"And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
The correct name of the poem is "God Knows", and it was written by a British teacher called Minnie Louise Haskins in 1908. The reason it is so well-known is that it was the text selected by King George VI for his Christmas radio broadcast, towards the end of 1939. It is generally felt that it gave heart to the nation at a time of great fear and uncertainty.
The King's Christmas broadcast was a relatively new thing. His father, King George V, had begun it in 1932; George V himself had been resisting the idea of speaking to his people through the wireless for nine years before finally giving in to the BBC's repeated requests. Like many of his speeches, the 1932 address was written by none other than Rudyard Kipling. The King had been nervous about the occasion, but was persuaded to continue in later years by the positive response from his audience, especially when he came to see it as a way of communicating with the furthest reaches of his Empire, an Empire in which political cracks had already begun to appear.
"It may be that the future will lay upon us more than one stern test," said George V, prophetically. Many in his kingdom believed that a second war with Germany was inevitable, sooner or later, but few foresaw that it was his second son, Prince Albert, then merely the Duke of York, who would be the one to make the first royal Christmas broadcast of that war. Albert, as most people were aware, suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to perform in public, and no one could have imagined that he would be the one to make the most memorable such broadcast of the twentieth century.
King George VI, as Albert became in 1936, was not a natural leader or a man of great intellectual gifts. He did, however, have several things his charming older brother (the former Prince of Wales who briefly reigned as King Edward VIII) had lacked; one of these was a family. The words were first suggested to him by his wife Elizabeth, and the poem was a favourite of hers and of her elder daughter's. It was not written with a particular occasion in mind, and made no reference to war, yet it captured the imagination of the public, making the poem known to a global audience as well as being a morale-booster for Britain. The King, who had given his support to Neville Chamberlain's peacemaking attempts, must have clutched gratefully at the ready-made pep talk, with Kipling having died in 1936 and no longer being available to provide such memorable lines for his use.
At New Year, I always think of those words from the 1939 speech (though of course it was long before I was born) and remember my parents and grandparents telling me how they found them an inspiration at the beginning of a long and terrible war that would cause even a military veteran like Sassoon to despair of humanity. I have no doubt that Siegfried, traditionalist that he was, listened to the broadcast, and I cannot imagine how he felt, seeing Europe once again split apart by armed conflict. Yet I cannot help thinking that he would have been impressed by the way a few lines from a minor poet could move millions.