Auburn University at Montgomery
This essay brings to light the life and works of English author Lilian Bowes Lyon who nursed as a V.A.D. during the First World War and served as a humanitarian activist during the Second. A first cousin of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later known as the Queen Mother), Lilian used her wealth and influence to assist those in need. Through her first novel, The Buried Stream, which examines a sister’s awakening as she nurses her cancer-stricken brother, and her 1930s and 40s poetry which gives a voice to injured animals, to the rural and urban poor, and to the war-torn, Bowes Lyon speaks to the importance of acknowledging suffering, encourages compassion, and explores the complex and difficult nature of empathetic response. The essay examines how Bowes Lyon refused to sanitize suffering, challenging social barriers in the process, and, in her final years, struggled to articulate her own bodily anguish, bringing coherence and insight to disability and pain. Considering her work through the modern lenses of medical humanities and disability studies reveals how salient her poetry and prose remain in reevaluating the place of pain and suffering in social movements and literary studies.
Keywords Bowes Lyon, Lilian / suffering / activism / World War I, World War II / The Buried Stream / women’s poetry of the 1930s / poetry of the Second World War
“suffering’s increment is the power to learn; / Even from this black night”
—“Portrait of a Sick Man,” lines 5-6
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt selects suffering as the “most private” and “least communicable” of all human experiences (46). Nonetheless, an increased awareness of another’s hardship can bring about new understanding; Polly Young-Eisendrath even argues that “suffering is [. . .] one of the engines of human development. The unavoidable mysteries of pain and suffering can give rise to hidden resources of compassion and creativity. [. . .] It is only when adversity knocks our senses down that we pose the big questions” (7). In the case of Lilian Bowes Lyon (1895-1949), the English writer of royal heritage who dedicated her life to helping the wounded, the helpless, and the oppressed during and between the world wars, poetry put suffering into necessary language as she gave a voice to the ravaged land, to injured animals, to the rural and urban poor, to victims of war, and ultimately to her own bodily pain.1 Her first novel, The Buried Stream (1929), similarly addresses themes of suffering and cosuffering through the relationship between a cancer patient and his sister. Over the course of her life, as she moved from nurse to social activist to patient, Bowes Lyon’s intimate witnessing allowed her not only to illumine others’ suffering and to emphasize a shared humanity but also to depict her own pain and to begin to create community through shared experience.
Recovering the work of this largely forgotten writer reminds us of the role women played as healthcare workers, humanitarian activists, and socially conscious authors at a time when women still struggled for publishing opportunities and sympathetic audiences. Bowes Lyon writes back against a society shaped by the experience of world war that habitually sanitized suffering, and she joins the voices of so many in the 1930s and early 40s who wished to inspire social reform. Her work reminds us that women poets, though their writings were seldom anthologized, were as vital as male poets in this movement. Her subject of choice is suffering, for within its context she awakens empathy in her readers and interrogates both empathy’s opportunities and its complications. By considering Bowes Lyon’s work through the modern lenses of medical humanities, narrative medicine, and disability studies, all of which share a foundational concern for empathetic awareness, we can see how salient her poetry and prose remain in reevaluating the place and articulation of pain and suffering in social movements and literary studies.
Introducing Bowes Lyon
Surprisingly little has been written about the remarkable life of Lilian Bowes Lyon.2 Born in 1895, Lilian was the seventh child of the Hon. Francis Bowes-Lyon and Lady Anne Lindsay Bowes-Lyon of Ridley Hall, Northumberland. They came from ancient nobility, and in the twentieth century a family member returned to the throne.3 Lilian’s first cousin Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, born in 1900, married King George’s second son in 1923; after Lilian’s lifetime, the world would know her as the Queen Mother. As the youngest daughters in a long line of Bowes-Lyon children, Lilian and Elizabeth had much in common: both loved animals and the countryside, had hospitable personalities, and embodied the Bowes-Lyon passion for helping those in need.4 Lilian renounced a life of comfort to nurse in the First World War and later to lead “a life of social concern and activity” working for the Women’s Voluntary Services (Bernikow 174). Notably, she assisted Dr. Anna Freud in the care of children suffering from air raid trauma (“Curing War-Shocked Children” 4), and she worked diligently to aid victims of war until her death in 1949.5
As a social activist alone Bowes Lyon deserves recognition, but her poetry and prose, deeply shaped by that activism, are equally overlooked today. During her lifetime she produced two novels and five small volumes of poetry, with a sixth published posthumously.6 Her circle of admirers knew her mainly as a poet, and she lived just long enough to see the publication of her Collected Poems in 1948.7 Her poetry was moderately well known in England in the 1930s and 40s, anthologized and advertised alongside the works of diverse poets of the era, including W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, George Barker, Rabindranath Tagore, Ruth Pitter, Edwin Muir, Dorothy Wellesley, and Louis MacNeice.8 Critics generally reviewed her work favorably, remarking on both its beauty and its difficulty; one reviewer in The Scotsman, writing of her first volume The White Hare and Other Poems (1934), noted her expressiveness, her “trained ear for subtle rhythm and melody,” and her “fullest use” of the “benefits” given to poetry by “the experiments of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Imagists” (“Books of the Day” 11). Poet Hugh L’Anson Fausset in The Times Literary Supplement extolled the collection Bright Feather Fading (1936), calling her language “as sensitively new as her meaning” and praising an “intensely individual” mind that is “not to be penetrated by the casual passer-by” (“Readings” 121). When he later reviewed Tomorrow is a Revealing (1941), Fausset admired “the exquisite focus of her mind and human sympathies” (“Dream” 321). In a short review of A Rough Walk Home (1946), Elizabeth Bowen wrote, “Lilian Bowes Lyon is among the finest of our living poets,” regretting only that the volume was “too slender” (329).
Despite these positive contemporary reviews,9 the poetry of Lilian Bowes Lyon has attracted extraordinarily little critical attention since the mid-twentieth century. In general, this disregard has been somewhat typical for British women poets of the 1930s, whose work appeared less frequently than men’s in anthologies of the era, with such exclusion intensifying later in the century.10 In his study The Twentieth Century in Poetry, Peter Childs writes, “The small but significant number of women poets published in the 1930s has until recently been ignored, though they range from exemplary figures such as Elizabeth Daryush and Anne Ridler to those better known as novelists such as Winifred Holtby and Sylvia Townsend Warner” (102).11 The era remains largely identified with W. H. Auden, who published his first collection in 1930, and his group of poetic friends and collaborators did not include women.12 Even Edith Sitwell’s 1934 Aspects of Modern Poetry, where she deliberately highlights poets other than the “extravagantly praised” Auden (154), makes no attempt to showcase women. Stephen Spender, a poet of Auden’s circle, mentions only six women poets in his 1946 study Poetry Since 1939; Sitwell alone achieves her own section. He notes condescendingly that “Women poets fall into a rather special category. [. . .] When I come to review their work, it will be seen that their strength lies in their developing that peculiar branch of extremely sensitive and perceptive writing in which women can excel” (11). Within this context, he briefly praises “E. J. Scovell and Lilian Bowes Lyon” for their “subtle and fine sensibility” (42).
One quality that unites much 1930s poetry is its social consciousness. As Childs writes, “it was in the 1930s that writers made it their creed that poetry is produced at the intersection of the personal and the political. It is also at this point that the canonical view of ‘thirties poetry’ often inserts itself to reduce our understanding of the decade’s diversity” (114). Both Childs and Janet Montefiore critique the omission of women poets from analyses and anthologies of the 1930s, pointing out that these women write on many of the same social themes men explore.13 Childs rightly asserts that when later scholars such as Adrian Caesar continue to leave out women simply because they were infrequently discussed by contemporaries, this practice serves “to compound the exclusion” (118).14 Jane Dowson and Alice Entwistle agree, arguing that “The myth that women eschew national or global topics is perpetuated by the excision of their political work from anthologies and other literary records” (44). They further assert that the “published poets involved in war activity and social reform represent the common impulse of many women for human rights and political democracy” (46).15 However, while citing Bowes Lyon as one of the thirteen British women who are the “leading poets” of the years 1900-1945 (8), Dowson and Entwistle ironically proceed to mention her only twice, and merely in passing, in the remainder of the volume.
While literary scholars have reclaimed some women poets of the 1930s, Bowes Lyon still awaits recognition, though she of course is not alone. Jane Dowson, who devotes a section to Bowes Lyon in Women’s Poetry of the 1930s, writes in her introduction, “Dorothy Wellesley, Lilian Bowes Lyon and Elizabeth Daryush are rarely spoken of now, but these three poets published more collections between 1930 and 1939 than the majority of their male or female contemporaries” (5). Bowes Lyon also has not found her place among the poets of the Second World War: she remains absent from most anthologies, even those which include a number of women’s voices.16 Certain qualities of her work may contribute to this disregard: for instance, her relatively small oeuvre, her mixture of rhymed and unrhymed poetry, or her often enigmatic lines. She is perhaps too traditional to be considered a modernist and too modern to be traditional.17 Sylva Norman, reviewing Bowes Lyon’s Collected Poems in 1948 for The Times Literary Supplement, indicates that Bowes Lyon is a poet of “high quality” but that she waits for her poems to reach the “perfection of real permanence” (388). Indeed, it seems Bowes Lyon never reached this point with later critics, and she largely disappeared from the public consciousness after the early 1950s.18 There is also the question of Bowes Lyon’s royal heritage and its influence on her legacy. Although her upper-class status might present an impediment to later scholars wishing to categorize her,19 Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West, Dorothy Wellesley, Nancy Cunard, and Iris Tree were all from aristocratic families, and several of these women are frequently discussed today in literary scholarship. In fact, Bowes Lyon’s royal ties increased her visibility in the popular press, which often saw her as a curiosity. At the same time, her progressive social leanings and personal relationships may have encouraged the royal family not to promote her legacy after her death.20
It is striking that Cecil Day Lewis, one of the key poets of the Auden Generation, introduced Bowes Lyon’s Collected Poems in 1948.21 He could have done much to revive her legacy two decades later when he became poet laureate, but he, like his contemporaries, did not, and her volumes remained on the shelves to gather dust.22 Even in his introduction to these poems, Day Lewis finds Bowes Lyon’s work inconsistent. While praising her poems as “individual, sure and delicate,” he introduces them somewhat apologetically, stating, “If it is not a completely sustained whole, if at times the poet’s concentration wavered, it was because there were violent interruptions from the outside world, and the distress [. . .] affected her so urgently” (13). Perhaps a more salient point is not that the quality or quantity of Bowes Lyon’s work was blemished by the war but that her writing embodied this world and was created from the immediacy of the pain she witnessed and experienced. These elements certainly give her work a power that demands its remembrance.
