Thursday, 7 November 2019

OF HER TIME: ALICE DUER MILLER

Have you read Alice Duer Miller?  I was asked recently.  No, I had to confess I hadn't.  So, here I am  reading a long narrative poem, The White Cliffs, published in 1940 by an American writer whose work sold in vast numbers and who is now almost entirely forgotten. 

I've checked my shelves - her name is absent from Fleur Adcock's Twentieth Century Women's Poetry, absent too from Deren Rees-Jones' Modern Women's Poetry.  There is no sign of her in my Penguin Book of American Verse.  Wikipaedia warns that the entry on Duer Miller needs backing up with evidence.  The only scholarly material I can find on the internet is a short essay by Rebecca Steizer.

The poem is told in the voice of an American woman, Susan Dunne, who comes to England from Rhode Island and somehow manages to meet and marry a member of the English upper class.  They have a son but her husband, John, dies in France fighting in the First World War.  Susan stays in England living on the crumbling country estate with her Scottish mother-in-law, Lady Jean, who becomes, rather surprisingly, her 'nearest, dearest friend'.  The Second World War breaks out and Susan faces the possibility of history repeating itself when her son goes off to fight - treading 'the same / Path that his father trod'.  The last sections of the poem are an emotional summing up of England's faults and virtues, past and present, and a plea, based on history and liberty, for America to enter the war.  She concludes:

                                       ...   I am an American bred,
I have seen much to hate here - much to forgive,
     But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.

White Cliffs was published in 1940 and became an immediate bestseller.  It was broadcast on radio on both sides of the Atlantic, recorded and sold as a three-record set, inspired the song made famous by Vera Lynn ('There'll be bluebirds over  ...' etc), and was adapted for an MGM film in 1944.  If Pearl Harbor was the catalyst which brought the United States into the Second World War, the poem, White Cliffs, has been credited with influencing public opinion in favour of such a move.  Rebecca Steizer has commented that the poem 'met a need in British and American cultures and dovetailed with the radio propaganda culture of the 1940s'.

What about White Cliffs as poetry? In Duer Miller's favour, she does vary the form of the diffent sections of the poem with differing line lengths, verse lengths and styles - narrative, ballads, epistolary verses (surely these could have been in blank verse), verse drama.  My main ciritism is that the rhyme is relentless, in couplets or in alternating lines, full rhymes you can see coming a mile off - spot/not, faces/places, glove/love and so on for 52 sections.  But at least she uses a reasonable number of run-on lines. 

I don't want to be too hard on her.  The poem is of its time and is interesting from a historical point of view.  She was writing about subjects of relevance to her readers and she saw an important political role for her poetry.  Look at the Penguin Poetry of the Thirties and you will see plenty of political poems in traditional forms.  Modernism seems to have completely passed Duer-Miller by, but she was not the only one - and White Cliffs would certainly not have been so immediately popular had it been 'difficult'.  But would it have lasted longer?

For Rebecca Steizer's essay on Duer Miller go to
https://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/online_archive/v2_3_2005/current/miller_feature/stelzer.htm

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