Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To One Dead


Frances Ledwidge was an Irish nationalist who joined the British Army in October of 1914 to defend Ireland and further the cause of Irish Home Rule. With the 10th Irish Division, he fought in Gallipoli and was injured in Serbia. Known as “the Poet of the Blackbird,” Ledwidge lived to see only one volume of his poetry published: Songs of the Fields (1915).  

In the spring of 1916, Ledwidge was on leave, passing through Manchester on his way home to Ireland, when he received news of the 1916 Easter Rising and the execution of his friend, fellow poet, and Easter Rising leader, Thomas MacDonagh. Ledwidge extended his stay in Ireland without permission, spoke out in favor of the Easter Rising, and was court-martialed upon his return to the Western Front.

Although he continued to serve with the British Army and was eventually promoted to the rank of lance corporal, the events of the First World War and the Easter Rising intensified Ledwidge’s allegiance to Ireland, and in his writings, the Irish countryside is poignantly imagined as a symbol of hope and of peace.

In early 1917, he wrote to another Irish poet, Katharine Tynan, “If I survive the war, I have great hopes of writing something that will live.  If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired.”* Ledwidge’s second volume of poems, Songs of Peace, was in press when he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele. 

To One Dead

Ledwidge memorial
A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Bluebells swinging,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.

A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
Bluebells swinging,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood's threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me. 
--Francis Ledwidge

Much like Ledwidge’s short life, the repressed energy of the poem comes from holding together and balancing contradictory ideas. Set against the swinging movement of the bluebells and the wild blowing of the wind, a blackbird sits on a moss-covered stone and sings in the stillness of a wood.  The bird’s sorrowful song for the dead (the “wood’s threnody”) dies into a silence that echoes with the pain of division.

Vast is the distance between sea and wood, and nothing can bridge the chasm that separates the voice of the poem’s speaker from the poem’s subject – the dead. Even the rhymes of the poem echo the theme of estrangement: the first line of the poem delays in finding its rhyming pair until the second stanza, leaving the rhymed sounds separated by five intervening lines.  Ledwidge’s melancholy poem accepts and wrings patterns of beauty from tragedies of life and of war that cannot be changed.

During the summer of 1917, Ledwidge waited for the publication of his second volume of poetry as his unit prepared for another major battle on the Western Front. In one of his last letters to Katharine Tynan, Ledwidge reminisced about Ireland and home:

“I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.”**

On July 31, 1917, Francis Ledwidge and five other men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were killed by a stray artillery shell that landed behind the lines.  Ledwidge is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium; his grave is only steps away from that of the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who also died that day. The silence and sorrow can still be felt in the small cemetery outside Ypres. 
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*Alice Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge: A Life of the Poet. Martin Brian and O'Keeffe, 1972, p. 170.
**Ibid, pp. 185-186.
***For other Ledwidge poems, see the posts “It is terrible to be always homesick” and “Soft and slow in wartime.”

10 comments:

  1. Sure is an interesting look at this poem

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    1. Thanks for reading and responding!

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  2. I appreciate the background and great explanation on each poem.

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    1. Thanks for reading and replying, Katie!

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  3. Fantastic - thank you - I go to Ypres next month, I will send you pics.

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    1. Artillery Wood is a special place -- thanks, Graham!

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  4. How I envy you the time you get to spend with these poems. Marvelous as always.

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    1. Tom, you're exactly right -- I'm enormously privileged to spend time with these poems!

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  5. No John Drinkwater celestial chimney-pots for Ledwidge! Your post brought to mind H.H. Munro's quite wonderful Birds on the Western Front" http://tnsatlanta.org/wp-content/uploads/Birds-on-the-Western-Front-Saki.pd

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    1. Thanks for sharing the connection with HH Munro -- lovely! "In the chill, misty hour of gloom that precedes a rainy dawn, when nothing seemed alive except a few wary waterlogged sentries and many scuttling rats, the lark would suddenly dash skyward and pour forth a song of ecstatic jubilation that sounded horrible forced and insincere."

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