Writing about Witnessing Pain
Bowes Lyon’s worldview was shaped by the First World War when she worked as a V.A.D. in London and Oxfordshire (Murray 352). She was one of many young volunteer nurses who demonstrated great courage in treating the horrific wounds created by modern munitions. James Wentworth Day, a contemporary journalist, biographer, and Great War veteran, writes appreciatively of Bowes Lyon in The Queen Mother’s Family Story: “when the 1914 war broke out she was nursing the wounded, with their boils and sores and festering cuts, amid all the stinks and horrors, at an age when other girls of her background were thinking of dances and ‘deb’ parties” (120).23 Bowes Lyon’s young life was marked by tragedy when, in 1914, her brother Charles was killed in the war. Later, her fiancé died as well. Bowes Lyon’s housekeeper Ellen Beckwith describes how her employer displayed a photograph of “a handsome sailor”:
‘Who’s the pin-up boy, Lilian?’ I said one day. She gave me a long look out of those big brown eyes of hers: ‘Oh! That’s a sad story, Ellen. He was drowned. I was going to marry him.’ I reckon that sailor boy was the love of her life. He must have been lost in the First World War.
After that she gave up her life to doing good and writing poetry. Beautiful stuff, too. (qtd. in Day 122-123)
Beckwith identifies Bowes Lyon’s early experience with tragedy as a catalyst for her social work and her writing.24 As Bowes Lyon expressed many years later in the poem “This Day” (White Hare), she awakened to a keener experience of life and a better understanding of the misfortunes of others because of love and loss: “how should I know / these terrors beautiful, or be so moved / this day by life’s disaster, if we had not loved” (10-12).25 A similar idea appears in “Two Trees” (Bright Feather Fading), where she implies that losing one’s partner can bring a fresh way of seeing, making her “finelier compelled / To sift the difficult splendour from despair; / And fire, oh fire the world” (13-15). For the author, this experience kindles an inner “fire” that moves her toward social response and global vision.
Bowes Lyon’s poems resound with the transience of life, the cruelties of mankind, and the stark reality of death, whether in the Northumbrian fields of her homeland or on the dark London streets. Her poems have a bleakness and grit akin to the works of Emily Brontë, Edward Thomas, or Wilfred Owen.26 For instance, “Stone Pity” (White Hare) begins, “Sheep, under a wall shagged with snow, / Hard-breathing huddle; soon the hooded crow / Shall harvest their flesh piece-meal” (1-3). While transcribing the soft beauty of a scene, she ambushes readers with a darker vision. Her poems do not shy away from suffering, whether that of animals, humans, or even the land itself; in an early poem, she writes of “fields that suffer the keen plough-share” (“Over the Fields” 3). These poems also reveal her extraordinary willingness to comprehend and be affected by others’ suffering. Another early poem, “It was in the Winter,” exemplifies her empathetic range, since here her experience occurs through the body of a fallen animal:
It was in the winter, at dusk, at ebb of day,
Across my path in a frail wood she lay.
A fire she seemed, yet lost upon the air;
Only my grief knew that her ghost was there.
Then oh this faintness of her shadow cast
Long after set of sun, I held it fast;
I laid my heart to rest, I laid it low;
And through her limbs I felt the printless snow. (1-8)
Although the creature is unnamed, the line “A fire she seemed, yet lost upon the air” suggests a brightly-colored bird. The speaker’s grief at seeing the bird’s body permits her to sense a lingering “ghost” of its experience. Whether she holds the bird metaphorically in her heart or literally in her arms, cradling it as a child might, the poet becomes the bird, feeling the snow “through her limbs.” Here Bowes Lyon shows a literal embodiment of compassion: to suffer with another. As Kathryn H. Kavanagh elucidates, “Compassion [. . .] involves empathy—being so stricken with the suffering of another that one suffers as the other does. Unlike pity (merely an exchange about suffering), compassion is about cosuffering—knowing and entering pain” (21). Though the ground is paradoxically left “printless” and unmarked, with her poetry Bowes Lyon brings into print the sorrow she feels and exposes readers to it, too.
Throughout her career, Bowes Lyon shows great sensitivity to the fragile lives of animals.27 Drawn to those who have little ability to speak for themselves, Bowes Lyon uses animals to demonstrate unnoticed suffering and attune readers to bodily damage and pain callously inflicted and then ignored by human society. In her attempt to encourage the recognition of suffering, understanding the pain of animals becomes the first step in understanding the pain of humankind.28 The White Hare and Other Poems contains four poems revealing animals’ pain, including perhaps the most evocative, “Northumbrian Farm,” which, like “Stone Pity,” may startle readers with its unsettling imagery. Beside the sleepy pastoral scene of a farmer milking his cows:
The half-shot-away hare
(Mark, Gentlemen of England now abed!)
Stitches a precious thread
Of blood into the upland turf—oh learning to be dead.
You see, we lose the knack. (19-23)
As a later line suggests, suffering is present where we do not look: even “beauty is signed with sorrow” (29). The disturbing image of the mortally injured rabbit crawling away, resisting death, shows a perspective unseen by those comfortably sleeping. To the hare, its body and blood are “precious” to its survival. The mindset of death is not easy either for the hare or for the observer to get “the knack” of: “learning to be dead” involves accepting and not ignoring the presence of death and suffering. Bowes Lyon calls upon readers to join her in seeing and understanding it.
Elizabeth Heitman, in writing on the different cultural responses to suffering, notes that “compassion is widely interpreted to be the lesson that suffering offers both to the sufferer and those who witness others’ adversity” (99). Compassion becomes a lesson, or in Bowes Lyon’s words, a “learning”; with the latter, the observer/reader must actively process difficult material and then advance emotionally from grappling with that material, undertaking the often traumatic work of empathy. While this message is visible in her later poems, the call for compassionate cosuffering also appears notably in Bowes Lyon’s first novel, The Buried Stream.
The Sister and her Patient: Cosuffering in The Buried Stream
Published in 1929, The Buried Stream is Bowes Lyon’s first effort to articulate suffering and explore the impact of an intimate encounter with illness and death, intensely focusing on the difficult position of the empathetic observer. Bowes Lyon wrote the novel when she was still young, yet the ideas she explores in it are neither naive, simple, nor pleasant. In his autobiography of Bowes Lyon, longtime friend William Plomer characterizes the displeasure her first book elicited:29
She produced a novel, which rattled some of her older and less flexible relations, not because it was libellous or indecent or politically tendentious but because it did not conform to their conventions that she [. . .] should write fiction suggesting that life was not a wholly comfortable proceeding. (Autobiography 300)
The novel focuses on the discomforts of life, naming aspects many would prefer to leave “buried.” As Plomer notes, this theme is an unusual, even rebellious, choice for a woman in Bowes Lyon’s circles.30 Reviews of the novel, while calling it “intellectual” and “well-written” (“Mystic’s Soul” 2), “told with exquisite feeling” (Times advertisement), and constructed with “great subtlety as well as originality” (Herbert), nevertheless stress its dark theme: “It is not what would be called a ‘pleasant’ book,” warns Alice Herbert of The Yorkshire Post (6). Plomer sees the novel as part of the interwar trend among young writers to “protest against what seemed to them stale or sterile” (Autobiography 300). Bowes Lyon takes up the socially critical, war-inspired themes of her generation expressed, for instance, in the works of Vera Brittain and Robert Graves. Her novel pushes against traditional societal views, questioning the proper language used for illness, the meaning of love, and, ultimately, the right to die.31
Though written a decade after the war, The Buried Stream likely allowed Bowes Lyon an outlet for her feelings about the difficulties of serving as a war nurse. After all, the woman who wrote of “The half-shot-away hare” had seen men in the same condition. Like her contemporaries, she shared a similar distaste for stoicism as a virtue in the face of suffering. Though Bowes Lyon never wrote explicitly about her V.A.D. work in any of her publications, her experience of the war parallels that of Vera Brittain, author of the well-known memoir Testament of Youth (1933), who was close to her in age.32 Brittain, too, gave up the luxuries of a wealthy home to learn domestic tasks and nursing skills (Testament 165). Later she used her writing to work through the twin traumas of nursing wounded men and losing her own fiancé and brother in the war. In On Becoming a Writer Brittain speaks of the way she was “handicapped, harassed and oppressed by recurrent memories” of the war until she published Testament of Youth (32). Likewise, she writes in her diary, quoted in Testament, after witnessing a death in the hospital for the first time: “We ought to pray in our litany for deliverance from a lingering as well as from a sudden death” (176). Nonetheless, Brittain soon realized she was less horrified by the presence of death than by the nurses’ impervious response to it. She explains, “I minded what I described to Roland as ‘the general atmosphere of inhumanness’ far more than the grotesque mutilations of bodies and limbs and faces.” She continues: “The sight of the ‘Bart’s’ Sisters, calm, balanced, efficient, moving up and down the wards self-protected by that bright immunity from pity which the highly trained nurse seems so often to possess, filled me with a deep fear of merging my own individuality in the impersonal routine of the organisation. [. . .] I would rather suffer ever so much in my work than become indifferent to pain” (211-212).
