Last year I visited the WWI battlefields in Northern France and also my homeland in Ireland. My story about death is about a young British soldier.
100 years ago the world was in the grip of the first world war enacting the carnage of the Western Front. If Homer, who two and a half thousand years earlier recorded the carnage of Troy, had appeared he would have shaken his head and said, here we go again. Man’s appetite for destruction is voracious. In Homer’s place we had Wilfred Owen who wrote,
If in some smothering dreams you too
…could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
When reading accounts of the war I came across the story of George Scrivens. George Scrivens was a British army sergeant: He was sent out on a night raid at Arras on the Western Front, on 21st May 1916. He didn’t return. Was presumed dead or captured. Ten nights later, stretcher bearers heard groans from a shell hole. George was alive. He was dehydrated; he was rat-eaten, he had significant blood loss and raging septicaemia. Twelve days later on 11 June he died. He was 21.
The Latin words by Horace
dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translate as
It is sweet and right to die for your country.
The Gospel reading I chose was Matthew 26: 36 – 40 which describes Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
This poem is my imagined ten nights in a shell hole in no-man’s-land.
I, George Scrivens
You, who think war glorious listen to my plea,
Who tell young men – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,
Come to my Gethsemane and watch one hour with me.
For me there is no peaceful death, no churchyard eulogy,
In foreign mud and sludge and grime I’ll die,
Tell me if war is glorious when you listen to my plea.
Shot and paralysed, alone in a deathly hole in deathly
No-man’s-land no man hears my sigh. Please, by and by
Seek out my Gethsemane and watch one hour with me.
Through ten fevered days and icy nights my body
Sweats and shakes. Above the shells and bullets fly.
Is your war still glorious? Can you heed my plea?
Caked in mud and excrement the rats with me make free;
They drink my blood, my flesh they eat. Before I die
Lay down in my Gethsemane and watch one hour with me.
I see frail failing shadows; the boy I used to be.
I hear a voice, singing, a lullaby.
Young men, for peace stand vigil. Heed his plea.
Remember his Gethsemane. Now, watch awhile with me.
My story about Life. The following poem is about the magic of new life springing from old.
Renewal by Robert Rendall.
Look how my autumn leaves from green to gold
Burn in their frosty fire. Tissue and vein
Shiver and curl to ash: no flowers remain
On withered stem, or from the patent mould
Draw breath and on life’s tree their fans unfold.
Twice has my summer’s pride waxed high; now wane
The gentle influences of the rain,
The sun, the earth: and death comes, dank and cold.
But fast inscalloped in the undying root,
Constant beyond all change of sky or soil,
Lies fenced the mystery of the living shoot –
Green involutions of the mind. No toil
Attends their weaving. Ah, would they uncoil
Again from that inmost core, leaf, stem, flower, fruit.
WWI ended in November 1918. On 19 May 1918 in a place called Barrowhouse in County Laois, Ireland, a baby girl was born. She was christened May. Having left France, I went to Barrowhouse (where I was born and grew up) and visited May Gibson who is about to be 99. She is a wonderful woman with a marvellous energetic, poetic mind. One of my great joys in life is sitting in May’s kitchen reading poetry. My most recent poetry book, Spirit Eyes is dedicated to her, as is this poem. Shangana is the name of our farm.
The last time we met you said
You were pleased I had come
On foot, that I had walked the
Mile or more from Shangana
To see you. And later when I
Bade goodbye you watched and
Waved and smiled as I resumed
My journey, to cross the fields,
To walk the road’s green verge.
We had an hour. We talked of life.
We laughed. Were silent. Read poetry.
Tea and whiskey were had.
What was it about the walking?
Until I come again I’ll wonder,
Was it that in these days
Of rush and speedy travel
My walking had rewound the
Clock of days and years
And we both returned in time
To times when people paused
To hear, to see, to smell, to touch
The world they’re passing through,
Where that inner need for peace
And pace and calm is listened to?
Homily of March 4/5 2017 by Maurice Whelan