Thursday, February 2, 2017

An unlikely soldier

 Gerald Caldwell Siordet was an unlikely soldier. Tall and very thin, he was an aspiring artist, critic, and poet. Friends with John Singer Sargent, Glyn Philpot, and William Morris’s wife, Jane, Siordet also tutored the young Aldous Huxley, preparing him for entry to Oxford. And yet in September of 1914, Siordet volunteered as a soldier, leaving behind his artistic ambitions and his work as an ivories cataloguer at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Balliol College at Oxford, Siordet’s alma mater, wrote that although he “seemed little suited, either in physique or in temperament, for a soldier’s life, he was probably happier as a soldier than he had ever been before. Both in the poems which he wrote during this period, and in the drawings which were found in his notebooks, there is evidence to show how finely his mind was touched by his new experience.”  

One of those poems was published in the London Times 30 November 1915, under the pen name Gerald Caldwell (I have added stanza breaks in the copy below).

To the Dead

Since in the days that may not come again

The sun has shone for us on English fields,
Since we have marked the years with thanksgiving,
Nor been ungrateful for the loveliness
Which is our England, then tho' we walk no more
The woods together, lie in the grass no more,
For us the long grass blows, the woods are green,
For us the valleys smile, the streams are bright,
For us the kind sun still is comfortable
And the birds sing; and since your feet and mine 

Have trod the lanes together, climbed the hills,
Then in the lanes and on the little hills
Siordet and other officers enroute to Mesopotamia
Our feet are beautiful forevermore.

And you — O if I call you, you will come
Most loved, most lovely faces of my friends
Who are so safely housed within my heart,
So parcel of this blessed spirit land
Which is my own heart's England, so possest
Of all its ways to walk familiarly
And be at home, that I can count on you,
Loving you so, being loved, to wait for me,
So may I turn me in and by some sweet
Remembered pathway find you once again.
Then we can walk together, I with you,
Or you, or you, along some quiet road,
And talk the foolish, old, forgivable talk.
And laugh together; you will turn your head,
Look as you used to look, speak as you spoke,
My friend to me, and I your friend to you.

Only when at the last, by some cross-road,
On the Road to Emmaus, Duccio
Our longer shadows, falling on the grass,
Turn us back homeward, and the setting sun
Shines like a golden glory round your head,
There will be something sudden and strange in you.
Then you will lean and look into my eyes,
And I shall see the bright wound at your side.
And feel the new blood flowing to my heart,
Your blood, beloved, flowing to my heart,
And I shall hear you speaking in my ear—
O not the old, forgivable, foolish talk,
But flames and exaltations, and desires,
But hopes, and comprehensions, and resolves,
But holy, incommunicable things,
That like immortal birds sing in my breast,
And springing from a fire of sacrifice,
Beat with bright wings about the throne of God.
                                    --Gerald Caldwell Siordet


The poem begins with remembered days of idyllic happiness in the English countryside. And though those days may never return, like Wordsworth’s poem on Tintern Abbey, Siordet’s “To the Dead” affirms that landscapes of memory are doubly precious for having been shared with a friend and for the bygone days that they recall.  Men who once wandered rural lanes have died and will never return, but the valleys, woods, and streams are beautiful still, hallowed by memory and by love.  

And whether encased in muddy boots or naked in death, the feet of the dead are also “beautiful forever.” Siordet's poem echoes with religious references, this one from Isaiah 52:7 and Romans 10:15: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace.”

Christ and the disciples at Emmaus by Dagnan-Bouveret
Photo by Moira Burke
What are the good tidings that the dead carry? The speaker of the poem trustfully says to those who have died, “if I call you, you will come.” The separation is not permanent. Although they have departed from this life and journeyed ahead, the dead are waiting for those who have loved them until “by some sweet/ Remembered pathway [I] find you once again.”

Once reunited, the men will again find ease in the return of familiar companionship.  At first, the poet imagines that all will be as it once was: there will be shared laughter and “foolish, old, forgivable talk.” Yet as shadows lengthen and night falls, the poem pictures a scene that echoes the story of Christ’s friends on the road to Emmaus immediately after His crucifixion. Although the risen Christ walked and talked with the two disciples, “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:16) until in a moment of epiphany as Christ broke bread, they realized the truth of the resurrection: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road?” (Luke 24: 32-33).

In Siordet’s “To the Dead,” the setting sun casts a halo around the head of his fallen comrade, causing the speaker of the poem to behold “something sudden and strange in his friend. Leaning close, the dead companion reveals his wounded side (like Christ’s demonstration to the doubting Thomas), and with this revelation, the speaker now hears whispered in his ear not the old foolish talk of youth, but “holy, incommunicable things.” The voice of the dead speaks in “flames and exaltations,” and “like immortal birds,” the good news sings in the speaker’s breast as new blood beats in his heart.  The poem’s allusions to the Holy Spirit and to the tongues of fire that appeared at Pentecost express the wonder of the resurrection and echo the promise of life eternal.

Basra Memorial, Iraq
Siordet was wounded at the Somme and awarded a Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” in a failed attack that killed one of his closest friends, Geoffrey Smith. Asked to contribute to a memorial book for Smith, Siordet asked that his tribute begin with a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:7): “In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble.” Siordet explained that he had chosen the verse “rather selfishly, because no one but I will really know their significance in his connexion; but in the last moments, before he was hit, while he was running down the line, and came into the shell-hole where I was, he did "shine" with all the grace and keeness of excitement and concentration.”

After recovering from his own injuries of the Somme, Siordet joined the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force in January 1917. He died on February 9, 1917, leading an attack on the Turkish position near Kut-al-Amara. His body was never recovered. 

His name is just one of over forty thousand listed on the Basra Memorial in Iraq, a memorial that remembers British and Commonwealth soldiers of the First World War who died “in the operations in Mesopotamia from the Autumn of 1914 to the end of August 1921 and whose graves are not known.”*

Siordet's name at Basra, photo 2009
*Soldier and poet J. Howard Stables (The Sorrow that Whistled) is also commemorated at the Basra Memorial.

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