As an undergraduate, we’d read Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. The professor explained how the Red Cross Knight represented St. George, the patron saint of England, and his defeat of the dragon represented the triumph of British Protestantism over the presumed errors of ‘superstitious’ Catholicism.
Twenty years later I found myself in an Orthodox church which took for its patron the esteemed St. George. The icon screen at the front of the church bore an image of the saint slaying the dragon. Learning the Orthodox worldview was perplexing and bewildering enough. I also spent my first few months wondering why a Middle Eastern church honored (what I thought was) an English Saint.
Eventually I learned that St. George was from Palestine and Turkey, and martyred for his faith on April 23, 303. In the time of the Crusades, the English soldiers who journeyed to Palestine [ahem] were so impressed with the stories of St. George’s bravery that they adopted him for their own.
Like King Arthur, Merlin, and other “Sleeping King” or “King Asleep in the Mountain” motifs, some say St. George is defending England to this very day, and will return again in an hour of need.
Cicely Fox Smith’s poem “Saint George of England,” written/published in 1919, chronicles how St. George protected England through a series of historic battles. He aided the English in the Hundred Year’s War in the Battle of Crecy (1346). He helped Sir Francis Drake defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. When England’s influence in North Africa was threatened at the Battle of Khartoum in 1884-1885, and the popular General Charles George Gordon died in battle, St. George bore witness. [Colonialism noted without comment.]
Amidst the horrors of W.W. I—the Great War, The War To End All Wars—it must have been comforting to think that St. George was aiding his British friends. Smith’s poem places him at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle and the trench battlefields of Flanders Fields.
A century later, I can’t help but read it ironically as the poet sincerely expresses patriotism (tinged with racism) by crediting St. George with “strafing Huns in Flanders.”
[An aside: I looked all over the internet for an image of St. George in a W.W. I-era aircraft, because such an anachronism would amuse me as much as this image of St. George with chainmail and crossbow, but I couldn’t find one. If there are any artists reading this, get sketching, please!]
War poetry is a topic in and of itself. It wasn’t until I started researching poems for National Poetry Month (April) for work, that I was reminded of how much war poetry exists. Since we’re talking W.W. I, I’ll refer you to W.B. Yeats “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.”
I hold up Cicely Fox Smith not as a exemplar of poetry, but as evidence of how folklore adapts to each generation. The hero is not dead, but asleep, and will return to offer hope and aid during times of desperation.
Here’s a video of me reading her poem:
Here’s General Gordon at the Battle of Khartoum:
The Complete Poetry of Cicely Fox Smith with biography and related information.