Monday 31 July 2017

Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917): Ireland's War Poet

"He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age. If ever an age needed beautiful little songs our age needs them." – Lord Dunsany from the Introduction to Last Songs by Francis Ledwidge

Frontispiece, The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge, 1919
By Francis Ledwidge
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On this day in 1917, soldiers from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (an Irish line infantry regiment of the British Army) were taking a break from road-laying preparations that were being undertaken near Boezinge, a village north of the city of Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium. It was part of a planned assault during the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres). A shell exploded nearby killing six members of the regiment. One of them was Francis Ledwidge (b. 1887) from Slane, Co. Meath.

It might have been regarded as just another tragic statistic in a conflict that took the lives of millions (including 50,000 Irishmen). However, the legacy arising from the casualty of Ledwidge's death has endured down through the years. He was already a published poet in his own short lifetime. His death gained him the stature of Ireland's war poet, although he is also recalled as the 'poet of the blackbirds'.

Francis Ledwidge was born into circumstances that are generally described as poverty stricken. With his father dying prematurely (when Francis was only five) he was forced, like many before and after him, to find work at an early age – as a farm labourer, in road construction (poignant given the circumstances of his death), as a miner (where he was sacked for organising a strike), trade union activist and shop assistant.

Although his formal education ended when he was 13, it seems that he continued to educate himself, whenever and wherever he could – it is said that he could even be observed writing on gates or fence posts. From the age of 14, his poems began to be published in a local newspaper, the Drogheda Independent.

Eventually, his work came to the attention of Lord Dunsany, who resided in the same Co. Meath locality that Ledwidge wrote about with such passionate intensity.
"... like a mountain sheer out of marshes, that easy fluency of shapely lines which is now so noticeable in all that he writes; that and sudden glimpses of the fields that he seems at times to bring so near to one that one exclaims, "Why that is how Meath looks," or "It is just like that along the Boyne in April," quite taken by surprise by familiar things: for none of us knows, till the poets point them out, how many beautiful things are close about us." – Lord Dunsany, from the Introduction to Songs of the Field by Francis Ledwidge

Dunsany was considered, at the time, to be "one of the greatest living writers of the English-speaking world" according to Wikipedia. His patronage not only helped Ledwidge to get his first volume of poetry published (Songs of the Fields appeared in 1915, a copy reaching Ledwidge while his unit was marching through Serbia, following the Battle of Gallipoli); it also introduced him to literary circles that included W.B. Yeats and other prominent figures in the Irish Literary Revival.
Francis Ledwidge memorial
Memorial to Francis Ledwidge
on the sport where he died.
By David Edgar (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL],
via Wikimedia Commons

Participation in World War I is one of those enigmas that surrounds Ledwidge. Like others among the war poets of that time, he was no doubt motivated by a keen sense of patriotism and nationalism. However, Ledwidge's attitude towards the war reflected the ambiguity that many of his countrymen felt: one that was as much as odds with the British Empire as it was with German ambitions. He initially opposed John Redmond's call for Irish Volunteers (Ledwidge was a founder member of the Slane branch) to enlist in Irish regiments and support the British war effort. His views were probably much closer to the minority group within the Irish Volunteers, who would go on to play a leading role in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the aftermath of the Rising, Ledwidge expressed views in support of the insurgents that led to his being court-marshalled.
Lament for Thomas MacDonagh
by Francis Ledwidge
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.

Subsequent to his death, two further volumes of poetry appeared. Songs of Peace was in preparation when Ledwidge died and after the war, Dunsany arranged for more of Ledwidge's work to be published in a third and final volume, Last Songs.

His reputation has grown in the years that have followed. His family homestead in Slane was acquired in 1978 and a Francis Ledwidge Museum was opened there in 1982.
Oh what a pleasant world 'twould be,
How easy we'd step thro' it,
If all the fools who meant no harm,
Could manage not to do it!
– Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917)


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