The controversial legacy of Leicester-born poet Jessie Pope

Discover the captivating and controversial world of Leicester-born poet Jessie Pope, exploring her impact on First World War poetry.

Photo of Jessie Pope, origin unknown.
Jessie Pope, Leicester-born poet.

Poetry has come to define our emotional response to the horror and futility of war ever since poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon wrote so evocatively of the appalling conditions they endured in the trenches during the First World War. Yet, their work was largely unknown at the time, deemed too sensitive to publish in the mainstream press because of fears that it would prove detrimental to the morale of British troops. 

In contrast, the newspapers published a particular style of patriotic pro-war poetry that, to modern eyes, may appear jingoistic and outdated. One of its leading champions was Leicester-born Jessie Pope. Once acclaimed Britain's "foremost woman humorist", she has recently become widely vilified for her First World War propaganda poetry.

Photo of 11 Seymour Street, Leicester, by Google.
11 Seymour Street, Leicester, where Pope was born.

Jessie Pope was born in Leicester on 18 March 1868 at the family home of 11 Seymour Street. As a young girl, she attended Craven House. During her early teens, Pope moved with her family to Hampstead, where she attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls. Established in 1850 by the notable early feminist Frances Mary Buss, this groundbreaking school aimed to offer girls the same academic education as boys.

Pope did not marry, but her talent for humorous writing allowed her to achieve financial independence. By the turn of the 20th century, she was beginning to find success as a children's author. Her big break in the adult market came in 1902 when a witty article on hunting with the Bushey Heath Beagles was accepted by PunchThis started a long and productive relationship with the world-famous satirical magazine, which would continue for nearly two decades.

Her first poetry collection, Paper Pelletswas published in 1906, including humorous verses on various subjects, from the motor car and driving to relationships and fashion. Her second collection, Airy Nothingsfollowed in 1909.

Pope was writing in an era when the women's suffragette movement was rapidly gaining traction. Still, successful female humorists like herself were exceptionally rare. She was no strident advocate of gender equality but was not averse to raising the subject of women's suffrage in her writing. Pope ends The Doom of the Club, a poem on the chauvinistic nature of gentlemen-only clubs, with the following sentiment:

"And the message, in conclusion – I'm afraid it will appal –
To the clubman, from each mother, wife, and maid is: -
There's a club in dear old Westminster, the cosiest of all,
And you'll shortly have to share that with the ladies.”

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Pope's writing took a different direction. She turned her attention to writing what may be best described as propaganda poetry. In the early stages of the First World War, men were not compelled to sign up for military duty, but by writing for the Daily Mail and other popular publications, Pope's poetry actively encouraged them to enlist as soldiers.

When war was declared in August 1914, most British sports governing bodies immediately suspended all competitions, but controversially, professional football continued until the end of the 1914-15 season. 

Pope's Play The Game (1915) tapped into this controversy and has since become one of her most notorious poems:

"Football's a sport, and a rare sport too,
Don't make it a source of shame.
Today there are worthier things to do.
Englishmen, play the game!
A truce to the League, a truce to the Cup,
Get to work with a gun.
When our country's at war, we all must back up –
It's the only thing to be done".

Pope's poetry, which glorified the concept of war without acknowledging its grim reality, touched a nerve with some combatants, including a British army officer named Wilfred Owen. During the summer of 1917, Owen was admitted to a military hospital in Edinburgh, suffering from shell shock. He met Siegfried Sassoon and was encouraged to confront his inner demons through poetry, writing some of his best-known work there, including Dulce et Decorum Est. The title is based on a line by Roman poet Horace, meaning "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country". Owen turned this concept on its head, focusing instead on the horrific conditions in the trenches. 

Owen's original Dulce et Decorum Est manuscript included an ironic dedication to Jessie Pope. This was amended to "To a Certain Poetess" in a subsequent manuscript. Still, in later published versions, it was deleted altogether. Owen, or those close to him, may well have been persuaded to remove the overt reference to Pope. In truth, by 1917, she had stopped writing the type of jingoistic poetry deemed acceptable at the beginning of the conflict as the realities of war began to hit home.

Following the war's end, Pope returned to her light-hearted verse and published several children's books, but by the time of her death, aged 73, in December 1941, she had largely dropped out of the public eye. There are few references to her passing, even in the publications where her writing had once been such a regular fixture. 

Portrait of Wilfred Owen in the public domain
Poet Wilfred Owen was one of the leading poets of the First World War.

The Leicester-born writer and her work would have faded into total obscurity had it not been for Wilfred Owen's pointed dedication to her in his original Dulce et Decorum Est manuscript. In recent years, Pope's war poetry has returned to the public eye, but only so it may be critically contrasted with Owen's work. Unlike Pope, his poetry has only become more admired as the years have passed, although sadly, he did not live long enough to see any of his work in print. He was tragically killed in action in northern France just days before the end of the First World War.

It is difficult to blame Owen for taking offence at the unrealistic and even crass nature of some of Pope's war poetry. Yet, in some ways, she has also become a victim of circumstances. She was just one of many writers who published similar pro-war propaganda material during the early years of the conflict. The others have yet to attract the same level of criticism. Even some of Owen's fellow soldier-poets, like Julian Grenfell, initially wrote about the glory of war before the grim reality hit home. Rightly or wrongly, Owen's decision to single out Jessie Pope has irrevocably damaged the reputation of the woman who was once acclaimed for her pioneering role as a female writer, making a name for herself in a male-dominated world.

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