In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge


Heaney pays tribute to a poet whose life followed an enigmatic pattern and who though Irish through and through was killed in First World War action in Flanders fighting for the British.

Heaney’s elegy falls into four parts: the ‘vigilant bronze’; the aspiring country boy; the white-faced Tommy; the poetic voice stifled.

Part 1: in anticipation of Francis Ledwidge Heaney takes us back to his childhood and his first sight as a seven year old of the sculpture standing on Portstewart’s First World War Memorial. The effigy (bronze soldier) is adjusting his standard-issue uniform (hitches a bronze cape) textured (crumples stiffly) to mimic First World War conditions (in imagined wind) totally suited to the seaside climate (real winds buff and sweep). This is an infantryman in attack mode (sudden hunkering run), intent (forever craned) from a war zone where countless lives were lost (over Flanders).

The boy’s eyes descended from uniform (helmet and haversack) and killing weapon (gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet) to the names of local men (loyal, fallen) who did not make it home (embossed plaque). The import was not clear at that point to an anxious little darling (meant little to the worried pet).

The scene is set – just after the end of WWII (forty-six or seven) – the child is on holiday, closely chaperoned (gripping  … by the hand) by an indulgent Aunt (Mary) as they walked from the town centre (prom … crescent) in and out of the crowds (thread the Castle Walk) towards the sands (strand).

The postcard-like scene reveals a hive of activity: expertise (pilot from Coleraine); industry (coal-boat); lovers (courting couples) betraying their hidey-holes (rose out of the scooped dunes); a rural farmer out of his shirt (stripped) or more accurately who has removed his detachable collar (to his studs and shiny waistcoat) returning from a paddle (rolled the trousers down) and exposing rarely seen parts (timid shins).

The day never ended in Portstewart (coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front). The youngster overheard folk chatting in rural Derry twang (country voices) from above (cliff-top shelter) … of births on the farm (news of a great litter) and compassion (‘We’ll pet the runt!’) … of emblems of hostility (barbed wire), reminiscent of the war memorial and previous Irish struggles, injuring their cattle (torn a friesian’s elder).

Part 2: after twenty lines enter Francis Ledwidge – a young man doing as young Irishmen did (courted at the seaside) somewhere south and west of Portstewart (beyond Drogheda) on a rest day (one Sunday afternoon). A young man with a lot going for him: intellect (literary) and sex-appeal (sweet-talking), shaped by his Meath terrain (countrified) and ranging freely around his locality (pedalled out the leafy road from Slane).

That was Ledwidge’s Irish Catholic domain (where you belonged) with its blend of sentiment (dolorous) and loveliness, its Catholic-influenced spring times (May altar of wild flowers), and renewals (Easter water) scattered across home territory (sprinkled in outhouses). County Meath rich too in landmarks of Catholic resistance when Protestant occupiers banned religious freedom (mass-rocks), ancient tribal defences (hill-top raths) and rural cattle farming (raftered byres).

Part 3: Ledwidge’s legacy from ill-fated enlistment in the British Army (your Tommy’s uniform) – first, in life, images of terror (haunted Catholic face), ill health alongside courage (pallid and brave) – in death a fallen soldier’s shade (ghosting the trenches) bearing a sprig of rural Meath (bloom of hawthorn) and a reticence (silence) hard-wired (cored) by Meath’s landmarks (Boyne passage-grave).

A time-line is set (summer, nineteen-fifteen). Because Ledwidge was unlucky in love Heaney provides a family alternative (the girl my aunt was then) at home in mid-Ulster (herding on the long acre) whilst Ledwidge suffered in a disastrous military campaign – forced to hide out (low bush in the Dardanelles), reduced to desperate measures (suck stones) to cope with thirst (make your dry mouth water).

Two years later Mary lives serenely on (still herds cows) while Ledwidge is dead (a big strafe put the candles out in Ypres).

A swirl of inner feelings persuaded this Catholic Irishman to enlist in a British Army that also oversaw the executions that followed the Easter Rising of 1915. Ledwidge’s deep-seated nostalgia for home (‘My soul is by the Boyne’) and the farming life (‘cutting new meadows’) was accompanied in his poems and letters of regret by his notion of unfulfilled Irish nationhood (‘My country wears her confirmation dress’) and a conviction that his choice would help define his motherland (‘my country has no place among nations’).

