Paul O’Prey reads and discusses ‘Unidentified’ by Mary Borden, written during the Battle of the Somme
Mary Borden’s war poems, written from field hospitals in Flanders and 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 and comforted the wounded and the dying in 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 soldier as he dies, but he is not one of the wounded in her hospital. Instead she imagines him on the battlefield, imagines the moment of his death as a bullet enters his skull. She describes the shattering of bone and tissue in intimate detail.
Borden nursed many thousands of such soldiers, brought in on stretchers to the triage ward where it was her job to separate the dying from the nearly dying, to decide who might be saved by medical intervention, and who was already beyond saving.
The soldier in this poem never makes it to her hospital. He dies instantly.
The soldier’s name is unknown, and he is not portrayed as a hero. He is ‘an ordinary man’ caught up in a bewildering chaos not of his making. He is betrayed and abandoned by people who do not understand him.
The soldier is wearing a helmet ‘jammed upon his head’, but this is no protection as he is shot in the face, perhaps by a sniper, but perhaps by himself. There are a number of parallels between this poem and ‘Rosa’, a prose account Borden wrote about treating a soldier who had attempted suicide on the battlefield. Catastrophically injured by a bullet wound in the head, the nurses and doctors work hard to save him, in the full knowledge that if they succeed he will be discharged from their care only to face court-martial and a firing squad. They will save his life so that the state can take it. In the event, Borden intervenes to help the man to die in his hospital bed, saving him from further trauma, but in a way that could have got her into trouble.
Like the soldier in the poem, the soldier in ‘Rosa’ is also unknown. He is also a brutish, rough, uncivilised man. ‘He was a man of the soil, of the dark earth, with the heavy power of the earth in him’, like the soldier in the poem who is ‘planted in the mud’. The ‘Rosa’ soldier attempted to kill himself by shooting himself in the mouth with a revolver. In ‘Unidentified’ the man stands with his legs spread as he leans forwards and grips ‘the muzzle of his gun that digs its butt-end down into the mud between the solid columns of his legs.’ He ‘knows’ he is about to die. At that moment a bullet is fired and death comes at him from the ground; he ‘plants his feet upon its face’ as it explodes beneath him, ‘out of the festering bowels of the earth.’
The title of the poem makes a point about the poet’s name being unknown – he has no identity, and, for the state, no individuality or self-hood. He is one of many 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 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, who is even, perhaps, guilty of cowardice and desertion in the face of the enemy – taking his own life, when only the state has that right. 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 war as they witnessed it.
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.