Delayed honour: the Irish war poets
The politics they returned to meant it is only in recent years that the stories of the Irish men and women who died – and wrote – in the Great War have been heard
Desolation: part of Zonnebeke, painted in 1918 by William Orpen. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
George Russell: raised the issue, in a challenging letter to The Irish Times in 1917, of how the country would deal with the return of its soldiers alongside mounting anger about the execution of the leaders of the Rising
Ireland, poetry and the first World War is a story of contradictions, of contrasts and, a century later, of reconciliation. It should not pass us by that in Irish cities and throughout the countryside, the legacy of the first World War is no longer hidden. So, too, in the personal histories of many thousands of families, the experience of fighting in the Great War, of surviving or not surviving it, has been released into civil society and understood in a public way that was inconceivable even 20 years ago. Whatever about the politics of the war, the reality of Irish engagement is no longer a matter of conjecture or partisan interpretation. The lives and reality of so many ordinary families has been vindicated.
The ceremonies that marked the end of the first World War and the commemorations that lasted until the outbreak of the second World War in both capitals and provincial cities in Ireland are now integrating into a more complex history of the entire island and its complicated relationships with itself, with Britain and with Europe during the last century; so, too, with our literature.
Go back in time to, say, Katherine Tynan, from Clondalkin, Co Dublin, a good friend and supporter of WB Yeats, and her response to the killing fields of war in her poem Flower of Youth, and one recognises how this most popular of poems conveys the yearning of the time that all the suffering and sacrifice was not in vain:
Heaven’s thronged with gay and careless faces,
New-waked from dreams of dreadful things.
They walk in green and pleasant places
And by the crystal water springs
Who dreamt of dying and the slain,
And the fierce thirst and the strong pain.
Yeats, however, was having none of it. Asked to contribute a poem for an anthology published in aid of those made homeless by the war, in typical contradictory fashion, Yeats both refused and agreed, by writing a poem about not writing a war poem. The six-line poem On Being Asked for a War Poem begins:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right [.]
A bit of a statesman himself, Yeats would argue the toss repeatedly, with himself and others, in his poems and in his prose, about what the poet should or should not do “in times like these” – in other words, war times. Thirty some years later, in his (in)famous introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which he had edited, Yeats looked back at the poets of the first World War with barely concealed “distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the Great War”. He went on to justify this with quite a controversial statement for 1936: “The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity . . . but felt bound in the words of the best known [Wilfred Owen] to plead the suffering of their men . . . they made suffering their own. I have rejected these poems . . . passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced.”
But while Yeats rejected Wilfred Owen (“a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution . . . all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick”, he remarked in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley), he did include in the anthology some other war poets, both English (Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Herbert Read among them) and Irish, such as Thomas MacGreevy, the Kerry-born poet who had fought and been wounded at the front.
MacGreevy, a sophisticated writer and enthusiastic nationalist, was, by the time Yeats’s anthology appeared, a close friend of James Joyce, and he would also become Samuel Beckett’s closest confidante for decades to come. He had witnessed the war at first hand and in the only volume of his poems published during his lifetime, Poems (1934), MacGreevy singled out the ghostly landscape and sense of loss he had experienced on learning of the death of his friend, Geoffrey England Taylor:
I labour in a barren place,
Alone, self-conscious, frightened, blundering;
Far away, stars wheeling in space,
About my feet, earth voices whispering.
The imagistic clarity of the poem and the existential sense of abandonment, encountering the lives of those who had died and whose spirits remain, “earth voices whispering”, has a kind of Beckettian awe about it, clearly detached from the blood and thunder of fellow first World War poets.
Indeed, unlike their more famous English soldier-poet contemporaries – Owen, Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, David Jones – the Irish poets who fought seemed to have preferred not to depict the gruesome realities of war in any detail whatsoever. The Irish pastoralist poet, Francis Ledwidge, who, like Owen, died in action, is a good example of this elision, even though he took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war and would have witnessed some horrible sights:
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest,
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.
So too with those who survived the war, such as Monk Gibbon, Patrick McGill, CS Lewis – their war poems are more general, etherealised impressions of waiting to go over the top or making it through, although, as their memoirs and autobiographies make plain, they were personally traumatised by their war experiences. McGill, wounded at the Battle at Loos in 1915, wrote:
My heart is sick, of the level lands,
Where the wingless windmills be,
Where the long-nosed guns from dusk to dawn
Are speaking angrily;
But the little home by Glenties Hill,
Ah! that’s the place for me.
Belfast writer Thomas Carnduff’s poems of memory scan the battlefields of Messines, June, 1917 and Ypres, September, 1917 with cinematic objectivity except for that one dreadful word, “mangled”:
Light breezes, scented with North Sea spray,
Breathe murmurs of remorse,
And leafless shell-scarred branches sway
Above each mangled corpse.
