Kyle Smith of National Review thinks so. I half-agree. I don't think I've heard it more than half a dozen times, and always on a car radio. But I do remember the first time, because "Ain't that America" jumped out at me as a perfect expression of amused and unillusioned affection: "Yeah, it's a crazy country, but we love it anyway." I've used the phrase at least a few times here, apropos some bit of very American extravagant eccentricity. Here, make up your own mind:
And I love the old man saying to his old wife: "Hey darlin', I remember when you could stop a clock." I was just saying that to my gray-haired wife the other day.
One of the category tags on this post comes from this song, which is not that great in itself but which I've always remembered for the title phrase and for "Somebody give me a cheeseburger":
Or, as we commoners ought to keep in mind, Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland. I suppose that if we were to address her we would need to use some honorific of the "your ladyship" sort. But that won't be necessary, as she died in 1639.
I only know of her because the June issue of Magnificat had a short article about her by John Janaro. You can read it, just slightly revised from Magnificat, here.
Elizabeth Cary was a remarkable woman in her own time. Indeed, among women or men of any period she would qualify as a genius. She was born about 1585 in Oxfordshire; in her desire to learn she outpaced her tutors almost from the beginning of her education, and she was fluent in multiple languages and widely read by the time of her marriage to Henry Cary, Viscount Falkland, in 1602.
I find Kevin Williamson to be the most consistently interesting writer at National Review these days. That's not necessarily entirely a good thing, because when I say "interesting" I also mean "entertaining," and often that entertainment involves scathing language about someone. In principle I do not approve of scathing language about persons and try to resist the temptation to use it, so I guess what it amounts to is that I'm vicariously enjoying his put-downs, which makes me feel just a touch guilty. Not very, because most of the time the put-down is merited.
And I usually disagree with at least some part of any piece he writes, sometimes something minor and sometimes major. His brand of conservatism is definitely more libertarian than mine. But--and this is a little surprising for a libertarian, or at least a somewhat-libertarian--he is really at his best on deeper subjects. This is one:
If we are to resolve something for 2020, then maybe that should be our resolution: to bear always in mind that this is not Donald Trump’s America or Elizabeth Warren’s America but ours and Walt Whitman’s and John Coltrane’s and Herman Melville’s and Toni Morrison’s, and that if we really love this country, then that can only be because we love the people in it, the ones who are with us still and the ones who have been, who are “not enemies but friends.”
This will be our year. It will be the year that we make of it, which is both our great hope and our great, fearful responsibility.
Read the whole thing; it's worth it. One thing I like about him, something he shares with recently citizen-ized Charles Cooke, also of NR, is an appreciation of this country in all its madness and glory. Elsewhere he recently said something to the effect that what works for health care in Switzerland will not work here:
The basic problem with that always has been that Switzerland is full of Swiss people, while the United States is full of maniacs.
Precisely. I always stress that when discussing American politics and culture with someone from another country: you simply won't understand us unless you start with the recognition that we're more than a little crazy. Samuel Johnson's famous remark that "If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" applies triply to the United States of America. I am often sickened and repelled by this, that, or the other in the U.S., but never not interested.
And, as Williamson says, life in these United States is not defined or limited by politics. I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to "Donald Trump's America." I fear such people live in cyberspace, large parts of which Donald Trump has made his own in the way that is too often effective in cyberspace: by being a troll. A great many people on the left seem to feel that their lives have been almost ruined, or in some cases not even "almost," by Trump's presence in the White House. This is...unhealthy to say the least, and as it's partly a choice, most unwise.
I think the reality of life for the very large majority of us is that politics generally has a relatively small impact on our day-to-day lives, and plays a very small role in our conversation and other dealings with other people. I can recall only a few face-to-face conversations over the past half-year or so with anyone except my wife in which the subject even came up. Two of those were with liberals, and when the conversation drifted into politics--not by my choice--it immediately blew up in my face. The level of rage was disconcerting, and I will certainly try hard to avoid any more of those.
