Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Personal View of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence

Though you'd be hard pressed to tell it, it's still the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Given the importance of the anniversary, I think it's a shame that the commemorations were mostly bundled into a few weeks around Easter, even if that was the exact anniversary of the events.

To keep the ball rolling, I am going to write a little about the seven men who signed the Irish Proclamation of Independence, a noble document which adorns the walls of many pubs, schools and private houses in Ireland.

First of all, a few remarks about the Rising itself. I'll keep it brief because I've written all this before.

I don't necessariliy condone the Rising. I have mixed feelings about it. There has been a vast amount of discussion, ever since it happened, on whether it fulfilled the criteria of a just war. I lean towards the negative in those debates. But I'm not sure.

The deaths of innocent civilians is the most difficult aspect of it. Who can forget the story of the little girl who was shot through the head, because she was peering through a keyhole when a rebel shot the lock? There are many such stories.

All the same, Easter 1916 happened, and is a crucial part of Irish identity. It is hard for non-Irish people to appreciate the extent of this. It is akin to the American Revolution for Americans, or the Battle of Britain for the English.

Whatever my scruples about the Rising, I do have a great deal of respect for the men and women who fought in it. Seven men signed the Proclamation, and I will deal with them individually.

Patrick Pearse was (and is) undoubtedly the most celebrated of the 1916 leaders, and he is the one I admire the most. My upbringing has something to do with this. We owned a copy of his Political Writings and Speeches, and it had almost Scriptural prestige in our house. My father often quoted him.

I reacted against this in my teens. I can remember, pettily, inserting a self-drawn cartoon which condemned him as a psychopath into the school library's copy of Political Writings and Speeches. But this was just a phase.

Who was he? He was an Irish language activist, a teacher, a headmaster, an orator, a poet, and the President of the Provisional Government which was proclaimed in 1916.

There has been much discussion of whether he was attracted to boys. He undoubtedly loved and romanticised boys and some of his writings praising them read very suspiciously to our over-sexualised era. There is no evidence of any romantic relationships with women in his life (he was extremely shy around women). However, there is also no hint of any actual inappropriate behaviour towards boys. He was the headmaster of a boys school and virtually all of his pupils seem to have idolised him.

Pearse was a galloping romantic, and I think this is why I have such a high regard for him. One of his essays was entitled 'The Spiritual Nation'. He viewed nationhood as something spiritual, as do I. He was not interested in a national liberation which did not involve cultural renewal. He memorably expressed this aspiration in this classic formula; "Not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well".

(In fact, he was a political moderate until very late in his short life. initially, he was much more interested in cultural renewal than in politics. But his experiences as a headmaster of an Irish-language school-- a pioneering enterprise, at that time-- convinced him that political revolution was required for cultural renewal.)

He was not without faults. Though he was an observant Catholic, and sincerely religious, some of his writings seem to treat Irish nationalism as a kind of secular religion. The most disturbing instance of this are these words, from his oration at the grave of Wolfe Tone, a hero of Irish nationalism:

We have come to the holiest place in Ireland; holier to us even than the place where Patrick sleeps in Down. Patrick brought us life, but this man died for us.

I have always found these words shocking, and the perfect example of the danger of idolatry which haunts nationalism. Nevertheless, Pearse was a fervent Catholic, and he received confession and absolution before his execution. In fact, he was so pleased to hear that his fellow-signatory, the Marxist James Connolly, had also received absolution, that he said it was the one thing he had been worried about.

Pearse's poetry is, in my view, absolutely first rate. He seemed to have been a complete naif when it came to poetry, writing haunting lyrics in free verse. They are marked by their directness and artlessness, and seem to owe nothing to any poetic tradition, unless it is the prophetic writing of the Bible. Take this poem which was written on the eve of his execution:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way


Perfection. "The Fool" is another masterpiece, as is "The Risen People".

The second most famous figure in the Rising was James Connolly. Since he was a Marxist, and the leader of the left-wing Irish Citizens' Army (several different military organisations fought in the Rising), he has always been the left-wing hero of the Rising, and indeed the saint of the Irish left in general.

I've never had all that much interest in him, despite his prominence, even when I was a socialist. (I was a socialist in my early twenties, but I was never a Marxist. Indeed, I was a self-consciously anti-Marxist socialist even then.) He left many writings, but I wouldn't dream of reading them-- my few encounters with Marxist theory have been enough for me.

