Our Song of the Day comes from FRUK favourite, Lorcán Mac Mathúna. He recently wrote this song from the poetry of Francis Ledwidge, an Irish poet who was killed in Passchendaele on July 31, 1917. Listen below and read more from Lorcán about the song and Francis Ledwidge below.
Space for Beauty
Shortly after Francis Ledwidge was blown to bits at the third battle of Ypres his work was reviewed with a certain sentimentality reflective of the circumstances of his death rather than the worth of his poetry. Songs of Peace appeared in print just months after his death to resounding flattery. Not that praise wasn’t deserved, his poetry had continued to mature and had assimilated new styles whilst maintaining its lyrical beauty.
A contemporary poet, John Drinkwater, rebuked the reception which characterised the tone of the assessment of Ledwidge’s work – ‘the soldier poet immortalised by a heroic death’. He responded cuttingly to this sentimentalising view of the man and his work
“The continual insistence, not that his devotion is splendid, but that it is upon us that his devotion may splendidly bestow itself, is contemptible…. His poetry exults me, while not so his death…. when he died, a poet was not transfigured, but killed, and his poetry was not magnified but blasted in its first flowering.... to those who know what poetry is, the untimely death of a man like Ledwidge is nothing but calamity.”
Unlike his ‘war poet’ contemporaries on the Western Front such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Ledwidge didn’t deliberate on the hell of the trenches in his poetry. Perhaps like David Jones he could have in later life had he lived, but in the trenches just yards from his sworn enemies as the worm crawled, he wrote of home and the call of the fields and hedgerow.
The chaining alliteration, drawn from the Gaelic poetic tradition, we saw flowering so skilfully and beautifully in the Lament for Thomas McDonagh, ran through his poetry in Songs of Peace.
Passchendaele on the Western Front in the weeks before July 31st, 2017 -the opening day of a major push on the German lines- is where we would have found Ledwidge huddled in the trenches waiting for the command to enter the inferno of shrapnel and bullets which raged above the trenches like a fiery blizzard. Their companion in death; a leeching, incapacitating, poisonous gas flowed perniciously into the divets and channels in the corpse-mixed mud which might have offered refuge from the death storm. In his recluse from this living hell, Ledwidge wrote and remembered.
His poetry says next to nothing of the nightmare that shook the ground and broke men all around him. In fact, from his poetry and his letters, it would seem that the Easter Rising had a more profound effect on him than the war he had determined to fight in. He was at this stage utterly disillusioned with the war and the moral reasoning that had ushered his enlistment. He wrote of the Rising in Dublin, and we can see in the style he adopts a conscious declaration of loyalty to Ireland and not the union.
The Dead Kings -finished on January 7, 1917- is a fine example of this new exploration of the style and poetic rhythms of Gaelic poetry.
All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming,
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming
A chaining alliterative pattern is apparent straight away in this first stanza of the poem. The final stressed syllable of line 1 rhymes with the second of line 2. The pattern is repeated in lines 3,4 and a couplet joins lines 2 and 4. This alliterative pattern is a feature of each of the eight stanzas of the poem.
It makes an intriguing melodic construct and increases the feeling of reverie which the poem elicits. Not only does it reference the style of Gaelic folk poetry but its thematic style is a classic Irish poetic trope, the Aisling. The vision poem of Irish 18-19 century Gaelic folk poetry, which sees the poet receive a message in a dream from a supernatural character symbolic of Gaelic tradition and culture.
Reverie is the heart and core of the poem. The poem is marked by tragedy and regret making the reverie all the more poignant, and the alliteration carries this sadness beautifully. Melodically the reverie is captured in the soaring progression over that second stressed syllable in line 4; and the poignancy is further echoed in the semitone lifting interval, enhancing the rhyming couplet, on the last phrase of line 2 and 4.
This recording was made at a live performance of the song (its premiere performance actually) at a concert I curated and performed for MusicTown Dublin in April named The Book Of The Dead. Eamonn Galldubh is playing the flute whilst Martin Tourish is on the Accordion.