To One Dead by Francis Ledwidge

Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917) was an Irish poet, killed during the First World War (1914-1918). From a poor family, he worked as a laborer until the author Lord Dunsany offered him a modest stipend and the use of his library. Ledwidge’s poems are rooted in the countryside around his home north of Dublin, the Boyne River valley. The blackbird is a recurring motif in his poetry (such as with To One Dead), where it may represent life, the poet’s voice, or God’s voice, depending on the context. Ledwidge’s nature imagery is partially Celtic in origin. It appealed to the “Georgian Poets” in England (named after King George V), because they were also working on poems that highlighted the beauties and mysteries of the landscape. The literary critic Gerald Dawe has written that Ledwidge’s poems “looked back to an Irish idyll of romantic longing, replicating Gaelic rhythms and mythology.”

 

To One Dead Analysis

A blackbird singing

On a moss-upholstered stone,

Bluebells swinging,

Shadows wildly blown,

A song in the wood,

A ship on the sea.

The song was for you

and the ship was for me.

To One Dead is divided into two stanzas, each of which is an “octave”—a stanza of 8 lines. Although it could be further divided into two stanzas made up of four quatrains (four rhymed lines), the symbolism of dividing the poem into two stanzas is important because it represents two people: Ellie Vaughey (“you” in the poem) and Francis Ledwidge (“I” and “me”).

The action of the poem takes place in the poet’s mind, as a vision or recollection. The “moss upholstered stone” is an old grave in the graveyard, which the poet imagines. It was an old tradition to bury members of the same family in the same grave plot and then carve new names on the old stone markers. The poet imagines his love buried in a grave that has been standing for decades, enough time for moss and lichens to grow upon it. This old stone represents the eternity of time and death.

By contrast, the blackbird that sits atop the stone and sings represents life and also introduces the natural imagery in the poem. In the first stanza, the timelessness of nature is presented by the words “blackbird,” “moss,” “stone,” “bluebells,” “wood,” and “sea.” The first stanza is also strongly elemental, featuring stone, wind (“shadows wildly blown”), and sea. In the last four lines, Ledwidge uses two meters to mimic the sound and feel of the waves: iamb (unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable) and anapest (two unstressed, one stress): u/uu/. The poem also makes use of alliteration of the sounds S and Sh to replicate the sound of winds and waves.

The ship that waits in the harbor for Ledwidge is a reference to the troop ship that moved him from the island of Ireland to the Middle East theater of war. Ledwidge fought in the April 1915 battles in Gallipoli, a point between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea near Turkey.

A blackbird singing

I hear in my troubled mind,

Bluebells swinging,

I see in a distant wind.

But sorrow and silence,

Are the wood’s threnody,

The silence for you

and the sorrow for me.

The repetition of the second stanza again indicates the eternal aspects of time and nature, in which many things are the same—the blackbird, the bluebells, and the woods. The change has happened in the poet’s mind, which is troubled by the death of the loved one and has only memories “in a distant wind.”

Although the poem is in simple language, here Ledwidge uses the classical term “threnody,” which is a Greek word for song, ode, and lament. The use of the Greek shows the influence of the Georgian Poets on his writing, as this group was fond of introducing classical allusions into their work.

 

To One Dead Form

In To One Dead, the rhyme scheme of each octave is ababcdxd. The second quatrain of each stanza makes use of “ballad scheme,” taken from folk ballads, but famously used by John Keats in his ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (which can be roughly translated as “the cruel and beautiful lady”). The use of this rhyme scheme with its allusion to Keats is appropriate for the poet’s “troubled” mind, still harboring resentment at Ellie’s cruel rejection.

Ledwidge uses the form of the Italian canzonetta, or song. The canzonetta must have at least two octaves made up of quatrains with alternating rhyme schemes and a repeated refrain. We can see some of what makes Ledwidge’s poetry distinctive when we examine the rhyme scheme. A canzonetta prime places the repeated rhymed word in line 8. Ledwidge places the repeated words in line 7 and 8. The word “you” remains unrhymed (hence the x), while “me”–the final word of each octave—is paired with “sea” and “threnody.”

 

To One Dead Themes

The poem explores the two themes of heartbreak and great sorrow at sudden and tragic death. One year after his love rejected him and married another, she was dead. Ledwidge suffered from jealousy and the pangs of rejection. Some critics assume that he enlisted in the Army in order to escape Ireland and occupy his mind with thoughts of something other than Ellie.

Already wounded emotionally, Ledwidge was wounded during the battles at Gallipoli. It was then that he learned of Ellie’s death, and he fell into a low mood, feeling deeply the irrevocable loss of his true love through her tragic death.

He uses the rhyme scheme to express his relationship to Ellie. She is only referred to twice, and each time as “you,” in this case a personal form of address, as if he is giving her a gift of his own song.  The word “you” remains distinct and unrhymed in the poem, underscoring her special status to him; there is only one who could be “you.”

At the same time, given the context of the Great War, Ledwidge’s poem could express the feelings of anyone who lost a loved one during that time. Keeping in mind that there were men and women who went to war from on troop ships and hospital ships, the gender of  “you” and “me” could be either male or female. This potential openness of address gives the poem its power as a lament; it goes beyond a specific time and place to represent the feelings of anyone who has suffered from heartbreak and loss.

 

To One Dead Symbols

The Blackbird. The beautiful song of the blackbird can represent the poet’s voice and also the intentions of God toward humans. Ledwidge would have been familiar with the story of St. Kevin, a sixth-century Irish mystic who founded the abbey at Glendalough. Kevin is typically shown with a blackbird in his hand, which represents his compassion. One day, a blackbird came to rest in his open palm, which was raised to heaven. The bird laid an egg in his hand, thinking it was a nest. Not having the heart to remove the bird, Kevin let the bird and the egg remain until the young bird had fledged. Accordingly, blackbirds can denote the presence of God.

Bluebells. Bluebells are wildflowers that grow in wooded areas. In Celtic legend, because of their diminutive size and bell shape, bluebells were used to call the fairies. There is a legend that if a human hears the sound from a swinging bluebell, someone close to them will die. In Victorian language of flowers, the bluebell represented constancy of the heart and everlasting love.

The Ship. The ship is an important Christian symbol, and would have been known to Ledwidge through his upbringing in Catholic Ireland. The ship represents the Christian church. This symbol is based on a passage from the Book of Mark, in which Jesus and his disciples are crossing the lake from Galilee when a storm threatens to capsize the boat. Jesus calms the winds and the waves. The main body of a church where the congregation sits, is called the nave, from the Latin word navis, or ship.

 

An Interpretation

This simple poem reveals its complexity through symbols and allusions to Celtic mythology and Christianity. In a Christian interpretation, the blackbird and the bluebells call the young woman to her death, but promise everlasting life in heaven and the eternal love of Christ. From a secular point of view, the blackbird’s song stands in for Ledwidge’s poetic voice, and the bluebells represent his everlasting love for Ellie Vaughey. However, in the second stanza, the poet is more disillusioned, finding only “silence” where there should be comfort. The ship (Christianity) is absent.

 

Historical Background

Ledwidge was in love with his friend’s sister, Ellie Vaughey and dedicated many poems to her. Ellie broke off their relationship in 1913, citing that her family “owned land,” while Ledwidge was merely a laborer. She married John O’Neill in 1914 and moved to Manchester, England, but she died in childbirth one year after her marriage. Ledwidge was recovering from war wounds in a hospital in Cairo when he learned of Ellie’s death. This poem is an elegy for her, a lament for her death.

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