...treat it as a sort of caution. The man made few concessions to congregations. You can always count on his tunes to veer off from the predictable. We sang, or tried to sing, "Hail Thee, Festival Day" at Mass this morning (I know, it's really an Easter hymn, but it's reasonably appropriate for Pentecost, too). I can handle the chorus well enough, but I get completely lost in the verses. As seemed to be the case for almost everyone else in our little congregation.
As a legatee of "the Anglican patrimony," which is about the only context in which we are supposed to use the word "Anglican" in discussing the Ordinariate(s), I'm entitled to refer to use Whitsun, Whitsunday, and Whitsuntide to refer to Pentecost Sunday and the week following it. This does not however come naturally to me. We did not use those terms in the Methodist church where I grew up, or even in the Episcopal church where I landed for a few years on my way to Rome. So the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Whitsun" is Phillip Larkin's poem, one of his best: "The Whitsun Weddings." It's very much a post-Christian poem, a fact only emphasized by the presence of the word.
In the Ordinariate, we observe the Octave of Pentecost, which was apparently abolished after Vatican II. I'm going to be praying the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer every day this week. God knows we need for wind and fire to sweep through the Church now.
The red king Came to a great water. He said, Here the journey ends. No keel or skipper on this shore.
The yellow king Halted under a hill. He said, Turn the camels round. Beyond, ice summits only.
The black king Knocked on a city gate. He said, All roads stop here. These are gravestones, no inn.
The three kings Met under a dry star. There, at midnight, The star began its singing.
The three kings Suffered salt, snow, skulls. They suffered the silence Before the first word.
Brown, or Mackay Brown, is one of the poets in the British Poetry Since 1945 from which I drew at least one poem for the 52 Poems series. The index of that book lists him under "M" for "Mackay Brown." I don't understand this British thing in which sometimes two unhyphenated names, which appear to be middle and last, are treated as a surname. (MB is Scottish, but you know what I mean.) This seems to be the case with Ralph Vaughan Williams and has always bothered me. Why is he not just "Williams"? Or if he's going to be indexed under "V", "Vaughan-Williams"?
Anyway, I like this poem, which someone posted on Facebook a few days ago. And I like the two poems of M-B's in that anthology. But the brief bio there does not mention that he was a Catholic convert. According to his Wikipedia page (notice that it calls him just "Brown"):
In late 1960 Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961 he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.
When I was twelve years old, an aunt and uncle gave me two books for Christmas, both part of a series or set called The Looking Glass Library. These were The Haunted Looking Glass and The Looking Glass Book of Verse. The first was a collection of classic ghost stories, though of course I didn't know they were classic and didn't recognize names like M.R. James or even Bram Stoker; I think Charles Dickens was the only name I knew. I loved it and read most of the stories several times over the next five or six years. It included "The Monkey's Paw," which is a great story, but also a peculiarly disturbing one. I've sometimes thought I might better not have read it, because it colors my attitude toward prayer. (If you don't know it, suffice to say that it's probably the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.)
The Haunted Looking Glass was edited by Edward Gorey, and illustrated by him. That explains why, years later, in the early or mid-'70s, when there was a sort of Edward Gorey vogue, his work looked so familiar to me. The illustrations are rather brilliant: there is almost nothing at all in their subject matter that's directly frightening, but they manage to communicate a sense that something uncanny is invisibly present and about to act.
The Book of Verse, however, I don't remember reading at all. I must surely have looked into at least, but obviously it held little appeal for me. I still have both books. Sometime in the relatively recent past--i.e. sometime in this century--I got out the Haunted one, recalling that I had thought the stories very good when I was twelve, and discovering that I had been reading classics of the genre. The other book, though, had been sitting unopened on various shelves as it moved around with me over the years.
One day last week a discussion here about ghost stories reminded me of The Haunted Looking Glass, and that in turn reminded me of its companion, and I wondered for the first time in many years what was in it. I found, somewhat to my surprise, and somewhat to my embarrassment, that it is a very fine anthology perhaps more fit for adults than for children, certainly more so than for my twelve-year-old self. Name any great poet (in English) that you like, and he or she is included here, including some very surprising names like Elizabeth Bishop.
