(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

World War I generated a great deal of literature, much of it detailing the horrors of the trench fighting in northern France. Best known is the verse of poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and Rupert Brook. However, many other poets wrote verse that was probably more popular at the time but less literary and therefore was not anthologized in later collections.

One such poet was G. A. Studdert Kennedy, better known as “Woodbine Willie” by the troops. He was a chaplain with the British forces in Flanders from 1915 to 1919 and, during that time, received the Military Cross for his bravery under fire in rescuing wounded men at Messines Ridge. His first volume of poetry, Rough Rhymes of a Padre (1918). was a collection of verse that had appeared in magazines and newspapers during the war. This was followed by Peace Rhymes of a Padre (1920) and Songs of Faith and Doubt (1922). However, the volume that was to become his most popular, selling by the thousands for years after, was The Unutterable Beauty.

His early life does not seem to have given him any preparation for ministering to common soldiers under fire. His father was a vicar in the Church of England of St. Mary’s, Quarry Hill, Leeds, in Yorkshire. Studdert Kennedy attended a prestigious school, Leeds Grammar School, then went to Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, to major in classics and divinity, graduating in 1904. After several years as a schoolteacher, he attended Theological College at Ripon, Yorkshire. He was appointed first as curate of Rugby Parish Church and then, in 1912, of Leeds Parish Church. In 1914 he married Emily Catlow and became vicar of St. Paul’s, Worcester. This training and these appointments were typical of a professional minister of religion within the Church of England.

It was the experience of meeting common soldiers, many of whom had no church connection at all and only a nominal Christian faith, in the shared danger of enemy fire, that completely changed his life. From then on, Studdert Kennedy became a passionate advocate for the common man, and after his demobilization, became heavily involved in various...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Edwards, D. “’Woodbine Willie’ Was a True Prophet.” Church Times, June 24, 1983. A modern reassessment of the prophetic role of Studdert Kennedy’s poetry and preaching.

Fuller, Roy. “Woodbine Willie Lives.” In Owls and Artificers: Oxford Lectures in Poetry. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1971. A modern poet revisits Studdert Kennedy’s verse, and reinstates the worth of popular poetry.

Grundy, Michael. A Fiery Glow in the Darkness: Woodbine Willie—Padre and Poet. London: Osborne Books, 1997. The most recent and certainly most detailed biography of Studdert Kennedy. It deals both with the larger-than-life man and his immensely popular poetry.

Purcell, William. Woodbine Willie. Oxford, England: Mowbray, 1983. This is one of Mowbray’s Religious Reprint series, being a reprint of an earlier, but still very useful, biography.