Eastering

Rabbits

Easter: ‘the greatest feast of the Church year, celebrating the Resurrection of Christ and the salvation of man’,[1] though it may mean different things to children, to bakers, to rabbits and to chocolatiers. To literary-historical folk, it might mean the death of Edward Thomas or, perhaps more likely, the poetry of William Butler Yeats:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.[2]

The Easter Rising, Declan Kiberd suggests, ‘is the great, unmentionable fact which hovers behind so many episodes of Ulysses’.[3] I remember being surprised by reading that it was under the dispensation of the Defence of the Realm Act (passed a few days after the war began) that the executions after the Easter Rising were carried out.[4] I’d associated that legislation with censorship, the watering-down of beer and, of course, the shortening of pub opening times to discourage munitions workers and those engaged in other crucial wartime activities from whiling away too many hours in the public bar.

Ford Madox Ford termed the act ‘the unlovely Dora’, commenting that, ‘Even during the war she was offensive and stupid in patches, but one bore with her because it was then expedient and necessary to support authority, however stupid Authority might be.’ But ‘after the war Authority itself became an offence to the Realm.’[5]

The poet Ivor Gurney was Gurney wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen.[6] Three days later, on Easter Monday, Siegfried Sassoon was close enough at Basseux to hear the guns at Arras, where Edward Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.[7]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via BBC)

Gurney’s poem, ‘The Mangel-Bury’, written a few years later, begins:

It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras –
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place – along the hedge’s yet-bare lines.
West-spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.[8]

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 622.

[2] ‘Easter 1916’, W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 204.

[3] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 156.

[4] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1991), 77.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 84.

[6] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)

96.

[7] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010), 101.

[8] Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 263.

 

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