Poor Fredegond Shove. It doesn’t sound an auspicious name, though ‘shove’ rhymes, at the very least, with ‘love’.
She was a poet though. Why might you have heard of her?
Her main claim to fame is that she was one of only two female poets to make it into Edward Marsh’s best-selling anthology of Georgian Poetry, which ran to five volumes, all of which were issued from Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop.
Monro had taste. His books were well-made and a joy to handle, whatever you thought of the contents. He is also the man who started The Poetry Review: “Time is ripe for the forging of a weapon of criticism, and for an emphatic enunciation of literary standards”, he observed in January 1912, just over a century ago. Indeed.
The Poetry Bookshop was a very interesting place and Monro was its equally fascinating poet-proprietor. Anyone who was anybody in PoetryWorld arrived there sooner or later. It has come back into discussion of late, with the publication of Matthew Hollis’s book about Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France.
In this lovely book, there is no reference to Fredegond Shove. This is not a criticism of Hollis’s biography. There are so many people alive at any period of time: one can only mention the key players in any story. On the night when Thomas and Frost both attended a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, was Fredegond Shove there too? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps poetry was a minor part of her life.
Her other claim to fame as a poet is that Ralph Vaughan Williams set four of her poems to music, and they are still sung. However, this was not necessarily because V-W was deeply moved by the work. It could have been something to do with the fact that the great composer’s wife was Fredegond’s auntie.
Did they call her ‘Fred’? Did she have a sense of humour? She certainly had connections with the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ (Virginia Woolf was her mother’s cousin) but she mainly lived in Cambridge and that’s where she probably grew up, as the daughter of Frederic William Maitland, whose rather handsome portrait hangs in the National Gallery, and who, according to Wikipedia, was not only Fredegond’s father but “the modern father of English legal history.” But he didn’t keep well. He died in 1906, when Fredegond would have been about 17.
I like the look of her. Click HERE to see her sitting smoking a cigarette and sitting against a hay stook (seems a slightly dangerous activity to me). Here she must be about twenty-eight. She looks a strong woman, a bit risqué, and husband Gerald, who became known for his work as an academic economist (he was a King's College graduate and worked all his life in that self-same college) seems so much . . . meeker. By this time, Fred’s mother is married to Charles Darwin’s son, thus becoming Lady Florence Henrietta Darwin. Everything connects!
Fred’s husband, Gerald, when at Cambridge, was one of the Apostles, and so he must have known Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey well. This was during the Great War, in which Gerald was plainly not engaged – he was a conscientious objector (lots of the Bloomsbury Group were) and he worked, according to Wikipedia, as a poultry keeper at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. That’s where the photograph will have been taken, Lady O being not only a patron of the arts but also a bit of a photographer.
Fred’s mother, Florence Henrietta, wrote plays, with what success I do not know, but six of them can be found in Project Gutenberg. She named her daughters Fredegond (but you knew that already) and Ermengard. They sound like two of the Valkyrie, don’t they? I have no idea what Ermengard did, exposed as she was to such an intensity of literary and cultural influences. It’s hard enough to pursue Fred through the English letters in which she has got lost.
The name ‘Fredegond’, so far as I can see, comes from Fredeguna, the fearsome Queen consort of Chilperic 1, the Morvingian Frankish King of Soissons. What? You can read all about her if you follow the link. If names do, as they say, influence our destinies, things were looking interesting for our Fred, the Poet.
But it didn’t work out that way. The history of literature barely mentions poet Fredegond Shove. She had no children. She died at sixy, outliving Gerald by only two years (he also died at sixty). I wonder what she was like? HERE is a bit of her family tree.
Another anthologist who selected a couple of her poems was W H Davies. I have considerable respect for his Shorter Lyrics of the Twentieth Century, although it didn’t live up to Davies’ hopes that it would sell in similar numbers to the Georgian series. Davies had an ear for true lyric, and he wasn’t anything like as masculist as Marsh. In fact, Davies liked women (in every sense).
Here is ‘Song’, one of the poems Davies chose, a good little poem for a wet spring morning:
Spring lights her candles everywhere,
But death still hangs upon the air;
The celandine through dusk is lit,
The redbreasts from the holly flit,
At night the violets spring to birth
Out of the mute, encrusted earth.
The wind has cast his winding sheet
(Which is the sky) and he goes fleet
Over the country in the rain,
Singing how all the world is vain
And how, of all things vainest, he
Journeys above both land and sea.
It’s not an ambitious lyric, but it does its work neatly and well. She handles the verse form beautifully. Although the first stanza is pretty ordinary, the second lifts: it’s all one sentence and she carries it right through with a lovely cadence. The "death" that hangs on the air isn't just a fancy metaphor for winter. “All the world is vain”. She was writing in the aftermath of the Great War: this is her minor Wasteland, her lost lyric.
And the other one that Davies chose – that’s the one I’d like to think she was writing, or thinking about, sitting against that hay stook in 1917. I think the ending may be a little dark and brooding – I wonder why the joys are “disembodied”: is it just an allusion to reading the stars, or did she already know there would not be children, not for Fred and Gerald? The sun, ‘as golden as a pound’ reminds us that there was a time – there really was – when a gold sovereign was worth the name. At first you think the comparison of a daisy’s face to ‘glass’ is odd – perhaps just there for the rhyme. But I don’t think so. I think it deliberately anticipates the other kind of glass, the mirror in the second stanza. Just a little poem, with a whole life behind it, written before Dutch Elm Disease decimated the "white stars".
In memory of Fredegond Shove, then, minor poet of minor poets, here is ‘In a Field’.
IN A FIELD
The sun and moon I see
...Beside me in the grass:
The moon, a daisy’s face
...As pure and fine as glass;
The sun, a dandelion
...As golden as a pound—
Oh what a firmament
...Is this which I have found!
White stars the elm tree shakes
...To twinkle where they lie
As bright upon the earth
...As any in the sky.
This field is heaven’s glass
...And gazing in I see
What disembodied joys
...The future holds for me.