the fictional Ivy Spang’s, renditions of soldiers’ last moments on a battlefield raise questions regarding who is authorized to craft war narratives. Their work in imagining the front lines may be, as in Ivy’s case, dismissed by a general audience as having “mauled” the narration. However, their rewritings make an important step in carving a space for women within the dominant narratives and themes of the moment within the limitations of readers’—and editors’—expectations. As Gallagher notes:

The women writing a war story are placed between two possible poles of mimesis: the soldier’s transcribed voice and nineteenth century rhetorical traditions of representing war. The restraints on Ivy[’s] . . . narrative and the textual repression of any “genuine” or “natural” or “direct” representation of war suggests that mimicry constitutes the only writerly ground for these women writing about war. (15)

Ivy certainly struggles with her role as an author of a war text. Yet the use of the flowers as symbols, metaphors, and images in women’s writing across borders and across nations prove that, as Wharton suggests, women’s literary constructions of war are not always limited by mimicry, though the general audiences that Ivy’s editor represents may expect and inspire mimicry. Had Ivy begun with flowers as she wanted to, and as Corbin does, she could have expanded the writerly grounds for women’s experiences, as subjects and as objects. The floral imagery that women such as Corbin employ expands the space of the literary imaginarium beyond Flanders.

Other roots spring from the node of the sentimental flower, complicating its diction and rewriting its role as ironic and critical, featuring a female incarnation of sorrow as the subject of her verse. Elizabeth Daryush works to break open the paradigm to which her title refers, as she drafts her own “Flanders Fields,” which speaks of daisies, roses, garlands, and poppies and was  published in 1930.11 She moves past consideration of the poppy alone, appealing to many different flowers. Her tone begins as patriotic but later asserts a strain of mournfulness. Readers see the red rose as a patriotic stand-in for England due to the rose’s historical association: “Here the scanted daisy glows / Glorious as the carmined rose” (27). Daryush’s poem moves beyond these associations, however, and instead writes women into the battlefield in Flanders. She describes the green hilltops and then quickly shifts from glory to grief: “Here, where sorrow still must tread / All her graves are garlanded” (27). Daryush’s use of a feminine pronoun in reference the graves that belong to “her” proposes that the sorrow that treads is also feminine. If not for the final lines of the poem, one might be tempted to dismiss Daryush’s poem as derivative, despite its relocation of women to the battlefield. Instead, she writes of “fields of agony” and invokes McCrae’s poppy in a surprising way: “Poppies bright and rustling wheat / Are a desert to love’s feet” (27). The image of the field appears unstable in these lines: first, it seems fertile in its ability to produce both wheat and flowers, and then Daryush undercuts that image by proclaiming it a desert for the feet of sorrow. She develops the field as barren and full at the same time, and in doing so, she endows the flowers with traces of irony and deprives them of their full sense of restorative power in the grieving process. Mourning here moves beyond the sentimental nature of the “In Flanders Fields” paradigm and reaches toward a sense of sorrow-charged protest.

Ivy Spang’s observation that flowers must come at the end of a story foregrounds the irony Daryush presents as an image: that soldiers’ deaths leave empty spaces which mourners symbolically, and inadequately, fill with flowers. In Freud’s terms, the libidinal force of the mourner’s id is “brought up and hypercathected” in certain objects which causes a fixation on loss as well as presence and absence (Freud 245). Flowers, here, represent a concentration of the emotional energy of mourners, and Daryush heightens the reader’s awareness of presence and absence with her competing images of poppies and the desert. German artist Margarethe Goetz presents the complexity of such ironic presence and absence in her untitled August 1917 drawing featured in Die Aktion (Figure 3), a weekly journal of politics, literature, and art.12 

A single white flower features in the bottom center of the drawing, placed over the bodies of the fallen, while four mourning women meet the reader head on: one larger, cloaked woman who appears as the subject and focal point of the piece, and three women in the upper right corner, who glance back at the bodies. The presence of what Siebrecht identifies as an Iron Cross on top of the flower (96) does little to abate the grief registered in the slanted lines of the central woman’s face. The inclusion of the cross and the flower together work against Siebrecht’s sense of the flower as soothing in other German women’s art; the flower resembles a star-shaped medal, but neither its shape nor the sense of honor the cross endows restores life or comforts the women in the drawing. The women’s recognition of absence in the presence of bodies under the flower damages the patriotic appeal of the Iron Cross, particularly as it is held by a body which signifies both presence and absence: a clothed skeleton. In many ways, Goetz’s drawing functions as a visual representation of the final lines of Daryush’s poem. The feet of sorrow tread heavily on this battleground, and the black and white depiction of the woman, the flower, the Iron Cross, and the fallen soldiers plays with colored exemplifications of presence and absence.  

