In memoriam Francis Ledwidge
Killed in France 31 July 1917
The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned
Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque —
It all meant little to the worried pet
I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.
The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.
At night when coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front
Country voices rose from a cliff-top shelter
With news of a great litter – “We’ll pet the runt!” –
And barbed wire that had torn a friesian’s elder.
Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane.
Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,
Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.
I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.
It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.
It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows,
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows…
My country wears her confirmation dress.’
‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations…’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum
You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground.
–Seamus Heaney, from Field Work: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
Francis Ledwidge was an Irish poet. He enlisted in October 1914 in the 5th battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917. He wrote three volumes of poetry during his years at war. Some poems were about the fighting, but many were about the birds, the moon, and thoughts of home.
A BURST of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.
And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.
This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.
Belgium, July, 1917.