The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge
THE COMPLETE POEMS
OF FRANCIS LEDWIDGE
Printed in Great Britain by Ebenezer Baylis & Son,
Trinity Works, Worcester.
THE FIRST SINGER I KNEW
SONGS OF THE FIELDS
IF one who looked from a tower for a new star, watching for years the same part of the sky, suddenly saw it (quite by chance while thinking of other things), and knew it for the star for which he had hoped, how many millions of men would never care?
And the star might blaze over deserts and forests and seas, cheering lost wanderers in desolate lands, or guiding dangerous quests; millions would never know it.
And a poet is no more than a star.
If one has arisen where I have so long looked for one, amongst the Irish peasants, it can be little more than a secret that I shall share with those who read this book because they care for poetry.
I have looked for a poet amongst the Irish peasants because it seemed to me that almost only amongst them there was in daily use a diction worthy of poetry, as well a an imagination capable of dealing with the great and simple things that are a poet's wares. Their thoughts are in the spring-time, and all their metaphors fresh: in London no one makes metaphors any more, but daily speech is strewn thickly with dead ones that their users should write upon paper and give to their gardeners to burn.
In this same London, two years ago, where I was wasting June, I received a letter one day from Mr. Ledwidge and a very old copy-book. The letter asked whether there was any good in the verses that filled the copy-book, the produce apparently of four or five years. It began with a play in verse that no manager would dream of, there were mistakes in grammar, in spelling of course, and worse—there were such phrases as "'thwart the rolling foam," "waiting for my true love on the lea," etc., which are vulgarly considered to be the appurtenances of poetry; but out of these and many similar errors there arose continually, 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.
Of pure poetry there are two kinds, that which mirrors the beauty of the world in which our bodies are, and that which builds the more mysterious kingdoms where geography ends and fairyland begins, with gods and heroes at war, and the sirens singing still, and Alph going down to the darkness from Xanadu. Mr. Ledwidge gives us the first kind. When they have read through the profounder poets, and seen the problem plays, and studied all the perplexities that puzzle man in the cities, the small circle of readers that I predict for him will turn to Ledwidge as to a mirror reflecting beautiful fields, as to a very still lake rather on a very cloudless evening.
There is scarcely a smile of Spring or a sigh of Autumn that is not reflected here, scarcely a phase of the large benedictions of Summer; even of Winter he gives us clear glimpses sometimes, albeit mournfully, remembering Spring.
"In the red west the twisted moon is low,
And on the bubbles there are half-lit stars Music and twilight: and the deep blue flow
Of water: and the watching fire of Mars.
The deep fish slipping through the moonlit bars
Make death a thing of sweet dreams,—"
What a Summer's evening is here.
And this is a Summer's night in a much longer poem that I have not included in this selection, a summer's night seen by two lovers:
"The large moon rose up queenly as a flower
Charmed by some Indian pipes. A hare went by,
A snipe above them circled in the sky."
And elsewhere he writes, giving us the mood and picture of Autumn in a single line:
"And somewhere all the wandering birds have flown."
With such simple scenes as this the book is full, giving nothing at all to those that look for a "message," but bringing a feeling of quiet from gleaming Irish evenings, a book to read between the Strand and Piccadilly Circus amidst the thunder and hootings.
To every poet is given the revelation of some living thing so intimate that he speaks, when he speaks of it, as an ambassador speaking for his sovereign; with Homer it was the heroes, with Ledwidge it is the small birds that sing, but in particular especially the blackbird, whose cause he champions against all other birds almost with a vehemence such as that with which men discuss whether Mr. ——, M.P., or his friend the Right Honourable —— is really the greater ruffian. This is how he speaks of the blackbird in one of his earliest poems; he was sixteen when he wrote it, in a grocer's shop in Dublin, dreaming of Slane, where he was born; and his dreams turned out to be too strong for the grocery business, for he walked home one night, a distance of thirty miles:
"Above me smokes the little town
With its whitewashed walls and roofs of brown
And its octagon spire toned smoothly down
As the holy minds within.
And wondrous, impudently sweet,
Half of him passion, half conceit,
The blackbird calls adown the street,
Like the piper of Hamelin."
Let us not call him the Burns of Ireland, you who may like this book, nor even the Irish John Clare, though he is more like him, for poets are all incomparable (it is only the versifiers that resemble the great ones), but let us know him by his own individual song: he is the poet of the blackbird.
I hope that not too many will be attracted to this book on account of the author being a peasant, lest he come to be praised by the how-interesting! school; for know that neither in any class, nor in any country, nor in any age, shall you predict the footfall of Pegasus, who touches the earth where he pleaseth and is bridled by whom he will.
I wrote this preface in such a different June, that if I sent it out with no addition it would make the book appear to have dropped a long while since out of another world, a world that none of us remembers now, in which there used to be leisure.