Among other emotions, some women register unease when forced to reconcile the traditionally idyllic symbolism of flowers in an increasingly violent world. In Slovene writer Zofka Kveder’s fictional memoir, Hanka, the Polish female narrator writes a series of letters to a friend closer to the front lines in either Germany or Austria-Hungary.13 In one October 1914 letter, she describes waiting at home as futile, and she begins to pontificate on the natural setting she finds herself in: “The autumn is wondrous, magnificent in its beauty. On the slopes, wine leaves are turning yellow. . . . The garden is tranquil, the atmosphere soft and sweet as a gentle caress. Ants crawl over the wooden table; the late fall flowers, or perhaps grasses, smell sweetly” (54). The narrator’s view of nature, and of flowers in her garden, appears romantic in its depiction, and it—at first—also appears unrelated to the war which causes her so much worry and distress. Yet she undercuts her idyllic description with anxiety, writing immediately afterward: “Everything is as it used to be last year, the year before, five, ten, years ago. Only my heart is restless, frightened, cannot trust this balmy idyll any longer. My eyes gaze into the distance, my body is tense as if anticipating a terrifying echo” (54). Flowers remind the narrator of her missing friend, who remains far away and in danger. Later in the narrative, the friend dies and the narrator’s marriage dissolves. Flowers serve as a reminder of the absence of friends and love for Hanka, and they do not sooth her; instead, they anticipate tragedy to come. 

Many other women writers use flowers in surprising, and sometimes ironic, contexts to express dismay and protest when faced with the brutality of war. In opinion-based journalism, the female writer rises to the role of subject immediately, and she may focalize the ideas and attitudes about war in her argument. German writer Hedwig Dohm publishes “The Misuse of Death” (Der Mißbrauch des Todes) in the same journal which features Goetz’s drawing, the August 1917 Die Aktion.14 She begins her political piece in a beseeching tone, asking for help in a time of spiritual need, describing nightmares which included frightful screams and weeping. In the first paragraph, she writes: “My food is poisoned: the flowers in my room disgust me—how they smell, smell!—senseless, thrust into this great dying” (33). Flowers here likely occupy her room as artifice. Nevertheless, Dohm connects flowers to death in a way that suggests a familiarity with their tradition of assuaging grief. Yet she finds no comfort in their presence. On the contrary, they assault her sense of smell and disgust her, motivating a turn away from militarism and toward peace. She concludes her article with sharp critique of the “deep and true” sense of “enthusiasm” for the war. She charges that people can become enthusiastic for anything, including stupidity, and in the final lines opines: “Death to the misuse of death in war! Life to the living, in peace unto its natural fulfillment” (34). Dohm uses flowers to inspire a set of exclamations that scaffold her exclamatory argument for peace over war. Even flowers squarely situated at the home and away from the battlefield recall war and its impact here.

For her part, British poet Maud Anna Bell uses flowers in a 1919 poem to sharpen the raw pain of loss rather than to soften any imagery of death.15 She thus manipulates mourning directly into a satire, which gives way to protest, another root in the rhizome. Like Anderson and the fictional Ivy Spang, Bell also adopts the imagined perspective of a soldier in “From a Trench.” The soldier contends with “the dogs of war” who run loose as he trudges through fields that once grew corn but now are “heavy with our dead.” Bell follows his observations with a sharp turn toward home: “. . . I have heard it said: / . . . There are crocuses at Nottingham! Wild crocuses at Nottingham! Blue crocuses at Nottingham! Though here the grass is red” (10).  The timbre of the poetic voice here registers shock and indignation that wild flowers would continue to grow undisturbed at the home while blood bathes the battlegrounds. The speaker appears irritated, not pleased, that he has been able to protect the idyllic home he left behind from the onslaught of bloody battle he experiences away from England. Repetition and the use of exclamation points underscore the soldier’s sarcasm and reach toward a political point which Bell, as a female writer, aligns with her male subject. Bell repeats this refrain two more times, each time in a slight variation. The repetition becomes more bitter and satiric, as it appears after increasingly biting critiques of the “silly fools” back home who think war is fun. By the end, the soldier seems to have lost any sense of loyalty to the home he has left behind: “Why! / There are crocuses at Nottingham! / Bright crocuses at Nottingham! / Real crocuses at Nottingham! / Because we’re here in Hell” (11). The use of the word “because” implies causation; the soldier links his suffering in the hellish trenches directly to the fact that crocuses will grow in Nottingham undisturbed. The gain emerges as trivial. The poem reads as an angry remonstration against the “little boys at Nottingham / Who never heard a gun” (10) and other warmongers back home. Bell uses her male soldier subject as a way to personify her own disgust with the deaths framed as heroic by poets like McCrae.

Protest also comes through floral harvest images which animate critiques of cultural structures that enable and profit from war at the expense of those left behind. Italian Matilde Serao focuses on the women left behind in “Country Women” (Contadine), which is published in Parla una donna: Diario feminile di guerra (A Woman Speaks: A Feminine Diary of War) in 1915-16.16 She writes of the gardens in which “flowering twenty-year old brides,” among others, including mothers and grandmothers, traditionally worked: “. . . Before the war, their tenacious work was limited to that of the household, in the flower and vegetable gardens, taking care of the animals; it was carried out in the vast kitchens with the large stone fireplaces. . . ” (120-21). She argues that now women must also layer on the work of men in the fields (120). Flowers live in the realm of the home front in Serao’s journalism, and they represent the traditional home and hearth where women’s domestic labor takes place. She sketches out their association with labor rather than artifice. Even as she writes, accepting the heroic position of the Italian soldier, however, she draws greater attention to the garden and the heroism of the “Italian country woman [who] worked the land, as if she were a man, at the same time nursing a newborn, or feeding soup to an old grandfather” (121). Women’s labor concerns in Italy align with those in the United States, Britain, and Australia, which recast agrarian labor as militaristic, creating a series of Women’s Land Armies. In a poster from the New York State Land Army (Figure 4), a woman’s hoe reflects that of the soldier’s bayonet juxtaposed behind her, militarizing her role with harvest at home. 

In her article, Serao begins to build toward a critique of the war when she enumerates the numerous tasks that country women must perform daily, including the “heaviest, the hardest, the most extenuating work of men” (121). While she praises the fact that the women have taken up the job of men in their absence, she also states her case for a “sustained fatigue” (121) for which the war is directly responsible. Her journalism compels the reader to consider whether the men truly belong on front lines fighting for Italy or whether they should be at home. She asks, finally: “Who will sing your pure and humble glories, Italian country woman?” (121). Serao answers her own call in Mors tua (1926; The Harvest, 1928), which “draws on women’s experience of war for its antimilitarist message” (Higonnet 120). Serao links flowers with agriculture and women’s work to communicate a desire to bring men home, and away from war, to perform necessary work on farms.

The thematic connection of the flower to the harvest allows for a wider socio-economic consideration of the war and its impact, yet another root in the rhizome. Polish writer Rosa Luxemburg uses metaphors of floral harvest to excoriate war profiteers and to cast them as weeds in the field of shame where fallen soldiers are flowers.17 She employs this image to protest the economic gains of the German state from the war, and in particular, from soldiers’ deaths, in her 1916 essay “The Crisis in German Social Democracy,” drafted in Zurich. She relies on a traditional understanding of fallen soldiers as heroic at first and deploys the flower as a symbol of the hero—but moves forward in developing an analogy around flowers, fields, harvests, and weeds. Luxemburg foregrounds her metaphor by describing the waning of ecstasy and patriotic street demonstrations as war drags on into the “sober atmosphere of pale daylight” (75) and cites August Bebel’s metaphor of the soldier as “the flower of the different nations” (78). She argues that war profiteers who sell goods to the troops harvest profits “springing like weeds from the fields of the dead” (76). She thus relocates the harvest metaphor from the home front to the battlefield and casts governments and private citizens who support and profit from war as weeds which would choke out the profits and the lives of members of the proletariat. Her politically charged essay ultimately upends heroic considerations of fallen soldiers, writing: “Now millions of proletarians of all nations are falling on the field of shame, of fratricide, of self-destruction, the slave-song on their lips” (80). Luxemburg’s Flanders fields are not a site of mourning and heroism but a site on which the government’s cool calculations of life, death, and market economy can play out to bankrupt lower social classes even as they pursue labor and sacrifice in the name of patriotism. She argues for reform in social democracy, and the interplay of flowers in her field and harvest metaphor strengthens her essay’s emotional resonance and impact.

