An Appreciation of Winifred Letts

“An Appreciation of Winifred Letts” [1]

Dr. David Clare, Mary Immaculate College, UL

 

Winifred letts newspaper
Winifred M. Letts

Winifred Letts was born in Salford, in what is now Greater Manchester, in 1882 to an English vicar father and an Irish mother. As a child, she greatly enjoyed the long holidays that her family spent at her maternal grandparents’ house – Knockmaroon, located on the edge of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. These visits instilled a deep love of Ireland in young Winifred, and, when she was 16, she asked her parents to let her transfer from her boarding school in Bromley, Kent to Dublin’s Alexandra College. Her parents acquiesced, and – as a result – Letts joins the important writers Edith Somerville, Mary Manning, and Dorothy McArdle in being an alum of that celebrated south Dublin school.

When Letts’s father died in 1904, she and her mother decided to live in Ireland full-time, and they settled in Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Shortly thereafter, Letts attended a production of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea at the Abbey Theatre, and the power of the work inspired her to become a writer – and specifically, one who attempted to produce work that reflected the Ireland that she adored. At first, Letts focussed primarily on writing plays and children’s fiction, and, in 1907, she had her first play produced at the Abbey (The Eyes of the Blind) and had her first works of fiction published (The Story-Spinner and Waste Castle). Over the course of her life, Letts would go on to write two more plays (The Challenge, produced at the Abbey in 1909, and Hamilton and Jones, produced at the Gate Theatre in 1941), and she would publish fourteen more books for children.[2] However, it was as a poet that she found her greatest fame. While some critics have justly noted that Letts’s verse is aimed squarely at the popular market and is rather variable in quality, what cannot be denied is that she wrote some of the most memorable and best-loved poems of the Irish Revival period. In this blog post, I would like to introduce and contextualise a handful of her “greatest hits”.

Lett’s first poetry collection, Songs from Leinster, was published in 1913. The book shows that Letts, despite her English birth, was positioning herself definitively as an Irish author. The collection opens with a poem entitled “The Harbour” which implies that Letts was a native of Wexford. The heartfelt and seemingly autobiographical nature of the poem has meant that one still regularly sees scholarly works that assert that Letts was born in that county:[3]

THE HARBOUR [4]

The little houses climbing up the hill
Sea daises growing in the sandy grass,
The tethered goats that wait large-eyed and still
To watch you pass.

I think if I lay dying in some land
Where Ireland is no more than just a name,
My soul would travel back to find that strand
From whence it came.

I’d see the harbour in the evening light,
The old men staring at some distant ship,
The fishing boats they fasten left and right
Beside the slip.

The sea-wrack lying on the wind-swept shore,
The grey thorn bushes growing in the sand,
Our Wexford coast from Arklow to Cahore –
My native land.

The little houses climbing up the hill
Sea daises growing in the sandy grass,
The tethered goats that wait large-eyed and still
To watch you pass.

The women at the well with dripping pails,
Their men colloguing by the harbour wall,
The coils of rope, the nets, the old brown sails,
I’d know them all.

And then the Angelus – I’d surely see
The swaying bell against a golden sky,
So God, WHO KEPT THE LOVE OF HOME IN ME
Would let me die.

Letts’s Irishness is also evident in the collection from the fact that many of the poems are clearly Revivalist works – that is, many of them are written in Hiberno-English and/or attempt to capture the lives and folk beliefs of lower-class Irish people. A good example of this is “Easter Snow”[5]; as Letts points out in a note appended to the poem, it was inspired by the fact that, “when the blackthorn blossoms are falling[,] the country people call it Easter snow”:[6]