As a person, however, Connolly seems to have been entirely noble and admirable. An ex-soldier, he directed the fighting in the main garrison of the General Post Office, and all acounts of his leadership show him to be valiant, humane and inspiring.

I also admire his history as an organiser of trade unions. It's a long time since I've been a socialist, but a concern for the poor seems to me an entirely Christian outlook. The working conditions in Dublin at the time of the Rising were appalling. An apostle of the free market might tell me that this was entirely due to government regulation or tarriffs, or some such thing, and that the perfect liberation of market forces would eliminate such poverty. Maybe. In the meantime, people have to live, and to live with some dignity.

As before mentioned, he had the last rites and absolution before his execution, despite having been a lapsed Catholic before this. The Irish radical left has always found this 'an inconvenient truth'. Indeed, it was Connolly who sent runners to request the presence of Catholic priests during the fighting, so his men could have confession.

The next figure I will mention is Joseph Plunkett. I knew very little about him before this year, when I started reading about the Rising in more depth. Since then I have read and watched a good deal about him, and he is undoubtedly my second favourite of the leaders after Pearse.

He was a devout Catholic, though not a daily Mass-goer or particularly outspoken about his faith. He was also a big fan of G.K. Chesterton-- he read The Man Who Was Thursday at least four times, and he wrote a poetic tribute to him.

Plunkett came from a wealthy family, though he also had a deprived childhood since his mother was neglectful. He was fascinated by machinery and war games-- indeed, it was Plunkett who devised the military strategy for the Rising. That strategy has had very mixed reviews-- one writer wondered what success an uprising could have when it involved "occupying bases and waiting to be attacked". In any case, it's hard to assess his plans fairly, since the entire thing was so botched that it mostly had to improvised.

Plunkett is the most romantic figure of the Rising for two reasons. One is that he was dying of TB-- he would have been dead within weeks, even if he had not been executed. The other is that he married his fianceé Grace Gifford in the prison chapel, shortly before his execution. They were not allowed to exchange a single word, other than their vows.

He was a poet, and one of his poems has become a classic:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.


I will pass swiftly over Éamonn Ceannt, who seems to me by far the least interesting of the signatories. He was a military man and a cultural nationalist. Other than his role in the Rising, the most notable thing about him is that he once played the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) for the Pope. I don't mean any disrespect to him, but I have little to say about him.

We have been dealing with the visionaries so far. But not all of the signatories were visionaries. The pairing of Thomas Clarke and Séan MacDiarmada were the 'hard heads' of the Rising. Between them, they laid most of the groundwork of the rebellion, long before the other five became involved. It was these two who insured that the secret organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, infiltrated and took control of the Irish Volunteers, an open citizen's 'defence force'.

Tom Clarke is the 1916 signatory I find least appealing. He was, to be blunt, a fanatic-- a man whose life was utterly dedicated to getting the British out of Ireland. He was involved in a dynamiting campaign in his youth, and spent years in prison a a result. He came out a prematurely aged man, and even more fanatical. His tobacco shop in O'Connell Street was in many ways the hub of the rebellion.

What I find most unappealing about Clake is his apparent lack of any vision for a post-independence Ireland. He wanted to get the British out, and that was it. He had very little interest in cultural nationalism. And he was a hardliner-- when the other leaders wanted to surrender, to spare further civilians from being killed, he pleaded with them to keep fighting to the death.

He was not a religious man-- he was embittered against the Church for its hostility to the Fenians, a previous group of Irish insurrectionists. He told the priest who came to minister to him before execution to leave, when he urged him to repent.

I read a biography of Clarke recently, intrigued as to why someone would devote his life to Irish independence, with apparently so little consideration of what an independent Ireland would look like. I didn't find the answer, but I can at least say that he was a loving husband and father. If he was a fanatic in public life, he was quite sentimental in private life-- which, at least, I find endearing.

His close friend Sean MacDiarmada is like Clarke is a lesser key. He was much more a political nationalist than a cultural one. He was a man of action rather than a man of ideas. He has been called an 'amiable fanatic'-- indeed, everybody seems to have liked him. What I find most endearing about him is that he helped convince the footsoldiers of the rebellion to surrender when they wanted to fight on. He told them that he expected to be executed, along with the other leaders, but that the rank and file would live to fight another day-- which they did.

