Three Women’s Poems from World War One

Genre: Vocal

Mood: Tragic

Forces: Female voice, Piano

Length: 10 Minutes


Three Women’s Poems from World War One (1993) – For female voice and piano, 10’.

Commissioned by Dilys Benson.

Three Women’s Poems appears on the album Sunset Over the Weald, available here, sung by Dilys Benson, with Clifford Benson, piano.

“These three settings really are very fine, finding so much of the eloquent pathos of the texts.” – The Classical Reviewer

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Easter Monday
(In Memoriam ET)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon?’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon


What Reward?

You gave your life, boy,
And you gave a limb:
But he who gave his precious wits,
Say, what reward for him?

One has his glory,
One has found his rest.
But what of this poor babbler here
With chin sunk on his breast?

Flotsam of battle,
With brain bemused and dim,
O God, for such a sacrifice
Say, what reward for him?

Winifred M Letts


The Veteran

We came upon him sitting in the sun
Blinded by war, and left. And past the fence
There came young soldiers from the Hand and Flower,
Asking advice of his experience.
And he said this, and that, and told them tales,
And all the nightmares of each empty head
Blew into air; then, hearing us beside,
"Poor chaps, how'd they know what it's like?" he said.
And we stood there, and watched him as he sat,
Turning his sockets where they went away,
Until it came to one of us to ask "And you're how old?"
"Nineteen, the third of May."

Margaret Postgate Cole

Texts by Eleanor Farjoen and Margaret Postgate Cole by permission of David Higham Associates.

Programme notes

Three Women's Poems from World War One
Programme note © F L Dunkin Wedd

The poems written by soldiers in the 1914-18 war are well-known; the works of Sassoon, Owen and others are now indelibly part of our view of the war. But we hear less of the women's side of the story. There is a number of poems which give a picture of how war affected them, and I have here chosen three with different viewpoints.

I admire the Butterworth settings of A Shropshire Lad, and I wanted to provide in some sense a woman's equivalent. Butterworth's own fate was of course to die in the trenches.

Eleanor Farjeon's Easter Monday tells perhaps the next most obvious story after that of the soldiers themselves: the waiting lover. Her poem struck me forcibly because of its contrast between the spring season at home, and the tension of the front.

Winifred M Letts was a volunteer nurse at Manchester Base Hospital. Her poem What Reward? is infinitely bitter; she must have seen many poor boys reduced to the babbling wreck she describes. There is enormous pathos in the view that those who died or were maimed were in some sense the fortunate ones...

Margaret Postgate Cole's The Veteran is even closer to the action, seen from the view of a nurse at the Front. Its description of a young man made old is a fitting conclusion.

There is no point in setting poems unless the music can add something, it seems to me. Here I have tried to convey the dualities that are in the poems, horror contrasted with beauty, home with the Front. The settings are simple and direct; I felt that too much cleverness would be at variance with the subject matter. The musical quotation in What Reward? is of course deliberate.

The work was first performed at Portsmouth Music Club by Dilys Benson and Lisa Smith in March 1993.

F L Dunkin Wedd
August 1996


Three Women's Poems appears on the album Sunset Over the Weald, available here, sung by Dilys Benson, with Clifford Benson, piano.