Winifred Letts

Songs from Leinster also contains six lyrics which were set to music by leading Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, including the well-known song “A Soft Day”,[7] and two of the poems are tributes to the great artists of the early Abbey (“For Sixpence” and “Synge’s Grave”). Also noteworthy is the fact that the volume ends with “The Christmas Guest” – one of three memorable poetical tributes to the Virgin Mary written by Letts during the course of her career (the others being “Rosa Mystica” and “Our Lady of the Lupins”, both from 1916).[8] What makes this especially interesting is that Letts, who published her books as either W.M. Letts or Winifred M. Letts, does not seem to have corrected the widespread impression that her middle initial “M” stood for Mary.[9] (Her birth certificate confirms that her middle name was, in fact, Mabel.) At this distance, we cannot ascertain if the confusion originated with Letts herself. However, by not challenging the impression that the “M” stood for “Mary”, Letts was arguably making herself seem more Irish by (sort of) assuming a name commonly found among Irish Catholics – and, indeed, Irish Protestants. What’s more, the “name change”, the three Virgin Mary poems, the reference to the Angelus in “The Harbour”, and the “lives of the saints”[10] that she wrote for children and adults all demonstrate that Letts had a “transgressive” fascination with the trappings and language of Roman Catholicism – a fascination shared by many Irish Protestant writers during the late nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth centuries. Examples of such authors include (among others) Oscar Wilde, J.M. Synge, Bernard Shaw, and C.S. Lewis. Of course, with the exception of the deathbed-convert Wilde, all of these writers remained – like Letts – avowedly Protestant by affiliation.

Letts, having firmly established herself as an Irishwoman and a Revival writer, then made a sudden (and perhaps unexpected) move upon the outbreak of the Great War: she threw herself body and soul into the British war effort.[11] She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse and worked at the Linden Auxilary Hospital in Blackrock, Co. Dublin and at the 2nd West General Hospital in Manchester. Later, she joined the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, and worked as a masseuse at an army camp in Alnwick, Northumberland and in the Military Orthopaedic Hospital back in Blackrock. Tending to the wounded – including massaging the limbs of amputees – brought the horrors of the war very close to Letts, and these experiences left a tremendous imprint on the next volume of poems that she would produce, 1916’s Hallow-E’en and Poems of the War. This volume would become celebrated for the empathy that it shows towards the soldiers and all they had to endure; for example, “The Deserter” and “What Reward?” show sincere compassion for those who could not psychologically or physically handle life at the Front. And, in the collection’s most famous poem – “The Spires of Oxford (Seen From a Train)” – Letts laments the loss of a generation of young men with bright futures:

THE SPIRES OF OXFORD
(Seen From A Train) [12]

I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.

The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.

They left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod –
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.

God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.

The “distancing effect” of the subtitle (“Seen from a Train”) seems like another attempt by Letts to affirm her pose as an outsider in England. On a related note, the Irishness of the volume, while obviously much less pronounced than in Songs from Leinster, is evident in a number of poems (for example, “Home (in Dublin)” and “Faëries”). But it is also evident in the collection’s title, which, like two of the poems within the volume, references “Hallow-E’en” – a holiday which has its roots in the old Gaelic festival of Samhain. The stronger of the two Hallow-E’en poems – “Hallow-E’en, 1914” [13] – echoes others in the collection (such as “The Dream” and “If Love of Mine”) in that it movingly captures the sorrow felt by women left behind by fallen soldiers :

Winifred Letts2 (1)

 

Hallow-E’en and Poems of the War was re-published the following year with four additional poems and a new title insisted on by her publishers – The Spires of Oxford and Other Poems. The new title undermined Letts’s attempts to keep her Irishness front and centre, even in a collection focussed primarily on the British Army’s war effort and heavily inspired by nursing experiences in the north of England. However, her next collection brought Irishness back to the fore, as its title – More Songs from Leinster – indicates. The opening poem of this 1926 collection recalls the best work in her first collection, in that it uses Hiberno-English subtly and attempts to capture life among “the plain people of Ireland”:

A GIRL OF THE GLENS
To Her Careless Lover [14]

I thought I had forgotten you and found peace at last;
I had busied myself with this and that,
In making griddle cake and soda bread,
In working linen on a little frame.
And all the time I sang lest anyone
Should pierce my thoughts with your name.

I thought I had forgotten you and grown so steadfast
That I could walk the hills with a careless step
And see the mountainy young lambs at play
And laugh at them having left you behind:
But I stood above the Glen Imaal
Your name was breathed by the wind.

I thought I had forgotten you so that the springtime
Would never repeat your promises again,
But all night long the corncrake shouted them,
And the full moon remembered how we met,
Even the white sweet hawthorn at the door
Remembered. Could I forget?

True, I had not forgotten you. I shared my secret
With whispering reeds round Lough Nahanagan.
The cuckoo in the woods near Kevin’s bed
Called to us both the livelong day. The scent
Of every whin bush held lost happiness:
It was vain to seek content.

I would pay golden guineas to win forgetfulness.
But no mountain lough would be deep enough
To hide from you, nor Loughnaquilla’s crests
Be far enough away. The heather’s breath
Would bring you to my thoughts. I doubt myself
I shall forget you in death. 

The same year as this volume was published, Letts – at the age of 44 – married William Henry Foster Verschoyle, a 67-year-old widower who had lost two sons in the Great War. The couple would subsequently split their time between Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin and Kilberry, Co. Kildare. The couple never had children of their own, but Letts – who had already shown her great sympathy for children through both her fiction and some of her earlier verse – wrote a classic poem in tribute to the new-born child of a friend:

TO A MAY BABY
To Peter John Dobbs [15]

To come at tulip time how wise!
Perhaps you will not now regret
The shining gardens, jewel set,
Of your first home in Paradise
Nor fret
Because you might not quite forget.

To come at swallow-time how wise!
When every bird has built a nest;
Now you may fold your wings and rest
And watch this new world with surprise;
A guest
For whom the earth has donned her best.

To come when life is gay how wise!
With lambs and every happy thing
That frisks on foot or sports on wing,
With daisies and with butterflies,
But Spring
Had nought so sweet as you to bring.

Memories of the Great War still clearly haunted Letts, as can be seen from the volume’s belated tribute to a famous Irish regiment, “The Connaught Rangers”.

Lett’s memoir from 1933, Knockmaroon, also included twelve new poems. Two of these are among her best work. The first one is dedicated to her husband and paints a vivid picture of their warm affection for one another:

WISHES FOR WILLIAM [16]

These things I wish you for our friendship’s
sake –
A sunburnt thatch, a door to face the sun
At westering, the noise of homing rooks;
A kind, old lazy chair, a country cat
To rub against your knees;
Shelves of well-chosen books;
I wish you these.

I wish you friends whose wisdom makes them kind,
Well-leisured friends to share your evening’s peace,
Friends who can season knowledge with a laugh,
A hedge of lavender, a patch of thyme,
With sage and marjoram and rosemary,
A damask rosebush and a hive of bees,
And cabbages that hold the morning dew,
A blackbird in the orchard boughs – all these,
And – God bless you.

Children, no matter whose, to watch for you
With flower faces at your garden gate,
And one to watch the clock with eager eyes,
Saying: “He’s late – he’s late.” 

The second classic in this volume is entitled “In Tyrone”. In one of the prose sections in Knockmaroon, Letts interestingly calls the Six Counties “the most Irish Ireland, the Ireland loved by Cuchulain [and] Saint Patrick” and declares “I have known more happy days and nights than I can record” staying with friends in the North.[17]

IN TYRONE [18]

When I lie sick in town I’ll be
Here once again in memory.
With the rose garden close around,
The Spring air jocund with the sound
Of robins and of sawing tits,
And noisy rooks, the crafty wits.

Then I shall shut my eyes up tight
Against grim walls, slate roofs, the sight
Of Georgian houses, prim and high,
And see again this cloud-strewn sky,
The hills and moors of dear Tyrone,
Ploughed uplands of good earth, grain-sown.

In fancy I shall climb the hills
And never think about life’s ills.
Hear how the larks weave skeins of song,
And see the pewits flap along
Above the bog, or take the path
That leads to some cotter’s hearth.

I’ll dream I stand where dim and grey
The northern counties stretch away;
And nearer, plain as in a plan,
The little hills of Monaghan;
Westward the evening sun will fall
Behind the blue of Donegal.

Rain-swept Tyrone, my dreams shall hold
Your glens, your moorlands, fold on fold.
And in my heart, secure from loss,
Among its daffodils, Fardross.
My prayer is let me see once more
Kind faces at its open door. 

Upon William’s death in 1943, Letts went to live with her sisters in Faversham, Kent, and in 1947, her last collection of poems appeared. Confusingly, it was entitled Songs from Leinster, but it was not a reissue of her first collection: it was in fact comprised of selected poems from Songs from Leinster, More Songs from Leinster, and Knockmaroon. It also featured four new poems, and the titles of these (“Ballycanew”, “Down the Boreen”, “Wicklow Tinker Girl”, and “Swift Raised the Rent”) indicate that, although she was back living in England, Ireland was still very close to her heart. Indeed, in 1950, she moved back to Ireland and lived there until her death in 1972 – first at Beech Cottage, a house she purchased in Killiney, Co. Dublin, and eventually at the Tivoli Nursing Home in Dún Laoghaire. She is buried in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin, which is fittingly in the heart of her beloved Leinster.