Death (rent by shrapnel) was the grim consequence of his preference for direct action overseas over petty public squabbling at home (‘party politics … divide our tents‘).

Part 4: Heaney frames his tribute in a medley of musical terms: Francis Ledwidge was and remains a contradiction to most Irishmen (our dead enigma), penning tortured melodies (strains) that projected mixed messages (criss-cross) and resolved nothing (useless equilibrium).

Back where Heaney started in Portstewart the sounds (wind tunes) round the memorial statue (vigilant bronze) beat out the oxymoronic contradiction (sure confusing drum) of life choices (from Boyne water to the Balkans) that would deprive the world of a mature poetic voice (the twilit note your flute should sound).

Alongside the likes of Yeats in the Irish literary reckoning, to Heaney’s mind ‘Ledwidge is neither a very strong nor a very original talent’ (not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones) but in memoriam he enjoys his deserved place in the War Poets’ roll of honour (all of you consort now underground).

  • Francis Ledwidge (1887-19170: Irish poet born in Slane, Co Meath killed in action at the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I; part of his mystique was that as an Irish national he had enlisted in the British Army;
  • bronze: yellowish-brown alloy of copper and tin;
  • hitch: lift, raise;
  • cape: sleeveless garment worn over the shoulders;
  • crumple: crease, wrinkle, distort;
  • stiff: rigid;
  • buff: neologism perhaps borrowed from ‘buffet’ in the sense of blow or jolt administered by the wind
  • sweep: horizontal movement as of a brush;
  • hunker: crouch down low;
  • crane: stretch the neck forwards;
  • Flanders: flat area between Belgium and the Netherlands that witnessed prolonged fighting and loss of life in World War I;
  • haversack: standard army issue; strong small bag carried over the shoulders;
  • slope: slant up and down from the vertical;
  • fallen: those killed in war;
  • embossed: of a design that stands out in relief;
  • pet: pamper treat with affection;
  • grip: firm hand hold;
  • Aunt Mary (Heaney): his father’s maiden sister who lived with the family at Mossbawn; subject of ‘Sunlight’, a warm nostalgic portrait of her in ‘North’; Heaney revealed that he was a great favourite of hers’, ‘ a bit petted’ as the first of what would become nine nephews and nieces; Heaney loved her dearly;
  • Portstewart: popular seaside resort north west of Derry in Northern Ireland
  • prom: paved walk along a sea-front;
  • crescent: street or terrace forming an arc;
  • thread: move in and out of obstacles;
  • strand: seashore, sands;
  • pilot: expert with the knowledge to see a ship safely in and out of a harbour
  • Coleraine: large town within a few miles of Portstewart
  • courting couple: old fashioned pair of lovers, said of two people before they enter a permanent relationship;
  • scooped: with hollows;
  • studs: fasteners from a time when shirt collars were not attached;
  • roll: turn over and over up or down
  • string of bulbs: length of cable with lights at regular intervals;
  • cliff: steep coastal rock-face
  • shelter: place offering temporary protection against bad weather;
  • litter: young animals born a one time
  • runt: the weakest often last born of a litter;
  • barbed: with clusters of sharp spikes to deter;
  • friesian: breed of black and white dairy cattle common across Ireland;
  • elder: senior; of a previous generation;
  • Drogheda: industrial port town in Co Louth where the Boyne flows into the sea;
  • sweet-talk: blarney, insincere attempt at persuasion:
  • countrified: unsophisticated;
  • Slane: village in Co Meath to the north west of Dublin in the Irish Republic standing on the river Boyne; Ledwidge was born there;
  • dolorous: mournful, expressing deep sorrow;
  • May altar: in the month dedicated to the Mother of Christ; the Ma(r)y altar often took the shape of a 6 inch statue filled with holy water;
  • Easter water: water blessed in special ceremonies on Easter Saturday’
  • mass-rock: stones used as altars when the Mass was illegal in the mid 17th century;
  • rath: strong circular earthen wall enclosing and protecting tribal elders;
  • rafter: internal beam supporting a roof;
  • byre: cowshed;
  • Tommy: informal name for British soldier; named after one Tommy Atkins;
  • haunted: tormented, troubled;
  • trench: long narrow ditch built to protect from enemy fire
  • core: heart, nucleus, foundation;
  • Boyne: river in Leinster that springs in Co Kildare flows 112 kms northeast through Co Meath in Eastern Ireland to enter the Irish Sea near Drogheda; the Boyne Valley famous for ancient historical emplacements and the site of the Battle of the Boyne that played such an influential role in the history of the island of Ireland;
  • passage-grave: burial chamber covered in soil and stone as at Newgrange in the Boyne valley dating from 5000 years ago;
  • herd: keep and look after livestock;
  • acre: unit of land area that farmers used to identify particular fields
  • Dardanelles: scene of an unsuccessful attack on Turkey by Allied forces in 1915;
  • strafe: machine gun attack by low-flying aircraft;
  • Ypres: north-west Belgian town near to which some of the bitterest fighting of WWI took place;
  • confirmation dress: special whit garment worn by a girl at her confirmation, that is baptized, confirming Christian beliefs and being admitted as a full member of the Catholic Church;
  • rent: torn to pieces;
  • shrapnel: metal fragments thrown out by an explosion
  • tents: part of camps used figuratively to describe different persuasions;
  • enigma: mystery, riddle;
  • strain: both political/ conscientious strands and musical melodies;
  • tune: emit musical sounds:
  • vigilant: watchful;
  • Balkans: 1914+ conflict between the Central Powers grouped around Germany and the Allies that included British forces;
  • flute: musical instrument;
  • key: tonal base;
  • pitch: degree of highness or lowness of a tone;
  • true-blue: unwavering in support; loyal;
  • consort: unite in company (musical connotation of musicians in concert);
  • underground: in death;


