Some soldier poets/Frances Ledwidge
Francis Ledwidge, as a poet, is the complement of Sorley; each brings us what the other lacks. Ledwidge has no constructive power, and the impetus of his cadences rarely carries him satisfactorily through even a short poem, whereas Sorley's rode on unchecked by weak lines and poor phrasing. Our new poet's language is, on the other hand, often over-poetical, and his images sometimes fantastically dazzling—an excess of the quality which critics perceive most easily and welcome most widely! And a vivid coloured flash on its surface is an important element in great verse. Lord Dunsany, who introduces Ledwidge to the public, tells us that he was born a peasant in Meath and tried once to assist a Dublin grocer. But cities cannot cage these wild souls, home memories inveigle, the country lures,
"And wondrous impudently sweet,
Half of him passion, half conceit,
The blackbird calls adown the street
Like the piper of Hamelin."
And the lad of sixteen who had written this "walked home one night a distance of thirty miles."
Since the war he had become a corporal in the regiment in which Lord Dunsany was a captain, and had travelled to Greece and Egypt. This preface likens him to John Clare, our English pauper poet, of one hundred years ago, whose life among a nation of shopkeepers is the saddest idyll; and even to-day I fancy that Ledwidge might have been congratulated on his birth the other side of St George's Channel, among people more patient with and more appreciative of poets. John Clare's poems were a series of delights over detail, grouped more or less as in nature by locality and season, yet rarely, if ever, shaped into a poetic whole. Ledwidge's verse stores details too, but they are less varied and less realistic, though better transmuted by his moods, for he is moved even more by the image that caps the perception than by the thing perceived. As a poet, at least, he too lived in a dream not yet articulated by reason and purpose. And one is tempted, though one has no right, to suppose that his life also may have had something of the ineffectual simplicity of John Clare's. His rhymes are related to those of Mr Yeats and the minor Irish poets of to-day, as Clare's were to Keats', Wordsworth's and Cowper's, and I think this is all that can be really meant when he has been praised for style. Irish work may often seem to have more style than English, even when it is far weaker in the fundamental qualities of great literature. Dominant moods give it a singleness and independence of outlook which condones the absence of complexity in emotion and of balance in intellectual grasp.
I saw the little quiet town,
And the whitewashed gables on the hill.
And laughing children coming down
The laneway to the mill.
Wind-blushes up their faces glowed,
And they were happy as could be,
The wobbling water never flowed
So merry and so free.
One little maid withdrew aside
To pick a pebble from the sands.
Her golden hair was long and wide,
And there were dimples on her hands.
And when I saw her large blue eyes,
What was the pain that went through me?
Why did I think on Southern skies
And ships upon the sea?
I think this is as near as Ledwidge ever comes to organic perfection, though two freaks of phrasing fleck its very real beauty and success.
"And Gwydion said to Math, when it was Spring:
'Come now and let us make a wife for Llew.'
And so they broke broad boughs yet moist with dew
And in a shadow made a perfect ring:
They took the violet and the meadow-sweet
To form her pretty face, and for her feet
They built a mound of daisies on a wing.
And for her voice they made a linnet sing
In the wide poppy blowing for her mouth.
And over all they chanted twenty hours.
And Llew came singing from the azure south
And bore away his wife of birds and flowers."
If the success of this is smoother, there is to my mind a suspicion of the happy moment of a professor of poetry in its well-worn theme and the refurbished stock images of the Celtic Muse. The Death of Aillil, the most successful of his attempts at narrative, fails for me in the same way. Songs of the Fields, his first volume, rewards the reader far better than Songs of Peace, in good part written since the war began. Yet his soldiering in Greece gives us this:
THE HOME-COMING OF THE SHEEP
The sheep are coming home in Greece,
Hark the bells on every hill!
Flock by flock, and fleece by fleece,
Wandering wide a little piece
Thro' the evening red and still,
Stopping where the pathways cease,
Cropping with a hurried will.
Thro' the cotton bushes low
Merry boys with shouldered crooks
Close them in a single row,
Shout among them as they go
With one bell-ring o'er the brooks.
Such delight you never know
Reading it from gilded books. . . .
The fourth line is quite as inadequate as some of Sorley's most careless, but the poem is exquisite; only in the book the picture and mood are weakened by an additional stanza.
His movements are more sustainedly happy in less original work, which is an indication that he had it in him to surpass what now remains his best.
"I often look when the moon is low
Thro' that other window on the wall,
At a land all beautiful under snow,
Blotted with shadows that come and go
When the winds rise up and fall.
And the form of a beautiful maid
In the white silence stands
And beckons me with her hands. . . ."
The trouble produced by a soldier's life in such a mind accounts for the comparative poverty of the second book, rather than any failure of impulse or resource. Neither book is so much a collection of poems as a store-house of lines, phrases and images, with here a cadence caught and lost, there a striking thought—choice things, but rarely mounted to advantage, rather, to use his own words, like
". . . an apron full of jewels The dewy cobweb swings."
Here are others: and you might have as many again, were there space to quote them:
"The large moon rose up queenly as a flower
Charmed by some Indian pipes."
