Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Woodbine Willie"

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy came into the world in 1883 at Leeds, England, son of an Anglican vicar, William Studdert Kennedy. Geoffrey graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a degree in classics and divinity, then served parishes in Rugby and Worcester.

Kennedy volunteered as a military chaplain on the Western Front after the outbreak of World War I. Along with his ministry to the wounded and dying, he was remembered for his doling out Woodbine cigarettes to the soldiers, thus earning the nickname "Woodbine Willie".

Even a cursory reading of some of his many poems gives a clue to his literary skill. He published several volumes of religious poetry, one of them called Rough Rhymes of a Padre, based on his experience as a chaplain. A good example of his strength of character, compassion, and respect for his fellow soldiers comes through in his poem Woodbine Willie:

THEY gave me this name like their nature,
Compacted of laughter and tears, 
A sweet that was born of the bitter,
A joke that was torn from the years.

Of their travail and torture, Christ's fools,
Atoning my sins with their blood,
Who grinned in their agony sharing
The glorious madness of God.

Their name! Le me hear it -- the symbol
Of unpaid -- unpayable debt,
For the men to whom I owed God's Peace,
I put off with a cigarette.

In 1928 Kennedy published I Believe: Sermons on the Apostle's Creed. The Christian socialism and pacifism which influenced him during the war years was evident in his later poems and prose. He worked for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, on a speaking tour for which he became ill and died in Liverpool in 1929.

I was introduced to Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy's poetry almost 20 years ago by my late beloved friend and devoted evangelist in the Diocese of Northern California and elsewhere, Bill Hickinbotham. Bill was blind, but spoke eloquently and movingly from the heart whenever he addressed people. He memorized a number of Kennedy's poems, as well as some of the Epistles, which he could recite by heart. Whenever we shared a meal at a restaurant, Bill would inevitably great the waitress, kid her a bit, then ask "How are you?" He was predictably given the usual reply, "Oh, I'm fine." And Bill would gently look directly at the person and say, "No, I mean,...really... how are you?" It was amazing to see the rapport he often established that way, and how, even momentarily, it would become an opportunity for the person briefly open up and share something that was bothering her. Bill would always leave the person with a comforting word, not preachy, but very sincere, and a smiling demeanor. Much, I suspect, like the way Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy related to his soldiers.

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