Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

From The Unutterable Beauty: "Dead and Buried" by G.A. Studdert Kennedy

 Commentary by
David F. Beer

Rev. Studdert Kennedy
The Reverend Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy came to the Western Front from a small English parish and served as an army chaplain. He soon became known as "Woodbine Willy" to troops near the front lines due to his practice of giving out cigarettes to needy soldiers. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, survived the war, and returned to parish work. He died an early death in 1929 from a combination of asthma and exhaustion. He wrote numerous poems, published and still available in The Unutterable Beauty. He was also the author of several notable books on theology in which he questioned the concept of God being both omnipotent and all-loving; his experience in the war had proved otherwise. The God he served never intervenes in the affairs of humans yet loves us and suffers along with us through the Christ. The war, the suffering deity, and the hypocrisy perpetuated in "the many-fountained Gardens of Versailles" is the subject of this poem.

Dead and Buried

I have borne my cross through Flanders,
Through the broken heart of France,
I have borne it through the deserts of the East;
I have wandered, faint and longing,
Through the human hosts that, thronging,
Swarmed to glut their grinning idols with a feast.

I was crucified in Cambrai,
And again outside Bapaume;
I was scourged for miles along the Albert Road,
I was driven, pierced and bleeding,
With a million maggots feeding
On the body that I carried as my load.

I have craved a cup of water,
Just a drop to quench my thirst,
As the routed armies ran to keep the pace;
But no soldier made reply
As the maddened hosts swept by,
And a sweating straggler kicked me in the face.

There's no ecstasy of torture
That the devils e'er devised,
That my soul has not endured unto the last;
As I bore my cross of sorrow,
For the glory of tomorrow,
Through the wilderness of battles that is past.

Yet my heart was still unbroken,
And my hope was still unquenched,
Till I bore my cross to Paris through the crowd.
Soldiers pierced me on the Aisne,
But 'twas by the river Seine
That the statesmen brake my legs and made my shroud.

There they wrapped my mangled body
In fine linen of fair words,
With the perfume of a sweetly scented lie,
And they laid it in the tomb
Of the golden-mirrored room,
'mid the many-fountained Gardens of Versailles.

With a thousand scraps of paper
They made fast the open door,
And the wise men of the council saw it sealed.
With the seal of subtle lying,
They made certain of my dying,
Lest the torment of the peoples should be healed.

Then they set a guard of soldiers
Night and day beside the Tomb,
Where the body of the Prince of Peace is laid,
And the captains of the nations
Keep the sentries to their stations,
Lest the statesman's trust from Satan be betrayed.

For it isn't steel and iron
That men use to kill their God,
But the poison of a smooth and slimy tongue.
Steel and iron tear the body,
But it's oily sham and shoddy
That have trampled down God's spirit in the dung.

In nine stanzas, with a rhythm that somehow reminds me of a marching cadence, the poet employs the metaphor of Christ on his earthly journey—but now in France rather than Palestine. Jesus suffered dreadfully but was able to survive the cruelty, neglect, and horror of the fighting. It was the politicians who finally crucified him: "Soldiers pierced me on the Aisne,/But 'twas by the river Seine/That the statesmen brake my legs and made my shroud."

This is what happened at Versailles, where decisions and forced agreements made World War Two all but inevitable. The treaty was hammered out by fair words, sweetly scented lies, thousands of scraps of (meaningless?) paper, subtle lies, smooth and slimy tongues, and pacts with the devil.

The final stanza sums it all up. Perhaps it has ever been thus.

David F. Beer

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