Aunty May’s Footsteps

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My Aunty May was one of that legion of women constrained to spinsterhood by the slaughter of the First World War. She devoted herself to good works, commanding half of Kent for the St John Ambulance Brigade, and being a lifelong carer of old folk. Her private consolation was reading, and her book collection, which never ceased to grow, ran riot through every room of her various successive small houses in Hythe. One of her strong suits was poetry, and she was a disciplined reader, noting in the margins every occasion on which she consulted a particular passage. She read through Robert Bridges’ anthology The Spirit of Man ten times, taking one quotation a day, from 1942 (when she received a copy of the 23rd impression as a Christmas present) to 1973. Her last notation, on 16 January 1973, was two-thirds of the way through her eleventh trawl, at a quotation from Paradise Lost . . .

Farr off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion roules
Her watrie Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets,
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

This must have been the point at which Aunty’s failing eyesight at last let her down. She turned for several years to Braille, but then dementia set in, and all her former state and being sank into the River of Oblivion.

Bridges’ anthology was conceived and assembled as a national morale-boosting exercise and first published in January 1916, at a time when it was becoming clear that the Great War was going to go on for some time and was already an unprecedented slaughterhouse. Bridges brought High Victorian sensibilities to the task; the calligraphic title page, designed by Emery Walker, laid the matter out plain: The Spirit of Man, An Anthology in English & French from the Philosophers & Poets made by the Poet Laureate in 1915 & dedicated by g

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About the contributor

The late John Sheppard was a documentary film maker, once of World in Action and Disappearing World. His account of The Doors at the Roundhouse, his portrait of Olga Korbut and his celebration of Sgt Pepper’s twentieth anniversary are remembered with affection.

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