On his census form, he recorded his religion as 'Irish nationalist'. However, it's obvious from his other answers that he was doing his best to irritate the census-takers, and he did not chase the priest away from his cell in the manner of Tom Clarke.

In my mind, Clarke and MacDiarmada represent the tough-minded, anti-romantic strain of Irish nationalism, where Pearse and Plunkett represent the romantic and idealistic strain. I definitely identify with the latter, rather than the former.

The final signatory, Thomas MacDonagh, is someone about whom I know very little, even though he is a flamboyant figure-- the third poet of the Rising. He was also a teacher in Pearse's school, and a lecturer in English at the university where I work.

Since I have always been an anglophile, and Irish nationalism has all too often involved anti-Englishness, I cherish the story of the last words he spoke to his students, after a class on Jane Austen: "Ah, there's nobody like Jane, lads".

He was a handsome, debonair and charming figure. He offered cigarettes to his executioners. He seems to have had a religious temperament, though not in a particularly orthodox mode.

Well, God bless them all. They all paid the ultimate price for their beliefs, and I pray they are all with the Lord now. And God bless everybody who died in the fighting. And God bless Ireland!

Hurray for Penzu!

This post is going to be a free advertisement, and a fully deserved free advertisement. I come to praise Penzu, the diary software that I have been using every day for considerably over a year.

I've kept diaries on and off throughout my life-- more off than on, though. I remember keeping one when I was about twelve years old. Tim Burton's Batman movie was out at the time, and I remember drawing Batman insignia on the back cover. I don't think this lasted more than a few weeks.

Penzu screenshot-- not mine.

My family got a computer (Microsoft Works) in 1994, when I was sixteen. This was the occasion for me to start writing poetry seriously. It was also the occasion for me to start keeping a diary, and I kept it for a long time; perhaps a year and a half.

I wish I still had those diaries. Not only did they describe the routines of my schooling, or some of it, but I remember they contained many reflections which were of lasting importance to me. It would be extremely interesting to read the musings of my sixteen and seventeen year old self. However, it's long gone.

I kept paper diaries in college. I have less nostalgia for these. It was a time of great confusion and aimlessness in my life. I can remember these diaries were full of affectation and self-pity, and I eventually I threw them into the river Tolka in disgust. Although I do regret this, I don't regret it nearly as much as my school diary.

Tolka, final resting place of my college diaries

Efforts to keep diaries after that were fitful and unsuccessful. I got it into my head that a diary should be a terse chronicle, rather than a record of thoughts and feelings. This was probably an over-reaction to my college diaries. I have a pocket diary from 2014 that has a few months worths of records, but nothing else.

Then, last year, on the 24th of June, I decided to keep an online diary. A few moments of research were enough to discover that was the market leader. I created an account, and started to keep a diary-- my first entry was entitled 'To Make a Beginning'.

This was the first paragraph:

I decided yesterday-- or was it today?-- that I would start keeping a diary again. Strangely enough, it was the memory of a passage in Brideshead Revisited that did it. There is one section set aboard a liner that filled me with a strange fascination with the notion of days, how our lives are divided into these units. And I remembered, from the computer diary I kept in my teens, how delicious the in-betweeny days seemed to be-- the uneventful, reflective days-- and how each day seemed to have more of an identity when it was preserved in a diary. Even though that diary is long lost, I remember the days I chronicled in it as days, because I chronicled them. Hence-- this.

Brideshead Revisited

I think most of us begin most projects, or routines, in the same spirit as we make New Years' resolutions-- hoping they will stick, not really expecting them to. But this one did. I have not missed a day in my Penzu diary since that time. Some days, I have had to make notes on paper and transfer them to the online diary later, but I've not missed chronicling a day.

And, although my life is not particularly eventful, there's already quite a few memorable highlights in the diary. There is an account of my jury service, which was for two weeks on a very dramatic case. There is an account of the wedding of one of my closest friends. There is, sadly, the account of my father-in-law's funeral and internment in New Jersey. There is an account of the strange episode wherein I arranged and catalogued the private library of Judge Ronan Keane, the former President of the Supreme Court. (It was what we call a 'nixer' in Ireland-- a job on the side.) There is an account of a job interview (unsuccessful). There is an account of an operation where I went under general anaesthetic for the first time in my life.

Then there are all the public events, like the general election, or Brexit, or the death of David Bowie. There are all the feasts of the liturgical year, a complete round of which I have made. And all the secular holidays, too-- although the one Christmas recorded in my diary so far was a subdued and rather sad one, for several reasons.

