Archive for the ‘Essays’ category

Addison’s “Westminster Abbey”

April 17, 2011

On attending the funeral of a good friend’s mother yesterday, Addison’s “Westminster Abbey” came to mind. This simple and famous little essay connects pagan and Christian thought on mortality. Where Horace warns the rich man that he will meet the same fate as the poor, Addison welcomes the commonality of all. The Spectator disclaims any melancholy, but few other words could describe the emotions of the rippling last paragraph as well, if not a resigned hope:

Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
Regumque turres, O beate Sexti,
Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam:
Jam te premet nox, fabulæque manes,
Et domus exilis Plutonia.

“Pale death knocks with impartial foot at the huts of the poor and at the towers of kings, O happy Sextus. The shortness of the span of life forbids us to cherish remote hope; already night overtakes thee, and the fabled shades, and the wretched house of Pluto.”

—HOR. i. 4. 13.[1]

When I am in a serious humour, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey, where the gloominess of the place, and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I yesterday passed a whole afternoon in the churchyard, the cloisters, and the church, amusing myself with the tombstones and inscriptions that I met with in those several regions of the dead. Most of them recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day, and died upon another: the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to all mankind. I could not but look upon these registers of existence, whether of brass or marble, as a kind of satire upon the departed persons; who had left no other memorial of them, but that they were born and that they died. They put me in mind of several persons mentioned in the battles of heroic poems, who have sounding names given them, for no other reason but that they may be killed, and are celebrated for nothing but being knocked on the head.

Glaukon te, Medonta te, Thersilochon te. HOM. IL. P.216.

Glaucumque, Medontaque, Thersilochumque.VIRG. Aen. vi. 483.

The life of these men is finely described in Holy Writ by “the path of an arrow,” which is immediately closed up and lost.

Upon my going into the church, I entertained myself with the digging of a grave; and saw in every shovelful of it that was thrown up, the fragment of a bone or skull intermixt with a kind of fresh mouldering earth, that some time or other had a place in the composition of a human body. Upon this, I began to consider with myself what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.

After having thus surveyed this great magazine of mortality, as it were, in the lump; I examined it more particularly by the accounts which I found on several of the monuments which are raised in every quarter of that ancient fabric. Some of them were covered with such extravagant epitaphs, that, if it were possible for the dead person to be acquainted with them, he would blush at the praises which his friends have bestowed upon him. There are others so excessively modest, that they deliver the character of the person departed in Greek or Hebrew, and by that means are not understood once in a twelve month. In the poetical quarter, I found there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets. I observed indeed that the present war had filled the church with many of these uninhabited monuments, which had been erected to the memory of persons whose bodies were perhaps buried in the plains of Blenheim, or in the bosom of the ocean.

I could not but be very much delighted with several modern epitaphs, which are written with great elegance of expression and justness of thought, and therefore do honour to the living as well as to the dead. As a foreigner is very apt to conceive an idea of the ignorance or politeness of a nation, from the turn of their public monuments and inscriptions, they should be submitted to the perusal of men of learning and genius, before they are put in execution. Sir Cloudesly Shovel’s monument has very often given me great offence: instead of the brave rough English Admiral, which was the distinguishing character of that plain gallant man, he is represented on his tomb by the figure of a beau, dressed in a long periwig, and reposing himself upon velvet cushions under a canopy of state. The inscription is answerable to the monument; for instead of celebrating the many remarkable actions he had performed in the service of his country, it acquaints us only with the manner of his death, in which it was impossible for him to reap any honour. The Dutch, whom we are apt to despise for want of genius, show an infinitely greater taste of antiquity and politeness in their buildings and works of this nature, than what we meet with in those of our own country. The monuments of their admirals, which have been erected at the public expense, represent them like themselves; and are adorned with rostral crowns and naval ornaments, with beautiful festoons of seaweed, shells, and coral.

But to return to our subject. I have left the repository of our English kings for the contemplation of another day, when I shall find my mind disposed for so serious an amusement. I know that entertainments of this nature are apt to raise dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds, and gloomy imaginations; but for my own part, though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this means I can improve myself with those objects, which others consider with terror. When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.

Addison's Walk at Magdalen College, Oxford

Addison's Walk, Madgalen College, Oxford

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This Day of Days

June 16, 2010

Margaret Anderson of the Little Review had no sooner read the opening of the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses than she said, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” (Ellmann 421.)

