|German Christmas card|
In September of 1916, as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers prepared to join the fight at the Battle of the Somme, their leader, a thirty-six year old father, wrote a poem that looked back to Christ’s birth and dedicated it to one of his most precious treasures, his three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Few people have heard of Thomas Kettle or his poem, “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God” – and I hope that in some small way, this blog post begins to change that.
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
The poem sits on the knife-edge of the present: it begins by looking to the future, and it ends reflecting on the past as it wraps present, past, and future into a single vision of purpose.
In the first lines, thinking ahead to the future, Tom Kettle anticipates the arrival of “wiser days” when the rosebud matures into beautiful bloom, and his young daughter becomes a woman. He describes her coming of age as a “desired, delayed, incredible time,” words that not only feel good in the mouth with the steady rhythm of the alliterative ‘d,” but that hold together the sense of growing up both too quickly and too slowly, all of the changes unbelievable as they unfold and unfurl like the petals of the rose.
Kettle envisions his daughter asking about him and about his motivations for leaving her so long ago to die fighting for Britain in a war that wasn’t popular in Ireland. Anticipating that others will try to twist his motivations to suit their agendas, he composes his personal answer to his daughter-of-the-future in the second half of the poem, shaping beauty and meaning out of a war that offered little of either.
Kettle wants his daughter to know that he didn’t die for a country, but “for a dream,” for tidings of great joy and reconciliation that were revealed in a humble stable, that were for all people, but especially for the poor in spirit, for the humble who are promised the kingdom of heaven. And looking again at the title, one can admire the perfect rightness and double meaning of “The Gift of God,” recalling both his daughter and the baby born in the “herdsmen shed.”
|WWI Recruiting Poster|
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13638)
Writing about the Western Front, a place that seemed very far from heaven, mystery, and mercy, Kettle penned an essay “Silhouettes from the Front”: “…Over there in front across No Man’s Land there are shell-holes and unburied men. Strange things happen there. Patrols and counterpatrols come and go. There are two sinister fences of barbed wire, on the barbs of which blood-stained strips of uniform and fragments more sinister have been known to hang uncollected for a long time. The air is shaken with diabolical reverberations; it is stabbed with malign illumination as the Very lights shoot up, broaden to a blaze, and go out.”
This is a man who knows war, yet still believes in the dream.
In late July of 1916, he wrote to his wife, Mary Sheehy Kettle (who was adored by the adolescent James Joyce and believed to be the model for the young female character in the short story “Araby” and for Miss Ivors in “The Dead”), “What impresses and moves me above all is the amazing faith, patience and courage of the men. To me it is not a sort of looking-down-on but rather a looking-up-to appreciation of them. I pray and pray and am afraid! –they go quietly and heroically on. God bless them and make me less inferior to them.”
In his last letter to Mary, Tom Kettle said, “The long-expected is now close to hand. I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back. Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again. I think even that it is perhaps better that I should not see you again. God bless and keep you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one. My love, now at last clean will find a way to you…”
Four days after writing the poem, Kettle and his men were ordered “over the top” in an assault on the German lines. He was shot nearly immediately, and a friend wrote of the moment, “…he only lasted about one minute, and he had my crucifix in his hands. Then Boyd took all the papers and things out of Tom’s pockets in order to keep them for Mrs. Kettle, but poor Boyd was blown to atoms in a few minutes. The Welsh Guards buried Mr. Kettle’s remains.”