'Hope' is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul (Emily Dickinson)
In these times of attempted division by so many, we need more than ever our creators - our artists, musicians, poets, writers, painters, and all those others who dare to ask questions, to confront present reality while seeing a future, to be idealists at a time when idealism is scorned, to see the best in humanity and to demand nothing less from all of us.
How many have turned to their chosen medium over the centuries to try and say the unsayable? We know the fire and agony of the Sassoons, the Bartoks, the Brookes, Marqués, and Orpens, although we cannot possibly know the terrible place from which they are inspired. Perhaps less-known, however, is the art from those who were left behind; mostly women, who ‘kept the home fires burning’. What depths are hidden in that now-clichéd phrase! The voice may be more muted, more pastel in hue, but there is extraordinary heroism in the ordinary. These are the women who kept life going while the men were gone, and when they returned. Who rose every morning, washed, dressed, and went about the business of waiting; for letters, for the dreaded telegrams, for food, for companionship, or simply for tomorrow.
The invisibility of the one who must only observe can be terrible and lonely. The ravaged landscapes are within, and indescribable. But still, as can be seen in the art, there is beauty and hope as well; that demand that humanity find its best. In 1944, Muriel Grainger wrote:
In the desolated alleys near St Paul’s
Dust still falls,
And by Paternoster Row, the bookman's haunt,
Stand uncovered, as though mourning Fleet Street's pride -
Lost Saint Bride.
But in city wastes are churches once concealed,
Now revealed -
All the squalid blocks that hid their ancient stone
And the quiet benediction of a sunset fires
Pricking up between the paving, shoots of green
Now are seen;
In a sheltered niche a bird finds spartan rest
For her nest –
There is love among the ruins; after strife
There is life.
Love Among the Ruins of London
Pamela Holmes lost her husband in 1942, four months before her daughter was born. Her almost unbearable poem as a result:
He has not even seen you, he
Who gave you your mortality;
And you, so small, how can you guess
His courage or his loveliness?
Yet in my quiet mind I pray
He passed you on the darkling way -
His death, your birth, so much the same -
And holding you, breathed once your name.
Women composers, too, seem to stretch for a brighter future, whether with the unshakeable conviction of the Psalm writer, or the more internal reflectiveness of a chamber duo. Lili Boulanger chose the former, taking most of the years of WWI to write her awe-inspiring Psaume 130: I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
In 1918, Rebecca Clarke chose to write her more intimate Morpheus for viola and piano.
Surely, we are all those women, now; and thus, their voices can speak to all of us. Most of us continue in our daily lives, mostly mundane, but ours to protect and enjoy. Surely, these poems, this music, is our experience. It is our fight, too, who prepare the dinner, pay the bills, do the washing, ride the buses, teach the children, sweep the streets, stock the supermarket shelves, smile at our neighbours; and then, reflect, whatever medium that takes. After a terrible year in 1831, which included the premature arrival of her son, Sebastian, and the cholera epidemic that engulfed Berlin, Fanny Hensel wrote her Lobgesang – Song of Praise – a buoyant, luminous work of hope: “Meine Seele ist stille zu Gott, der mir hilft. Denne r ist mein Fels, meine Hilfe, mein Schutz, dass ich gewiss nicht wanken werde.” (Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from him cometh my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation; he is my defence; I shall not be greatly moved.)