Thursday, July 30, 2015

Swift and strong and dear

War Cartoon detail, Rothenstein*
For a mother to lose a son in wartime – that is indescribable grief -- and so it's nearly impossible to comprehend the experience of Ettie Grenfell, who lost two of her boys in just over two months.  Her eldest son, Julian, died May 26, 1915; his younger brother Gerald William, known to the family as Billy, was killed July 30, 1915, less than a mile from where his brother had been wounded in Belgium. 

Both sons wrote poems: Julian, best known for the rousing "Into Battle," is one of the sixteen British war poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey.   His younger brother Billy is one of the lost voices of the war: his only poem was published posthumously in the 1917 anthology The Muse in Arms.  A brief note at the front of the book acknowledges that the poem was contributed to the anthology by his parents.  The younger Grenfell's poem was written in response to the death of John Manners, who was killed in the first weeks of the war on September 1, 1914 when his platoon failed to receive the order to retreat.  Manners' body has never been found.  His name is listed on the
La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial, along with the names of over 3,700 other British soldiers who have become known as the Missing of the Marne. 

To John
(the Hon. John Manners)
by William Grenfell

O heart-and-soul and careless played
Our little band of brothers,
And never recked the time would come
To change our games for others.
It's joy for those who played with you
To picture now what grace
Was in your mind and single heart
And in your radiant face.
Your light-foot strength by flood and field
For England keener glowed;
To whatsoever things are fair
We know, through you, the road;
Nor is our grief the less thereby;
O swift and strong and dear, good-bye.

Grenfell describes the death of his close friend, a boy he played with, a man he grew up with who was like a brother. The poem proclaims that never could any of them have imagined that they would "change our games" for others – for the deadly game of war that ended the life of John Manners with such blunt finality. 

Writing out of an incredulous sense of what has been lost, Grenfell romanticizes and shapes the experience into something he can hold on to: the game has changed, but his friend's strength and speed were not wasted.  Instead, John Manners has won a more noble victory "For England," and through his sacrifice, those who knew and loved him are able to see more clearly the road to "whatsoever things are fair"-- to an afterlife of glory. 

Critics might argue that "To John" is not a particularly good poem: it lacks vivid images and relies on abstract ideas and clichés.  But it is a poem worth remembering, for it honestly shares the emotions of an experience that is heartbreakingly common in wartime.  For the first thirteen lines, the poem seeks to find comfort in recalling memories of a golden past, in celebrating the meaning of the sacrifice, and in affirming the hope of an afterlife.   The last line subtly shifts in tone, and the heartbreak of the loss breaks through.  The poem closes with a personal and final farewell to a dear friend who was "swift and strong and dear" – none of which were enough to save him.
Menin Gate

Grenfell himself was killed in action, joining his friend John Manners as yet another of the hundreds of thousands of the dead of the First World War who have no known grave.  Gerald William Grenfell's name is listed among the missing on the Menin Gate outside Ypres, Belgium.  

*War Cartoon:  (L to R) Charles Lister,  John  Manners, Julian Grenfell, Rupert Brooke, G.W. Grenfell, Hugo Charteris,  Yvo  Charteris (University of Southhampton)


  1. Housman's light-foot lads and Shakespeare's band of brothers. If literature is one of the ways in which we help to make sense of ourselves in the world, then I'm interested in what resources the guys in the trenches had in their heads. And what books in their packs...

  2. Ah, lovely catch on the allusions! What books were in their packs, or what lines were in their heads? I've been reading about the lost art of memorization....