Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
The Weeping Window bleeds ceramic poppies
that blush St. Magnus’s cathedral wall
and each seems miniscule among them all—
the throng comprises nigh a million copies:
one bloom per British serviceman who died
in World War One, a massive flower bed
entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red
displayed in London where it dignified
that War’s centenary. Now part has traveled
to Orkney, here to mark one century
since dreadnought fleets waged battle on the sea
near Jutland. Lifelines tangled and unraveled—
in two short days eight thousand men and more
succumbed as riven battleships went down.
With Princess Anne, the envoy of the Crown,
their relatives are welcomed at the door
of this, the Viking edifice erected
in memory of Magnus, who eschewed
bad blood in favour of the holy rood,
a man of peace, nine hundred years respected.
Some families take pause and stare, as if
they hope the flower avatar of their
lost sailor lad will wave. As they repair
into the church, the poppies stand up, stiff
like soldiers at attention on parade;
their stems are wire, their heads are crimson clay
and, grouped, they seem ethereal, a fey
honour guard shipshapedly displayed.
The British and the German brass bands march
along the harbour front then through the streets;
this day there are no triumphs or defeats—
they gain the church grounds through a common arch—
and then the pipe band, clad in kilts, assemble.
No instrument of war can so foment
bravado then bestow such dark lament:
Great Highland Bagpipes set the air atremble,
the Weeping Window work of art revives,
more vehemently, the ones who drowned and bled,
and now we see, in child-tall blooms of red,
a sad cascade of young, foreshortened lives.
John Beaton writes: In the late spring of 2016, my wife and I, on an annual trip to Orkney, attended a commemoration ceremony. The venue was St. Magnus cathedral, a magnificent edifice of Viking origin in Kirkwall, the main town on that little group of windswept islands off the north tip of Scotland. To commemorate the centenary of the 1914 outbreak of World War I, artists had created a display outside the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British soldier killed in that war. To commemorate the centenary of its largest naval engagement, the Battle of Jutland, organizers had taken a subset to Kirkwall and set it up as ‘The Weeping Window’, a dramatic crimson cascade from a lancet window high on the cathedral’s central tower. This poem describes the ceremony.
It won Goodreads Poem of the Month for December 2017 and has been previously published on the Thomasgray2016.org website and in my recent book, Leaving Camustianavaig (Word Galaxy Press).
Photo: Tom O’Brien, The Arcadian/ Orkney Media Group