Luxemburg and other essayists and poets assert their understanding of the war away from the battlefield, bringing into focus for their readers the way that war militarizes spaces beyond the front lines and prove that, as Margaret Higonnet writes, “‘combat’ is not the sum total of ‘war’” (Lines xxi). Yet while most women spent the war years at home, many women did not and instead went to the front lines as nurses, or even as combatants alongside men. In writing their own experiences of war, these women marshal botanical images to represent a sense of adventure at the front and reorient floral metaphors to articulate experiences of injured men’s bodies that appear foreign or grotesque to them. 

In a rhizomatic root that pushes an entirely new species of flower to the surface, Romanian Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu uses the image of a flower to allow her main character, Laura, to mentally distance herself from the distressing bodily injuries that come in close contact with her own body as a nurse.18 In her story “The Man Whose Heart They Could See” (1923),  Laura calls war injuries “a flora specific to modern wars” (362). The namesake of the story enters her hospital with a gaping, open wound on his chest, and Laura finds herself recoiling. She is distressed that he won’t keep on his bandage, that he keeps exposing his heart. When he throws off the covers in a fit, “Laura saw—but she couldn’t tell what she saw. She covered him, trembling, and scolded him” (359). Her fear of his wound moves her deeply, and in normal circumstances, her trembling might prevent Laura from performing her nursing tasks fully. However, this is not a concern, as nothing can be done to save the man with the exposed heart, and Laura is left to contemplate this conclusion. Elaine Scarry writes that the “main purpose and outcome of war is injuring” (63). Laura struggles to come to terms with the bodily injury around her and focuses on the grotesque nature of the namesake soldier’s injuries. She wonders: “Why wasn’t he dying?” (360) and exclaims: “It’s horrible!” (359) to the doctor after seeing the open pit of the man’s chest cavity. She appears relieved when the man sticks his hand into his chest to accelerate his own death.

Laura comes to her flower metaphor as she contemplates the nature of injury in modern warfare. She catalogues new hosts of disease and injury caused in the trenches and on the front lines in a description that seems to anticipate Scarry’s theorization of pain and injury: 

The contact of those wounds with organic “matter,” the penetration of organisms by shrapnel of varied texture inside those bodies, permitted live, morbid putrefaction . . . There simmered and burst out unexpectedly new and strange epidemics: typical gangrenes independent of the progress of the cure; infectious pustules linking desperate cases. A flora specific to modern wars. (361-62)

Papadat-Bengescu rewrites the flower as a marker of injury and a symbol of the grotesque, rather than one of remembrance, excitement, or grief. Far from symbolic, it becomes a physical manifestation of the tangible details of injury sustained on the battlefield. The petals of flower are cast as representations of marks on a body, and in the garden of war injuries, new petals and flowers grow and multiply. The visceral and tangible nature of broken bones, gangrenes, and growing pustules radically overturn the aesthetic connotations of the flower, ironically rewriting the meaning of organic growth in an age of technological innovation that can slice the surface off parts of a man’s body. Laura’s supervising doctor remarks, at the end of the story, that the man’s injury had been “a unique case in the museum of war surgery—a liminal form of the huge ingeniousness with which destruction humiliated and dismembered worn out bodies” (362).  These metaphorical, almost medial, invocations of floral imagery directly challenge memorialization culture of the flower post-war by pushing the flower forward as a symbol of injury and missing body parts.

For nurses, flowers represent death from physical harm as well as survivable bodily injury. Certainly Laura observes the way that the “flora of modern wars” ultimately kill the namesake of the story. Italian Maria Luisa Perduca uses the death of flowers as a stand-in for the death of men round her in “The Vigil” (La veglia).19 She writes of the night she must spend awake at her post as part of the Red Cross. She foreshadows the death of one patient, Davide, and of other soldiers with three floral references. First, she writes that “a bouquet of violet fuchsias dies at the bottom of a cup, slowly” (216) before she gives a corollary cup of life-sustaining milk to another soldier. In the final third of the story, she breaks from her continuous narration with a space in the page to meditate on the garden: “Outside, in the garden, the leaves of trees shiver vaguely; the sky curves splendid, immense, mysterious, like infinity, in which all of our miserable human thought sinks, fascinated and conquered” (216). The shiver of the leaves match the nervous tone of the story, and the conquered thoughts correspond to Maria’s own sense of hopelessness. She cannot heal Davide; she can only pity and with her two hands outstretched, she utters: “It will end, Davide, you will see…” (217). His eyes fill with grief, she ends her narration with one line: “In the garden throats of insects seem to cast the night blinking with stars an unending anguished question, one that has no answer” (217). Maria reaches toward the garden to make sense of her own helplessness in the hospital, her inability to prevent the violet fuchsia from dying inside. Flowers and gardens greet her in the darkness as markers of injury that cannot be healed, and they herald death.

