Saturday, July 27, 2013

A very special journey with a remarkable book of poetry: Tom Kettle: 1880-1916

Tom Kettle's Poems & Parodies
In an antiquarian bookshop in Paris — stocked with books written in English — my eyes scanned the shelves of the poetry section with the hope of making a wonderful discovery. Among the poetry titles I longed to see a book entitled Poems and Parodies. First published just over one hundred years ago in 1912, the book comprises a small collection of verse written by Thomas Michael Kettle, a first cousin in my maternal line. My search was in vain, but the propriétaire was very accommodating, and patiently listened as I told her about Thomas Kettle and his connection to France. She assured me the book would be brought into her shop should she ever encounter it. In the end I was able to find a copy online, and had it sent to me from a bookshop in Galway, Ireland.

For a while I had been searching for this edition of the book. It was published in 1916 in the months just after Tom was killed on the Somme, and so there is an introduction commemorating his death. As well, within its pages is the dedicatory poem which he wrote for his wife Mary, along with the very last poem Tom wrote and dedicated to their little girl, Elizabeth Dorothy, a poem entitled To my daughter Betty, the gift of God. There are a few of his early poems included in the book, as well as some political and war poems.

Surely there would have been a kind of magic at work if I had found the book of poems in Paris. Tom Kettle loved the city of Paris, and when he was killed in the advance on Ginchy, 9 September 1916, Tom was less than one hundred miles north of the great metropolis. If he had survived the war I have to believe he would have travelled to Paris again, perhaps with his beloved Mary and their precious girl Betty. I can imagine the three of them on a breezy Spring afternoon, strolling hand in hand along the River Seine or through the shady tree-lined paths of the Jardin des Tuileries.

When we travelled up into northern France, just past the village of Guillemont, and the fields of Ginchy, the words of Tom's poems played on my mind. From the east storm clouds were approaching, a deep growling emanating from within them like the sound of bombardment, a mnemonic powering memories of a past, distant and cruel.

So here, while the mad guns curse 
overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch 
and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish
dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's
shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.[1]

All along the roads on which we travelled were small patches of beautiful vermilion-coloured poppies, their faces turned up to the expanse of chalky grey skies. Then from the roadway I saw the most extraordinary sight, and we stopped so I could photograph it.


There, a long line of poppies cleaves a farmer's field in two. This stunning natural pathway brought to mind the thousands of young soldiers, just like Tom, who had marched through these fields of northern France and many others across Europe. At the bidding of the enemy's weapons, they fell upon those fields and drew their last breath there. Now it is as though each one of these poppies sways in the breeze in memory of each one of those souls.

As the sun died in blood, and hill and sea
Grew to an altar, red with mystery,
One came who knew me 
(it may be over-much)
Seeking the cynical and staining touch,
But I, against the great sun's burial
Thought only of bayonet-flash and bugle-call...[2]

We paused for a moment and stood in silent gratitude thinking about the history those poppies called forth to us. Stepping back into the car we continued along the roadway toward Pozieres, Thiepval, Lille, and on into Belgium. Dozens of military graveyards dot the countryside keeping the history alive for us, and Tom's words were ever present, whispering in my ear of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many Irish for the freedom of Europe.

Count me the price in blood that we have
not squandered.
Spendthrifts of blood from our cradle,
wastefully true,
Name me the sinister fields where the
Wild Geese wandered,
Lille and Cremona and ...[3]

Commemorations[4][5]

Thomas Michael Kettle is commemorated in France on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (Pier and Face 16C).




References:
The quotations included are from poems which appear in
Kettle, T.M., Poems and Parodies.
The Talbot Press, Dublin, 1916.
These poems are:
1. To my daughter Betty, the gift of God
2. On Leaving Ireland
3. A Nation's Freedom
4. Tom Kettle is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing because he has no known grave. Serving as a temporary Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Tom was killed 9 Sept. 1916, in the advance on Ginchy. Tom's body was interred by the Welsh Guards when they relieved the RDF some 24 hours after the RDF took the ground that was Ginchy; however, subsequent shelling destroyed the gravesite and it was never recovered. (NAUK, WO/339 and Kettle papers UCD, LA34)
5. The words of Tom's last poem to his daughter are carved in stone at Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium. He is also commemorated on a plaque in the Four Courts, Dublin, and on the WW1 plaque at St. Mary's Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, incidentally the only World War one commemoration to be found in a Catholic church in the Republic.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.
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24 comments:

  1. The Irish have a way with words that's for sure....beautiful.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Alex,

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  2. Very touching. Thanks for sharing the photo and the poems.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Brett,

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  3. It is wonderful that you were able to obtain a copy of this book of poems. AND that photo is stunning!
    I've missed you over here at SS.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jackie,

      Thanks very much for your comments. It's nice to be missed. Thanks :-)

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  4. That mass of poppies across the field is powerful; I imagined soldiers there....lovely post, Jennifer!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Deb,

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  5. Great story, indeed. Thanks for sharing it.

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    Replies
    1. Hi The Silver Fox,

      Thanks very much for your comments.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  6. What a beautiful picture of the poppies across the field. You have used Tom Kettle's poems to make this a magical post.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Bob! Tom's words do bring the magic.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  7. I've been to Belgum many times but never had the chance to visit any of the cemetery's

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    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comments. I hope to explore what we found in Belgium in future posts.
      I certainly found it to be a very meaningful place in terms of family history.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  8. Ah, and ye have a way with words that touches the soul.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Joan! Such a nice thing to say.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  9. Lovely story and very moving poetry. Thank you for sharing your cousin's words with us.

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  10. Nice to see you back here on SS. That's a beautifully written and moving post and you have kept Tom's memory and his words alive for us. The photo of the poppies is amazing. I have been to those fields and the song of the skylark above the poppies 'row on row' haunts me still.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Little Nell!

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  11. A great post that shows a heirloom book sometimes is not passed down but instead found. The photo is wonderful and moving.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Mike! I'm so glad I was able to find a copy of the book.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  12. Such an evocative story.. the reality of those terrible days is searing. I love the path of poppies and how you presented the image.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Pauleen! It is indeed a searing reality, particularly given Tom was only one of so many lost.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

      Delete

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