Other First World War volunteer nurses wrote of similar experiences, revealing that the job required being remarkably stalwart and resistant in the face of horrendous injuries. Canadian nurse Agnes Warner described in her letters home from France that “In some cases there are only pieces of men left. One young chap, twenty-one years old, has lost both his legs” (12).33 Brittain similarly reports how she had to “dress unaided and without emotion [. . .] newly amputated limb[s]” (216). In order to downplay the severity of soldiers’ wounds, nurses were encouraged to use cheerful, positive language. In her 1917 memoir of nursing in France, English schoolteacher-turned-V.A.D. Olive Dent revealed the way “Most nervous patients are reassured by ‘chipping,’ [. . .]. It is so much more human and cheery [. . .]. ‘Now, little chappy, swinging the lead, eh? We’ll soon fix this up. Nothing very much the matter, is there?’” (52). “Chipping” suggests a splintering of both language and emotion until the only remnants left are tolerable. This process places a protective cover over the real wound, but it inhibits fully understanding or transcribing another’s pain.
In her first novel, Bowes Lyon writes back against the hypocrisy of sanitizing suffering, though she also reveals the danger inherent in providing a deeply compassionate response. The Buried Stream opens with an epigraph from Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life,” concerning the desire to know the parts of life seldom shared. Just so, Bowes Lyon’s novel traces the awakening of Londoner Juliet McGrath when she travels to the country to visit her older brother Greg, who is terminally ill with cancer of the spine. Juliet, a twenty-eight-year-old “very young for her age” (12), has encountered death once before, but she has brushed it aside. She and her artist husband, Matthew, “had been quite happy up till now and life had been enjoyable. Of course, there had been Joey’s death . . . but her poor sickly baby would have been a great responsibility and as yet she had had no responsibilities” (13; ellipses in original). The baby’s death is introduced as a moment of trauma in an otherwise comfortable life. Although it seems likely that Juliet has buried the actual weight of the trauma, she manifests the bright stoicism encouraged in British society during and between the wars and shows no evidence of a child still mourned or a lingering sadness.34
With Greg, however, Juliet must confront death head-on. Juliet has “lost touch” with her brother for ten years, and she hesitates to see him now (24). Instead of the boy she remembers, Juliet finds “A man, who might have passed for fifty, sitting up in bed supported by a mass of pillows” who “held out a limp hand” (25). The novel becomes a striking narrative of illness and caretaking that centers on a war of acknowledgement between Greg, who is bitter, blunt, and yet witty about his impending death, and his family members, who shrink from his illness and cannot bear to give it a name. Greg is forthright about death in a way that unnerves his siblings. “[A]ll life is a kind of decay. And what’s more, beauty and decay go together,” explains Greg. “I’m living—dying if you like—faster than most people, that’s all” (47). Greg’s sentiment anticipates the idea expressed in Bowes Lyon’s later poem “Northumbrian Farm” that “most beauty is signed with sorrow”; death is simply a part of life, though its discussion is often censored. Here, however, Greg does not need to “learn to be dead”; it is Juliet who must learn it as his pupil. Greg remarks, “Juliet’s got a lot to learn, and knows it” (47-48) as he extemporizes on the awful “desirability of death” (48). The narrative frames death, shunned and poorly understood, as a learning experience for the living. “Come and take a lesson,” Greg instructs Juliet, as the doctor comes in with the hypodermic syringe to mute his pain (129). Greg informs her most tellingly, “you can’t be really of your generation, yours and mine, until you have despaired” (27).
The post-war generation, Greg implies, has come face to face with severe bodily destruction and has changed because of it. Juliet realizes she must acknowledge “secrets she had hidden away always” and “see deep, deep down, to the roots of pain” (65).35 As a nurse to Greg, she will have to suffer as he suffers, watching him lose the power of his legs and then die a slow death over a period of nine months—a monstrous reversal of birth. A willingness to watch this process involves bringing compassion to the sick room; as Greg enigmatically tells Juliet, “It takes two” (111). Miles, Juliet’s brother-in-law, warns Juliet against Greg’s enigmatic behavior: “There’s a queerness, a deformity” about Greg because of his illness, he asserts, and she should not listen to his ideas (125). Greg is long used to illness, which makes him a fitting mouthpiece for its discussion. He tells Juliet, “My own body was my first love and I hugged my ill-health—my anaemia and the rest of it” (67). The others would rather see Greg’s forthright attitude about his cancer and his embrace of death as part of his illness, with Miles calling it “purely pathological” (125). The novel, however, suggests that the repression of death is a more common societal pathology.36 In fact, when Juliet asks her sister Isobel whether Greg is dying, Isobel’s answer shows anxious avoidance: “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. And you mustn’t think about it either” (20). Once Juliet hears the bitter truth from Greg about his condition, she increasingly inhabits his views, noting the similarities that draw them together. “You don’t know, any of you, what it is to be made of the same stuff as a dying man,” she asserts vehemently (127), illustrating her cosuffering.
Like the hare in “Northumbrian Farm,” someone suffering tends to withdraw from society or feel exiled by his or her pain. Physician-ethicist Eric Cassell characterizes suffering as the dread of disintegration of the self (see Heitman 83-84). This feeling can be heightened by desensitization of the caregiver to the sufferer’s pain. Often in the medical profession, the immediate answer sought is an alleviation of pain rather than an inquiry into the nature of suffering. Since the nineteenth century, the increased use of medical technology and more sophisticated means of diagnosis have distanced patients and doctors as less emphasis is placed on the patient’s story (Reiser 46). Yet recent research has shown that younger or less experienced nurses and physicians may be more attuned to a patient’s distress, and that “nurses who have experienced significant pain tend to be more sympathetic, [. . .] including recognizing the psychological distress of the pain experience” (Brallier 218). As Elizabeth Heitman writes, “Although it is impossible to share wholly in another’s experience, the person who responds with compassion recognizes and respects the depth of another’s suffering” (99). Like the young V.A.D.s, Juliet may be uniquely placed to empathize with extreme physical pain; nonetheless, she also becomes susceptible to the effects of prolonged witnessing.
Bowes Lyon’s novel explores this dark side of the nursing experience. Psychologists today realize that not only witnessing but also vicariously feeling another’s suffering makes a caretaker “vulnerable”: it can lead to stress, depression, even a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (Brallier 223). By the 1920s, Bowes Lyon had recognized this danger already. Juliet, put into the position of nurse for the first time, enters perhaps too deeply into her caretaking role. Instead of letting Greg become disconnected from the family in his suffering or, to use Cassell’s word, “disintegrate,” Juliet reconnects to him in an almost mystical way, recognizing him as “her other self” (71). Her affection for Greg soon overpowers her feelings for others. She admits to Matthew, “I didn’t know before what love, what suffering in love, was like” (218). Her change of wording to better articulate her feelings shows her love for her brother alone was not enough—it is her understanding of his suffering that brings a new dimension to her love. She adds, “If I could only help him . . .” (218; ellipses in original). Eventually, nothing except Greg’s illness has any significance for Juliet; this situation is reinforced by the novel’s second half, which focuses on Juliet’s husband, while Juliet largely remains with Greg. The crux is that Greg cannot reach death without enduring unimaginable pain. “I want to die. But I’m a coward,” he confides (70). Juliet reveals the extent to which she embodies Greg’s suffering when she cries: “But, oh, the agony, the sin, the death that’s wasting him, is killing me!” (217).
At the novel’s end, the meaning behind Greg’s enigmatic coaxing that “It takes two” is revealed when Juliet is found locked in the room with her brother’s body after administering a lethal dose of pain medication. Juliet relieves her brother from his suffering, but it comes at a great cost: the conclusion implies she may have lost her sanity. In the end, the choice of the name of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine seems intentional; Bowes Lyon implies a double sacrifice as Juliet, through her action, chooses a variety of death for herself as well. Matthew realizes “the Juliet he had known [. . .] had gone with Greg” (253).
While modern readers might find the topic of euthanasia surprising for the era, it had become part of the public consciousness. At the time the novel was written, medically assisted suicide had been debated in Britain and the United States for several decades.37 Although The Buried Stream is unusual in its focus, at least one other novel of the era raised the question of euthanasia of the terminally ill: Ricarda Huch’s Der Fall Deruga (The Deruga Case, 1917). This novel, written by a well-known German historian, chronicles the trial of a physician charged with killing his ex-wife. He is acquitted after confessing he gave her poison to end her suffering, according to her wishes. Both these novels crucially emerge during or after the First World War. Ian Dowbiggen suggests that support for euthanasia in England (and Europe) came largely from the experience of the war: “[C]ountless young men losing their lives in violent, disfiguring, dehumanizing ways in battle without opportunities for proper burial and ritualistic mourning triggered an explosion of grief that transformed accepted attitudes toward death” (66). This claim echoes Greg’s comment in The Buried Stream that the post-war generation had experienced a very visceral experience of pain and loss and thus had the opportunity to rethink death’s role.
