Sunday, August 26, 2012

Woodbine Willy's Poems - gritty & incarnational

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was born in Leeds and educated at Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he obtained a degree in classics and divinity in 1904. He trained for the priesthood at Ripon Clergy College and ministered in Rugby and at St Paul's, Worcester. Volunteering as an army chaplain in World War I, Studdert Kennedy earned the nickname Woodbine Willy for his habit of giving Woodbine cigarettes to soldiers in distress. He was awarded the Military Cross for risking his life to comfort the wounded at Messines Ridge. 

During the war Woodbine Willy wrote poems for soldiers in the trenches. These became very popular. Some are available online. 

Archbishop William Temple said that Studdert Kennedy was "the finest priest" he had known. He was appointed to St Edmund King and Martyr, Lombard Street, London, in 1922. 

This poem, "What's the Good?", is typical of what he wrote for the soldiers: 

Well, I 've done my bit o' scrappin',
 And I 've done in quite a lot ;
 Nicked 'em neatly wiv my bayonet,
 So I needn't waste a shot.
 'Twas my duty, and I done it,
 But I 'opes the doctor 's quick.
 For I wish I 'adn't done it,
 Gawd ! it turns me shamed and sick.

 There 's a young 'un like our Richard,
 And I bashed 'is 'ead in two.
 And there 's that ole grey-'aired geezer
 Which I stuck 'is belly through.
 Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,
 It 's sich waste of all your pain.
 If you knowed what I 'd been doin',
 Could yer kiss me still, my Jane ?

 When I sets me dahn to tell yer
 What it means to scrap and fight
 Could I tell ye true and honest,
 Make ye see this bleedin' sight ?
 No I couldn't and I wouldn't.
 It would turn your 'air all grey ;
 Women suffers 'ell to bear us,
 And we suffers 'ell to slay.

 I suppose some Fritz went courtin'
 In the gloamin' same as me,
 And the old world turned to 'eaven
 When they kissed beneath a tree.
 And each evening seemed more golden,
 Till the day as they was wed,
 And 'is bride stood shy and blushin',
 Like a June rose, soft and red.

 I remembers 'ow it were, lass,
 On that silver night in May,
 When ye 'ung your 'ead and whispered
 That ye couldn't say me nay.
 Then, when June brought in the roses
 And you changed your maiden name,
 'Ow ye stood there, shy and blushin',
 When the call of evening came.

I remembers 'ow I loved ye.
 When ye arsked me in your pride
 'Ow I 'd liked my Sunday dinner
 As ye nestled at my side.
 For between a thousand races
 Lands may stretch and seas may foam,
 But it makes no bloomin' difference,
 Boche or Briton, 'ome is 'ome.

 I remember what 'e cost ye,
 When I gave ye up for dead,
 As I 'eld your 'and and watched ye
 With the little lad in bed.
 'Struth I wish 'e'd stop 'is lookin',
 And shut up 'is bloomiri' eyes.
 'Cause I keeps on seein' Richard
 When I whacks 'im and 'e cries.

 Damn the blasted war to 'ell, lass,
 It 's just bloody rotten waste.
 Them as gas on war and glory
 Oughter come and 'ave a taste.
 Yes, I larned what women suffers
 When I seed you stand the test.
 But you knowed as it were worth it
 When 'e felt to find your breast.

 All your pain were clean forgotten
 When you touched 'is little 'ead.
 And ye sat up proud and smilin'.
 With a living lad in bed.
 But we suffers too — we suffers.
 Like the damned as groans in 'ell,
 And we 'aven't got no Babies,
 Only mud, and blood, and smell.

 'Tain't the suff'rin as I grouse at,
 I can stick my bit o' pain ;
 But I keeps on alius askin'
 What 's the good, and who's to gain ?
 When ye 've got ' a plain objective '
 Ye can fight your fight and grin,
 But there ain't no damned objective,
 And there ain't no prize to win.

 We 're just like a lot o' bullocks
 In a blarsted china shop,
 Bustin' all the world to blazes,
 'Cause we dunno 'ow to stop.
 Trampling years of work and wonder
 Into dust beneath our feet.
 And the one as does most damage
 Swears that victory is sweet.

 It 's a sweet as turns to bitter.
 Like the bitterness of gall,
 And the winner knows 'e 's losin'
 If 'e stops to think at all.
 I suppose this ain't the spirit
 Of the Patriotic man.
 Didn't ought to do no thinkin' ;
 Soldiers just kill all they can.

 But we carn't 'elp thinkin' sometimes.
 Though our business is to kill,
 War 'as turned us into butchers,
 But we 're only 'uman still.
 Gawd knows well I ain't no thinker,
 And I never knew before,
 But I knows now why I 'm fightin',
 It 's to put an end to war.