As you have seen, Letts’s poems may be populist and relatively simple in form, but they speak directly to the heart, and their proliferation on websites dedicated to much-loved poems affirm that she is an important writer who must not continue to be ignored in studies devoted to the Irish Literary Revival. Indeed, including her in such studies will broaden our understanding of the period, by shedding light on aspects of the movement that are imperfectly understood – for example, the attempts by some writers to reconcile proud Irishness with support for the British Army during the Great War and attempts by women writers to write on topics (especially “domestic” ones) too frequently and unreflectively dismissed as “non-literary”.

FIN.

Dr. David Clare is Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at Mary Immaculate College, UL. His books include the monograph Bernard Shaw’s Irish Outlook (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the edited collection The Gate Theatre, Dublin: Inspiration and Craft (Carysfort/Peter Lang, 2018), and his past and forthcoming publications have covered various women writers from Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, including Mary Balfour, Somerville & Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Manning, Christine Longford, Maura Laverty, and Lizzie Nunnery. Dr. Clare was co-organiser of the Irish Women Playwrights and Theatremakers Conference held at MIC in June 2017.

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Notes:

[1] Special thanks to Winfred Lett’s grandniece, Oriana Daphne Conner, for permission to reprint the poems and photo included in this essay. Additional thanks to Letts researcher Bairbre O’Hogan for fact-checking this essay, providing a copy of the photo of Letts, and for encouraging me (and others) to promote Letts’s unjustly neglected work.

[2] It is, of course, possible that Letts wrote additional plays, but that they were never produced. And it should be noted that one of her children’s books, Helmet and Cowl (1913), was co-written with her sister, M.F.S. Letts.

[3] This impression was arguably strengthened by the fact that Letts, in her 1933 memoir Knockmaroon, notes that “the Lettish [Latvian] people have settled a fine colony of the Lett family” in Co. Wexford. (W.M. Letts. Knockmaroon. London: John Murray, 1933. 201.) Although the surname she mentions differs slightly from her own (“Lett” versus “Letts”), readers familiar with “The Harbour” might draw the conclusion that, in this passage, she is implying that she is connected – however distantly – to the numerous people called Lett in Co. Wexford.

[4] W.M. Letts. Songs from Leinster. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1914. 3-4.

[5] Letts, Songs from Leinster, 82-83. This poem clearly recalls Oscar Wilde’s “Requiescat”, written about the death of his sister, Isola. However, Letts puts her own personal spin on some of the images and ideas from Wilde’s poem.

[6] Letts, Songs from Leinster, 82.

[7] Letts’s poems were also set to music by five other composers: Ina Boyle, Ivor Gurney (under the pseudonym Michael Flood), Rhoda Coghill, Dorothy Park, and Haldane Campbell Stewart.

[8] The poem “Storm” from the Songs from Leinster collection also features a prayer to Mary.

[9] I have found ten publications from Letts’s lifetime which refer to her as “Winifred Mary Letts” and only two that call her “Winifred Mabel Letts”. It should be noted that the two that give her middle name as “Mabel” occur in the 1932 and 1966 editions of Who’s Who Among Living Authors of Older Nations, and that Letts probably furnished the information herself. Her middle name is given as “Mary” much more frequently than “Mabel” in posthumous and online publications.

[10] These include The Mighty Army: Lives of the Saints (1912), St. Patrick the Travelling Man (1932), and the chapter on St. Brigid in Knockmaroon (1933).

[11] Of course, it would only have been unexpected for those who assumed (based on Letts’s poetry) that she was a doctrinaire Revivalist and perhaps even a narrow-gauge Home Ruler. Anyone with more knowledge of her background (including her ties to the Irish Ascendancy and Alexandra College) would have been unsurprised by her decision. After all, the son of one of the leading lights of the Revival, Lady Augusta Gregory, served in the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF), and plenty of Revivalists who were Redmondite Nationalists or even liberal Unionists also served in the British armed forces during the Great War.

[12] W.M. Letts. Hallow-E’en and Poems of the War. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1916. 7-8.

[13] Letts, Hallow-E’en and Poems of the War, 5-6.

[14] W.M. Letts. More Songs from Leinster. London: John Murray, 1926. 1-2.

[15] Letts, More Songs from Leinster, 47-48.

[16] Letts, Knockmaroon, 184.

[17] Letts, Knockmaroon, 219.

[18] Letts, Knockmaroon, 259-260.

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