And, of course, there are all the 'in betweeny days' which, to me, are the most delicious part of a diary.

I have also kept a record of my dreams, when I can remember them, and of conversations with friends. These are often the most intereting to re-read. Who remembers most dreams, and most conversations?

I promised some free advertising. I wanted to say that Penzu is a wonderful service. For one thing, I love the name, which seems to be a pun on 'pen' and 'penser' (the French verb for think).

Some people ask me why you even need a diary software. Why not just use a Word document, or a Google Drive document?

Well, of course you can do that, but I find Penzu much more attractive. It's purpose-built for diary writing. It generates a new diary entry every day, for that date, so you don't have to. Secondly, the formatting is aesthetically very pleasant, and you can customize it. Thirdly, its list of entries is very navigable (although it's a shame it doesn't have a facility whereby you can 'skip' back or forward at a day a time-- you have to go into the list of entries each time).

Penzu has a free service, a 'Penzu Pro' service, and a 'Penzu Pro-Plus'. After a few days of using the free service, I upgraded to Pro. It's twenty dollars a year. When the time came, I renewed it. I have shelled out on very few luxuries in the last few years, but this didn't seem expensive for something I use every day, and which gives me such satisfaction.

Penzu Pro allows you to keep multiple diaries in one account, to customize the formatting, and to add tags to your entries. (My tags are things like: "Mass", "Communion", "Confession". "Dreams", "Deep Conversation", "Oddity", "Big Day".) Tags make it easier to search.

 You can add photos and pictures-- and video, too, though I've never done that.

I've found it a very efficient service. Sometimes it 'goes down', but very, very rarely, and never for long. It's rarely slow or unresponsive, which is a big deal.

I like the fact that it can be customized. The background image I use as a template for every entry is a photograph of an empty cinema, looking out from the seats to the screen. A cinema screen has always been my favourite metaphor for the mind, for consciousness.

Is keeping a diary a waste of time? I don't think so. I don't think it actually takes time from anything else, in my case. Maybe it's because I write quickly. I update it every few hours, a few minutes at a time. Of course, sometimes I write more reflective entries at greater length.

I like to include little details, little 'grace notes'-- an overheard conversation on a bus, a poster seen in a shopping centre, demonstrations and street evangelists in the city centre, a story that somebody tells me, and so forth. if there is an art to keeping a diary, I think that is part of it.

Who is a diary written for? Primarily, of course, it is written for youself, to re-read in the near and distant future. I do find myself hoping somebody else will be interested in it some day, though-- a child, or a grandchild, or a great-grandchild, or even somebody less directly descended from me. Perhaps even a social historian, or a researcher. (I do find myself explaining references to people and events I haven't mentioned before, as though it is being  read by a complete stranger.)

Of course, I have a sneaking hope that one day it will join the exalted ranks of famous diaries such as those of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Virginia Woolf, and Kenneth Williams. Stranger things have happened. Not many, but some.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Happy Wedding Day, Mr. C!

Today is the wedding day of a friend and a reader of this blog, who I'll call Mr. C.

Say a prayer for him and his bride, and for a marriage laden with blessings!

 Deo gratias!

On Family Folklore

Today my father told me a story from the Second World War (or the Emergency as it was officially called in neutral Ireland), involving our family. We had been agreeing on the rightness of Ireland's neutrality during the War; my father pointed out that the Luftwaffe would undoubtedly have been bombing Ireland if we had supported the Allies.

The Luftwaffe didn't bomb Ireland. At least not deliberately. On several occasions, German bombers did attack Dublin, as a result of navigation error. (There are other theories, but I think Occam's Razor applies here.) The most famous of these was the 'North Strand' bombing. I once saw an exhibition about this in a public library.

"It wasn't like this when I went out this morning!"
My father was almost a casualty of the North Strand bombing. Born in 1939, my grandfather was pushing him in a pram when it happened, and they were only a little distance from the danger zone. So the Nazis almost killed me before I was born.

Remarkably, my father also had a narrow escape from the horrific Dublin bombings in May 1974, when loyalist terrorists (who were fighting against a united Ireland) bombed a street in Dublin city centre. My father and his friend were walking in that direction and only stopped to get a sandwich in a pub. So (without wanting to take away from the tragedy of that day, where 27 were killed), I can say I was almost killed by both Nazis and loyalists before I was born.

