The Rugby-Playing War Poet

We’re currently in the process of putting together the upcoming Rugby Union exhibition at Leeds Central Library, which opens on 4 September, and it’s giving us a great opportunity to look through some related resources from our library collection.

Wilkinson

One of these is the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union Commemoration Book 1914-1919, which profiles dozens of County players who served—and died—in the First World War. The soldier pictured above, Captain Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson, can be found among its pages. While not born in Yorkshire—he was the son of Herbert and Mary Wilkinson of Weymouth, Dorset—he studied Engineering at the University of Leeds and was working as a schoolteacher at Ilkley Grammar School when he joined the Leeds Rifles as a lieutenant in 1915. Prior to that, he played for Ilkley RFC, but this wasn’t the only interest he turned into a success: his poems, frequently featured in the school magazine, won much local praise, eventually leading to the publishing of his own volume of poetry, Sunrise Dreams, in 1916. Tragically, he was killed in battle in October 1917 when, as a captain, he led his company in the attack on Passchendaele Ridge.

The following poem from Sunset Dreams takes on an even more melancholy air in light of its author’s death at the age of only 26.

TO A LARK AT DAWN BETWEEN THE TRENCHES

Thy song comes thrilling through the air
a glorious stream of melody—
A golden flood.
What precious chance has kept thee there.
Singing thy strains of faerie glee,
Where all is blood?
We cannot see thee, wondrous bird;
The dawn has scarce begun as yet;
The moon still high.
But friend and foe thy song have heard.
And none who hear it can forget
Nor check a sigh.
Because thy music, wildly sweet.
Seems still to call us from the ground
To soar and fly;
But we, alas, have leaden feet;
Unloveliness is all around.
Men fight and die.
’Tis no fit place for such high lore.
For we are bound, we cannot rise—
Till the blood mist clears.
But fly to him who launched the war.
Sing, sing to him and ope’ his eyes
To human tears.

Alas! poor sprite! thy fate with him
Were poor indeed. For one who wrongs
A world entire,
To glut ambition’s idle whim,
Will never hearken to thy songs
Of hallowed fire.
Then stay with us. The nightingale
Shall sing all night her sad, sweet dirge
For death and pain;
But Dawn thine own free voice shall hail.
And in the heart high Hope shall surge
And soar again.
And grim-faced men with weary eyes
Shall turn their thoughts from blood and strife.
Across the foam.
To where, beneath Old England’s skies.
Thy sisters sing of love and life
To those at home.

Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson is remembered on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. A month after his death, some of his work was collected in the early and influential anthology of British war poetry, The Muse in Arms.

The Yorkshire Rugby Football Union Commemoration Book can be found in the Leeds Local and Family History Library (shelf mark: Y 796.333 YOR) and the image above is used with kind permission of the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union.

The Library is hosting many fascinating rugby-themed events during August, September and October. The aforementioned exhibition, opening on the 4th of September in the Central Library, will celebrate the World Cup coming to Leeds by exploring rugby’s history and culture through displays and memorabilia reflecting the game’s local, national and international heritage.

Also of interest is a talk between rugby historian Professor Tony Collins, photographer John Ashton and author Stuart Sheard. This event, again held at the Central Library – this time on the 22nd of September – will see Collins, Ashton and Sheard sharing their knowledge, insight and passion for the game. Places are limited, so please book your free ticket to ensure attendance.

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