Lines the English don’t read
At eleven o’clock tomorrow morning, the school will stop for two minutes of silence to mark the anniversary of the armistice. Lines from the English war poets Owen and Sassoon appear in students’ work on the walls. Perhaps it would have disturbed the English teachers, but it would have been different if they had included the work of Tom Kettle. Kettle’s To my Darling daughter Betty:The Gift of God is a father’s farewell to his child:
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 dice 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 herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Perhaps Francis Ledwidge might also have appeared. He was dismayed at the British reaction to the Easter Rising in 1916 and his work includes a lament for Thomas McDonagh, one of the leaders of the Rising executed by the British.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
His poem Soliloquy comes at the end of a chequered life:
When I was young I had a care
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.
But I grew weary doing well.
Besides, ’twas sweeter in that hell,
Down with the loud banditti people
Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple
For jackdaws’ eyes and made the cock
Crow ere ’twas daylight on the clock.
I was so very bad the neighbours
Spoke of me at their daily labours.
And now I’m drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
To-morrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?
It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name.
Why should they have included the work of Irish nationalists alongside the work of English writers?
Because they died fighting in the same war.
Kettle’s poem is dated ‘In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 1916′. He died in action at Guillemont on 9th September 1916.
Ledwidge died on 31st July 1917, north-west of Ypres. The chaplain wrote, “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits”. He had been part of a group mending a road prior to an attack; stopping for tea, they were all killed by a random shell.
Kettle and Ledwidge seem to have been on the wrong side of both English and Irish history. .
Very powerful and moving poems. Even though there is a greater recognition in Ireland of those who fought and died in WW1 I wonder if these poems are read in schools on 11th November.