Although Bowes Lyon did not publish The Buried Stream until 1929, it makes sense to conceptualize it as emerging from the pain of her brother Charles’s death and her own experiences as a nurse. At the novel’s beginning, Juliet has not seen Greg in ten years—the very amount of time that has passed since the war. The loyal sister of the novel additionally evokes the “sisters” of the war, the term of respect used for the war nurses. Although V.A.D.s were not professional nurses, they were allowed to give morphine injections. In her memoir A V.A.D. in France, for example, Dent writes of the harrowing experience of seeing patients with severe injuries for which very little can be done except palliation:
More blankets and hot water bottles, the saline bag and the hypodermic needle play their part [. . .] . “All you can do, sister, is to make him comfortable. A third of a grain of morphia . . . .”
Then follow some of the bitterest moments one is called to endure,—
[. . .] to watch, to wait and yet to do nothing, nothing of any telling value. (54; 2nd ellipses in original)
As a fellow V.A.D., Bowes Lyon would have known first-hand how it felt to have both a patient’s pain and a patient’s life in her hands. While she does not take a clear position on euthanasia, she does show how a caretaker can become so empathetic that she gives in to the patient’s desire to die. As Juliet asks the first time she becomes aware of Greg’s injections, “Why should he bear pain?” (Buried Stream 61). The fact that this experience hurts Juliet in the process shares a powerful message about the consuming nature of—and danger of—empathetic response. Bowes Lyon implies that giving in too much to another’s pain is hazardous, yet failing to acknowledge suffering is callous or naive. Literature then becomes the perfect medium for safely giving suffering articulation.
As an initial exploration of illness and suffering, The Buried Stream works within a very personal space to express a wealthy, sheltered woman’s awakening to the pain of someone close to her. For the author, nursing in the war turned her vision outward to suffering that transcends class. As she increasingly chose to express herself in verse rather than fiction, Bowes Lyon began to offer her poetry as a window for those accustomed to viewing only the comfortable side of life.
A Window to See through to the Other Side: Bowes Lyon’s Interwar Poetry
Cecil Day Lewis remarks in his introduction to Collected Poems, “More rigorously, more devotedly, more intimately than most poets of our time, Lilian Bowes Lyon has identified herself with suffering humanity” (13). Bowes Lyon realized that suffering has many faces and many forms. Although she began her writing career investigating the weighty subjects of illness and death, in the interwar years she turned her powers of empathy to the everyday distress of those persons whom the typical middle- and upper-class reader might overlook. As John Murray wrote of Bowes Lyon, “her proper study was mankind,” seeking “the other side of a vivid life” (352). Bowes Lyon shows this focus late in her career in the poem “The Feet of Men” (A Rough Walk Home, 1946), writing, “I borrow wings from those / Who plod yet sing, who walk in dust” (8-9). At a time when the poor and rich grew further apart as unemployment rates in England climbed, she drew inspiration from and expressed sympathy for the working classes in her poetry and in her reform efforts.38 Bowes Lyon began working with Margery Fry for prison reform (Murray 352). In the 1930s, she tried her hand at farming in Dorset, which brought her into close connection with the countryside and the rural worker.
Bowes Lyon writes in her poems of the lives of the rural and urban poor, including farmers, laborers, shepherds, cottagers, peasants, working women, refugees, and the homeless. William Plomer notes that she never was “satisfied with the values that her background and her upbringing had seemed to require her to take for granted” (Autobiography 409). In her poems she invites middle- or upper-class readers to become more conscious of their privileged positions. For instance, “A Refugee” (Revealing, 1941) concerns a man, possibly one of the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who had come to Britain by 1939, pausing to gaze into a lit window at night. It is explicitly “your window” (1), presupposing the reader’s comfortable home. A foreigner, “used to night” (3), thus accustomed to exclusion and hostility, passes the window of a wealthy person’s chambers and takes comfort in the scene inside. “Befriended” by one lamp, he is:
Learning, as evening learns, that grave allegiance
Only to see through glass and not to share
A kingdom kind, a room’s ordained effulgence; (5-7)
The “learning” of this poem involves the refugee’s acceptance of already-set divisions. The glass separates outside “night” and inside “effulgence,” and he must not cross that threshold. Held by the “Fate” of exclusion and prejudice (11), and likely the poverty he faces in England, he will merely use the sight of that inside light “for shelter” (12). The poem calls on the affluent to break that boundary between worlds, to make an empathetic connection and, further, “to share / A kingdom kind,” revising the lesson learned (6-7). Beyond her poetry, Bowes Lyon offered a real-life illustration of such kindness when she chose two Polish refugee youths to house and educate (see Day 124).
It is often Bowes Lyon’s goal to reveal what lies just beyond the vision of the comfortable reader. In her earliest published poems,39 she depicts some of society’s most neglected individuals. Two poems use Christian elements to suggest that modern society has become blind to the world’s miracles by disregarding the poor. In “Resurrection Bill,” the poet writes in dialect of how when Bill “stopped to look; / The graves opened, an’ the earth shook” (5-6). Although the tone is playful, the last two lines suggest a critique of a society that has no room for Bill’s vision: “In county ’sylum they’ve put ’n away, / For fathoming out Judgment Day” (35-36). Another early experiment, “In the Byre,” recasts the birth of Christ in contemporary society. Though the Christ child receives some attention from the onlookers who “warmed His limbs / That were so small,” this time “No shepherds came, / Though Jesus cried. / He lived till morning; / Mary died” (13-16). The poem contains a critique of a world where the poor and their health care needs, especially those of women, are overlooked with disastrous consequences.
Bowes Lyon shows a heartfelt compassion for the poor, including the vagrant, abused, and abandoned. In “Wayside” (White Hare) she takes on such a voice:
We work for soldiers’ pay,
The flesh’s pittance,
Can smell death’s kiss before it close our mouth,
So young we make the creeping worm’s acquaintance.
Common as dandelions men serve their narrow sentence (1-5)
Whether the poem is narrated by a young man or a young woman, a soldier or a streetwalker, the poem gives a voice to the collectively disregarded, to expendable, “wayside” youth. Bowes Lyon more frequently highlights specific human lives, describing human suffering using tropes similar to those she uses to depict the suffering of animals. In “This Day,” the poet describes the voice of a beggar woman as “A cracked yet sweet / voice quavering, for grudged pennies, in the street, / as it might be an old song-bird, suffering-tame” (1-3). The woman resembles a bird begging for crumbs. She is not merely suffering, but “suffering-tame”; like a caged bird, her life has been diminished from being reliant on others’ charity. In “The Blind Tramp” (Revealing), the speaker calls a newly buried homeless woman “A footsure wanderer wearing the first snow” (5) and remarks on “Her griefs forgiven beneath the seamless ground” (8), reminding readers that even this shunned wanderer is welcomed into heaven.
Bowes Lyon’s poetry illuminates a world of hardship, poverty, and frequent death, an “other side” made clear. Bowes Lyon rarely romanticizes the countryside, and she often finds human suffering amid its beauty. In “Death and Snow” (Bright Feather), she laments the child “still-born up at Strange’s farm, / when no foot, when no breath even, had smudged / the big white field” (3-5). In “Stone Pity” (White Hare), she describes trapped miners in language echoing the horrors of trench warfare: “I think of men, that crawl / The length of a blocked gallery” (7-8). In “On the Cliffs” (White Hare), where she writes of “cloud stains / like bruises in bright flesh,” she speaks to a ploughman directly, saying, “Your feet [. . .] are heavy and your back round with sorrow” (12). In “Old Cardigan” (Bright Feather), Bowes Lyon sympathizes with a cleaning woman who complains of her “workaday hand chafed” (7). There is not just pity here for England’s other half, but empathy and, at times, great respect.40 In “Build above Babel’s Din” (White Hare), she most admires “Hands I have seen that sacrifice for men; / That grip an electric drill” (1-2) or “Drain a derelict fen” (5), earnest workers who strive toward a new day with hands that work “inch by inch” to “make stealthy room for hope” (9). The poem ends with a call to the inactive men and women of her generation to cross the threshold of class and build something productive from the cacophony of difference, to “Find out your friends, your fellows, and be joined; / Build, above Babel’s din, harmonious towers” (21-22).
“Suffering’s Sequel”: Pain Comes Home in the Second World War
Throughout her life, Bowes Lyon rendered the pain and suffering of those around her in vivid language, but the Second World War gave her new determination. Always intent on the plight of the poor, Bowes Lyon moved to working-class Stepney as war loomed, seeking to “share the exposure of its people to the hazards of poverty and war” despite her own ailing health (Plomer, Autobiography 410). The war brought suffering directly to England’s civilians when the Blitz on London began in September 1940. Though the war brought together people of diverse social backgrounds, it also exposed great inequity between the classes and widespread social deprivation (Hopkins 79). While Bowes Lyon had the money and the connections to escape the war, instead she plunged into its very heart. In doing so, she followed the same path as her cousin, the Queen, who refused to take herself or her children to Canada and stayed behind to comfort the wounded and the homeless. Lilian, who had no royal duties, could go one step further, evacuating children and rehousing bomb victims from the East End.41 In 1941, she assisted Dr. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham with their Hampstead clinic for young children psychologically distressed by air raids. She worked in shelters and canteens, “making her home on the spot” (Murray 353) and serving as a nurse during “the nightly horrors” of the Blitz (Bernikow 174). She helped pull the dead from ruined buildings and nursed the wounds of the living. Her housekeeper Ellen Beckwith describes her running out into the night “like a flash” whenever the sirens sounded “with her tin hat on, and her first aid box under her arm” (qtd. in Day 123). In his biographical study, Day writes of her in strong, heroic language, recounting that during the nights of “fire and bombing, when gas mains blew up and tube stations were full of the dead and the dying,” she carted away “scores of children” from the East End to the countryside (121). Beckwith similarly recalls her coming home “late at night or early in the morning, black with smoke and dust, perhaps smothered in blood, her hands all cut with flying glass.” The war nurse was back, and with her the poet. Undaunted, Bowes Lyon would “sit up late, writing poetry,” only to get up again after two or three hours (qtd. in Day 123).
