Francis Ledwidge: Selected Poems, ed. by Dermot Bolger, New Island, 144 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-1848405936
Looked at closely, the familiar image of the poet and First World War soldier Francis Ledwidge on the cover of this newly republished Selected Poems corresponds to these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge”: “I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform, / A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave”. The image shows a brooding poet-dreamer but one who, in his army uniform, did not turn away from the responsibilities of conscience.
In his insightful and rigorous introduction, Heaney cites several key phrases that get to the crux of the Meath poet’s nature and temperament – his “complex of feelings”, “conflict of feelings”, and “agonised consciousness” – but perhaps most telling is the statement that Ledwidge represented “conflicting elements in the Irish inheritance”.
By the time he joined the British army in 1914, he had forged a path that suggested a mindful and passionate man of action, actions that seemed contraindicative to any notion of joining the ranks or submitting to the regulations of a soldier’s life: his trade union activism as strike organiser in the copper mines at Beauparc, his involvement as a committed nationalist with the Irish Volunteers and Gaelic League and as an outspoken member of Navan Rural Council, where he initially voiced a very clear hostility to John Redmond’s call to the Volunteers to join in the fight against Germany.
His almost immediate change of heart and decision to sign up for the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at Richmond Barracks has long been a matter of contentious speculation – was it the influence of his ascendancy-class literary patron and mentor, Lord Dunsany, his failure to form a love-match with Ellie Vaughey or a desire for “wandering to far-off places”. It has been suggested that Ledwidge was a tangle of contradictions but it is not as simple as that. His “complex of feelings” was also a condition matching that moment of Ireland’s history.
His decision to enlist cannot be attributed to any single impulse but what cannot be disregarded is the high moral benchmark behind Ledwidge’s clear-minded conviction that Britain “stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”.
However, that sense of moral obligation or any elaboration of it is nowhere evident in the poetry. Nor did his initiation into the experiences of war deepen or intensify the mood of his work or widen the scope of its imagery. Apart from the odd and sometimes oddly juxtaposed reference (“A bomb burst near me where I lay / I woke, ’twas day in Picardy”), Ledwidge did not admit the war into his poetry and, unlike the British war poets – Rosenberg, for example, who saw the “torn fields of France” and heard “the shrieking iron and flame” – it had no discernible impact on him as a poet. Mostly he adhered to his natural terrain – rapture before nature – and the fixities of home in what he wrote in surroundings of horrendous conflict, remaining content to imaginatively “walk the old frequented ways” and to hear
a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.
The temper of Ledwidge’s imagination was formed in those “little fields” of his Meath landscape as well as by the community that dwelled there and his own humble circumstances, which included seeing the extreme hardships endured by his widowed mother. “God forgot us,” he once wrote. Dermot Bolger, this volume’s assiduous editor, rightly questions the tendency to depict Ledwidge’s bucolic life as “picturesque”.
“Land is only good if you possess it,” Bolger writes in his compelling memoir-essay on his own personal search as a young poet to retrace the life of Ledwidge. But the Meath poet imaginatively took possession of what his biographer, Alice Curtayne, called “the beauty of his birthplace” and never relinquished it as a theme and inspiration, remaining grounded in his native landscape and its connection to Ireland’s ancient past.
Aesthetically, much of his earlier poetry appears open to harsh critical judgment. The labels that stuck to him – “peasant poet” and even the trademark “poet of the blackbird” – did him no favours. Heaney, while acknowledging the authentic note in the poems, doesn’t spare his punches: “his melodiousness can at times verge upon the infantile”. But showing signs that he was learning to be his own critic, Ledwidge, in a letter to the poet Katherine Tynan after receiving proofs of his second collection, Songs of Peace, admits that some of the poems “had been scribbled off in odd moments … I lament them in sober times.” This willingness to engage in self-scrutiny, along with a number of harder-edged, well-made lyrics, point to a better poet waiting in the wings, one who was developing in both subject matter and treatment of it.
While the war in which he was both soldier and witness may not have sparked Ledwidge’s imagination or his poetic emotions, the outcome of the Easter Rebellion did. The “agonised conscience” that Heaney mentions was again tested, as well as the sense of moral obligation that led him to the British army recruiting office. It also of course led to his most famous poem, “Lament for Thomas MacDonagh”. His public anger over the execution of the rebellion leaders (he had formed a friendship with MacDonagh) did not, however, deflect him from his soldierly duties.
The anger was expressed in another short lyric (not included here and also overlooked in the Collected Poems) that demonstrates the development of a more muscular strain in his poetic idiom and a questioning voice that, had he survived the war, is likely to have found compelling themes in the new republic. Ledwidge, in a post-independence Ireland, might have swapped the pastoral for the polemical.
A noble victory is not vain,
But hath a victory its own.
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown …
(“O’Connell Street” – the title was added to this originally untitled two-stanza poem when the manuscript was discovered by Ledwidge scholars after his death.)
This selection is tightly culled from the Complete Poems, edited by Curtayne in the early 1970s. The poet of more solid achievement and further promise is represented here in many of the choices, and the editor was wise to exclude Ledwidge’s many poems on themes from Irish mythology.
The poems of his first collection, Songs of The Fields, most of them written before he enlisted, seem to flutter between felicity and melancholy and bear the influence – in both imagery and melody – of Keats. The most accomplished of these from his apprentice period is perhaps “The Wife of Llew”, also recently included in the major new anthology The Zoo of the New: Poems to Read Now.
There are a number of poems in this gathering worth considering as a foretaste of the better poet Ledwidge was showing signs of becoming. “A Fear”, for example, or “At Evening”, which ends with a stanza closer to what Pound called “the heart’s tone” than his more self-conscious lines:
There won’t be song, for song has died.
There won’t be flowers for the flowers are done.
I shall see the red of a large cold sun
Wash down on the cold blue tide,
Where the noiseless deep fish glide
In the dark wet shade of the heavy lime.
This enhancement of tone is evident too in his “Lament for Thomas MacDonagh”, and in the elegiac calm of the poem written after receiving news of Ellie Vaughey’s death, “To One Dead”. These glimpses of his developing craft validate what James Stephens said about him, that the promise he showed was “greater than that of any young poet now writing”. Before his death a hundred years ago Ledwidge wrote to Dunsany: “My best … has to come yet. I feel something great struggling in my soul but it can’t come until I return; if I don’t return it will never come.”
Not only was Francis Ledwidge’s non-return a loss to Irish poetry, but like his fellow poet and soldier Thomas Kettle, a loss to the civic life of his country; the Irish who fought and died in the First World War, as well as those who returned from its battlefields to become the forgotten, were denied a representative voice when Ledwidge was killed by a random shell in the third battle of Ypres on July 31st, 1917.
Gerard Smyth’s new collection of poems set in and about Co Meath, The Yellow River (with artwork by Sean McSweeney), is published by Solstice Arts Centre, Navan. Other collections include A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press).