What is the central theme of Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson's two poems "I Sit and Sew" and "April is on the Way"?
These poems share two main concerns: the horrors of war and the conviction that humans' drive to defend and protect each other is such that there should always be hope, despite these horrors.
The poet was writing during a period when public appreciation of war's devastation had reached a new peak—the American Civil War was the first time graphic photographs of soldiers' corpses—"writhing grotesque things that were once men"—had been seen by the public; Dunbar was of the first generation to be born free after this war. By the time the First World War arrived, despite the best efforts of governments, it became increasingly easy for those at home to appreciate the realities of what was happening.
In "I Sit and Sew," the poet describes the "wasted fields" and "holocaust of hell" in which soldiers are suffering. What is interesting is that her response to this is frustration with her "useless seam, the idle patch" of her sewing explicitly because she wishes to join the men in their hell. She feels it is her duty to respond to those "pitifully calling me," and meanwhile her soul "flings appealing cries" in response, "yearning only to go / There in . . . those fields of woe." "The panoply of war" is terrible in Dunbar's depiction, but nevertheless her "heart aches with desire" to be part of it. On the one hand, Dunbar seems to rail against the injustice that means only men must suffer; on the other, she reminds us that, even in the depths of hell on earth, the human inclination is to comfort and aid others, and to be forbidden to do this is "stifling." If war is hell, humanity is hope.
"April Is on the Way" reprises these themes. The "brown mud-pool," "bloody feet," and "woe-spent eyes" described by the speaker reflect similar war imagery to that in "I Sit and Sew." The approach is interesting, however—the poet meets a woman who "had dreams of vengeance for her slain mate . . . the dead man was cruel to her, you know that, God." Here, the soldier is not redeemed simply through having been killed in war; villainy must be punished. However, as "the business of building, and songs from brown thrust throats" progresses, the theme of hope thrums through the latter part of the poem. Symbols of rebirth proliferate: "yellow flowers in the windows" and ice melting to allow "reality . . . to burgeon forth like the crocuses in the glen." Wars, the poet says, "are made in April," but the poet says, "I laugh in their faces"—and she wishes the hurt woman the strength to do the same. The refrain, "April is on the way!" is a constant reminder that "the miracle of life" will always follow even the worst destruction, and wounds can heal.
Both of these poems concern war and the poet's response to it. In "I Sit and Sew," for example, the speaker finds her position as a woman, who has to do nothing else but "sit and sew" whilst she imagines all the men who are suffering and dying in war, intolerable, and stifling. Note how this is shown in the following quote:
My soul in pity flingsAppealing cries, yearning only to goThere in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—But—I must sit and sew.
April is on the way!
The infinite miracle of unfolding life in the brown February fields.
(Dear God, the hounds are baying!)
Murder and wasted love, lust and weariness, deceit and vainglory—what are they
but the spent breath of the runner?