John McCrae was a Canadian military doctor during the Great War. He is best known for his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. This post describes an incident he witnessed 105 years ago, on 1 June. It is from the introductory material selected by his editor.
“Tuesday, June 1st, 1915.
1-1/2 miles northeast of Festubert, near La Bassee. Last night a 15 pr. and a 4-inch howitzer fired at intervals of five minutes from 8 till 4; most of them within 500 or 600 yards—a very tiresome procedure; much of it is on registered roads.
In the morning I walked out to Le Touret to the wagon lines, got Bonfire, and rode to the headquarters at Vendin-lez-Bethune, a little village a mile past Bethune. Left the horse at the lines and walked back again. An unfortunate shell in the 1st killed a sergeant and wounded two men; thanks to the strong emplacements the rest of the crew escaped.
In the evening went around the batteries and said good-bye. We stood by while they laid away the sergeant who was killed. Kind hands have made two pathetic little wreaths of roses; the grave under an apple-tree, and the moon rising over the horizon; a siege-lamp held for the book. Of the last 41 days the guns have been in action 33.
Captain Lockhart, late with Fort Garry Horse, arrived to relieve me. I handed over, came up to the horse lines, and slept in a covered wagon in a courtyard. We were all sorry to part—the four of us have been very intimate and had agreed perfectly—and friendships under these circumstances are apt to be the real thing.
From “In Flanders Fields and Other Poems” by John McCrae.
Boswell was struck by this passage in Samuel Johnson’s papers, recorded at Easter 1777. He was at church, even on Easter Sunday aware of his sinfulness, but on this Easter Day he received a personal revelation of God’s peace.
I was for some time distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the GOD of Peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my Common Prayer Book,
Vita ordinanda. Order my life. Biblia legenda. Read my Bible. Theologiae opera danda. Study works of theology. Serviendum et lætandum. Serve and rejoice.*
He continued later: ‘I passed the afternoon with such calm gladness of mind as it is very long since I felt before. I passed the night in such sweet uninterrupted sleep as I have not known since I slept at Fort Augustus.’ In a letter to Boswell he says:—’The best night that I have had these twenty years was at Fort Augustus.’ His good nights must have been rare indeed.”
D H Lawrence meant before the Great War, 1914-18. When he is not trying to be over intellectual and convey abstract ideas in poetry, when he is being human, as here, he is a better poet. We can surely all sympathise with his mixed emotions, as Christina and I discussed a while back. The Embankment would be described as a dyke or levee elsewhere; busy roads and broad footpaths run along it, under trees. Let’s not forget those people it is hard to help this Christmas.
By the river In the black wet night as the furtive rain slinks down, Dropping and starting from sleep Alone on a seat A woman crouches. I must go back to her. I want to give her Some money. Her hand slips out of the breast of her gown Asleep. My fingers creep Carefully over the sweet Thumb-mound, into the palm’s deep pouches. So, the gift! God, how she starts! And looks at me, and looks in the palm of her hand! And again at me! I turn and run Down the Embankment, run for my life. But why?—why? Because of my heart’s Beating like sobs, I come to myself, and stand In the street spilled over splendidly With wet, flat lights. What I’ve done I know not, my soul is in strife. The touch was on the quick. I want to forget.
” (from “New Poems” by D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence 1885-1930)
It is a strange thing this bed, this mimic grave, where we stretch our tired limbs and sink away so quietly into the silence and rest. “O bed, O bed, delicious bed, that heaven on earth to the weary head,” as sang poor Hood, you are a kind old nurse to us fretful boys and girls. Clever and foolish, naughty and good, you take us all in your motherly lap and hush our wayward crying. The strong man full of care—the sick man full of pain—the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover—like children we lay our aching heads on your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by. Our trouble is sore indeed when you turn away and will not comfort us.
How long the dawn seems coming when we cannot sleep! Oh! those hideous nights when we toss and turn in fever and pain, when we lie, like living men among the dead, staring out into the dark hours that drift so slowly between us and the light. And oh! those still more hideous nights when we sit by another in pain, when the low fire startles us every now and then with a falling cinder, and the tick of the clock seems a hammer beating out the life that we are watching.
From Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome was writing in 1886, making his way out of poverty. He had lost his parents as a teenager, and left school early to work. He would have had real sympathy for the people represented by today’s image. All too often, over the last few years, a homeless person’s pitch has been replaced by bouquets of flowers following their death in a disused shop doorway or under a tree. This winter, the corona virus led to their being swept up off the streets. Will they be still under a roof when the crisis is over?
A few more extracts from Jerome follow; have we improved our country and our world since 1886?
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
So let’s be a little more serious about the sorrow we looked at yesterday. Sorrow and depression are real. Hopkins bids us take comfort, even if we are tossed about by a whirlwind of spinning emotions and thoughts. We know our sorrow will at least have an end in death: life death does end. But does this mean that death brings an end to a frightful life, or that life puts an end to death? I would suggest both arguments hold true. And each day dies with sleep, ‘and another succeeds it’ is the subtext of that word ‘each’. We always have another chance to open our eyes and say with another of Wales’ poets, WH Davies:
Good morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.
It may feel all wrong at this moment to be uttering such a prayer, but that does not mean that it is actually wrong to make an act of hope.
