Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Soft and slow in wartime

Ledwidge (on right) with his mother
As I wrote in an earlier post ("It is terrible to be always homesick"), the poetry of Francis Ledwidge is strikingly different from the better-known works of other trench poets.  His imagery yearns towards beauty and serenity, and his poems written on the front lines are pastoral and melancholic, just as true in their own way to the experience of war as anything written by Owen or Sassoon.   

Born on August 19th, 1887, the "Poet of the Blackbirds," like many men in the muddy trenches of the First World War, coped with the tragedy and tedium of life on the Western Front by dreaming of home and imagining himself returning there. 

Ledwidge memorial 

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

The poem revels in quietness.  Rising above the din of battle, "faint voices" and "mist and murmurings" speak louder than shell bursts and cannon fire.  The trill of a single robin on a blasted tree echoes for hundreds of miles, recalling bird song from across the Irish Sea. 

The poem also moves with deliberate slowness.  The sheep meander on uphill paths, and the leisurely movement of the day shifts from dawn to noon, then from evening to night.  Time will not be hurried, but moves purposefully through the seasons, from "summer sounds" to "harvest green." 

Frances Ledwidge
War and its frenzied tempo seem very far away – and that is the beauty and gift of this poem, written in mid-July of 1917, during a pause in the bombardment that preceded the Third Battle of Ypres.  Ledwidge was killed two weeks later on July 31st


  1. Francis lies buried in Artillery Wood cemetery, just outide of Ypres. A poetic companion of his, Hedd Wyn (real name Evans), the Welsh bard, was laid to rest at a few metres' distance from his Irish poetic colleague.

  2. I would love to be able to visit someday.

    1. Connie - I have seen these graves. If you ever get over to the UK with a couple of days to spare, I would be happy to take you there.

  3. Only a week ago was a statue of this lyrical "Poet of Blackbirds" unveiled in Rickmond Barracks, Inchicore, on the outskirts of Dublin (Ireland), where this Irish poet was stationed during the Great War.
    Artillery Wood, where the poet found a last resting-place, is a serene and most beautifully maintained spot. If ever you wend your way to the Western Front on a visit to Ypres Salient, I should be glad to recall and recite some of his poems.

    1. Thanks for this news. It's wonderful to see the bust of Ledwidge in Richmond Barracks-- the only statue of him anywhere. And if I'm ever able to visit Artillery Wood, I'll be sure to contact you!

    2. As it is, Ledwidge will be remembered on the centenary of his dying day (2017/07/31) at Artillery Wood Cemetery (N. of Ypres), along with the Welsh soldier-poet Hedd Wyn, who was also buried there. The ceremony will be attended by the Ambassador of the Irish Republic and a large Irish delegation. July 31st, 1917 was the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, which ended at Passchendaele (9th/10th Nov.). Around 250,000 soldiers fell during these awesome months.

  4. Thanks again, Chris. We're hoping to visit Artillery Wood this summer....

    1. Hope you got there Connie!

    2. We did -- and saw both Ledwidge's and Hedd Wyn's graves. Unforgettable.

    3. In Francis' famous poem Soliloquy (featured on the memorial plaque dedicated to him in Artillery Wood Cemetery), his final couplet ran:

      "A little grave that has no name
      Whence honour turns away in shame."

      Not quite untypically the British Army deemed it fit to scrap that last line, for obvious propaganda considerations.
      Owing to this, the full text of Ledwidge's poem hardly ever made it to any WWI poetry anthologies, which, in retrospect, is a rather blatant distortion of the poet's original message.
      Without that final line the poem would perfectly fit the official propaganda intentions.
      Small wonder the fact that 'honour' would leave the soldier's headstone feeling ashamed would ruin any such intentions.

      A similar train of thought appears in Siegfried Sassoon's poem written on the occasion of the inauguration of the (then New) Menin Gate in Ypres (1928). In this ("On Passing the new Menin Gate"), Sassoon writes

      "Was ever an immolation so belied
      As these intolerably nameless names?
      Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
      Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime."

      In the grounds of Tyne Cot Military Cemetery (Passchendaele), the inscription on one headstone is quite eloquently in line with Ledwidge's and Sassoon's message:

      "Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war".

    4. Thanks for sharing this information, Chris. Your insights are always very much appreciated.