Friday, 8 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 21: Woodbine Willy

It's not often I weep into my muesli. I was preparing to led Morning Prayer today and found a poem by 'Woodbine Willy', aka Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a First World War Chaplain whom the church remembers on 8th March (we also remember two Bishops, but given the choice between two Bishops and a poet...)

Studdert Kennedy got his famous nickname for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual help and solace to injured and frightened soldiers in the trenches. In 1917 he won the Military Cross for running into no man's land to help the wounded during an attack on the German front line. 

I do like the sound of Woodbine Willy, not least for his writing. In 1921 he wrote a book called Democracy and the Dog Collar which featured chapters entitled 'The Church is not a Movement but a Mob'; 'Capitalism is Nothing but Greed, Grab and Profit-Mongering' and 'So Called Religious Education Worse Than Useless'. You can see where he's coming from.

But it was one of his poems which reduced me to tears as I practised reading it out loud in a Yorkshire accent (you have to - it's written in dialect and sounds silly in received pronunciation). The poem is 'Well?' and in it the poet has a dream in which he appears before a figure we assume is Christ (described simply as 'Im'). He sees his life flash before him, particularly all the things he wished he hadn't said or done and the opportunities for good that were missed. In a poignant line, he recognises the face of his wife and children and of 'a London whore', and the figure before him says that whatever was done to each of these was done to 'Him'. The narrator feels terrible remorse and intimates that he should go to hell. Christ says, no: hell is for those who are not remorseful - instead he is told:

Follow me on by the paths o' pain
Seeking what you 'ave seen,
Until at last you can build the 'Is'
With the bricks o' the 'Might 'ave been.

The poet knows at last what he must do:

I's got to follow what I's seen,
Till this old carcase dies.
For I daren't face the land of grace,
The sorrow ov those eyes.

He concludes:

And boys I'd sooner frizzle up,
In the flames of a burning 'Ell,

Than stand and look into 'Is face,
And 'ear 'Is voice say - 'Well?

You'd be hard pressed to come up with a better picture of the loving judgement of Christ than that. Luckily, having made the muesli quite soggy, I managed to hold it together for my rendition an hour later at Morning Prayer.

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