Mary Gilmore, born near Goulburn NSW in 1865, well known as a poet and journalist was committed to social change. Her major focus was on the rights of women, the environment and the treatment of Indigenous Australians. While her 1988 biographer suggests that Gilmore’s work remains mostly unknown, Gilmore’s image appears on the Australian ten-dollar note.
Gilmore’s 1918 poem `The Measure’ reflects her horrified reaction to World War 1.
“Must the young blood for ever flow?
Shall the wide wounds no closing know?”
Right from the first line of the poem Gilmore is lamenting the stupidity of the human race. We were sending 16 year old boys to fight wars- children who would never get the chance to grow old and live a life. Gilmore is also asking what price we pay by going to war- lasting wounds that will not close. She is not just talking about physical wounds inflicted by being shot at for example. Gilmore is asking also asking about mental wounds and the effect of war has on the earth.
One of my favourite sentences in the poem is the third line:
“Is hate the only lantern of the stars?”
This line can be seen in many ways. Stars illuminate the way- explorers of the past would use the stars in navigate through the shadows. In this context, man is blinded by hatred and cannot see the stars due to the darkness of abhorrence to the enemy. The stars are in the sky looking down on the earth, watching man and country destroy each other.
Perhaps the most significant lines in the poem are repeated twice (with a slight variation), at the end of the first and second stanza.
“(the stars…the sun)
And sees, not friend and foe, but man and man
As when these years began.”
Gilmore writes as if the sun during the day and the stars at night are watching the earth and viewing the war as pointless. They see all men as equal- we are all born and die the same. Humans however do not see other humans this way- due to race, wealth, status etc. The sun and stars can see beyond the earthly conflict and see our place in the universe in a bigger perspective.
“Closed are the door that stood so wide-
The white beds empty, side by side.”
The last two lines of Gilmore’s poem express the futile nature of war. Given that this poem was written in the last year of WW1, I see these lines as a depiction of an empty hospital room where wounded soldiers once recovered. Gilmore is presenting the loss of humanity that comes as a price of war. We no longer comprehend what it is to be human. Man is no longer.
Throughout history there have been wars and the loss of human life- however none more great than in the 20th Century. As humans, we need to learn from the past and reconnect as collective inhabitants of the earth before it is too late- otherwise `The Measure’ of war will take it toll on all of us.