A short while after he saw the swimming friars, George Borrow had to sleep at a riverside inn to catch the steamer en route to North Africa. There was not much room at the inn …
“I now laid my carpet bag on the bench as a pillow, and flung myself down. I should have been asleep instantly, but he of the red nightcap now commenced snoring awfully, which brought to my mind that I had not yet commended myself to my friend and Redeemer: I therefore prayed, and then sank to repose. I was awakened more than once during the night by cats, and I believe rats, leaping upon my body. At the last of these interruptions I arose, and looked at my watch; it was half-past three o’clock. I opened the door and looked out; whereupon some fishermen entered clamouring for their morning draught: the old man was soon on his feet serving them. One of the men said to me that, if I was going by the steamer, I had better order my things to the wharf without delay, as he had heard the vessel coming down the river. I dispatched my luggage, and then demanded of the red nightcap what I owed him. He replied “One real.” These were the only two words which I heard proceed from his mouth: he was certainly addicted to silence, and perhaps to philosophy, neither of which are much practised in Andalusia.
From George Borrow, 1843: The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula. On Kindle or on line.
… At least the friars will have recited Compline together …
This extract from Mary Webb’s novel, The Golden Arrow, follows on well from Chesterton’s Donkey yesterday, and from the posts about Saints Augustine and Monica. Let’s pray that we may be alive to the silver flutes playing at the great moments of our lives, and when we are amid the encircling gloom, may we follow the kindly light.
As we begin reading, Stephen has come home to Deborah after a hard day at work. It is December and they are seated together before the fire.
He turned restlessly.
‘Stroke more!’ he said imperiously, ‘and sing! don’t talk.’
She began to sing in a hushed voice, while the firelight stole up and down the walls, and the wind lashed itself into the yelping fury of starved hounds.
‘We have sought it, we have sought the golden arrow!
(bright the sally-willows sway)
Two and two by paths low and narrow,
Arm in crook along the mountain way.
Break o’ frost and break o’ day!
Some were sobbing through the gloom
When we found it, when we found the golden arrow –
Wand of willow in the secret cwm.’
She looked down in the silence afterwards; he was asleep. She took up the small woollen boots. She would be doing them when he awoke, and he would ask what they were.
I know right well what he’ll say,’ she thought. ‘He’ll say, “What the devil are those doll’s leggings?” – for he calls all my stockings leggings and my nightgown a shirt, him being such a manly chap, and nothing of the ‘ooman in him, thank goodness!’
She crocheted in a maze of delight at this thought and at the prospect of telling him her news.
But when Stephen awoke, he oly wanted to go to bed, and never noticed the boots. It is the tragedy of the self-absorbed that when the great moments of their lives go by in royal raiment with a sound of silver flutes, they are so muffled in self and the present that they neither hear nor see.
+ + +
The next day Stephen left her, oblivious to her news.
Stiperstones and the Devil’s Chair, which stand over the village where The Golden Arrow takes place.
How short a while –eternities gone by — It is since book and candle, half the night, Consumed the hours, and in the first grey light I turned and strove for slumber wearily: But the sad past complained too mournfully, And wept before me till the dawn grew white; And the stark future, stripped of all delight, Loomed up so near — I could but wake and sigh.
Now they are gone. I lie with ungirt will And unlit candle, sleeping quietly. Love flows around me with its calm and blessing; I can but let it take me, and be still, And know that you, beloved, though far from me, All night are with me — comforting, caressing.
Let us finish this week with Mary Webb by reading a poem that transcends, rather than denies sorrow. And we can pray that all may feel love’s calm and blessing, flowing around us. Love is not static! It is active, alive now. Delight can return and will.
“Sleep!” cried Father Brown. “Sleep. We have come to the end of the ways. Do you know what sleep is? Do you know that every man who sleeps believes in God? It is a sacrament; for it is an act of faith and it is a food. And we need a sacrament, if only a natural one.”
Even if we were ten in the bed, each one of us would always sleep alone, except for the one who feeds our mind and soul all through the night.
Not everyone sleeps soundly, physical or mental pain, or others’ unthinking noise may prolong our wakefulness. Sleep, like all the sacraments, is a gift. Let us hope that all wil be able to receive it.
But it’s time for me to partake of that natural sacrament. Good Night to all, and we’ll see you tomorrow.
And as the Compline prayer says:
MAY THE LORD GRANT US A QUIET NIGHT AND A PERFECT END. AMEN.
from The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton.
Why did Saint Lucy from Roman Sicily, prove to be so popular in Scandinavia, which was never part of the Empire, and became Lutheran at the Reformation? She must have touched the popular imagination! The reason must partly be her name – Lux means light in Latin – and partly the time of her feast day, in the dark, dark days of winter.
It’s a feast for the girls! In the North Countries they dress in white, carry candles and bring coffee and biscuits to their parents in bed.
We were once served small bowls of cereal by our elder daughters, who were under 5, and who got up very early (very early!) to bring us breakfast in bed. A joy for their parents despite the lost sleep.
Saint Lucy was one of those teenage martyrs who stood up for the truth, stood up for her self, and stood up for God. We remember her with just a few of the many other women martyrs of Roman times when we say the first Eucharistic Prayer: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. Let them stand for all the young women who lived and died for the love of God, whose names we will never know. Let us commend all our teenage girls to their prayers.
And let us pray that the Peace the Angels proclaimed at Christmas may reign in all hearts, that all persecutions may cease.