Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dead Man's Bread

Leslie Heron Beauchamp
On October 6, 1915, just one week after spending leave in England with his sister, and a little over one week before that sister’s birthday, Leslie Heron Beauchamp died in Ploegsteert Wood, near Messines, Belgium.  Known to his family as “Chummie,” Beauchamp was instructing troops in the use of grenades when one malfunctioned, killing him and a nearby officer.   

Beauchamp’s sister was the author Katherine Mansfield. For the rest of her life, she was haunted by his death. 

To L.H.B. (1894 – 1915)
Katherine Mansfield
by Katherine Mansfield

Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
“Don’t touch them: they are poisonous,” I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head.
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
“Don’t you remember? We called them Dead Man’s Bread!”
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where – where is the path of my dream for my eager feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands…
“These are my body.  Sister, take and eat.”

What is real – the dream or the death?  The first nine lines of Mansfield’s poem recall a dream in which a protective older sister warns her brother against the dangers of beautiful, poisonous berries.  As dreams typically unfold, the commonplace scene is intertwined with the surreal, as her brother’s head seems haloed in “a beam/Of strange, bright laughter.”  Saint-like, he stands before her. 

The rhymes of the poem break off and change in the tenth line, as the dreamer awakes from the pastoral scene to a storm that echoes her distress:  a moaning wind and the dark confusion of pounding waves.   Futilely, she searches for the “path of my dream,” for a way back to the imagined world and the comforting, resurrected presence of her dead brother.  In her dream, the brother who was killed in war waits for her, holding “Dead Man’s Bread.” With berries in his hands, he offers her communion.  How can what has been so brutally taken by War be restored?  It is possible to rejoin her sibling, but only if she herself eats of death, symbolized by both the scarlet fruit and her dead brother’s body. 

The poem beautifully and subtly gives voice to the despair of women who were left to mourn the dead.  It was neither Christian nor proper for women to admit to suicidal thoughts, but journals and letters of the period make clear that many longed for release and oblivion.  Mansfield channeled her grief into her writing, as her notebooks from early in 1916 show:
Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

“Now—now I want to write recollections of my own country. Yes, I want to write about my own country till I simply exhaust my store. Not only because it is “a sacred debt” that I pay to my country because my brother and I were born there, but also because in my thoughts I range with him over all the remembered places. I am never far away from them. I long to renew them in writing…But all must be told with a sense of mystery, a radiance, an afterglow, because you, my little sun of it, are set. You have dropped over the dazzling brim of the world. Now I must play my part.”

After his death, Leslie Beauchamp became a ghostly Muse for his sister: “When I am not writing I feel my brother calling me & he is not happy.  Only when I write or am in state of writing – a state of inspiration – do I feel that he is calm.” Rest in peace, Lt. Beauchamp and the sister who loved you.  

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