Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Pure Peace

Cadair Idris, Wales (photo by Steve Rabone)
Few people know of the soldier Ellis Evans; he is better known by his Welsh bardic name, Hedd Wyn. The phrase can be translated to mean white, pure or blessed peace, and it was inspired by the landscape of Evans’ home, the misty valleys of Meirionnydd.

Pilckem Ridge © IWM (Q 5730) 
In early 1917 following the introduction of mandatory military conscription, Ellis Evans reluctantly joined the British army. He left the family farm and his shepherding duties to volunteer in place of a younger brother (he was the oldest of eleven children). Just months after he entered the infantry, his unit - the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers - was sent to the Western Front to join what became known as the Battle of Passchendale. 

Ellis Evans was killed on 31 July 1917* at Pilckem Ridge; on 6 September, 1917, Hedd Wyn was announced as the winner of the Welsh National Eisteddfod’s prestigious poetry chair. When presenters learned that the poet had been killed in Flanders just five weeks earlier, they draped the chair in black.  Since then, the honour has been referred to as The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair.        

Here is Hedd Wyn’s poem “War”:  

Rhyfel (in original Welsh)                                     War (translated by Gillian Clarke)

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.

When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.

Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.

The poem can be heard here, read in Welsh by A.Z. Foreman.                                              

"Independence calls for our bravest men"
Hauntingly, the poem weaves together nature, faith, and war in a lament not only for the dead, but for all who live in a time of war.  In this time of bitterness and woe, God “declines beyond the seas,” or as AZ Foreman’s translation suggests “God is setting like the sun.” And believing that God is irrelevant, absent, or powerless, humans rush to usurp His authority and impose their violent will upon the world. The vision resembles that expressed by W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”: chaos reigns, “the centre cannot hold,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”  In Louis Flint Ceci’s translation of the first stanza of Hedd Wynn’s poem, “all authority's absurd /When God himself fades from the scene.”

In a world gone wrong, the burdens of death and suffering fall disproportionately upon the poor, and song itself has been silenced. The Biblical allusion to Psalms 137: 1-4 underpins the lament, and the poem resonates with ancient grief:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land? (KJV)

As during the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, men have been carried away captive and wasted by war. How can a poet’s voice sing in a strange land? Ellis Evans, like others who had been ordered to France, despairs at having left behind the traditional guiding melodies of nature and of faith. In all too short a time, he, too, will hang his silent harp on the willows. The wind sighs with dirges of the dead, and the ballads of boys slain “blow on the wind” as their blood falls like rain. 

During his brief time in France, Hedd Wyn wrote home, “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn't it?” He had arrived in France in June of 1917 -- he was dead by the end of the next month. Simon Jones, a member of his company who survived, recalled in a 1975 interview,

We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him... I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that... He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt... He was dying, of course... There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack.

From the time he was young, Hedd Wyn had written poetry and dreamed of being awarded the National Eisteddfod chair. An anthology of his poetry, Cerddi'r Bugail (The Shepherd's Poems), was published posthumously in 1918, and the words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (The Chief Bard, Hedd Wyn) were added to his grave’s headstone.

Resistant to the war, Hedd Wyn most likely would not have wanted to be known as a war poet. His poetry can be found, however, in the cemeteries of the First World War in other men’s epitaphs. Lines from his poem Nid A'n Ango (Not forgotten)“Ei aberth nid a heibio / Ei wyneb annwyl nid a'n ango” (His sacrifice will not be passed over / His dear face will not be forgotten)  appear on at least six graves in Belgium and France, and a line from his poem Beddargraff Milwr o Drawsfynydd (Epitaph for a Soldier from Trawsfynydd) appears on a grave at Erquinghem: Gedy ar ol, oes wen, fer, dlos, anfarwol” (He leaves behind a blessed, short, beautiful, immortal life).*

Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn) 
* Along with 31,000 Allied soldiers, the Irish poet of the blackbirds, Francis Ledwidge, was also killed that day and he, too, is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery. Ledwidge’s poem by the same title, “War,” can be read here.

