Mary Borden: Sonnets to a Soldier
In 1916 a young British officer turned up at Mary Borden’s hospital on the Somme, a make-shift collection of huts and tents. The officer was accompanied by his alsation dog Rex, and was looking for a lost company of soldiers. Mary described their first meeting: ‘My apron is stained with mud and blood; I am too tired to take it off. My feet are burning lumps as I hobble to open the door. A young officer stands there. He too is splattered with mud; his face is haggard. He introduces himself. He is Captain Spears of the XIth Hussars…’
Louis Spears was a talented liaison officer working with the British and French High Commands. Later, as Major General Sir Edward Spears, he was to have a distinguished role in the Second World War as Churchill’s representative to France and the Middle East. He was ‘astonished’ to find a woman so close to the fighting and before long they were lovers.Mary wrote a series of ten intimate love poems to him titled ‘Sonnets to a Soldier’ which she never published during her lifetime because they were too private. They appear in Poems of Love and War for the first time in book form.
In 1917 Spears visited London with the French War Cabinet and called on an ex-girlfriend, Jessie Gordon. In a moment of absent-mindedness, he left some of Mary’s poems and letters behind him in Gordon’s flat. In a fit of jealousy she sent them on anonymously to her husband, with a note saying: ‘It may interest you to know that your wife is the mistress of Col. Louis Spiers. Ask her about the enclosed erotic outburst given to him, written on Hotel de Crillon paper and dated July 13th.’
The result was predictable for the times. A public scandal ensued, with Turner separating from Borden and taking custody of their children. In 1918 a divorce was granted and Borden married Spears. The marriage lasted until she died in 1968. During the Peace Conference of 1919 they became celebrated for glamorous parties and dinners, with guests including Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and Jean Cocteau.
In 1921 they moved back to England and Borden established herself as a prolific and successful novelist, with many of her stories based on her own unconventional life. Jane Our Stranger (1923) gives a lively sense of life in Paris at the end of the war. Sarah Gay (1931) is about a young British nurse in a front line hospital in France, who has complicated love affairs at the Hotel Crillon.
In 2018 the Tower of London commissioned composer Mira Calix to create a soundscape for its Beyond the Deepening Shadow installation to mark the centenary of the end of the war on November 11th, 1918. Calix chose to set the third of Borden’s sonnet sequence to music which was played for nine consecutive nights across the Tower, while the moat was filled with ten thousand tiny flames (see video below).
Borden did not publish her sonnet sequence during her lifetime, perhaps because they were too private and intimate, or perhaps because they were so directly linked to a painful episode in her life. They were only published in book form for the first time in 2015 in Poems of Love and War.
The title of the Tower’s centenary event is taken from another of Borden’s remarkable war poems, called ‘The Hill’. In this she describes watching a soldier on a horse leading a German prisoner. ‘They passed like ghosts into the deepening shadow of the valley, where the panorama of invisible phantom armies moved, as if swimming.’ A hundred years after this event, it is hoped that we have moved beyond that deepening shadow.
If you this very night should ride to death
Straight from the piteous passion of my arms;
If you still breathing in the sobbing breath
Of my desire, still faint with my alarms
Should come upon the vast immensity
Of nothingness, my last poor trembling kiss
Upon your lips, should face eternity
And gaze full conscious into the abyss;
You would not falter at the last my friend
Nor put to shame your clear courageous mind
Under the menace of the desolate end;
But with one lighted look for me, behind,
You’d take the leap, with a last challenge, cry
That there is no beyond, and thus superbly, die –