Ledwidge came last October into the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which is in one of the divisions of Kitchener's first army, and soon earned a lance-corporal's stripe.
All his future books lie on the knees of the gods. May They not be the only readers.
Any well-informed spy can probably tell you our movements, so of such things I say nothing.
5th R. Inniskilling Fusiliers.
SONGS OF PEACE
IN this selection that Corporal Ledwidge has asked me to make from his poems I have included "A Dream of Artemis," though it was incomplete and has been hurriedly finished. Were it not included on that account many lines of extraordinary beauty would remain unseen. He asked me if I did not think that it ended too abruptly, but so many pleasant things ended abruptly in the summer of 1914, when this poem was being written, that the blame for that may rest on a meaner, though more exalted, head than that of the poet.
In this poem, as in the other one that has a classical theme, "The Departure of Proserpine," those who remember their classics may find faults, but I read the "Dream of Artemis" merely as an expression of things that the poet has seen and dreamed in Meath, including a most beautiful description of a fox-hunt in the north of the county, in which he has probably taken part on foot; and in "The Departure of Proserpine," whether conscious or not, a crystallization in verse of an autumnal mood induced by falling leaves and exile and the possible nearness of death.
The second poem in the book was written about a little boy who used to drive cows for some farmer past the poet's door very early every morning, whistling as he went, and who died just before the war. I think that its beautiful and spontaneous simplicity would cost some of our writers gallons of midnight oil.
Of the next, "To a Distant One," who will not hope that when "Fame and other little things are won" its clear and confident prophecy will be happily fulfilled?
Quite perfect, if my judgment is of any value, is the little poem on page 175, "In the Mediterranean—Going to the War."
Another beautiful thing is "Homecoming" on page 192.
"The sheep are coming home in Greece,
Hark the bells on every hill,
Flock by flock and fleece by fleece."
One feels that the Greeks are of some use, after all, to have inspired—with the help of their sheep—so lovely a poem.
"The Shadow People" on page 205 seems to me another perfect poem. Written in Serbia and Egypt, it shows the poet still looking steadfastly at those fields, though so far distant then, of which he was surely born to be the singer. And this devotion to the fields of Meath that, in nearly all his songs, from such far places brings his spirit home, like the instinct that has been given to the swallows, seems to be the key-note of the book. For this reason I have named it Songs of Peace, in spite of the circumstances under which they were written.
There follow poems at which some may wonder: "To Thomas McDonagh," "The Blackbirds," "The Wedding Morning"; but rather than attribute curious sympathies to this brave young Irish soldier I would ask his readers to consider the irresistible attraction that a lost cause has for almost any Irishman.
Once the swallow instinct appears again—in the poem called "The Lure"—and a longing for the South, and again in the poem called "Song": and then the Irish fields content him again, and we find him on the last page but one in the book making a poem for a little place called Faughan, because he finds that its hills and woods and streams are unsung. Surely for this if there be, as many believed, gods lesser than Those whose business is with destiny, thunder and war, small gods that haunt the groves, seen only at times by few, and then indistinctly at evening, surely from gratitude they will give him peace.
The Hindenberg Line,
October 9th, 1917.
WRITING amidst rather too much noise and squalor to do justice at all to the delicate rustic muse of Francis Ledwidge, I do not like to delay his book any longer, nor to fail in a promise long ago made to him to write this introduction. He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country's affair. 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; and I know few songs more peaceful and happy, or better suited to soothe the scars on the mind of those who have looked on certain places, of which the prophecy in the gospels seems no more than an ominous hint when it speaks of the abomination of desolation.
He told me once that it was on one particular occasion, when walking at evening through the village of Slane in summer, that he heard a blackbird sing. The notes, he said, were very beautiful, and it is this blackbird that he tells of in three wonderful lines in his early poem called "Behind the Closed Eye," and it is this song perhaps more than anything else that has been the inspiration of his brief life. Dynasties shook and the earth shook; and the war, not yet described by any man, revelled and wallowed in destruction around him; and Francis Ledwidge stayed true to his inspiration, as his homeward songs will show.
I had hoped he would have seen the fame he has well deserved; but it is hard for a poet to live to see fame even in times of peace. In these days it is harder than ever.
- SONGS OF THE FIELDS
27 29 31 34 36 38 40 41 44 46 48 51 53 55 56 58 60 61 63 65 67 70 72 74 76 77 82 84 86 90 92 95 99 101 102 104 106 108 109 110 112 115 117 120 121 125 126 129 131 133 AT HOME 137 152
157 159 161 163
173 175 176
181 183 185
189 192 194
IN HOSPITAL IN EGYPT
199 201 202 204 205
209 210 211 213 215 217 218 220 222 223 224 225 227 228 229 230 232 235 238 240 242 243 245 247 249 251 252 253 254 256 257 258 259 261 262 264 266 269 270 271 272 273 275 276 277 278 280 283 284 285