Paul O’Prey reads and discusses ‘Unidentified’ by Mary Borden, written during the Battle of the Somme

whitman_at_about_fiftyMary Borden’s war poems, written from a field hospital close to the fighting on the Somme, are unlike any other poems written during the First World War. Her model for these poems is not Rupert Brooke or Thomas Hardy, both of whom influenced many of the soldier poets such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Instead it was her fellow American Walt Whitman, who like her tended the wounded and the dying on the field of battle and in the military hospitals – in his case, during the American Civil War. Like Whitman, Borden’s poems have an emotional freedom and expansiveness  that become amplified in long lines that have no regular metric pattern. She also shares his deep compassion for the ordinary men caught up in the fighting, who find their lives controlled by politicians  and senior officers.

In ‘Unidentified’, Borden watches over a wounded soldier as he dies. She nurses him in his final hours, but does not know his name – he is one of the thousands of soldiers who died and who are buried on the battlefield in anonymous graves. The British marked their graves with a headstone inscription written by Kipling: ‘A  Soldier of the Great War known unto God’. In 1920 one such soldier was selected for a state funeral and reburial in Westminster Abbey. When visitors enter the great West Door of the Abbey, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior is the first thing they see.

Borden’s poem about one unknown warrior who she cared for as a nurse in her hospital is, for its time, shocking in the intensity of its anger and in the frankness of her description of the man who is dying:

Look at him now. Look well, look long.
Your hungry brute, your ordinary man;
Your fornicator, drunkard, anarchist;
Your ruthless, rough seed-sowing male;
Your angry greedy egotist;
Your lost, bewildered, childish dunce….

Whitman challenged poets to write with ‘perfect candor’ and ‘genuineness’. In ‘Unidentified’, Borden takes up this challenge and resists any temptation to sentimentalise the soldier’s death, or falsify the true nature of his character and standing as an ordinary soldier. No other woman in the war is writing poetry like this. In writing such poems Borden is closer to Graves, Sassoon and their friend Wilfred Owen, who deliberately set out to shock their readers with frank and realistic descriptions of the suffering they witnessed.

Owen wrote that all a poet could do in such a situation was to ‘warn’ the world about what was happening: ‘that is why the true Poets must be truthful’. Borden is in that tradition of war poets who sought to tell the truth about what was happening, to describe what she saw and did as authentically as possible, and to express her own feelings of anger and compassion without dressing them up in fine words or sentiment.