When she first nursed as a V.A.D., Bowes Lyon was just leaving her teenage years, but she met the Second World War with the gaze of a seasoned observer; the resulting poems offer vivid accounts of the war and its brutal effects. Even in the interwar years, her poems remained haunted by war imagery; several prophetically hold traces of graves and buried soldiers who will one day “rise / And call peace hypocrite” (“Pastoral” 13-14). In “Earth” (Bright Feather), she similarly calls the ground a “myriad womb” for “suffering’s sequel” (23, 25). Her early collection of the Second World War, Tomorrow is a Revealing (1941), contains a few somber poems,42 but in Evening in Stepney (1943) her style matures and darkens, showcasing more startling and visceral imagery. As she worked to care for and transport the wounded, she often wrote of the devastation as “ours,” showing her close connection with those who suffer and embracing readers as part of that whole. In section 5 of the title poem “Evening in Stepney,” she writes, “Down by the rat-pestilent sewer pullulate / Our children” as “The tank rolls on beneath the rainbow’s arch” (24-25, 27). She watches as the “plain men” are sacrificed, “broken majestically as bread” (30). In section 4, Bowes Lyon speaks directly to the war-ravaged people:
I see through a dark lens your Hamlet burned;
The sawdust child, the seven-year-old toy
That tore in half too easily; (18-20)
As Bowes Lyon plays with syntax, replacing the expected word “boy” with “toy,” she gives the startling image of an easily discarded plaything torn in half by hands that play too roughly; the warring factions become, by extension, careless children who cannot properly care for their possessions.
The pain Bowes Lyon once depicted of innocent animals killed by men’s guns she now pairs with the pain of the young men killed in war. In a slightly earlier poem, “Daybreak” (Revealing), where wars glow “white-hot in the foundry’s flickering womb,” she articulates how “Sparrows at two a farthing leave no smudge / On sanguine earth” (14-15). To the countries ready to defend their fields, like the hunters before them, the soldiers’ lives are cheap. The seven-year-old farmers’ child, appearing also in “A Son” (Revealing), is described as “A son with a bird’s glint, and wheat-straw hair,” another fallen innocent (4). The shocking image of a broken child echoes the torn hare of her early poem “Northumbrian Farm.”
Bowes Lyon illustrates how everyone shares in the devastation as the bombing intensifies. In “Portrait of a Sick Man,” the speaker describes “refugees like snails / Who leave no glucose wake but clots of anguish” (Revealing 20-21); in other poems Bowes Lyon speaks of orphanage children, tenement dwellers, and “the breakable family” (“Evening in Stepney” section 2, line 6). In “Evening in Stepney,” she blames humankind for killing as mercilessly as they till the earth. She writes, in section 6, “Grass-mowings we are, the groundsel of suffering” (line 12), comparing the English people to the groundsel weed, numerous and expendable. While her mission is to draw attention to the poor’s plight in the war, she also writes, “Learn to give praise, not grieve” (section 6, line 1). She knew that focusing too much on one’s own suffering would bring no hope and no appreciation for the life remaining. As a caretaker in the war, she had to find the strength not only to empathize with all war’s victims but also to move on, continually, to those next in need. The fact that Bowes Lyon would “sit up late, writing poetry,” only to return to her war work after a few hours, suggests that she used her poetry to manage the trauma induced by her work. It provided an outlet for and record of the horrors she saw, healing her sufficiently to work again. She now understood how to use her powers of compassion to aid others without losing herself, as Juliet of The Buried Stream had done, in the process.
Bowes Lyon continued to work diligently despite her own physical weakness from arthritis and diabetes. She knew that suffering, perhaps more than any other human condition, transcends all boundaries of gender, race, class, age, and culture. Sharing in this suffering made her language, her vehicle of transcribing suffering, powerful. Perhaps her most compelling lines concerning the purpose of suffering appear in the early Second World War poem “Portrait of a Sick Man.” An ailing man wearing “Desert Father furs,” garments suggesting he is a model of spiritual teaching and insight, speaks of a world of machine guns and refugees, but significantly wishes most that he “had made use of earlier pain” (3). He laments, “I forgot / That suffering’s increment is the power to learn; / Even from this black night” (4-6). Again, “learning” is associated with suffering and death as they bring a renewed, compassionate vision.
As she worked, Bowes Lyon invited friends in high places to visit her small home on Bow Road. Her cousin the Queen came, and so did the Duke of Kent and Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons (Day 123). Bowes Lyon did her best to show them the hardships her neighbors faced. She provided a necessary voice for the poor in more ways than one, working as a kind of ambassador to the East End.43 Bowes Lyon also took a step forward with her literary activism when, in January 1945, she and William Plomer decided to publish a long letter she had written to him about the plight of the London poor. “A Letter from Another London” appeared in the debut issue of Orion: A Miscellany, alongside the works of some of Britain’s most prominent writers.44 Here, somewhat disguised by a pseudonym,45 Bowes Lyon critiques the division of England into “Two Nations” and blames those with education, opportunity, and wealth for disregarding their East End neighbors who remain in a “chrysalis” state due to poverty (31). Bowes Lyon very bitterly, and with specific examples, describes the difficult situations of these Londoners, especially women like the lorry-driver’s wife, Pearl, who are left to tend homes under the “cancer” of the installment system and who live on the insufficient pay provided to husbands serving in the war. She continues, “and when I hear the ‘extravagance’ and ‘irresponsibility’ of half a million Pearls deplored in drawing-rooms, I feel ashamed” (34). Speaking of the synthesis and social reorganization desired by Marx and others (36), she looks to the children of the working class to build a new future. Describing the children she watches dance and create imaginatively in a factory area play-centre while bombers fly over, she finds the joy in these children “the most auspicious blue-print for the future in existence” (39). Yet she points to systematic problems that repress individual progress. She angrily notes that the affluent expect too much from these children’s parents and homes when, she argues, “they are mass-prostituted to the needs and greeds of the relatively few beneficiaries of the social system—like myself” (37). Identifying her own class as the root of the problem, she asks not only for more “freedom to become” for the East End poor (41) but also for more awareness of them as fellow beings (36). It is the same awareness of individuals’ hardships that she has worked to reveal in her poems.
Bowes Lyon’s work in Stepney epitomized the active role in humanitarian work she had always stood for, but the Second World War also opened up new experiences for her of a more intimate and painful kind. Through most of her life, Bowes Lyon worked to expose and express the suffering of others; nonetheless, in her last few years the bodily suffering she knew most was irreparably her own. One day when a bomb fell near the bus in which she was riding, she was wounded in the leg. Returning home, she told her housekeeper that “we must get on with the work. We can’t let this hold us up” (qtd. in Day 124). The next morning she hired a greengrocer’s cart and a pony, and she drove off as soon as another bomb fell. According to Day, Bowes Lyon refused to seek professional aid for her leg, and when a doctor finally begged her to go to a West End hospital she insisted on St. Andrew’s instead. When the doctor objected to her going into a “poor hospital” (qtd. in Day 125), she reportedly responded that she would simply use a pseudonym to avoid recognition (125). Unfortunately, the injury exacerbated her already failing health,46 and both of her legs eventually had to be amputated, one in April 1945 when she developed gangrene, and the other shortly after. Bowes Lyon lived her last years amid conditions that, in the words of Day Lewis, “would have silenced most poets” (16). However, as a poet who had always chosen to show the silenced aspects of life, she did not shy away from them now.
Finding a Voice for One’s Own Pain
Disability is often seen as a state of otherness from the “normative body” and stigmatized; it becomes part of a modern cultural consciousness telling us that “pain is to be avoided, illness to be cured, and disability to be corrected or concealed” (Snyder et al. 2). As a social activist, Bowes Lyon knew that focusing only on overcoming these states also denied the voices of those living them. Nonetheless, in the 1940s she struggled emotionally with losing abilities she once had. At first she attempted to ignore and surmount her disability, hiring the pony and cart to give herself renewed mobility; even after her first amputation, she moved about with the use of a crutch at the war’s end and used the telephone to call for food and supplies for the returning war evacuees (Day 125). She proved to herself that her activism could continue despite physical impairment. When her housekeeper praises Bowes Lyon’s stoic endurance through her physical pain and amputations, however, remarking, “she never once complained” (qtd. in Day 126), we find the very censoring of suffering that Bowes Lyon so strongly opposed in her early work. This must have led to a torn sense of self in a writer who knew that somehow she must overcome this stifling sense of decorum and find the strength to articulate, for herself, the most salient subject that she had always exposed for others.
