November 08, 2007

Poetry Friday: Remembrance Day edition

I was going through One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children the other week, and in the section on "War", I came across the old Rudyard Kipling poem "My Boy Jack", which I thought I would use this week, about his heartbreaking search for his only son who was lost in action at the age of 18, after only two days at the front, at the Battle of Loos on September 27, 1915.

And then in checking to see if the poem was somewhere online so I could just cut-and-paste instead of type it all out, I discovered that my selection is timely:
[Television channel] ITV is prepared for complaints over My Boy Jack, the story of the author’s son [played by Daniel Radcliffe], who went missing in action on a First World War battlefield after his father pulled strings to get him a commission. ... [T]he £10 million film, [will] be screened on Sunday as part of the channel’s Armistice Day commemorations. The film shows the fate of Lieutenant John “Jack” Kipling at the Battle of Loos in France with brutally violent clarity.

Radcliffe, 18, whose first television role this is, said that he wanted young Potter fans to watch the two-hour film. “I hope people are moved,” he said. “The thought of forgetting all those people who fought is terrible. We are lucky not to have to endure those conditions now.” ...

The Imperial War Museum in South London is holding an exhibition about Lieutenant John “Jack” Kipling, which opens today, to coincide with the film. ...

When John failed the Forces medical on three occasions, because of severe shortsightedness, Kipling used his influence to get his son a commission with the Irish Guards.

John was posted to France on his 18th birthday. He was reported wounded and missing six weeks later in his first action at Loos, in September of 1915.

The anguished Kipling blamed himself for his role in the loss of his son, believed to have been killed in a mortar-shell attack. ...
Not surprisingly, I suppose, the Imperial War Museum website includes links where one can buy the DVD of the ITV drama as well as the book published to accompany it, and five links to Daniel Radcliffe fan sites, but nowhere on the website could I find the poem reproduced, or a link to the poem elsewhere.

My Boy Jack
by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

"Have you news of my boy Jack?"
Not this tide.
"When d'you think that he'll come back?"
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
"Has any one else had word of him?"
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?"
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.

* * *

In 1917 the poem was set to music and sung by the famed English contralto Louise Kirkby-Lunn (1873-1930); you can hear it here.

For years Kipling tried to trace his son, interviewing survivors from the battlefield and carrying with him a description of the spectacles his son had been wearing. John's whereabouts have been more or less of a mystery, as ably recapped in a Guardian article earlier this week,
The grieving poet and his American wife, Carrie, embarked on a long campaign to find their only son, hoping to discover he was still alive. Kipling tracked down old soldiers who took part in the battle, pleading: 'Have you seen my boy Jack?'

Only in 1919 did he accept John had died. Then he refocused his energies on commemorating all those who had fallen in the Great War. Then, 15 years ago, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission named a previously unknown soldier buried in St Mary's Advanced Dressing Station Cemetery near Loos. The previous anonymous headstone was replaced by one with John's name.

The Holts, however, claim to have identified a more likely occupant of the grave. Arthur Jacob, a lieutenant in the London Irish regiment, is known to have been fighting in the area. The Holts say their theory matches both the map location and the rank recorded by the burial search party which found the body in 1919, although the Holts say the party confused the Irish Guards with the London Irish.

This is more credible, the Holts argue, than two assumptions which led the commission to identify John Kipling. They question the belief of the commission's researcher that the search party made a mistake in the map reference. Second, they contend, the researcher assumed that John held the rank of full lieutenant when he went missing, whereas in fact he was only a second lieutenant, not receiving promotion until after his death.

Tonie Holt, co-author of the newly updated book My Boy Jack?: The Search for Kipling's Only Son [originally published in 1998], does not want to disturb the grave for a DNA test but called for the commission to reconsider the material available. 'We would like a proper analysis of the evidence we've uncovered so far.'

Peter Francis, spokesman for the commission, said the Ministry of Defence had re-examined the evidence and stated in 2002 that it still believed the grave was John Kipling's. 'However, if the Holts wished to resubmit their case, based on new evidence, we would be more than happy to pass it on,' he added.

David Haig, for whom the TV programme is the culmination of 20 years' study, said: 'I'm pretty certain it's not John Kipling's grave...There's a great longing by the Kipling estate and all the followers to bring this full circle and find a moral atonement for Rudyard Kipling after sending his son off to war. But if the Holts' evidence is fairly compelling, the case should be reopened.'
John Kipling's name is on a memorial to the missing at Loos, under the words "Known unto God", a phrase selected by his father in his capacity as a commissioner of the Imperial War Graves Commission, established in 1917, and known today known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (with a very informative website by the bye). Kipling also selected the phrase "Their name liveth for evermore" (Ecclesiasticus 44:14) to be inscribed on the large Stones of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which mark one thousand or more burials.

In memory of his son, Kipling wrote a two-volume history of his regiment, The Irish Guards in the Great War, published in 1923.

And, available online, Kipling's deeply affecting short story, The Gardener, about a childless woman whose nephew, whom she has raised as her son, is lost in action in World War I. After receiving the news, Kipling writes,
Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after one with great care, and saying earnestly to each: ‘Missing always means dead.’ ...

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’

‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’

When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

Read the entire short story here. And remember — the fallen and their families.

* * *

Cloudscome is hosting today's Poetry Friday roundup at A Wrung Sponge. I don't have the exact post link since I'm posting this Thursday evening (tomorrow will be yet another day away from home, this time for a funeral in the extended family), but I'll add it tomorrow as soon as I can.

No comments: