Monday 19 February 2018

Poetry... Ledwidge: a fine lament for McDonagh

Francis Ledwidge
Francis Ledwidge

Ulick O'Connor

Back in Ireland on leave from the British Army at Easter 1916, Corporal Francis Ledwidge of the 5th battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, had to face the fact that his fellow poet and close friend, Thomas McDonagh, was about to be shot by firing squad in Dublin by the very army he was serving with.

Instead of losing the head as he well might have done, he wrote one of the finest poems in the English language, Lament for Thomas McDonagh.

The structure of the poem is an ancient Celtic one in which the poet uses words like a pianist changing pitch, taking us further along on his poetic route. Ledwidge's result in this poem is that he brings us in contact with sky and earth in a way that is rare.

Let's have a look at the poem here. We begin to feel the sadness that comes into the sky in the first verse. Then we hear the "bittern cry" and the "wild sky" followed in the next two lines in which the little birds raise their song in defiance. But bold March is coming in with its remorseful sea whine to scatter daffodils into the sky.

Then, with his master stroke, Ledwidge introduces the symbolic Dark Cow which stands before him in the green pastures, triumphant and free to roam the perfect pastures stretched out in front.

Lament for Thomas McDonagh

HE SHALL not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky, where he is lain,

Nor voices of the sweeter birds,

Above the wailing of the rain.


Nor shall he know when loud March blows

Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,

Blowing to flame the golden cup

Of many an upset daffodil.


But when the Dark Cow leaves the moor,

And pastures poor with greedy weeds,

Perhaps he'll hear her low at morn,

Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Francis Ledwidge 1891-1917

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