“Mary Borden is one of the most remarkable writers of the First World War. Being positioned so close to the front lines gave her a unique experience of war that transfers to her poetry and prose. This collection of Borden’s poetry, chosen by Paul O’Prey, sheds new light on her war experience and demonstrates the passionate and ‘erotic’ side of her. Her love sonnets may have caused a scandal when they were discovered, but they are exceptional examples of truly intimate poetry. Placed alongside her war poems, these love sonnets take on an even greater meaning.
O’Prey has succeeded beyond measure in bringing Borden’s poetry to the forefront of women’s war writing. I hope to see her presence among the canon grow and grow.”
Eleanor Baggley, Centenary News
Suffragette, socialite, novelist, nurse, Mary Borden wrote some of the most remarkable poems of the First World War. Still in her twenties, she used her own money to set up and run a field hospital for French soldiers ‘as close to the fighting as possible.’ At the Battle of the Somme she was determined ‘to create a counter-wave of life’ against an overwhelming tide of suffering and death. Her hospital treated 25,000 soldiers in its first six weeks and went on to have one of the best recovery records on the Western Front.
Mary Borden was no bystander, but engaged fiercely in a heroic struggle to save men’s lives and give comfort to the dying. Her poems are spontaneous, passionate reactions to what she saw and did. ‘Unidentified‘, about a dying soldier whose name is unknown, is a poem that sets out to shock both with its stark realism and its sense of anger and despair.
Although married with three children, Borden fell in love with a young British officer she met at the Front. The intimate and private poems she wrote to Louis Spears (later General Spears) while they were both at the war have an urgent and reckless intensity.
No, no! There is some sinister mistake.
You cannot love me now. I am no more
A thing to touch, a pleasant thing to take
Into one’s arms. How can a man adore
A woman with black blood upon her face,
A cap of horror on her pallid head,
Mirrors of madness in the sunken place
Of eyes; hands dripping with the slimy dead?
In November 2018 the Tower of London commissioned composer Mira Calix to create a soundscape based on another of Mary Borden’s ‘Sonnets to a Soldier’. The soundscape played for eight consecutive days in the run-up to the centenary of the Armistice on November 11th, while the Tower moat was filled with thousands of tiny flames, as part of its Beyond the Deepening Shadow installation.
Mary Borden features in major anthologies of war poetry, but this is the first full collection of her poems to appear, one hundred years after they were written.