We notice retrospectively that, comparatively speaking, these men did not render the shocking physical impact on the human body or psyche of this industrialised carnage, as in Wilfred Owen’s gruesome re-enactment of gas attacks, for example. Their poems waver from nostalgia for “the little home” to a starker, almost stunned clarity, as in Thomas MacGreevy’s De Civitate Hominum. At the front, he shows how the visual composition of sky and earth still draws in the eye even as the most tragic of scenes is about to unfold: the shooting down of a spotter plane and the terrible death of its pilot:
The morning sky glitters
The earth is snow-white,
With the gleam snow-white answers to sunlight,
Save where shell-holes are new,
Black spots in the whiteness –
A Matisse ensemble.
The very tranquillity of the scene masks the horror:
. . . suddenly there is a tremor,
A zigzag of lines against the blue
And he streams down
Into the white,
A delicate flame,
A stroke of orange in the morning’s dress.
It took Winifred M Letts, who worked as a nurse during the war, to capture its actual conditions in a poem such as Screens – about the death in hospital of a young soldier – or the moral complexities that war also produces, in her idiomatic poem The Deserter, dealing with a difficult, emotive subject only recently taken out of the zone of military discipline and rendered intelligible as an issue of humane concern:
. . . fear had gripped him, so had death;
His number had gone up that day,
They might not heed his frightened eyes,
They shot him when the dawn was grey.
Blindfolded, when the dawn was grey,
He stood there in a place apart,
The shots rang out and down he fell.
But it took a painter, the great artist William Orpen, to portray the pathetic conditions these men inhabited in the “theatre of war”, in his poem The Church, Zillebeke, October 1918, set in an entirely inhospitable place of ear-splitting bombardment and destructiveness, unimaginable to the ordinary citizen back home. No wonder he called it “that mad start of hell”:
Nothing but mud.
The very air seems thick with it,
The few tufts of grass are all smeared with it –
The Church a heap of it;
One look, and weep for it.
That’s what they’ve made of it –
Slimy and wet,
Churned and upset;
Here Bones that once mattered
With crosses lie scattered,
Broken and battered,
Covered in mud,
Here, where the Church’s bell
Tolled when our heroes fell
In that mad start of hell –
That’s all that’s left of it – mud!
As we know, many thousands fell and never returned to their families in Ireland, while others, the luckier ones, did survive and did return from the maelstrom. But return to what?
Post-first World War Ireland was also post-Easter Rising Ireland and was heading in a few years’ time into a revolutionary war of its own that would be followed by civil war.
AE, the nom-de-plume of George Russell, another of Yeats’s long-time friends and a fellow Celtic Twilighter, was moved to write to The Irish Times a long and challenging letter in December 1917.
He raised the issue of how the country would “deal” with the soldiers return alongside the recent pain and mounting anger over the imprisoning and execution of the leaders of the Rising.
In a poem appended to the letter, AE perceptively, if perhaps a little naively, urged readers of The Irish Times to see as a quasi-religious epiphany a future in which:
. . . the confluence of dreams
That clashed together in our night
One river, born of many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.
Lord Dunsany, Ledwidge’s great mentor and a fighting soldier by tradition, on his return to Ireland was less convinced by the new Irish state’s capacity to see “one river”; instead, his poem To the Fallen Irish Soldiers carries the prescient imprint of how things would in fact turn out for a generation of men and their families.
Having fought and won an appalling war away from home, those who did not live to see how the future would turn out would be displaced from our history and, if not exactly forgotten, set aside as a problematical adjunct to the main narrative of Irish national development, post-independence:
Since they have grudged you space in Merrion Square
And any monument of stone or brass
And you yourselves are powerless, alas,
And your own countrymen seem not to care;
Let then these words of mine drift down the air,
Lest the world think that it has come to pass
That all in Ireland treat as common grass
The soil that wraps her heroes slumbering there.
Sleep on, forgot a few more years, and then
The ages, that I prophesy, shall see
Due honours paid to you by juster men,
You standing foremost in our history,
Your story filling our land with wonder,
Your names, and regiments’ names, like distant thunder.
“Due honour” has been paid, although it took quite some time. In a sense, history always wins out in the end, no matter how long it actually takes. It is as if emotional truth is a pressure that eventually lifts the lid on what has been, for political exigencies, repressed or marginalised. Reading these poems of Irish men and women, who served in various capacities during the Great War, is a shocking reminder that, “like distant thunder”, war is ever present to us a century later.
Was Yeats right, after all, about poets? “We have no gift to set a statesman right.”