A Poem for Christmas – The Burning Babe

The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell  (1561–1595)

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,

A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;

Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;

The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,

For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.

With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Robert Southwell was a 16th-century Catholic Jesuit priest and missionary in post-Reformation England. He was also a poet. “The Burning Babe” has been one of his most well-known works since his death (he was executed for his links to the pope, in anti-Catholic post-Reformation England).

Such literary greats as Shakespeare, Drayton, Nashe, Herbert and Crashaw were influenced by his poetry and prose. It is known that Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) said he would be content to destroy many of his own works just to have written “The Burning Babe” himself, for he so loved the poem.

Robert Southwell was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

I believe that his poem is one that, once read, is not easily forgotten. Thank you, Mr Southwell – may you rest in peace.

Advertisements
Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Old Man Selling Poppies

Further to my last post reflecting upon Remembrance Day – which is now two days hence – I am adding my own poem. Inspired by John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” my own is an addition to the literary collection regarding the symbol of poppies.

As mentioned previously, John McCrae’s home, now a museum, is in Guelph, Ontario. My husband and I finally visited it two summers ago. Wandering around McCrae’s childhood house, I could not but help remember my dear grandmother, for when I was a small child I sat at her side as she told me about the war and about Flanders Fields. She painted an incredible picture that remained in my mind, of the vividly coloured fields of poppies, under which lay thousands of soldiers who died whilst protecting us. She told me about this man – a soldier but also a poet – who wrote a famous and beautiful poem about those poppies and what they meant. She read the poem to me. You can imagine how I felt when, all these decades later, I set foot in that man’s house, and saw the original, hand-written poem! Ah, dear Nana, I mentally held your hand as I stood gazing at that written sheet!

And now – Mr McCrae, and Nana, and all soldiers and their families everywhere: here is my contribution to Remembrance Day.

Old Man Selling Poppies

Hurrying uptown to meet Paula and Dee,

turning left onto Wellesley, I see

an old man selling poppies.

That time of year again?

Well, let’s give him a dollar.

As he pins the poppy to my collar,

I glance at his beret, then, “Thanks” I say

and turn away a double-second—

Then I stop, and do a double-take.

I turn back to gaze at his blazer, ablaze,

from his chin to his chest all glory of ribbon;

the front of his breast displays

a Victoria Cross and stripes, and a crest.

And tiny kings meditating

on medals of gold,

and George and the Dragon in eternal quest

to fight to the death. I catch my breath

and look at the old man, his eyes now the bold

eyes of a young man, rushing to war,

poised to protect his “maw” and his “paw”

and to guard his sweetie, who then wrote “Dear John”

and to do double-duty for those that double-cross.

His hair is now brown, he stands reckless and tall

and jumps from the boat to the dark waves below,

to creep to the beach, for a date with the foe.

Ten abreast, hundreds deep.

Weapons held above their heads,

this night and the next they’ll get no sleep

until they dig trenches to be their beds

for the next four years.

For the next four years, he fights with his hands,

making and meeting demands to purge lands

of vicious invaders. Dropping bombs on various militia on behalf

of Princess Patricia. Dropping corpses, once close friends,

into half-hearted holes.

Gunning gerries, kill ’em all dead

before they get us. With feet of lead

and leaden heart, he limps back to base camp

with a thousand scalps.

He collects stitches on his back and his leg,

which are nothing compared to the scars in his head.

A thousand scars

splinter into bleeding rain

cementing sandbags into his eyes and ears and brain.

We are now free; the world shaken from shackles.

He crawls back to his village only to learn

his mother died two days before,

rejoicing the end of the war

but pining for her son.

Somehow, he has

a life to resume, a wage to earn.

The war is won; he is lost.

Who can he blame?

I look at the young man before me.

Lose myself in his eyes: Tired eyes.

Wise eyes. Old orbs. White hair.

Old man selling poppies.

Upon reflection, I point at the medals.

“Impressive collection.” He looks at me quietly.

“Thank you,” is all he says. I look at him quietly.

My head sways and I say, “No. Thank you.

And after we speak, I stride on

to meet my friends for lunch, but

at the next street corner—head on—

a young boy barges right into my legs

and falls onto the kerb. I pull him up.

He begs my pardon, giggling the while and with a smile,

pulls out a water pistol and points.

I catch my breath,

and look at the child,

now a grown soldier, angered and wild,

creeping forth, with chemical vials

and mysterious machines sporting myriad dials

hidden in his watch and his shoes and his smiles.

