Thursday, November 20, 2014

It is terrible to be always homesick

The war poetry of Francis Ledwidge is little known and frequently dismissed as being overly dreamy and disconnected from the reality of the trenches.   An Irishman from County Meath, Ledwidge was a poet before the war, and he writes of folklore, fairies, and the country landscapes of his home. 

Shortly after enlisting, in November of 1914 he wrote to a friend, “This life is a great change to me, and one which somehow I cannot become accustomed to.  I have lived too much amongst the fields and the rivers to forget that I am anything else other than the ‘Poet of the Blackbirds.’” 

I admire Ledwidge’s poetry for its striking differences from the better-known works of other trench poets.  His imagery yearns towards beauty and serenity; his poems written on the front lines are pastoral and melancholic, yet just as true to his experience as anything written by Owen or Sassoon.   

 Rather than describe the horrors surrounding him, Ledwidge escapes to a world of the imagination, or as Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale,” he flees from the present sufferings on “the viewless wings of Poesy.”  Writing to Lord Dunsany (a fellow Irish writer, best known for his fantasy novels), Ledwidge explained, “It is surprising what silly things one thinks of in a big fight.  I was lying one side of a low bush on August 15th, pouring lead across a little ridge into the Turks, and for four hours, my mind was on the silliest things of home.” 

His short poem “War” is more reminiscent of the writing of Yeats and the Lake Isle of Innisfree than of muddy, bloody trenches – it is replete with images of Ledwidge’s home.  He personifies War as a brother to the wind and thunder, as one with the darkness.  Throughout the poem, War is imagined as both frightening and yet strangely comforting in its associations with nature and the more familiar fears of the poet’s native landscapes. 


Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all.
My mother was a storm.  I call
And shorten your way with speed to me.
I am the love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I,
I am the pride in the lover’s eye,
I am the epic of the sea. 

In the poem, War is imagined as a child, with a stormy mother, and its siren call draws men, shortening their journeys and their lives, as if this might be seen as a good thing.  War is not only “Hate” and the “terrible mind/Of vicious gods,” but it is also love and “the pride in the lover’s eye.” 

How can war be love?  Love of for the ideals for which one for one’s comrades?  And how might war be associated with pride and lovers?  I like to consider this line as an intriguing response to Sassoon’s “Glory of Women,” as it seems to affirm (though not celebrate) the glory and honour for which men fight, recalling the epic wars of the past in which sailors such as Odysseus journeyed home across the sea. 

Ledwidge was killed on the first day of the battle of Passchendale by an artillery shell.  In a letter to Katherine Tynan, another Irish poet, he wrote in 1917, “I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour.  I may be dead before this reaches you, but I will have done my part.  Death is as interesting to me as life.  I have seen so much of it, from Sulva to Serbia, and now in France.  I am always homesick.  I hear the roads calling, and the hills, and the rivers wondering where I am.  It is terrible to be always homesick.” 

Virginia Woolf reviewed his posthumous book of poetry in The Times Literary Supplement in 1918, writing, “Most of Mr. Ledwidge’s poems are about those little things…as common as the grass and sky…And you come to believe in the end that you, too, hold these things dear.” 

 *The superb illustrated poetry collection Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics includes a wonderful interpretation of this poem by the artist S. Harkham. 

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