  • 13 quatrains (Q) in 20 sentences (including colon, suspension points and dash);
  • Q1 repeated colour; oxymoron within real and imaginary time frames ; opposites ‘imagined’ / ‘real’; unalterable posture ‘no matter how… forever’; totally enjambed flow; Q2, WWII killing fields; much punctuated; downward eye movement; introduction of child observer; patriotic site (‘loyal’) of remembrance; Q3 date-specific to enable the contrast between time-forties and time-Ledwidge; richly enjambed; child and guardian; actual place names;Q4 postcardy in nature; sentence rich as the eye flits from happening to happening; very ‘period’ with human personalities explored with injection of humour; clustered assonant and alliterative effects; transferred epithet – the shins are not timid, the man is in a crowd; Q5 the most elusive quatrain a second possible reading might have been aimed at Ledwidge and the disillusionment he felt when the army he was a member of was engaged in the suppression of attempt to unit his country; richly enjambed; Q6 long awaited identity revealed; typical quotidian Irish normality described; triple descriptors of the man –mind, mouth and manner; Q7 in a single sentence hints at the incongruity of fighting overseas; things to be lost: gentle Catholicism, historical and preh-historical uniquely Irish sites; Q8 in a single sentence describes a man dead yet living; military argot ‘Tommy’; contrast of emblems in ugliness ‘hawthorn’/ ‘trench’; notion that human nature might derive from ancient sites; Q9 richly enjambed; contrasts – woman in serene landscape; man suffering on the front line; survival mechanism in fact real in extremis; Q10/ Q11 a broken rhythm; serenity and suffering replaced by serenity and annihilation dealt with euphemistically ‘candles out’; direct speech of chosen snippets seeking to explain what many, including Heaney as it turns out, find inexplicable; a man driven by his mentor’s influence and personal tweed-wearing social aspirations to enlist; Ledwidge’s reasonings plausible to himself rewarded with a grim death; notions and images of nationhood unfulfilled to this day; Q12/ Q13 almost totally enjambed; Heaney’s final appraisal of a man he sees as having wasted his efforts at the political level, was never allowed to achieve any kind of potential but in any case was only a modest poet tempered by Heaney’s generosity of spirit via a weave of musical instruments and timbres;
  • line length 8-12 syllables; strict rhyme scheme ababcdcd etc. often hinging on assonant or alliterative effects in final syllables; Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the piece is a measured balance of enjambed and punctuated lines;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • the final lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds breathy [w] approximant [l] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; alongside nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh] ; a handful of velar plosives [k] [g]complete the package;

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