But that wasn't the story I heard today. The story I heard today was that my father (only a little kid) had been tearing up newspapers in the kitchen one night, during the Emergency. When his grandfather came downstairs, and saw papers everywhere, he assumed the house had been hit by a bomb!

Missed me!
I immediately wrote this down in my online diary, and added a new 'tag'-- "Family folklore'. Such folklore strikes me as increasingly important. If my father had not told me that story, and I had not remembered it or written it down, no doubt it would be completely forgotten-- "lost in time like tears in rain", as the beautiful line from Blade Runner has it.

We can't hold onto everything. And, when I imagine a world where everybody has photographic memories and nothing is ever lost, it strikes me that oblivion and forgetfulness are beautiful gifts from God. On the other hand, I think it's incredibly sad when some stories disappear-- things that are worth remembering.

(I might mention here a wonderful line from Brian Friel's Translations, one of the very few plays I've seen in the theatre. A father says it  to his nostalgic son: "To remember everything is a form of madness.")

Then I found myself thinking of another memory. I don't know what year it was from, but certainly it was the mid-eighties. I was with my mother and my little brother, and we went to a carnival with rather simple amusement rides. I remember we had also just bought a kid's picture book featuring the superhero teddy bear Superted.

It was late evening. Although the carnival wasn't closed, it was about to close, so there was an atmosphere of delicate melancholy, which readers of James Joyce's book Dubliners might recognizse from the story 'Araby'. (One of the few Joycean pieces I actually like.)

I remember feeling sorry for my mother, who was watching us enjoying the rides. (They must have been kids' rides.) I told her that I felt sad to be enjoying them while she was just watching. "I enjoy just watching you", she said. That seemed even sadder to me. All these years later, of course, I understand it.

I also remember a story in my English textbook in primary school, when I was about eleven. It was a nostalgic piece about the author's childhood, and he she remembered how her bed-bound grandmother would call herself and her siblings into her room, to hug them, saying "you have all the freshness of youth on you" (or some such words). I thought that was incredibly sad, too-- to be old and have childhood forever behind you, to need to experience it at second hand. Sometimes I feel that now, but very rarely. I can now understand how my mother could enjoy just watching us play, and that old lady could feel happy rather than sad hugging the little children.

That's not what I set out to write about, though. What I wanted to record was the incredible feeling of urgency and poignancy that fills my soul when I think of that evening in the carnival, and similar memories. My mother died in 2001, ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. My brother told me he doesn't remember the day at all (he would have been very young.)
There is such a feeling of aching tenderness when we remember those we have lost (or even those who are still alive, but with whom we have shared much of our lives). The world is so big, and they only have us (and a few others, perhaps) to hold onto their memories. Even if they are well-known in a public sense, what does the world know of their inner being?

This emotion is like the one you feel when you are holding hands with somebody you love in the middle of an enormous crowd, or seeing someone you know from a long way away. They look so very small, from such a distance-- and how your heart aches with love for them!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Behold, I Make All Things New!"

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.  And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.  And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.

 The Apocalypse, Chapter 21

Over the years I have tried to memorize various Bible verses. I haven't been very good at holding onto them, because once I have them memorized I tend to neglect them and thus forget them. The only way to keep something memorized is to keep revisiting it on a regular basis. (I once memorized the entirety of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe, to recite at a dinner party. No way I could recite it now.)

I've been committing this verse to memory recently because I find it one of the most evocative of all Bible verses. I'm especially stirred by the words: "Behold, I make all things new". 

It has occurred to me that this might seem to contradict my traditionalism and love of all things old, on which subject I have often written here.

And yet-- it doesn't seem to at all. In fact, the sight of a Halloween bonfire or a Christmas tree, or the rhythms of the liturgy, somehow awaken in me the same atmosphere as this passage and those very words: "Behold, I make all things new". It's very strange. I think it has to do with the timeless as an image of the eternal.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Lads at the Back

"Dearfá uaireanta nuair a d'fhéachfá timpeall ort sa séipéal agus go bhfeicfeá an mathshlua mórthimpeall an doras ag bun an tséipéil, gur poiblicéanaigh is mó atá inar measc. Is ar éigean, áfach, go bfhuil aon bhaint ag an traidisiún ársa sin, atá chomh seanbhunaithe faoin tuaith go háirithe, le humhaíocht an phoibliceánaigh. Tuigimid dó; cúthaileacht níos mó ná umhlaíocht, agus beagán neirbhíse croite anuas ar an gcúthaileacht chéanna is mó a bhíonn i gceist."