And just for extra fun, the scroll he carries

is really a laser gun.

He is going to “shake shackles” from the world.

I watch as the warrior leaps into the woods

and drums his fists against the trees and shrubs

of eternity.

Seventy years from now

he will stand on a street corner and sell

mutant poppies.

I stride on, a life to resume, and a wage to earn.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Petals and Poem a Tradition Make: A Canadian Poet’s Effect on the World

Petals and Poem a Tradition Make: A Canadian Poet’s Effect on the World

In 1915, ninety-seven words came together and merged with thousands of beautiful flowers. Unexpectedly, this created a tradition that lasts to this day in many countries around the world.

Image

This embodies that tradition – the wearing of poppies in November, leading to a minute’s silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – which incidentally is another tradition that began due to the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I in 1918, right at that day and time: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. November 11th is now Remembrance Day. But why would poppies remind us of the First World War?

Image

For those who didn’t grow up in Canada or Europe, and who might not know the origin of some of the West’s customs – and for those who are familiar but who could use a refresher – I found some old photos to share with you. I will also provide the poem I’m about to discuss: “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

John McCrae was a Canadian doctor, poet and soldier. His job in the war was to give medical aid to the wounded, and after yet another friend succumbed to injury and died in the cold, wet trenches in 1915, McCrae penned a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” so called because his battalion was fighting in the Flanders area between Belgium and Holland. Millions of soldiers died in the First World War, many more than in the Second World War, and thousands were buried in the fields at Flanders. Many were young men – 25 years old, 17 years old – fighting for the world’s freedom: brave men from countries ranging from Britain, all the way through to Canada, India and Australia.

Image

It had been observed in Flanders that after fields filled up with graves, hundreds of poppies bloomed on them. It turns out that poppy spores can last for years, but not germinate until conditions are right. The constant upturning of the soil and exposure to the air had helped get them started, and Flanders’ fields were a burst of poppies. So McCrae, grieving for his friend, wrote his poem about poppies. One of his comrades insisted on getting it mailed to a printer in London, where it was published in Punch magazine. John McCrae lived long enough to know his poem had been well received. He did not, however, live long enough to see the end of the war – he died in 1918 just a few months before World War I ended. He didn’t live to see how well loved his poem became, nor how his image of those poppies was going to inspire generations of people, to this day, to wear those poppies that he immortalized, those poppies that symbolized all those lost soldiers, that poem that spoke from the point of view of those lost soldiers. We’ll look at the words, but first, about the impact.

Have a look at a Canadian $10 bill. On one side, near the birds, you’ll see the first stanza of McCrae’s poem, in English and French. You’ll also see veterans and poppies. In fact, the $10 bill’s back cover is a whole tribute to Remembrance Day. And its illustration of an elderly man with children is from a photo of an actual veteran called Robert Metcalfe. He was called by a government official about twelve years ago and asked to come and pose for a photo op for Veterans. He wasn’t told what for. Two years later, he found his image on the newly styled bill! (Mr Metcalfe lived until 90, by the way.) Canadian coins have been manufactured with stylized poppies on the flip sides; a quarter minted in 2004, and another quarter in 2010. There are countless postage stamps, paintings, heralds and so on that have been created with this symbol, in order to bring to mind, and acknowledge, all the soldiers and citizens who were killed in that and every other war. The poppy became our way of remembering, paying respect, of thanking those who fought for freedom and protection.

We remember not only those dead soldiers but also survivors who came back horribly injured. We also recall the families and friends of the dead. In the First World War, which McCrae served in, many millions died, as I said. Often there was neither time nor resources to do more than merely inform the family of the death, which left parents, sisters, wives, wondering for the rest of their lives if their loved one had died an instantaneous, painless death, or whether he had suffered. There was no closure for them. They would have spent the rest of their lives wondering. I can only imagine what that must have been like. And now…below…John McCrae’s poem:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Do you think the form of “In Flanders Fields” is free verse? Or is it a traditional form of poetry, in the same way a sonnet, a villanelle or haiku has a traditional form? “In Flanders Fields” is, in fact, what is known as a French rondeau – a form that’s been around since the thirteenth century. The number of lines, the total of two rhymes throughout, and a refrain: the rhyme pattern, repetition and refrain all follow a set form. John McCrae knew his poetry! How he was able to write something like this when bombs, mustard gas and bullets were flying around his trench, I’ll never know. I think it was meant to be!

Posted in Literature, Ontario | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment