I am not sure what I have here. I was shelving some books earlier today a took down a book I didn’t really know. It’s a book of poetry by W B Yeats – apparently borrowed from, and never returned to, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals – there is a a bookplate on the inside front cover. That in itself is a wonder – I have only fairly recently learned about this amazing organisation, which was established in the early days of the Great War, by Dr Elsie Inglis, after the War Office told her not to do any such thing. She went on to set up hospitals across Europe, and is still remembered and commemorated in Serbia. How do we come to have this in our house?
But there is more. On the flysheet opposite the bookplate is, handwritten,
“For Wisdom is a butterfly and not a gloomy bird of prey” W B Yeats, March 1, 1918
At first I thought that someone reading the book had written this in, a line from a poem in the book that struck them. But it doesn’t seem to be that. A couple of pages further on, there is a facsimile of a picture of Yeats, and his signature. It looks incredibly like the handwriting on the quote. Did Yeats sign this book?
And there’s more. The quotation is from one of Yeats poems, but not one that is in this book. That poem, Tom O’Roughley, was published in 1919, in The Wild Swans at Coole, and was apparently written in early 1918.
Had Yeats just written that poem when he wrote a line from it in this copy of an earlier collection of his poems?
What I do know is this….
In Spring 1918, a soldier called William was dying in a hospital near Calais, perhaps a hospital run by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. His twin brother, James, travelled from Ireland, and was with him when he died, in April 1918. We have this image of men dying in war far from their families and yet, sometimes it seems, the family was there.
At about the same time, also at a hospital near Calais, maybe the same one, maybe not, there was a doctor, a surgeon, from Belfast.
James and William had grown up in Belfast and may, or may not, have known this doctor from years before. We don’t know. What we do know is that, years later, that doctor had a daughter, Eithne, who married one of James’ sons – also called William.
William and Eithne’s son brought this book here. But whose it was, and how it came into their possession, is a mystery I would love to explore.