That's a passage from the biography of Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, by Risteard Ó Glaisne, that I'm reading now. As I mentioned recently, Pádraig Ó Fiannachta was an Irish priest, scholar, editor and publisher who died very recently. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

I have written of my increasing concern for the Irish language. There seems something a bit hypocritical about lamenting it, or encouraging it, but never using it. On the other hand, I know I'm not proficient enough to write in it without tons of mistakes. So the only compromise I can think of, at the moment, is to quote a piece now and again. I've been reading a lot of Irish language books so I have plenty to draw from.

This is the translation, as far as I can manage. "One would sometimes think, from the sight of a whole crowd of people standing at the back door of the church during Mass, that we are mostly dealing with Publicans in Ireland [as in the tale of the Publican, or Tax-Collector, and the Pharisee]. But it's seldom that this hoary tradition, which is so established in rural areas especially, has anything to do with the humility of the Publican. It has much more to do with timidity than with humility, and faintness of heart."

If I got any of that wrong, I'm sure any Irish language speakers reading will rush to correct me. (That's a joke.)

It is indeed a well-established tradition in Ireland, especially amongst young men. Even a lover of tradition like myself can see that it's one tradition that shouldn't be celebrated.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon

This is an article I wrote for Annals Australasia magazine (the oldest Catholic magazine in Australia!), where I've had several articles published. My most recent ones have been part of a series about great poems, a subject close to my heart. Kudos to the editor of this magazine for giving space to such a series-- poetry rarely gets column inches of any sort.

Thanks to my brother Turlough for adding the pictures, after I spent more than an hour trying to do so. For some reason, on this particular post, Blogger seemed insistent that it was not going to allow pictures inserted without also including massive spaces after each one.

In previous articles in this series, I have written commentaries on acknowledged great poems. This time around, I am going to be a little bit more adventurous and write about a poem which—though often included in anthologies, and fairly well known—can hardly claim the same cultural stature as ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson or Psalm 23 of the King James Bible.
The poem is ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ by Laurence Binyon, an English poet who died in 1943. Binyon fought in the First World War and his most famous poem is ‘For the Fallen’, with its oft-recited line: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”

As ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is relatively unknown, I am going to quote it in full. Read it slowly, and savour it:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

I first encountered this poem in a modern edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was fourteen. Since then it has haunted me, and—while other poems that struck me as an adolescent seem less impressive now—my regard for this one has grown steadily with the years. I consider it one of the very finest poems in the language.

What is so remarkable about it? Well, the first thing to be said is that it is very accomplished. It’s a four stanza poem whose lines are fairly long, but the metre never falters, and each line develops the theme in a very natural way—there are no ‘filler’ lines. This in itself is quite rare.

Over the years, as the poem has seeped deeper into my mind, I have come to notice that the form harmonizes remarkably well with the subject matter. Its crisp, steady, gentle syllables remind me of the crackling of a bonfire. The emotion in each verse swells until the verse’s final line, when there is a dying fall reminiscent of a spark or a cinder falling to the ground. The entire poem has a trance-like, dreamy quality. Accomplished poets often like to introduce irregularities into the metre, to avoid this very ‘sing-song’ quality, but it is very appropriate here.

I have said in previous articles in this series that a great poem needs a great theme. The theme of ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is one of the oldest and most constant themes in poetry—the theme of transience, mortality, things passing. This theme is so standard that it has a name; Ubi sunt, which means literally ‘Where are?” in Latin. Where are they now? There must be few human beings, even amongst the most cloddish, who have not been spurred into a poetic mood by the sight of their old school, or a yellowed photograph, or the ruins of a castle.
I must admit a particular fascination with this theme, as I am the world’s number one nostalgist. Even when I was a little boy, standing on the circle of burnt-away grass where the previous year’s Halloween bonfire had blazed filled me with a sweet melancholy. I get wistful about the most trivial changes and endings—such as the discontinuation of a bus route, or the parting of brief acquaintances. So it’s obvious why I would find the subject matter of the ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ compelling. 