Flowers persist as a metaphor for both injury and death even when men leave the liminal space of the battlefield. When men return home from war with damaged bodies, the women who greet them find themselves in Laura’s place as they contemplate the close proximity of physical injury. German writer Claire Studer Goll writes from exile in Switzerland about the war injuries come home in “The Wax Hand” (1917) in which an officer’s young wife greets him at the train station for the first time post-war.20 She writes:

As their eyes met she gave a start. Her glance fell from his eyes to his hand and remained rooted there. Rather uneasily he moved it about. Like some white beast, this hand crawled out from under his sleeve, ghostly pale. It was an artificial hand, made of wax. Like a poisonous flower it opened out. The woman trembled as she thought of it accidentally touching her. (404)

The hand is at once both a white beast and a poisonous flower. More literally, it is wax, something malleable that draws the young wife’s attention. The poison flower is never mentioned again, just as a flower opens to the sun, the hand expands the young wife’s conception of post-war life with her husband. The hand comes to represent death; not just of a body part, but of a man and of a marriage. The poison of the poisonous flower becomes the young wife’s reality. At the end of the story, she so fears the presence of the hand and the chasm between husband and wife that it represents that she tiptoes out of bed and drops a sugary pink ball of poison into a glass of water and drinks it up (408). Readers see the officer’s injury clearly; his human tissue has been altered, in Scarry’s terms, by either burning, blasting, shelling of cutting (63). Through the use of the poison flower metaphor, Studer Goll theorizes injury as something that lingers for a combatant post-war and which can also occur materially post-war to non-combatants. The young wife in “The Wax Hand” may suffer emotional rather than physical trauma at first, but such emotional trauma later translates into her own bodily injury. 

The very disruption of the body with injury perhaps remains the war’s most enduring legacy for combatants and non-combatants alike. It links the experience of women who served on the front lines with women who worked as nurses, with women who reported on injury and battle, and with women who imagined injury from the home front. It comprises one large node with several offshoots in the larger rhizome of feminine floral language. To return to the metaphorical language of Deleuze and Guattari, “The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots” (21). Each of these concepts expresses a sense of difference yet provides categories that unite women across borders as they write their floral war experiences into the memory of the Great War. In the flora specific to modern wars, the multiplicity possible in the between space gives a new language, and thus a voice, to women who choose to depict war experience in prose, poetry, and art. There is work left to be done in studying the specific ways in which each woman’s creative work reflects, refracts, or contradicts the national wartime experience of her country. The grief, angry protest, experience of the grotesque, and the excitement for battle each bring women closer to the war. The experiences of lament, exile, shock, and war mongering seem distinct but may overlap or influence one another. Considering the greater rhizome of women’s floral image allows us to see, from a bird’s eye view, the way the topsy turvy experience of war maps itself onto the multiple roots, shoots, and nodes of the rhetorical rhizome which, working perpendicular to its roots, produces a staggering variety of flora on the surface.


1  American War Secretary Belle Moina Michael proposes the American Legion sell poppies to raise money for veterans just before the 1918 Armistice after reading “In Flanders Fields” (Harrison 160). Her connection with the commodification of the floral image as a visible symbol of war, which has remained familiar through a sustained commemorative culture of war, is often overlooked.

2  Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (1876-1955) was raised in Moldavia, was educated at a French boarding school, and later moved to Romania. She first wrote in French, but the story from which this quote—and the later analysis of her work—derives was written in Romanian. It comes from her fourth book, Balaurul (Dragon), written in 1923 about the war and was based largely on her experiences with the Red Cross. (Higonnet, Lines of Fire 355).

3 Flora Sandes (1876-1956), born in Britain to an Irish family, first tried to enlist with the medical service of the British Army in August 1914 but was rejected. When she heard that the Serbs were looking for medical volunteers, she enlisted at the age of 38. After proving herself in several dangerous situations, a Serbian colonel who was impressed with Sandes’ work invited her to formally join the army, as a number of Serbian peasant women had. Sandes did, and she wrote her 1916 book cited in this study on her break at home to raise money for the Serbian army. She was known in the press as the Serbian Joan of Arc (MacMahon 38-39).