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, by James M. McPherson

May 31, 2010

What memories of vigils, bloody, by that Cape–
Ghoul-mound of man’s perversity at balk
And fraternal massacre!
Hart Crane, “Cape Hatteras”

McPherson, a Princeton history professor, wrote what many think is the best one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. In this book, he takes a sample of letters by 1,076 soldiers (647 Union and 429 Confederate) and analyzes them for the reasons that the soldiers gave for fighting the Civil War. The book quotes generously from the soldiers’ own letters.

The book is organized by theme:

1. This War is a Crusade
2. We Were in Earnest
3. Anxious for the Fray
4. If I Flinched I Was Ruined
5. Religion Is What Makes Brave Soldiers
6. A Band of Brothers
7. On the Altar of My Country
8. The Cause of Liberty
9. Slavery Must Be Cleaned Out
10. We Know That We Are Supported At Home
11. Vengeance Will Be Our Motto
12. The Same Holy Cause

How much were they putting on a front, and how much saying what they mean? Who knows even if the soldiers themselves could tell us, but this is what we have to go on.

They fought against slavery in the cause of liberty.
“I want to sing ‘John Brown’ in the streets of Charleston, and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of the bayonet.”–a Massachusetts infantry captain

They fought for slavery in the cause of liberty.
“The vandals of the North are determined to destroy slavery. We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty.”–a Kentucky physician

They fought for their personal honor and glory.
“No Jenny . . . while your happiness is as dear to me as life duty prompts me to go.  My country first, home and friends next. Jenny, what would friends be to me if I had no country?”–Recruit, 11th Michigan
“I much reather be numbered among the slain  than those that stay at home for it will be a brand upon their name as long as a southren lives.”–Sergeant, 24th Mississippi

They fought because it was expected of them and their officers commanded them.
“I will go as whare and stay as long as eney of my offersers will.”–Sergeant, 2nd Rhode Island
“Napoleon the first said ‘a man to be a good Soldier must first be converted into a machine,’ & I am inclined after some experience to concur with him.”–Lieutenant, 43rd North Carolina

They fought to “see the elephant”–to have the long-awaited fight.
“We pushed on anxious for the fray.”–Indiana private
“For almost an hour there was the most deafening yells that ever was made by one regiment. It seemed as if they was wild and mad for the fight. I never felt so much like facing the canons.”–Private, 25th Mississippi

They fought because it was God’s will for them, and their fate was determined.
“I think that one place is as dangerous as another, for God has appointed our day and we are perfectly safe until that day comes.”–Color bearer, 4th Virginia
“What little Presbyterianism I have left makes me something of a fatalist.”–Lieutenant, 8th Kansas

They fought to protect their unit, their closest family.
“I am very proud of this company & I am too much attached to my intimate friends to seek an opportunity of parting with them.”–South Carolinian
“I should leave with much regret the men who stood manfully by me in the hours of dainger through which I have passed.”–Quaker captain, 5th New Jersey, later killed at Second Manassas

They fought to defend their country against the invader and to take vengeance against him when they had the chance.
“I certainly love to kill the base usurping vandals.”–Sergeant, 8th Georgia
“I want to fight the rest of my life if necessary before we recognize them as anything but Rebels and traitors who must be humbled.”–Illinois sergeant

They fought to preserve the heritage of the American Revolution.
“Every Southern heart must respond to the language of the great Patrick Henry in the days of ’76 & say give me Liberty or give me death.”–Private, 56th Virginia
“Should We the youngest and brightest nation of all the earth bow to traters and forsake the graves of our Fathers? No no never never.”–Illinois farm boy

McPherson ends the book this way:

“Americans at the end of the twentieth century are also children of that heritage. Whether we are worthy of it will remain a matter of constant reexamination. Civil War soldiers willingly made extraordinary sacrifices, even of life itself, for the principles they perceived to be at stake in the war. Whether Americans today would be willing to make similar sacrifices is unanswerable. One hopes that it will remain unanswered.”

For Cause and Comrades makes the reader keep quiet, or should. Stop talking about what we really know that the Civil War was all about, or the Iraq War, or Vietnam. Let the soldiers have their say about why they fought.

Sprung

April 12, 2010

Du bist der Lenz, nach dem ich verlangte!
Die Walküre
, Act I

Winter is not supposed to be a season in Georgia.

Winter is when the Bermuda grass turns brown and it’s too cold to golf. Were the world our ideal, winter should be a weekend at most. Last year, it was that way. So was the year before that, as I remember it. My memory is so rarely wrong.

This last winter was overseasoned, too sharp for most tastes. Now, leaves spread, buds burst, boys sneeze. This, at last, is the time for an open window!