**Thanks to the discussion on The Great War Forum for this information.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Epiphany Vision

The Last Message, William Hatherell
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 5234)
As the tragic year of the Somme and Verdun was drawing to a close, British soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary, “The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden” (22 December 1916). 

British V.A.D. nurse Mary-Adair Macdonald knew first-hand of the physical and emotional burdens born by the wounded of the war and those who cared for them. Her poem “Epiphany Vision” reimagines the Bethlehem stable as a hospital ward, while the kings who brought gifts to the Christ child are re-seen as the broken men of the war.

Epiphany Vision (In the Ward)

This is the night of a Star.
Dusk grow window and wall;
A Cross unseen floats red o’er the wrack of war;
Silences fall
In the house where the wounded are.
Hospital ward

“Good-night to all!”
Then I pause awhile by the open door, and see
Their patient faces, pale through the blue smoke-rings,
On the night of Epiphany….
But who are these, who are changed utterly,
Wearing a look of Kings?

Brothers, whence do ye come?
Royal and still, what Star have ye looked upon?
--“From hill and valley, from many a city home
We came, we endured till the last of strength was gone,
Over the narrow sea.
But what of a Star? We have only fought for home
And babes on the mother’s knee.”
(Their silence saith.)

—Brothers, what do ye bring
To the Christ Whom Kings adored? —“We cannot tell.
We might have fashioned once some simple thing;
Once we were swift, who now are very slow;
We were skilled of hand, who bear the splint and the sling.
We gave no thought to Pain, in the year ago,
Who since have passed through Hell.
But what should we bring Him now—we, derelicts nigh past mending?’
(Frankincense, myrrh and gold;
Winds His choristers, worlds about His knee….
Hath He room at all in His awful Treasury
For the gifts our Kings unfold
That can ne’er be told?)

This is the night of a Star.
German Christmas card
This is the long road’s ending.
They are sleeping now; they have brought their warrior best
To the Lord their God Who made them;
And lo! He hath repaid them
With rest.—
This is the night of a Star.
The laugh that rings through torment, the ready jest,
Valor and youth, lost hope, and a myriad dreams
Splendidly given—
He hath taken up to the inmost heart of Heaven.
And now—while the night grows cold, and the ward-fire gleams—
You may guess the tender Smile as He walketh hidden
In the place where His Wise Ones are.
            --Mary-Adair Macdonald

Like the wise men from the East, the wounded soldiers have traveled far.  They have left the comforts of their homes to pursue a cause they thought noble. And marked by exhaustion, they too have spent long hours patiently observing the night sky, theirs lit by the flares of star shells bursting overhead. 

What can the wounded, these “derelicts nigh past mending” bring as gifts? Having lost their youth, speed, and skill to the blast of shells, the whine of machine gun fire, and the horrors found in No Man’s Land, what remains for these men to offer? They have sacrificed not only their dreams, but their very wholeness, all “splendidly given,” all forever gone. 

Yet for a moment as worlds slip and smoke rises as incense, this Epiphany vision reassures that all is not lost, but rather has been tenderly gathered by the Holy One to whom the gift was made. The wounded men’s hopes are preserved in “the inmost heart of Heaven,” and Christ walks hidden amongst their beds, bestowing tender smiles and blessings upon “His Wise Ones.” 

Detail of The Scottish Women's Hospital, by Nora-Neilson Gray
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3090)
As the poem proclaims, this is the night of the Star, and the men themselves outshine the stars in laughter that “rings through torment,” in the ready jests that conceal their pain, and in the valor with which they meet their ruin. 