"And all we learn but shows we know the less."
"When the wind passing took your scattered hair
And flung it like a brown shower in my face."
"Within the oak a throb of pigeon wings."
"And the blue
Of hiding violets, watching for your face,
Listen for you in every dusky place."
"The moon had won
Her way above the woods, with her small star
Behind her like the cuckoo's little mother. . . ."
"The bees are holding levees in the flowers."
"Day hangs its light between two dusks, my heart,
Always beyond the dark there is the blue.
Some time we'll leave the dark, myself and you,
And revel in the light for evermore.
But in the dark your beauty shall be strong.
Pigeons are home. Day droops—the fields are cold.
Now a slow wind comes labouring up the sky
With a small cloud long steeped in sunset gold,
Like Jason with the precious fleece anigh
The harbour of Iolcos. Day's bright eye
Is filmed with the twilight, and the rill
Shines like a scimitar upon the hill."
These things are strung together with little apparent connection except the rhymes, each poem's structure being the pattern that these make. However, you could glean felicities in such quantities from no other of these Soldier Poets, not even from Brooke; and note that this underlines Brooke's superiority; his reflective and organic power makes more of fewer treasures. The best effect of reading Ledwidge is that which he describes in a poem dedicated to M. McG. ("Who came one day when we were all gloomy and cheered us with sad music").
"Old memories knocking at each heart
Troubled us with the world's great lie:
You sat a little way apart
And made a fiddle cry.
And rivers full of little lights
Came down the fields of waving green:
Our immemorial delights
Stole in on us unseen."
The delight with which a child first perceives beauty, though it be forgotten, must never be barred and shuttered from return into the mind by coarsening habit or humbling care. If this happens, the enchantment of poetry is powerless. And as Antæus' strength was increased whenever his feet touched the earth, æsthetic power revives when these primordial joys return into the lofty buildings of a master mind; and should these smiling visitors desert it finally, however noble the building, its charm grows cold; so important is this love of particular things and particular aspect of things to the mind. This tenderness over detail means more to poetry and painting than the theorist easily allows. Though perceived as a flash on the surface, this is a pulse of health that, having made youth perfect, can recreate maturity and old age. Everything that exists is holy, or at least demonic, when seen as a new and solitary portent; thus it appears first to the child, and must reappear to inspire the artist.
In these small books, those whom the war has hurried too much and too long, and those whom it has deafened and sickened with evil sounds and evil sights, may find a well of refreshment suitable to a convalescent mood that has not the energy to appreciate more elegant, noble or massive creations. Had he lived Ledwidge might very well have shown more constructive power than I seem to allow. He was still quite young when he was killed in Flanders; and those finer things that his genius would have created when it was fully organised were lost for ever. The choice and subtle images which crown his perceptions so frequently are in themselves structures, just as the cells of the body are living organisms. As we have seen, Sorley stands quite alone in power to shape an inevitable whole at so early an age. The vision that rises for me as I read these Songs of the Fields is more like John Clare than it would be were my mind more capable of detecting the intimate difference of tissue in the liveliest productions of the two men. Still, though in him it were but a phase to outgrow, this temperament embodies before my eyes, as an inveterate way of life in which most poets have some share. Though the body it informs grow old, this does not age: young-eyed, it has wandered every land where an oral literature was cherished, a welcome figure with the pathetic refinement of one who has mused much and yet lives destitute of creature comforts. His clothes have been new in regions far apart, though wear and weather have made them merely his, well-nigh obliterating fashions and colour. Watch, he stops on the hill road before a little fountain's trough which some herd-boy has banked round with turfs and stones, that a few sheep or a cow may drink the better! He discerns in it more success than his own activity has compassed—an image of hopes he once owned. He kneels and, gazing into the limpid basin, sees not, like Narcissus, his own features, but most dear memories, moonrises and sunsets, wind-bent boughs, the calls of many birds, nodding flowers, children running, laughing and kissing—he sees and hears as he first saw and heard. From many poems the delight of other men's visions changes and interchanges with these until he clears a mist from his eyes, for always before long he expects "a face full of smiles," a young woman's, always the same, though now the eyes are blue, now grey, now brown, though the hair curls or is smooth, though name after name seems to fit it, though blue jewels made from feathers crown it or coral from the sea, helmeted now in fur and now in mail, or white-capped like "a fairy hooded in one bell of the valley-lily," or, uncovered, with tresses that play with the wind. The eyes are always innocent, always welcoming, but so various that, despite a constant homeliness, it is a goddess's face—her laugh is heard wherever this or that in the world has pleased eye or ear of this wanderer, whose heart has remained young and fresh as that of a boy. And he, he forgets his life, forgets the stones and glinting mica silt that floor that limpid trough, forgets the grass of Parnassus that he has set floating on it, and is where she is, while contentment fills him and that lonely place.
- Songs of the Fields. By Francis Ledwidge. Herbert Jenkins. 1915. Songs of Peace. By Francis Ledwidge. Herbert Jenkins. 1917. Quotations by permission of Herbert Jenkins, Esq., and Lord Dunsany.