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Book Review

A LITTLE BOOK OF LEDWIDGE

A Selection of the Poems and Letters of Francis Ledwidge

Compiled by John Quinn

Veritas Publications, 2017
ISBN 9781847307835
pp. 128 • €9.99/stg£8.99

 

I grew up down a country lane in a place not far from Slane in County Meath. Our village has a hill where Patrick’s fire once blazed and a little house where a poet became a soldier who died at Ypres.

 

     Born in 1887, the eighth of nine children, Francis Ledwidge’s story is a chronicle of his age. A bright young boy, he finished school at 14 and went to Rathfarnham as a grocer’s ‘curate’ but one night he quit and walked back home. He became a farm labourer and later got a job at a nearby copper mine from which he was sacked for leading a strike over dangerous conditions.

 

     This beautiful book, compiled by John Quinn, tells how Ledwidge came under the patronage of Lord Dunsany, who opened a vast library to him, which also included Keats and Shelley. The publication cites this testimony from his patron: ‘I was astonished by the brilliance of that eye that had looked at the fields of Meath and seen there all the simple birds and flowers, with a vividness that made those pages like a magnifying glass, through which one looked at familiar things seen thus for the first time’. Generations of school-going children will remember his finest poem ‘He shall not hear the bittern cry’, a lament for Thomas McDonagh.

 

     Ledwidge was an artist and, we can even say, a composer of the soundtrack to our rural setting. His verses recreate the smell of hedgerows and the blackbird’s song at early dawn. But his romanticism was no retreat to a melancholic idyll. Whilst at home, he experienced poverty and heartbreak. He identified with the plight of the working poor and found himself caught up in the national question, torn between his allegiance to the Irish Volunteers and what Seamus Heaney called his ‘moral fortitude’, enlisting as a soldier in the Great War. In Ledwidge’s own words, ‘I entered the British army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation.’

 

     The selected poems and letters convey the horror of the battlefield and the ever-present reality of destruction and death. Here, too, Heaney’s appreciation, reproduced as a conclusion to the book, is prescient, describing Ledwidge as a ‘poet of witness’, a phrase associated with poets of the former Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc. Writing to Katherine Tynan in 1917, Ledwidge reflects: ‘Death is as interesting to me as life. I have seen so much of it from Sulva to Serbia and now in France. I am always homesick. I hear the roads calling, and the hills, and the rivers wondering where I am.’

 

    He was killed in action at Ypres on 31 July 1917. He was twenty-nine years old. This book quotes from the army chaplain’s emotional letter to the poet’s mother, describing how her son had been to Confession the evening before he died and received Holy Communion on the morning before the battle that claimed his life.

 

     John Quinn illuminates the many facets of Ledwidge’s personality and invites the reader to embrace the legacy of ‘a tender, beautiful figure walking in the mist of melancholy’.

 

To My Little Nephew Seumas

I will bring you all the colours

Of the snail’s house when I come,

And shells that you may listen

To a distant ocean’s hum.

And from the rainbow’s bottom

I will bring you coloured lights

To scare away the banshees

That cry in the nights.

And I will sing you strange songs

Of places far away,

Where little moaning waters

Have wandered wild astray.

Till you shall see the bell flowers

Shaking in the breeze,

Thinking they are ringing them

The short way to the seas.

When I come back from wand’ring

It’s the strange man I’ll be,

And first you’ll be a bit afraid

To climb upon my knee.

But when you see the rare gifts

I’ve gathered you, it seems

You’ll lean you head upon me

And travel in your dreams.

 

 

From A Little Book of Ledwidge

 

 

Fr Paul Crosbie

Mullingar,

Co Westmeath

 

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