Poets and their poetry go in and out of fashion. Some are nigh on unrecoverable, curiosities like the whims and peculiarities of their age. Some of them are recovered for a new age.
Recovered poetry can cast a powerful retrospective light over their author’s moment. Yet who we choose to remember can be a vexed issue.
Poets such as Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer immortalised in a statue in Sheffield’s Weston Park, are remembered by their extensive works, which would have been criticised by notable writers of their day and, in Elliott’s case, by continued public awareness.
John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter are likewise remembered in public institutions and continued academic scrutiny.
So what of those minor Sheffield-based poets who produced exciting work but never received an audience and the fame to last through ages?
Many of those writers never gained a wider foothold on the literary culture of the day, or else lived fleeting literary careers.
The latter is certainly true of D F Dalston, a Sheffield Girls’ School science teacher profiled in the June 10, 1914 edition of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
Dalston had three poems published in the June 1914 edition of the English Review, one of the foremost literary magazines.
Her work is remarkable in its quality, being quite distinct from any other Sheffield poet and evocative of a historical moment where great changes were felt to be happening.
Quite what these changes were, precisely, would have been anyone’s guess.
As previous articles in our series have shown, Sheffielders of 1914, before the outbreak of war in August, had diverse preoccupations.
This vague sense of inexorable change and general unease resounds in Dalston’s poems, entitled A Dream’s Burial, The Dream-Ship, and The Voiceless Harp.
A Dream’s Burial is typical of Dalston’s style, in which personal desire, closely guarded, is destroyed by a callously murderous world.
The dream that is buried, though ‘guarded… well from the winds that have blown / So bitterly’ has been ‘slain’ and ‘long shadows creep / On its narrow grave’.
From a contemporary perspective, it is hard to see this as being anything other than a kind of fable of war.
Many historians believe Britain entered the war as a sleepwalker, unable to see beyond the Edwardian dream summer that preceded it.
Poems such as Dalston’s reinforce this perspective.
In The Voiceless Harp, ‘dim and ghostly spectres haunt my strings’. The harp, emblematic of the poet’s creative voice, has been silenced by the figure of sorrow, and is then played by this melancholy other.
Again, the personal lyric voice is decimated by external forces and dreams are brought to ruin on history’s sad tides.
All three poems are remarkable in their unity of symbolism and theme. Hopes and dreams are all seen to be doomed.
Remarkable also is the review of these poems in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.
The sense of parable or allegory is clear to the reviewer. They write that despite the overwhelmingly constructive nature of 1914 as an age, ‘it is also a period of great destruction, but of destruction only of that which from the first was doomed to such a fate, in order that a new building, more truly planned, more lasting, might rise on a new foundation’.
This idealism, however, was precisely the kind of dreaming that would turn to nightmare in the truly destructive period to come. The new building never came.
Dalston went on to publish only one book of poetry in 1919, the appropriately-titled Songs and Shadows. New Witness, in its review of that volume, thought Dalston’s verse ‘gracious and cautious’, a sense of which links her work with a more monumental poem by former poet laureate Andrew Motion.
Motion’s What If…?, inscribed on the Owen Building and familiar to any visitor to Sheffield from the railway station, asks its pedestrian reader to speculate ‘What if…?’ Yet its final lines are optimistic, seeing Sheffield as a place ‘where your dreaming is repaid’.
Perhaps we can afford to dream anew but, as Motion’s poem continues, we continue to be enriched by ‘The lives which wait unseen as yet, unread’, like that of Daisy Florence Dalston.
Can you provide any further information about this insightful but overlooked local poet?
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