 Not to make my country richer,
 Or to keep her flag unfurled.
 Over every other nation
 Tyrant mistress of the world.
 Not to boast of Britain's glory,
 Bought by bloodshed in her wars.
 But that Peace may shine about her,
 As the sea shines round her shores.

 If ole Fritz believes in fightin',
 And obeys 'is War Lord's will,
 Well until 'e stops believin',
 It 's my job to fight and kill.
 But the Briton ain't no butcher,
 'E 's a peaceful cove at 'eart.
 And it 's only 'cause 'e 'as to
 That 'e plays the butcher's part.

 'Cause I 'as to — that 's the reason
 Why I done the likes o' this ;
 You 're an understanding woman.
 And you won't refuse your kiss.
 Women pity soldiers' sorrow,
 That can bring no son to birth,
 Only death and devastation.
 Darkness over all the earth.

 We won't 'ave no babe to cuddle,
 Like a blessing to the breast,
 We 'll just 'ave a bloody mem'ry
 To disturb us when we rest.
 But the kids will some day bless us,
 When they grows up British men,
 'Cause we tamed the Prussian tyrant,
 And brought Peace to earth again.

* * * * *

This poem, "Indifference", is typical of Kennedy's meditations on the suffering of Jesus: 

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do,"
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

* * * * *

This poem, from "The Unutterable Beauty", captures the mystery of humanity made in the image of God, with traces of that image remaining, though marred by sin, and destined for glory: 

I'm a man, and man's a mixture,
Right up from 'is very birth,
There's part of 'im comes from 'eaven,
And part of 'im comes from earth.
There's summat as draws 'im upwards,
And summat as drags 'im duhn,
And the consekence is that 'e wobbles
Twixt muck and a golden crown.

* * * * *

This is Kennedy's breath-taking meditation of the Lord's coming to his people in Holy Communion: 

How through this Sacrament of simple things
 The great God burns His way,
 I know not — , He is there.
 The silent air
 Is pulsing with the presence of His grace,
 Almost I feel a face
 Bend o'er me as I kneel,
 While on my ears there steal
 The strains of 'Agnus Dei' softly sung.
 How it calls — calls Heaven to earth,
 Calls Christ to birth,
 And pleads for man's Redemption
 With His God.

 Here star and sod
 Unite to sing their Maker's praise,
 While, through the windows, broken rays
 Of crimson sunlight make a path
 For Him to tread.
 Just common bread.
 The artist's colour blazing bright.
 The subtle scheme of shade and light.
 That thrills our souls to ecstasy,
 Is bread.

 The notes that wed.
 And weave a wonderland of sound,
 Wherein our hearts may wander round,
 And reach the heart of God's red rose.
 Where beauty dwells alone and grows
 Sublime in solitude,
 All these are bread.
 Are they not born of earth and rain ?
 Becoming tissue of man's brain.
 The vehicle of every thought,
 The Spirit that our God bestows,
 The mystery that loves and knows.
 The very soul our Saviour bought
 Speaks through a body born of bread ;
 And wine,
 The clinging vine
 That climbs some crumbled wall in France,
 Drinks in the Love of God,
 His precious Blood,
 Poured out in beams that dance
 Through long-drawn summer days,
 Swift golden rays of sunshine,
 That are stored within the grape
 Until it swells
 And spills their splendour
 Into wine
 To fill the chalice of the Lord
 Then earth and heaven entertwine ;
 The Word
 Takes Flesh and dwells with men,
 And once again
 Dim eyes may see
 His gentle glory shine,
 The glory of humility,
 Which in creation stoops to raise,
 Through time's eternity of days,
 Our weakness to His strength.
 For neither length.
 Nor breadth nor depth nor height,
 Stays now the piercing of that light
 Of omnipresent Love,
 It runs red fire through our veins,
 The Life divine,
 In common wine.
 Thrills through the matter of our brains
 Begetting dreams.
 And gleams
 Of God — swift golden speech.
 And charity that burns to reach
 The very depths of hell,
 And lift them up to Christ,
 Who has our thirsty souls sufficed,
 Till they are drunk with God.

* * * * *

 And here is his poem "Easter": 

There was rapture of spring in the morning
When we told our love in the wood,
For you were the spring in my heart, dear lad.
And I vowed that my life was good.

 But there's winter of war in the evening,
And lowering clouds overhead,
There's wailing of wind in the chimney nook,
And I vow that my life lies dead.

 For the sun may shine on the meadow lands
And the dog rose bloom in the lanes,
But I've only weeds in my garden, lad,
Wild weeds that are rank with the rains.

 One solace there is for me, sweet but faint,
As it floats on the wind of the years,
A whisper that spring is the last true thing
And that triumph is born of tears.

 It comes from a garden of other days,
And an echoing voice that cries,
Behold I am alive for evermore,
And in Me shall the dead arise.


Alice Linsley said...

Fine poetry. Visceral, visual, evocative and true.

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