But this poem has something that most others ‘Ubi sunt’ poems don’t. It’s not simply a lamentation for the passage of time, and the disappearance of the past—it dares to also be an affirmation, almost a celebration. Lines such as these are both shocking and bracing, to a confirmed nostalgist such as myself:

Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

Perhaps there is a unique relief in letting go of the things that we have held onto with the most resilience. Even the idea that we could possibly let go of them is strangely exhilarating—exhilarating and scary at once. We are so used (especially the nostalgists amongst us) to seeing ourselves as the playthings of time and change that the idea we can view these forces with equanimity—perhaps even with approval— is thrilling. We can warm ourselves by the very flames which consume all we love.

This sense of mingled shock and exhilaration is heightened by the violence of the language used:

All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns!

There is a glee to language like this. It would be merely glib if the poem did not contain a corresponding measure of melancholy and lyricism.

The single passage in the poem which has affected me the most strongly is this one:

The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

The last line, indeed, is the line that has haunted me the most.

I think we are all puritans-- of one kind or another. Whether in the confessional, or in the gymnasium, or at the protest march, we are all striving towards some kind of purity. The 'corruption' which we are trying to 'make clean' may be sin, or flab, or social prejudice. It might be one of a thousand other things. But each of us-- or most of us, at least-- are trying to chisel away the parts of us (and the parts of the world) that do not correspond to our ideal, to our vision of perfection. Sometimes the prospect that this will be painful or bitter is a strangely satisfying one. The poetry of this idea is expressed in the final line of Oscar Wilde's autobiographical essay De Profundis, where he says of nature: "She will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole."

In Scripture, the image of purifying fire is a common one: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), “Your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire)” (1 Peter 1:7), “If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Secular sources draw on this image too. Take Harold Wilson’s famous reference to “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution”.

So this is a venerable image, one that seems to naturally occur to the human mind. But I don’t think it has ever been expressed better than “the fingers of fire are making corruption clean”. And the line intensifies, of course, the general air of mingled exhilaration and loss.

Finally, the poem closes with a triad of single-sentence lines, the epigrammatic power of each one reinforcing the next:

The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, not for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

That last line is so memorable and elegantly expressed that I wonder why it has not become a standard quotation. But then, I wonder why the poem as a whole has not been added to the ranks of all-time classics. I feel entirely justified in adding it to my series of truly great poems.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Irish and Purity

The Irish have a mixed image when it comes to what we might call the carnal side of life. On the one hand, we have a traditional reputation for purity, even prudishness-- based on our once-devout Catholicism, our stringent censorship laws in the middle of the last century, and (perhaps) the long skirts and sleeves worn in traditional Irish dancing. On the other hand, there is a rather uproariously raunchy image, based (perhaps) on the idea of big Irish (emigrant) families, on the naughty lyrics to some traditional Irish ballads, and on risqué works of old Gaelic literature such as The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman.

Canon Sheehan

Which is true? Personally, I think the prudishness-- or purity-- is more true.

I'm not prudish myself, nor can I lay claim (more's the pity) to the kind of natural purity that G.K. Chesterton (for instance) seemed to exemplify from his boyhood. I have very often laughed at blue jokes, for instance. I have even made them.

I am, however, very drawn to the ideal of a certain wholesomeness that, in my view, seemed typical of Irish culture until very recently. I'm not saying this was ever representative of what went on behind closed doors, or of conversations in schoolyards and pubs, or in the privacy of the imagination. But the fact that there was an ideal of chastity in public discussion, and in the arts, seems to me admirable in itself. I think this lingered in Ireland for some considerable time after it had been discarded elsewhere.

These reflections are propted by a novel I'm reading now. It's called The Triumph of Failure and it was written in 1901 by a priest-novelist, Patrick Augustine Sheehan (better known as Canon Sheehan).

In a passage that I read earlier today, the protagonist of the story-- an impoverished scholar whose Catholic faith is fragile, and who is fascinated by the classics-- finds himself ruminating about the purity of the Irish:

