Continuing on with last year’s poetry read, Max Egremont’s Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, I came upon this wonderful poem by Edmund Blunden. I wrote about Egremont’s book last May while posting a on an Isaac Rosenberg poem. I had never heard of Blunden, but apparently a poet of some renown both during and after the war. He was a friend to the more well know Siegfried Sassoon.
Blunden entered the front in 1916 shortly before a planned spring offensive. Egremont describes Blunden’s arrival.
The western front was now full of rumours about the coming offensive. Constant activity was thought to be vital and officers led parties to reconstruct damaged trenches, repair wire and bury the dead. This was what Edmund Blunden found when he arrived in France in May.
Blunden was already a poet of immense fluency. One long pre-trench poem, finished in March, was a disquieting account of cruelty’s consequences called “The Silver Bird of Herndyke Mill.” A dark atmosphere threatens an English churchyard, stream and wood in the kind of Georgian scene that always inspired Blunden. Early in 1916, with artillery rumbling from across the Channel, death must have seemed near, even in tranquil Kentish fields.
After some training in the camp at Etaples—where a sergeant major was killed by a faulty grenade—Blunden joined his battalion of the Royal Sussex regiment at La Touret, not far from Béthune. It could seem idyllic until heavy guns and mines exploded, let off by both sides. Festubert was within reach, where Sassoon and [Robert] Graves had been at the end of 1915, and Blunden looked for the local orchards, finding a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a peaceful place away from the guns. Like Sassoon, he went off on a course; then saw the La Bassée canal, a Red Cross barge on it, the rich summer landscape and the now ruined village of Cuinchy, near the treacherous brickstacks. He was close to Neuve Chapelle by the end of June. (pp 113-4)
That chapel in Festubert became the subject to this poem. Some more background before you get to the poem. Festubert is a little town in northern France and was the focal point of The Battle of Festubert in 1915, the year before Blunden stumbled on the chapel. The town was destroyed but the chapel, despite taking on projectile fragments, survived, and Blunden apparently taking a diversion looking for apple orchards stumbled upon it and found it would make a fine subject for a poem. And so now you are ready to read the poem.
The Festubert Shrine
by Edmund Blunden
A sycamore on either side
In whose lovely leafage cried
Hushingly the little winds —
Thus was Mary’s shrine descried.
“Sixteen Hundred and Twenty-Four”
Legended above the door,
“Pray, sweet gracious Lady, pray
For our souls,” — and nothing more.
Builded of rude gray stones and these
Scarred and marred from base to frieze
With the shrapnel’s pounces — ah,
Fair she braved War’s gaunt disease:
Fair she pondered on the strange
Embitterments of latter change,
Looking fair towards Festubert,
Cloven roof and tortured grange.
Work of carving too there was,
(Once had been her reredos),
In this cool and peaceful cell
That the hoarse guns blared across.
Twisted oaken pillars graced
With oaken amaranths interlaced
In oaken garlandry, had borne
Her holy niche — and now laid waste.
Mary, pray for us? O pray!
In thy dwelling by this way
What poor folks have knelt to thee!
We are no less poor than they.
I doubt Blunden was Catholic—perhaps he was high Anglican—or if he was even religious, but the appeal to the Blessed Mother is moving: “Pray, sweet gracious Lady, pray/For our souls.” I particularly like the image of the stone front scarred with shrapnel. He refers to it as “War’s gaunt disease,” as if it were the remnants of a pox. The final image of poor folks kneeling, and he and his fellow soldiers being just as poor reduces the gallantry of war to resignation.
I’m going to count this as a Faith Filled Friday post in addition to a poetry. Blessed Mother pray for the war dead.