Fear, again

The theme of fear runs through the poems of Isabel Ecclestone Mackay — “The Mother” prays (fruitlessly, it turns out) to keep her infant “free from fear and harm.” Her “Marguerite de Roberval,” a story of love, abandonment, death, and, ultimately, rescue, in early French Canada, contains the word fear more often than the words love and death. Her lover and her baby dead, Marguerite says:

      And all fear fled;
For where joy is there only can fear be.
They fear not who have nothing left to fear! (63-65)

“Where joy is” is where fear and courage both arise: fear (usually the woman’s part, it seems) for the harm that may come to destroy what is precious and good; courage (usually the man’s part) to act to protect what is precious and good. Mackay’s “The Passing of Cadieux” begins with the assertion “That man is brave who …”

… knows
The love of life and holds it dear and good,
Prizing each moment, yet will let it go
That others still may keep the precious thing–
He is the truly brave! (1, 15-18)

Both these poems were written (and won prizes in the Globe‘s competition for poems on historical subjects) before 1914. The gender divide is not so distinct thereafter: courage becomes a woman’s virtue, not the courage to act despite fear, as the recruit anticipates he must, but the courage to be silent, not to express fear. As another poet (1) wrote:

There’s a woman sobs her heart out,
With her head against the door,
For the man that’s called to leave her,
—God have pity on the poor!
But it’s beat, drums, beat,
While the lads march down the street,
And it’s blow, trumpets, blow,
Keep your tears until they go. (1-8)

Mackay’s poems can be found in A Celebration of Women Writers.

(1) Winifred M. Letts, “The Call to Arms in our Street.” A Treasury of War Poetry. British and American Poems of the World War 1914-1919. Second series. Ed. George H. Clarke. 1919.305.Available through Hathitrust.org.

Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”

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