4 Edith Wharton (1862-1937), of New York, was an expatriate based in Paris during the First World War. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1920, a novel unrelated to the war. During the war, however, she wrote what many considered patriotic essays and worked with refugees. She wrote two novels—The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923)—about the war. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 390-91.

5 Isabel Constance Clarke (?-1951) was a British writer best known for her propagandistic war poem (discussed here) and her biography of Katharine Mansfield. She wrote numerous novels and was known for her Catholic faith. See Review of The Deep Heart and Eunice.

6 Muriel Dayrell-Browning (1879-1935) was a single mother in 1914 when the war broke out, having left her husband. She wrote propaganda for distribution in Germany for the British War Office, having attended a German finishing school as a young girl. At the War Office, she also used the linguistic skills she had gained while living in Rhodesia with her husband to benefit the war effort See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 254.

7 Colette, the pseudonym of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), was a French writer who contributed reports to the newspaper Le Matin during the war. After visiting her husband on the front lines in 1915, she wrote about her experiences. Her articles were collected into a well-received 1917 book. She continued writing after the war, composing novels on the effects of war on the human spirit. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 105-06. 

8 Maria Mikhailovna Siniakova-Urechina (1896-1989) was of Russian and Ukrainian descent and worked as a painter and illustrator. She came in contact with the Futurist movement in 1912, which affected her art. She counted Russian avant-garde artists among her friends. See Andreeva. 

9 Little information is available about Anderson.

10 Alice Corbin Henderson (1881-1945), of Chicago, worked for the Women’s Auxiliary of the State Board of Defense during the war and was inspired to write about the war in verse. She was a prolific poet and her work was considered very political. See Marek.

11 Elizabeth Daryush (1887-1977) was the daughter of British poet laureate Robert Bridges and a poet herself, who critics never saw as moving out of her father’s shadow. See Davie.

12 German artist Margarethe Goetz, whose dates are unknown, published artwork in Die Aktion in 1917, according to Siebrecht (157). No other details are listed in her biography. 

13 Slovene Zofka Kveder (1878-1926) was a writer, journalist, editor, and feminist. She published articles in the women’s magazine, Slovenka (Slovene Woman) in the early twentieth century and attended Bern University in Switzerland. After marrying a Croat, she was selected the Croatian woman delegate to the International Women’s Congress at The Hague in 1915, though she could not attend because she was pregnant. She wrote her best-known novel, Hanka, from which this excerpt comes, in Croatian during the war. See Mihurko Poniž 282-84.

14 German Hedwig Dohm (1832-1919) experienced the Revolution of 1848 as a teenager in Berlin, and she wrote in the early twentieth century about women’s rights. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 32.

15 Maud Anna Bell (?-?) wrote “Crocuses at Notthingham,” which was published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1917. She notes that she wrote it after reading the Times Literary Supplement’s correspondence column in March 1917. See Khan 58.

16 Matilde Serao (1856-1927) was born in Greece but grew up in poverty in Naples, Italy. Originally trained as a teacher, she ended up working in journalism during the war. Her articles on women were published in a book, Parla una donna (A Woman Speaks) in 1916. Her last works of literature depict women’s experiences of war. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 120.

17 Rosa Luxembourg (1870-1919) grew up in Poland, later studied in Zurich, Switzerland, and finally lived in Germany. She opposed militarism during the war. She was arrested before leaving to attend a conference of peace in The Hague. After the war she was briefly released from prison but later recaptured and assassinated in 1919. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 74-75.

18 See note 2 for a biographical statement on Papadat-Bengescu. 

19 Italian Maria Luisa Perduca (1896-1966) was born in Pavia and taught French. She volunteered as a nurse during the war and served in field hospitals. She wrote about her experience in Un anno d’ospedale (A Hospital Year) in 1917. She was awarded the Medal of Merit from the Red Cross in 1917 as well as the Medal of Public Welfare. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 215.

20 German Claire Studer Goll, formerly Clarisse Liliane Aischmann (1891-1977), was a German Jew born in Nuremberg. She wrote from Berlin, and in 1917 moved to Geneva in exile to study philosophy. She criticized the war and argued that all women should do so as well. She published a pacifist collection of stories in 1918; “The Wax Hand” was in this volume. See Higonnet, Lines of Fire 88.

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