Monday, 4 August 2014

Two First World War Poets

On this centenary of the First World War, I consider it appropriate to recall two poets of the era, FW Harvey and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, fondly known as 'Woodbine Willie'.

The first was Gloucestershire's own voice of the period, known locally as the Laureate of Gloucestershire. Widely read and admired as a poet during the years following the Great War, Will Harvey had also written a less well known novel entitled Will Harvey: A Romance. This novel, partly autobiographical and partly fiction was adapted for the stage in Cheltenham by Director, Paul Milton and enjoyed by my husband and myself recently. It retold the story featuring the music of local composers Gustav Holst and Elgar amongst others, as well as singing, dancing and of course some of Harvey's own poetry. It was a truly magical adaptation of his life and awakened my interest in the poet.

Another interesting poet of the same era is Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as 'Woodbine Willie'. Chaplain to the troops in the second half of World War One, he was so named because he loved to talk about his faith to the men, attracting them to listen by handing out 'Woodbine' cigarettes - a contemporary product name.

A Yorkshire man born in Leeds in 1883, he was a down-to-earth plain-speaking man with a heart for the poor. Taking part in all the training and physical exercise of the company of the men he loved, he saw it as his duty to try and cheer their spirits, often whispering some inane remark to them when they were under fire in the trenches in order to raise a smile.

Some selected lines from one of his poems depicting the God he loved, are, I think, especially fine as they paint an extraordinarily vivid picture.

It seemed to me as though 'Is face
Were millions rolled in one;
It never changed yet always changed,
Like the sea beneath the sun.
'Twere all men's face yet no man's face,
And a face no man can see, 
And it seemed to say in silent speech, 
Ye did 'em all to Me.

What a nice contrast to discover some very different poets of the period from the ones usually associated with it such as Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brookes. That's not to detract from their importance or style as great poets to admire but it's always nice to find and appreciate new voices with a different take on the period. I look forward to learning and reading much more of both FW Harvey and Woodbine Willie.