Bowes Lyon’s personal and artistic struggle with pain echoes a contemporary dilemma in disability studies. While focusing on overcoming social handicaps and achieving full participation for those with impairments, these studies often disregard individuals’ physical pain.47 Recently, disability studies scholars who have experienced significant chronic pain in their own lives, such as Margaret Price, have called upon scholars to “pay more attention to the place of pain in the world of disability” (Price 274).48 Ultimately, this effort involves “respecting each person’s pain as real and important” (279). These scholars do not focus on the alleviation of pain but on granting it acknowledgement and voice. Bowes Lyon similarly struggled with the place of chronic pain in her own life. She began by writing about this pain in letters, signed with the pseudonym L.R.W., to her friend William Plomer. While these letters were private expressions of her physical suffering, she soon channeled her emotions into what was for her a deeper form of communication, her poems.
Bowes Lyon realized that her condition had no cure; she had long ago witnessed that “learning to be dead” is not easy, and she bravely prepared herself for her life’s end. Like the hare in her early poem, she struggled with her painfully altered body. In “Dumb in April,” appearing in A Rough Walk Home and other Poems (1946), the last single volume published during her lifetime, Bowes Lyon articulates her frustration:
Cruel and blest, oh birds you bring
My treachery home to me, condemn
The surly, shuttered thing I am;
Though once compassionate evening
Shone through me when the greenwood sang. (1-5)
Spring’s beauty may seem cruel to one who is suffering indoors. Once having felt herself to be a transparent medium as “compassionate evening / Shone through” her, Bowes Lyon now feels opaque from lack of expression and “shuttered,” caged in her home. “My treachery” (emphasis added) implies taking ownership of her physical self even as she laments how it fails her needs. The songbirds outside her window, both “cruel” and “blest,” only reinforce her separation both from the natural world outside and from her art. Years before, in her poem “It was in the Winter,” she felt death through the fallen bird; here living birds compel self-reflection:
Oh buglers blest and cruel, home
Bring home to me what I’ve become. (22-23)
“Dumb in April” provides an intimate window into a form of writer’s block as Bowes Lyon contemplates how her physical disability affects her experience of the world and her poetry. Pain is naturally antithetical to articulate or poetic language; as Elaine Scarry writes in her study The Body in Pain, “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it” (4).49 Scarry continues, “A great deal, then, is at stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language” (6).50 Bowes Lyon here borrows a voice for pain’s expression from these “buglers blest and cruel.” Although the poet may feel silenced, “dumb,” needing the earth’s music to speak for her, pleading, “Partner in whom I dared rejoice, / Remembered Earth, my rustic voice / Give back to me” (6-8), she transmits to us, as we read, the anguish of her physical and social condition.
Bowes Lyon additionally discusses the way her suffering negatively affected her writing in a letter to John Gawsworth, editor of The Poetry Review, in December 1948. Wishing to contribute to their fortieth anniversary publication, she writes: “I would love to submit a poem or two. May I have a day or two to sort through a few things? I am trying to work but have a stupid incurable disease which means a lot of pain. That is the only excuse for this scribble and the delay!” (emphasis in original).51 Her strength in the face of terrible bodily affliction is evident in this letter as she continues to work and to seek publication.
Though expressing pain is often equated with showing weakness, finding a way to put it into words may be one of the few ways a sufferer can find strength. Writing the pain of one’s own body gives language to something very private, but it also allows an author to gain control over his or her suffering. Too often, bodily distress shatters and disrupts life narratives. In Stories of Illness and Healing, editors Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst remind us that a patient’s writings about illness give “coherence, symbolism, and meaning to what might otherwise have been a chaotic experience” (1).52 For an intensely private person like Bowes Lyon, moving into the subject position of the sufferer in her own poetry must have been difficult. The symbolism Bowes Lyon chooses characterizes her own pain in the language she has used for others, drawing on familiar imagery to help her narrate what may seem unnarratable and adding her own voice to a larger community of sufferers.
In Uncollected Poems, two poems written in 1948 and 1949 capture her feelings about her condition as a double amputee. The poem “Cut Grass” likens her body to harvested grass: “Grass of my body, long and lithe, / What have you done, to be cut down / At dreamy noon, by a drunken scythe?” (1-3). In her earlier poems, fields suffer at the hands of men or enclose the war-dead. Now her body has become that field: “Love, that would rather be killed outright, / Must reckon to suffer, like sweetening hay” (7-8). She aligns her body with the natural world she has always written passionately about. In her Second World War volumes, she calls the sufferers of war “grass-mowings”; now she uses similar language to apply to her own condition.
Just as Bowes Lyon in her early poetry used animals to encourage a fuller understanding of unseen suffering, including human suffering, she now uses nature and animals to enable the expression of her own pain. In one of the most resonant works of her career, the 1949 poem “The Stars Go By,”53 Bowes Lyon gives us an intense glimpse into her bodily anguish with deceptively simple couplets:
A fox, in heaven’s trap that gleams,
Bites his leg off in my dreams;
I shriek his pain, as torn I share
The white hurt of the wounded air.
The stars go by in glittering packs;
I’m still my heaven, still my fox;
Ten thousand suns revolve about
This burning Self that won’t go out. (1-8)
Always a voice for the injured innocent animal, Bowes Lyon envisions her pain through another: “I shriek his pain.” The difficult work of empathy, the “knack” of “learning to be dead” that she alludes to in “Northumbrian Farm,” now is shared as she struggles with her own “learning” process. A woman of compassion, she knows pain best through cosuffering, and thereby gives it expression. In dream, she is the crafty but vulnerable fox in the trap whose hurt leg becomes her own. The image is perfectly apt because the trapped fox must tear its own limb to be free, just as Bowes Lyon had to endure amputations to save her body from gangrene. Further frustration comes with it being “heaven’s trap”; she imagines herself caught on the edge of heaven, immobile, with a “burning Self that won’t go out.” Although the burning implies further pain, fire is also connected in her poems with determination and passion.54 Twenty years earlier, Bowes Lyon wrote in The Buried Stream of a young man dying of a terminal illness, soon to lose his legs. Though now in a similar position, her passion for life endures.
In his obituary for Bowes Lyon in The Times, William Plomer writes of her decision, in her own words, “to live beside, not inside, physical pain” (qtd. in “Obituary” 7), yet we can see from her writings that a balance of the two enabled her tenacity. Though her poetry and her private letters allowed her to express her pain from the inside, she mastered her pain by seeing it from the outside and by acting as a caretaker rather than as a sufferer in isolation. She spent the last weeks of her life making, in a wheelchair, “visits to the incurable patients in a London hospital” and had planned another visit at the time of her death (Plomer, “Obituary” 7). For Bowes Lyon, her own struggle with pain became the deepest level on which she could forge empathetic connection. She began to move towards what some disability studies scholars have conceptualized as a community and politics of care, what Price calls “moving together and being limited together” (279). Thus her final years brought her back to the hospital, the very place she had begun her encounters with human suffering as a V.A.D.; this time, however, her life experience had further enriched her understanding of pain and disability. Day reports that the patient she visited most often in the years before her death was Jimmy Leach, a young man with Parkinson’s Disease who “could scarcely speak or move” (Day 127). A doctor remarked on the “great affinity between them” (qtd. in Day 127); while this man was young and poor, he and Bowes Lyon had forged a solid connection through disability. In her final days, when she could not leave her home, Jimmy came to see her in his wheelchair (Day 127). This feeling of community echoes Susan Wendell’s remark that “Solidarity between people with chronic illnesses and people with other disabilities depends on acknowledging the existence of the suffering that justice cannot eliminate (and therefore on our willingness to talk about impairment).” She continues that these “different ways of being [. . .] give valuable perspectives on life and the world” that deserve to be heard and considered (171; emphasis in original), a concept Bowes Lyon knew well and expressed in her literary work throughout her life.
Some of Bowes Lyon’s contemporaries shared this understanding of her poetic practice. Near the end of Bowes Lyon’s life, Edith Sitwell, in a letter to the editor of the New Statesman and Nation, dated 9 October 1948, adamantly defended Bowes Lyon’s Collected Poems against a harsh review. After praising the poems for their “exquisite and luminous beauty,” she writes: “Mr. Romily speaks of this poetry as if it were of no account. He is utterly wrong, as any poet would tell him.” She adds, “I would like to think that Mr. Romily did not know the circumstances under which these poems were written” (306). Like Day Lewis and others, Sitwell seems to excuse any faults in Bowes Lyon’s poetry because of her personal “circumstances,” realizing that intense suffering may impose a great strain on an artist’s work.55 Nonetheless, as Sitwell herself likely realized, it is the transcription of this very suffering that often lends Bowes Lyon’s poems life and “beauty.” The works of Bowes Lyon reveal that when suffering is given language the result can be transformative. Bowes Lyon calls upon readers to witness the pain of others and fully understand their hardship. This is, to use Arthur Kleinman’s term for the illness narrative, a kind of “empathetic witnessing” (54).56 Readers must watch, must feel, must awaken not only to others’ suffering but also to social responsibility through empathy.57
In one of her last collected poems, “A Choir of Close-knit Bones,” Bowes Lyon writes a prayer for the survivors of war:
That serious to-morrow may not fall too lightly,
Without perceived new weight, upon the heart,
Nor sorrow mean henceforth
An easy burden, a softly settling moth. (3-6)
It is an entreaty that all this suffering will have meaning, that mankind will take away new insight from pain. Most profoundly, in the second stanza she does not count herself among those who have survived the war, but among the fallen martyrs who “lie after long suffering” (7) and who may one day “stand erect, a choir of close-knit bones” (12). “Pray blackthorn-winter’s dawn may rediscover us” she writes (13; emphasis added).