With faith enervated almost to paralysis, but not unto death, and with all my intellectual powers steeped in some opiate that made them feeble and unperceptive, I am happy to say that I still retained that which seems to me to be the common and glorious birthright of our race-- a reverence, timid and awesome, for whatever is pure and undefiled. It is recorded in the lives of the saints that one obscene word threw them into insensibility. I can believe it. It is no legendary hypothesis. I have known those who would actually sicken at a suggestion of indelicacy. And if not quite so sensitive, I think I may lay claim to a shrinking from all suggestiveness that made it a positive torture to hear or say anything gross or impure. I knew that there was some hidden, unspeakable malice about this vice which no human mind of saint, philosopher, or theologian had ever fathomed; just as there is some secret, inexplicable charm in the opposite virtue, which no soul shall see explained until it sees the face of God. Naturalists may try to explain it away by reference to secret laws of Nature; physiologists may talk of a Nemesis dogging the steps of the irreverent; no law of Nature, no subtle inquiries into the subterranean working of her laws, can ever give a logical insight into the traditions of our race, the instinct of a loathing or the exaltation of inspiration, which is but a lost and broken fragment of some revelation made to our unfallen father.

Canon Sheehan died more than sixty years before I was born, but I think I am old enough to have witnessed the afterglow of what he describes here. I even think the Irish still have a tendency in this direction, and that our efforts to be raunchy and risqué always seem more than a little forced.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Happy Feast of the Transfiguration!

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’  He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

The Transfiguration has always been one of my very favourite Bible stories. It's probably my favourite mystery of the Rosary (although the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation and the Presentation are also up there).

I like anything to do with light. My two favourite states of illumination are definitely light and darkness. I like them both at full pelt. I like dark cinemas and dark nights and caves and being the blind man in blind man's bluff (though it's long since I played that estimable game).

When it comes to light, I like it to be ostentatious in some way, to draw attention to itself. That can be the flicker of a single candle, or it can be glow of a hundred neon signs.

The Transfiguration is a wonderful story in so many ways. It may be the most notable example of the 'inner circle' of disciples, John and Peter and James, being chosen from the Twelve. Jesus was nothing if not hierarchical, although his idea of hierarchy is obviously very different from our unredeemed human idea of hierarchy-- as his bathing of his disciples' feet shows.

The question of hierachy, 'elitism', and egalitarianism is a tricky one. Personally speaking, I dislike anti-egalitarianism even more than I dislike egalitarianism. The progressive's urge to abolish all distinctions and privileges and meaningful differences is odious, but the bullish reaction to that-- "There are differences in nature, deal with it, let's be completely outspoken about them"-- seems even worse, especially when it goes along with a contempt for democracy, or for mass culture (which is folk culture as well as pop culture), or for expressions of social solidarity.

In my view, a healthy egalitarianism is one which sees every human being as being made in the image of God, or-- to secularise it-- that sees every human being as infinitely precious. I also think we should see every human being as a marvellous creation, not only in his or her humanity but in his or her uniqueness.

But why should we abolish all the differences and prerogatives and distinctions which give social life so much of its spice, from a layman kissing the hand of a bishop to a husband kissing the hand of a wife? Why can't we accept the two impulses-- the one which revels in drinking toasts to the monarch, in applauding some wonderful feat, or in using an honorific title-- with those countervailing impulses, which seem no less ingrained; the love for the underdog, and for the 'man on the street', and a chivalric tenderness towards anyone who is 'out of it' in any way-- even if it's their own fault?

But the presence of the 'inner circle' is only part of what I find fascinating about the Transfiguration. The thing I find most fascinating about it is that it is one of those moments of 'shock and awe' which fill the Bible.

Da man! C.S. Lewis
Such moments have always fascinated me, whether they are sacred or secular. Some moments in life seems charged with a kind of overflow of inspiration, or of intensity, or even of ecstasy. Wordsworth called them 'spots of time'. C.S. Lewis called them moments of 'Joy'. I put them in my purple notebook (which has now been replaced with a golden notebook).

Well, we have to come down off the mountain. St. Peter's mysterious remark regarding the three tents has been interpreted as an illegitimate desire to prolong that state of ecstasy, here on Earth. The aesthete Walter Pater famously wrote:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

This doesn't work, however. You have to come down from the mountain, back to the fallen world. But I value the story of the Transfiguration because it suggests such moments have a value, and that such 'spots of time' or moments of 'Joy' are foretastes of our ultimate goal.

(Although it should be obvious, I should state here that I am simply an unschooled layman giving his personal responses to the story of the Transfiguration. I am not an exegete by any means, though I try my best to conform my thoughts with my own knowledge of solid Catholic teaching. All the same, I entreat you to read everything I write-- here and elsewhere-- in the light of Catholic Tradition, i.e., commentary written by people who actually know what they're talking about.)