Little is known of Mary-Adair Macdonald; she left her home in Lyndhurst, Hampshire to join the V.A.D. in September of 1915 and served until May of 1918 at Christchurch Red Cross Hospital, Hill House Hospital (Petersfield), and Burcote House Hospital (Abingdon). A small pamphlet of her poems was reprinted from the pages of the Spectator and dedicated to the nurses of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Empire who have “nourished the wounded and soothed many a dying soldier.” Her poems express a deep faith and a reverence for the suffering of the men in her care, while she describes the nurses of the First World War as “handmaids of your pain.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On Earth, Peace

Over one-hundred years ago, on December 23rd, 1914, the British weekly periodical Punch published a Christmas poem for a nation at war. The anonymous poet dreamed of a return to happier times, pleading, “Take back the blood-stained year again, / Give us the Christmas that we know!”

On Earth -- Peace

Judge of the passionate hearts of men,
God of the wintry wind and snow,
Take back the blood-stained year again,
Give us the Christmas that we know!

No stir of wings sweeps softly by;
US Peace Poster, WWI-era
No angel comes with blinding light;
Beneath the wild and wintry sky
No shepherds watch their flocks tonight.

In the dull thunder of the wind
We hear the cruel guns afar,
But in the glowering heavens we find
No guiding, solitary star.

But lo! on this our Lord's birthday,
Lit by the glory whence she came,
Peace, like a warrior, stands at bay,
A swift, defiant, living flame!

Full-armed she stands in shining mail,
Erect, serene, unfaltering still,
Shod with a strength that cannot fail,
Strong with a fierce o'ermastering will.
 Where shattered homes and ruins be
She fights through dark and desperate days;
Beside the watchers on the sea
She guards the Channel's narrow ways.

Through iron hail and shattering shell,
Where the dull earth is stained with red,
Fearless she fronts the gates of Hell
And shields the unforgotten dead.

So stands she, with her all at stake,
And battles for her own dear life,
That by one victory she may make
For evermore an end of strife.

In this world at war, the comforting figures of the Nativity are nowhere to be found.  The angels are silent, the shepherds are absent, and the guiding star fails to appear in the bitterly cold night sky. Cyril Winterbotham in “A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” also described the quiet despair of men crouched in the wet, snowy trenches of the Western Front: “In our dark sky no angels sing….Our gifts must bullets be.” 

Yet in the poem a vision appears, breaking through the glowering heavens.  The defiant figure of Peace stands amidst the shattered ruins, a flaming crusader clad in shining armour. Like Joan of Arc, this woman warrior “fights through dark and desperate days.” Calm and confident in the midst of “iron hail and shattering shell,” Peace fiercely protects the unforgotten dead. But her cause is more noble than any military objective: she fights for everyone, for she aims to end all wars. 

This poem that begins with a wistful longing for happier Christmases of the past concludes with a dream of the most extravagant of gifts: world peace forever. To modern readers, the thought of eternal peace on earth is likely to seem as miraculous as that of the virgin birth. What the readers of Punch could not know was that the war that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914 would continue its bloody course for nearly another four years, costing over nine million lives.  By November of 1918, when Peace finally won the day, her arrival seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was a peace that did not last.

Although the poem was published anonymously in Punch, an on-line source recently asserted that it was written by a British officer who was present at the 1914 Christmas Truce.  The claim, however, is unverified, and as “On Earth—Peace” was published in London on December 23rd –
before the Christmas Truce occurred –  this seems unlikely. A more probable author is the Canadian poet of the Laurentians, F.G. Scott, who volunteered in August of 1914 for overseas service as a military chaplain. Scott is named as the author of the poem by Kate Luard in her memoir Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, published in 1915. Luard’s diary provides a sobering glimpse of Christmas on the Western Front: 

Xmas Eve, 1914_-- And no fire and no chauffage [heating], and cotton frocks; funny life, isn't it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of "'ome, 'long o' Mother," --British, Germans, French, and Russians …. 
Xmas Day, 1914 -- And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. 

Kate Luard and Chaplain F.G. Scott survived the war, but Scott’s son Henry Hutton Smith was killed during the battle of the Somme. The world still awaits the coming of Peace eternal. 
German Christmas Card, WWI