Bowes Lyon did not end her suffering by choice, though she died far too soon, in 1949 at the age of fifty-three.58 She learned early that suffering was a part of life, and she voiced this aspect of life when others shied away from it. She had rehearsed the language of suffering for so long that, when it came to her in the end, she articulated it clearly and unapologetically the way she always had, remaining a voice for the silenced and the wounded, even when that included herself. What we take away is her resilience and her dedication. As Day recounts, when Bowes Lyon died, “She left a fortune of more than sixty-five thousand pounds. It could have taken her anywhere” (119). Instead of leading the sheltered life of a wealthy aristocrat, she used hers to help those in need, particularly families in London’s East End, and in death she bequeathed funding to enrich the lives of the “incurable patients” in the hospital and to provide play areas for impoverished children (Day 127-8). Just as importantly, she left behind a body of work that encourages the recognition of and empathy for the ignored, the ill, and the suffering. Though our modern literary lenses such as disability studies allow us a means of recuperating her writings, even this fails to lessen the bitter sting of her work’s long neglect. It is certainly ironic that a woman who never overlooked anyone during her own life would today be so overlooked herself.
1 Although the family name is usually hyphenated, I have chosen not to hyphenate Bowes Lyon since Lilian publishes under the unhyphenated version.
2 There is currently no full-length biography or critical study of Bowes Lyon. I first encountered her through Jane Dowson’s anthology Women’s Poetry of the 1930s. Modern articles that mention her (such as Patricia Rae’s) tend to discuss her very little; there are, however, a few notable mentions of her online, including Watson, “Saint and Scarecrow,” and Mills, “The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin.”
3 On the Bowes-Lyon lineage, see Cathcart 11-12.
4 Lilian Bowes Lyon began to write poems and stories as a child, and these early unpublished works reflect her keen interest in nature and humanity. See Murray 352.
5 Donald Zec, in his biography of the Queen Mother, is one of the few to mention Bowes Lyon: “One of the Queen’s cousins, Lilian Bowes-Lyon, had become one of the East End’s unsung heroines. Few knew of her relationship with the Queen as she worked among the ruins helping to put lives [. . .] together again” (149).
6 Before Bowes Lyon’s poems were published in collections, they appeared in magazines such as The Wind and the Rain and the BBC’s The Listener (which helped debut many new writers of the era, including many modernists). She also wrote a second novel under the pseudonym D. J. Cotman.
7 All poems cited in the essay follow the text of Collected Poems or, for the late works “Cut Grass” and “The Stars Go By,” Uncollected Poems; even so, I have chosen to note, parenthetically, the title of each poem’s original collection to give readers a sense of temporal placement.
8 See, for instance, “The Best Poems of 1939” in Belfast News-Letter, 30 December 1939, p. 7; “Among the New Books” in The Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1938, p. 7; “March Monthlies: ‘London Mercury’” in The Yorkshire Post, 4 March 1936, p. 6. Bowes Lyon is also included in Herman Peschmann’s anthology The Voice of Poetry (1930-1950); see Alan Ross’s review “Modern Verse,” The Times Literary Supplement, 12 January 1951, p. 18.
9 These reviews contradict the argument, made by both Montefiore (see below n13) and Dowson and Entwistle, that the work of women poets of the 1930s was neither reviewed often nor reviewed favorably.
10 Dowson and Entwistle argue in A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry that women’s works of the early decades of the twentieth century were less visible to the public because “Critical debate was stimulated and sustained by the surge of highbrow periodicals and seminal critical works which rarely featured women”; women had to turn to the more inclusive new magazines for publication (15). Jane Dowson in her own study adds that men, while sometimes promoting women’s work, were less eager to review it. Further, women poets’ tendency to work and publish alone, even when familiar with other women poets socially, may have led to their writerly exclusion in periodicals and anthologies (Dowson 16-18).
11 This idea of 1930s women poets being “ignored” is similar to what Jane Dowson finds. Dowson writes, “The diversity of poetry by women discounts simplistic generalisations about women’s poetry and yet it seems as if these poets were themselves discounted, albeit unconsciously and unintentionally, for being women” (13). She adds, “My own doubts about the worthiness of the poetry were assuaged by reading it and realising that the poems had not been weighed and found wanting, but had simply been ignored” (8; emphasis in original).
12 Auden and his circle, including Day Lewis, MacNeice, and Spender, all knew each other from Oxford, revealing one way male poets forged connections; nonetheless, in his autobiography, Day Lewis reveals that, while he benefited immensely from being tied to Auden, in terms of a group making an effort to write differently altogether, “it was not a movement at all” (Buried Day 216).
13 Montefiore, for instance, critiques Robin Skelton’s Poetry of the Thirties (1964) which includes the work of only one woman, Anne Ridler (Feminism and Poetry 22). She titles a chapter on the 1930s women poets “Undeservedly Forgotten” (Men and Women 113).
14 Caesar acknowledges in his study of 1930s poetry that, while presenting a work which “challenges the dominance of Auden,” he did not expand it to include women. He writes, “The fact that very few women poets are dealt with in this study follows from the infrequency with which their work was published and discussed in the major literary periodicals of the decade. The literary world of the 1930s was male-dominated, and this study reflects that fact without wishing to condone it” (8).
15 See chapter 2 of Dowson and Entwistle (43-57) for a discussion of women poets who take on “a public voice for war and class politics” (27).
16 For example, Poetry in Wartime by M. J. Tambimuttu (Faber & Faber 1942) includes poems by women poets Anne Ridler, Patricia Ledward, Kathleen Raine, and Lynette Roberts but none by Bowes Lyon. The only contemporary volume of war poetry that includes her work appears to be Maurice Wollman’s Poems of the War Years: An Anthology (Macmillan 1948), though she is only one of three women represented there. Anne Powell explains that “Over forty poetry anthologies were published during the Second World War but women were not well represented in any of these except in two slim volumes” (xxii); Bowes Lyon does not appear in either of these (Theodora Roscoe and Mary Winter’s Poems by Contemporary Women [Hutchinson 1944] and Vita Sackville-West’s edited collection Poems of the Land Army ). While Virago Press brought women’s poetry of the First and Second World War to public attention in The Virago Book of Women’s Poetry and Verse (1997), Bowes Lyon is not included there. Catherine W. Reilly, who has compiled the most comprehensive list of English Second World War poets, asserts, “It seems that successive war poetry anthologists tend to perpetuate the original selection of poems chosen by earlier anthologists” (xiii). By including 2,679 poets in her biobibliography (including Bowes Lyon), Reilly has accomplished something much more inclusive. Two poems by Bowes Lyon also appear in Powell’s collection Shadows of War.
17 Bowes Lyon’s poetry is neither modernist nor “middlebrow”; it is sometimes difficult and not altogether accessible to a general audience. When poet Lady Margaret Sackville reviewed Bowes Lyon’s Collected Poems in 1949, she wrote, “Her genius needs a wrestler to contend with it” but added that the poems’ “Opaqueness does not conceal poverty, but rather extreme richness of thought” (3).
18 Margaret Willy published a brief essay, “The Poetry of Lilian Bowes Lyon,” in 1950 (Essays and Studies 52-63). Bowes Lyon’s legacy also endured briefly in the 1950s in the form of the “Lilian Bowes-Lyon Award for Scottish authors” given by The Poetry Society (“Poet for Aberdeen” 4).
19 Her royal heritage might even repel modern readers; we see an example of this dismissal in a 2014 Times Literary Supplement editorial where a discussion of Tragara Press leads to the author sneering, “Tragara’s names are not always so well known [. . . .] For £25, you may purchase the Uncollected Poems of Lilian Bowes Lyon, ‘granddaughter of two earls . . . and first cousin of a queen’” (J. C. 32).
20 In a web article, Roger Mills posits similar views, writing, “The Royal circle tend to keep their secrets. I wonder if because of her left-leaning views, her romances, her circle of outsiders and her questioning of the accepted social order, Lilian is one of those secrets?”
21 Jonathan Cape’s advertisement for this volume in The Times Literary Supplement proudly announces that it “has a finely critical appreciation of her work by Mr. C Day Lewis, himself one of our most distinguished poets” (270). Plomer had introduced Bowes Lyon to Day Lewis some fifteen years earlier (Plomer, Autobiography 412).
22 I refer ironically here to Day Lewis’s own words in his introduction, “It is good to find, looking back over fifteen years at her early poems, how little dust they have accumulated” (11). It also seems significant that Day Lewis does not mention a single woman writer in his examination of post World War I poetry, A Hope for Poetry (1934).
23 Bowes Lyon’s cousin Elizabeth was helping care for wounded soldiers at Glamis when the castle was converted into a makeshift hospital (Cathcart 60). Both girls witnessed soldiers’ horrific injuries, lost older brothers in the early years of the war, and emerged with new skills and insights. Hugo Vickers sees the First World War shaping Elizabeth’s compassionate nature (22), and the same could be said for Lilian.
24 Bowes Lyon never married, though later in life she was in love with a married man, Laurens van der Post, who remained a good friend (Jones 144).
25 Bowes Lyon begins the poem with the image of a woman begging and suggests her own sorrow and empathy allow her to be moved by the scene. Similarly, in a mid-1930s “Sonnet” (Bright Feather Fading), Bowes Lyon writes, after describing images of drowning in a “stagnant sea” (1) and the pain of falling “from love” (8), “Yet grief conceives; predestinate rack that rends / Heart’s fibre tough” (9-10) and “under water wends / Each wandered breath, till weaned again it knows / New death, new love, a long relief from dying” (12-14). Again, loss brings renewal and a clearer appreciation for life.
