May Wedderburn Cannan

May Wedderburn Cannan

May Wedderburn Cannan was born in Oxford on 14th October 1893. Her father, Charles Cannan, was Dean of Trinity College. May took a keen interest in literature and had her first poem published in The Scotsman in 1908.

When she was 18 she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment. May trained as a nurse and eventually reached the rank of Quartermaster. In 1913 she was instructed by the Home Office to make plans to set up a small hospital of 60 beds if mobilized. However, on the outbreak of the First World War, May had to hand over responsibility to a senior officer and she worked as an auxiliary nurse.

May Wedderburn spent four weeks at Rouen in France, before returning to England where she helped her father run the Clarendon Press. This included publishing material produced by the government's War Propaganda Bureau. She also worked for a short period in Paris for MI5. In 1917 May published a book of poems about the war, In War Time.

During the war Cannan was engaged to marry the soldier Bevil Quiller-Couch. He survived the fighting at Mons and Ypres, but died at the end of the war of influenza.

May Wedderburn published her third volume of poetry, The House of Hope, in 1923. This inspired a letter from an admirer, Percival James Slater, had been wounded while serving in the Royal Flying Corps. According to Jane Potter: "Although they had met only five times the couple were married on 26 July 1924 at the parish church of St George, Camden Hill, London. They had one son, James Cannan Slater."

Her first volume of memoirs, The Lonely Generation, was published in 1934. The second volume, Grey Ghosts and Voices (1976) did not appear until after her death.

May Wedderburn Cannan suffered a heart attack and died in her sleep at her home in Pangbourne, Berkshire, on 11 December 1973.

Primary Sources

(1) May Wedderburn Cannan thought that Siegfried Sassoon was a fine poet but disagreed with his anti-war sentiments (1917)

I had much admired some of Sassoon's verse but I was not coming home with him. Someone must go on writing for those who were not convinced of the right of the cause for which they had taken up arms. I did not believe the dead had died for nothing, nor that we should have 'kept out of the war' - the dead had kept faith, and so, if we did not grudge it, had we.

(2) May Wedderburn Cannan, Lamplight (1917)

We planned to shake the world together, you and I.

Being young, and very wise;

Now in the light of the green shaded lamp

Almost I see your eyes

Light with the old gay laughter; you and I

Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days,

Setting our feet upon laborious ways,

And all you asked of fame

Was crossed swords in the Army List;

My Dear, against your name.

We planned a great Empire together, you and I,

Bound only by the sea;

Now in the quiet of a chill Winter's night

Your voice comes hushed to me

Full of forgotten memories: you and I

Dreamed great dreams of our future in those days,

Setting our feet on undiscovered ways,

And all I asked of fame

A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,

For the swords by your name.

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,

For you gave your life away;

And I think my heart was broken by war,

Since on a summer day

You took the road we never spoke of; you and I

Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;

You set your feet upon the Western ways

And have no need of fame -

There's a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,

And a torn cross with your name.

(3) May Wedderburn Cannan, Grey Ghosts and Voices (1976)

I suppose it is difficult for anyone to realise now what 'France' meant to us. In the second war I met a young man of the Left who assured me that Rupert Brooke's verse was of n account, phoney, because it was "impossible that anyone should have thought like that". I turned and rent him, saying that he was entitled to his own opinion of Rupert Brooke's verse, but not entitled to say that no one could have thought like that. How could he know how we had thought? All our hopes and all our loves, and God knew, all our fears, were in France; to get to France, if only to stand on her soil was something; to share, in however small a way, in what was done there was Heart's Desire.