11 November 2018

Three poems by war poets
for Remembrance Sunday

Wilting poppies in Comberford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 11 November 1918,

11 a.m., Remembrance Sunday,

Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Instead of preaching a sermon this morning, I thought it would be more appropriate to read three short poems by three war poets of World War I.

One was English-born but was posted to Limerick during World War I; the second was English-born but had strong family roots in these dioceses and regarded himself as Irish; and the third was an Irish Nationalist MP before he enlisted and died in the trenches in 1916.

1, ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon

The first poem, ‘Aftermath,’ was written by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) in 1919, during the time of his demobilisation. He was born to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother and was much-decorated in World War I. During the war, he was stationed for some time in Limerick, along with his close friend Robert Graves (1895-1985), a grandson of Charles Graves (1812-1899), Bishop of Limerick (1866-1899).

During this time in Limerick during the war, Siegfried Sassoon wrote about his impressions of the streets of Limerick, and of his time riding to hounds in west Limerick.

In the years immediately after World War I, his poem ‘Aftermath’ was often broadcast on Armistice Day. It is rich, haunting, and bursting with the enormities of war:

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

2, ‘Waste,’ by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

The Revd Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, MC (1883-1929), was an Anglican priest and poet who was known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ during World War I because he gave away cigarettes along with spiritual and pastoral assistance to injured and dying soldiers.

His father, the Revd William Studdert Kennedy, Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Quarry Hill, in Leeds, was from Blackrock, Co Dublin, and was the Rector of Saint Doulagh’s in north Co Dublin for 14 years before moving to England. Woodbine Willie’s mother, Jeanette (née Anketell), was from Co Clare.

His grandfather, the Very Revd Robert Mitchell Kennedy (1798-1864), had preceded Bishop Graves as Dean of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway (1850-1864), and was also Precentor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Woodbine Willie always saw himself as an Irishman, and he graduated in classics and divinity from Trinity College Dublin in 1904. At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered as a chaplain on the Western Front. He was decorated with the Military Cross after he ran through shells into ‘no man’s land’ to obtain supplies of morphine.

His turning point came when he stopped talking to and started listened to the troops and their views on war, the monarchy and poverty. After his discharge in 1919, he spoke throughout Britain against war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty, and he published several volumes of religious poetry and a collection of sermons.

His later poems and prose work express his Christian socialism and pacifism. He gave away his possessions and donated the large royalties from his poems to charity.

On one of his speaking tours on behalf of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, he died in Liverpool in 1929. He was exhausted although he was only 45. The Dean of Westminster Abbey refused him a burial because, he said, he was a socialist. But, still, poor people flocked to his funeral in Worcester.

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on this day 33 years ago 11 November 1985 – but not ‘Woodbine Willie.’ Yet his close friend William Temple became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, and his writings have inspired many modern theologians, including Desmond Tutu and Jürgen Moltmann.

Towards the end of World War I, Woodbine Willie wrote his poem ‘Waste.’

Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth's most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God –

3, ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God,’ by Tome Kettle

Thomas Michael Kettle (1880-1916) was an economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier and Home Rule politician. As a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Tom Kettle, was MP for East Tyrone (1906-1910).

His close friends included James Joyce, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Oliver St John Gogarty.

He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, and then enlisted in the army on the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He was killed in action on the Western Front in Autumn 1916.

Kettle’s best-known poem is a sonnet, ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God,’ written just days before his death. The last lines are an answer to those who criticised Irishmen for fighting in the army:

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 die 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 a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A prayer for peace in Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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