26 Day Lewis finds touches of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Edward Thomas in her poetry (Introduction 11, 12). Like many of the soldier poets of the First World War (particularly Owen), Bowes Lyon takes up the expression of suffering and evokes pity, though her expression of these emotions goes far beyond the battlefield. Her dark use of nature may connect her to other thirties poets who reject more traditional pastoral “consolation,” as Rae observes (247).
27 See particularly the poem “Bright Feather Fading” where she depicts the “shattered” bird of prey who once “loved to shoulder / A far cloud or brush the noon- / Slight sickle moon” (18-20) and “A Gleam Ahead” (Revealing) where she describes a young rabbit in a trap and a shot bird.
28 A passage from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth elucidates the point that society can become immune to human suffering, especially during times of war, but that the suffering of animals might make more of a mark: “It is quite impossible to understand [. . .] how we can be such strong individualists, so intent on the rights and claims of every human soul, and yet at the same time countenance (and if we are English, even take quite calmly) this wholesale murder, which if it were applied to animals or birds or indeed anything except men would fill us with a sickness and repulsion greater than anything we could endure” (175).
29 Plomer remained a friend to Bowes Lyon throughout her life. He even proposed to her once, though she did not accept (Jones 144).
30 For instance, an article in The Penrith Observer expressed surprise not that “a cousin of the Duchess of York” was writing a novel but that she was “choosing as her theme” a man’s “slow death [. . .] from cancer” (“Duchess’s Cousin” 6). Similarly, a short piece in The Evening Telegraph noted flippantly that “It has become a fashionable thing for women in Society” to write books; however, while they find that Bowes Lyon “has a charming and original personality, [. . .] her book is not at all in the ordinary category of novels” (“Duchess of York’s Cousin” 4).
31 As far as I know, no scholar has written on The Buried Stream, other than mentioning it in passing. Plomer does not explore its specifics, though he implies it has “some sociological interest” if not “enduring literary value” (Autobiography 300).
32 Brittain was born in 1893, two years before Bowes Lyon. Unlike Bowes Lyon, she is well-remembered today; she published poems of the First World War (Verses of a VAD in 1918 and Poems of the War and After in 1934) and a popular memoir of her war years. Nonetheless, Brittain notes the difficulty for women in entering this publishing market in the 1920s and early 30s: “What these guides and critics alike overlooked was the simple fact—which nevertheless became generally accepted only after my book had appeared—that women as well as men had endured war experiences, which had led them to certain common conclusions about the state of the world” (On Becoming 193). During the First World War, although hundreds of women wrote poetry, “it was hard to compete with the universal voice of the soldier poet” (Dowson and Entwistle 46). Soldier poets often propagated the work of fellow soldiers, editing each other’s volumes, providing forewords, and securing the legacy of the fallen (see Judd and Crane 18-19).
33 Warner’s friends published some of her letters from France during the war under the title My Beloved Poilus (1917). Warner’s exceptional service led to several honors from the French government, including the Croix de Guerre.
34 British society of the war eras encouraged a stiff upper lip and often equated dwelling on sorrow or suffering with weakness. Elizabeth Bowen once expressed concern over this emotional repression in a letter to Virginia Woolf, writing of her “despair” about “my own generation—the people the same age as the century, I mean—we don’t really suffer much but we get all sealed up” (qtd. in Schneider 99). With Greg, Juliet must become unsealed, so to speak.
35 Juliet’s awakening to others’ suffering is made clear when she moves from someone who “felt nothing” when Greg was sick as a young man (22) to someone who is now visibly “shaken” by seeing a wounded sheep with “a raw patch in the fleece” (98).
36 Laura Tanner has written powerfully on this subject in her work Lost Bodies, where she discusses people’s natural inclination to turn away from the ill or dying body. She calls having to confront a patient with terminal illness, even simply through the gaze, an “uncomfortable intimacy that implicates the viewer in the experience of mortality” (12).
37 Bowes Lyon’s novel taps into this social climate, though it slightly predates the founding of pro-euthanasia societies in the U.K. and U.S. According to Dowbiggen, the first pro-euthanasia organization began in England in the early 1930s (81) and in the U.S. in 1938 (82). Some doctors had admitted to hastening deaths with overdoses (49), while others publicly advocated continuing pain medications, such as morphine, even if death resulted (50), but legislation making any of these practices legal had been repeatedly struck down (72, 74, 81).
38 In 1926 came the General Strike. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, England suffered from economic depression and high unemployment. In 1933, the Queen told the nation in a speech, “Tonight we are thinking of the dark places that exist in all parts of the country just now, dark patches where unemployment and poverty exist” (qtd. in Laird 124).
39 These are from “Some Early Poems,” collected in The White Hare.
40 The common farm laborer, too, often receives special notice. In “Ploughing” from Bright Feather Fading, she watches the horses moving along “in a cocoon of golden steam” (4) and admires “the countryman tough behind his team, / And paused to stare / At his long shadow in Time, his tangent power” (6-8).
41 The largely working-class East End of London suffered most during the Blitz, and many people living there could not afford to evacuate. Eric Hopkins records that in autumn of 1940 “four out of ten houses in Stepney were damaged or destroyed” (65).
42 This volume is called Morning is a Revealing in Collected Poems.
43 Bowes Lyon’s housekeeper recalls, “She thought of everyone. Dustman, postman, tradesman, whoever came to the door was asked in for a cup of coffee. Then she’d ask how they were getting along at home, [. . . .] Whatever they wanted—clothes, food, medicine—she saw that they had it” (qtd. in Day, 123). While Beckwith’s descriptions highlight the compassionate nature of an aristocrat handing out small kindnesses, Bowes Lyon’s meetings with political officials, genteel as they may have been, would have been one way to wield real influence and alleviate suffering on a larger level.
44 Although the journal welcomed “young or unknown writers,” it contained works by Walter de la Mare, Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender, Frank O’Connor, and Leonard Woolf (Lehmann et al., “Editors’ Foreword” 3).
45 Although the essay is addressed to “William” and signed “L.R.W,” the fact that a poem by Plomer appears shortly afterward and that a poem by Bowes Lyon appears in volume II of the journal implies that many of their fellow authors may have known who was writing.
46 The nature of her health issues is unclear. Bowes Lyon’s obituaries state, vaguely, that she suffered from “a form of arthritis” (see, for instance, “Obituary: A Cousin of the Queen” 4); Beckwith describes her “sugar diabetes” (qtd. in Day 126); and there has been plausible speculation on the web that she had Buerger’s Disease, an autoimmune illness, symptoms of which can include inflammatory arthritis and gangrene. Although obituaries stress the arthritis as a cause, it is not completely clear whether a single illness or a combination of factors led to her amputations.
47 For example, in his foundational work Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers presents a counter-argument to the idea “that identity politics cannot be justified because it is linked [in the public mindset] to pain and suffering.” He continues, “The idea that suffering produces weak identities both enforces the ideology of ability and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of disability” (14). He and many others examine social rather than physical suffering and wish to show the public that “disability is not a pathological condition, [. . .] but a social location complexly embodied” (14). While this argument is key for the social repositioning of disability, this position also tends to ignore the problem of physical pain in some people’s experience of disability.
48 See Patsavas as well as Holmes and Chambers. Susan Wendell writes that “Because disability activists have worked hard to resist medicalization and promote the social model of disability, activists sometimes feel pressured to downplay the realties of fluctuating impairment or ill health.” It becomes easier to focus on the “healthy disabled” (164).
49 Several disability studies scholars write back against Scarry, including Patsavas (214).
50 Trauma theorists also emphasize the importance of speaking what is seemingly unspeakable; as Cathy Caruth asserts, trauma “is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available” (4).
51 Unpublished hand-written letter, dated 8 December 1948, John Gawsworth Collection, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries. Quoted with permission.
52 Rosemarie Garland Thomson notes in Extraordinary Bodies that, “With the notable exception of autobiographical texts,” literary representation often objectifies the disabled, “denying them any opportunity for subjectivity or agency” (11). Bowes Lyon’s poetry joins a small but ongoing movement of life writing about disability, where individuals can offer what Thomas Couser calls “compelling counterrepresentation” by writing about their own lived experiences of their bodies (200).
53 “The Stars Go By” first appeared in 1949 in Orpheus II.
54 We see this imagery not only in “Two Trees” but also in “Wayside” where “New God is born, to fire the world with rage” (14).
55 The defense offered by Sitwell and Day Lewis renders painfully ironic their neglect of Bowes Lyon’s work in other contexts.
56 Ato Quayson goes one step further to call the movement from nonsufferer to witness “empathetic repositioning.” He writes, “The witness is one who acknowledges, empathizes, and attempts to alleviate the physical suffering of another, be this through compassion, medicine, or through shared public rituals of acknowledgement” (80).
57 Similarly, in The Story of Pain Joanna Bourke asserts that witnessing pain through narrative can bring intimacy: “Through communicative acts, people in pain and witnesses to their pain may affirm communication and community” (46). As Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick also notes in an essay focusing on trauma and poetry, “the formal study of trauma and literature enables us to become more sensitive and useful witnesses” (123).
58 Jones claims Bowes Lyon contemplated suicide in her final years, but that Plomer dissuaded her. He quotes a 1946 letter where she tells Plomer that “your visit [. . .] saved me from going off the rails” (165). Nonetheless, while Bowes Lyon had given thought earlier in her career to terminal illness and the right to die, her interest in these issues does not mean she would have chosen suicide for herself.
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