The editor is someone name Janet Adam Smith, of whom I had never heard, but she certainly had excellent taste in poetry. The biographical note in the book makes her sound interesting:
...born in Scotland in 1905, [she] is literary editor of the British weekly, The New Statesman. She is also the author of books on mountaineering and of a critical study of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is at present writing a biography of John Buehan [sic--surely that was supposed to be Buchan].
Moreover, this anthology is a revision of her The Faber Book of Children's Verse, made "more suitable for American readers." And the fact that I'd never heard of her says more about my ignorance than her obscurity: here's her Wikipedia entry. Yes, that is supposed to be "Buchan."
Perhaps I would have found the book more interesting at, say, sixteen, than when I received it that Christmas, as by then there was some poetry I liked, but as far as I can recall I never looked at it. I hate to admit that an anthology of this quality was beyond me, though I suppose it was just as much a lack of interest in poetry that stopped me, as there are plenty of poems in the book that would have been accessible and entertaining to me, had I given them a chance. I doubt a similar project done today would be of this quality. And if it were intended for general audiences, it wouldn't contain the explicitly Christian poems that this one does.
All of this is to get around to saying that as I flipped through the book my eye was caught by the name of Christopher Smart, which I was surprised to see. And I read this poem of his, which strikes me as a great Easter piece:
Glorious the sun in mid career; Glorious th' assembled fires appear; Glorious the comet's train: Glorious the trumpet and alarm; Glorious th' almighty stretch'd-out arm; Glorious th' enraptur'd main:
Glorious the northern lights a-stream; Glorious the song, when God's the theme; Glorious the thunder's roar: Glorious hosanna from the den; Glorious the catholic amen; Glorious the martyr's gore:
Glorious—more glorious is the crown Of Him that brought salvation down By meekness, call'd thy Son; Thou that stupendous truth believ'd, And now the matchless deed's achiev'd, DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE.
Ordinarily I would be put off, at least, by that use of capital letters, but in this case it seems perfect: "a blare of trumpets for the Lord," as one of the Psalms puts it. I wondered at first if they were Janet Smith's doing, as various copies of the poem which I found online don't have it. But it seemed very unlikely that she (or any anthologist) would have taken such a liberty, and such an odd one. This PDF version from W.W. Norton, though, does have it.
The poem is untitled in the book, and that's because it's only a bit, the last bit, of a much longer poem called "Song To David," which is what you'll see at that link. I wondered who "thou" in the last stanza is meant to be. I thought at first it was the reader, but in the context of the whole poem I think it must be David.
DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE: Happy Easter.
Christopher ("Kit") Smart, as you may know, was confined to a madhouse for some years because of his "religious mania." Here is what his friend Samuel Johnson had to say about that:
My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.
And on another occasion:
I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him, and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.
After posting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" a couple of weeks ago, I found myself remembering other bits and pieces of his poetry, so I got out a couple of old textbooks and went looking for them. Principal among these fragments was this, which used to be widely quoted:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born.
I couldn't remember which poem it was, so after browsing a bit I resorted to the internet, and quickly found that it's from "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse." You can read the poem at that link, though to my taste it's a bit long for reading on the web (250 lines or so). I can't say I think it's a great poem, but it's an interesting one. It's an account of Arnold's visit to the founding house of the Carthusian order, and is a more extensive lament for the passing of the old Christian world than "Dover Beach," which was written fifteen years later. More extensive, and more explicit--and more confused, really, it seems to me. Poor Arnold: intellectually he finds the faith of the monks almost contemptible, and is quite certain that the skeptical modern age is right about that question. Yet he deeply laments its loss.
Let's have the whole stanza ("these" are the monks):
Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born, With nowhere yet to rest my head, Like these, on earth I wait forlorn. Their faith, my tears, the world deride— I come to shed them at their side.
Later in the poem he hopes that the coming age will be wiser and happier, but asks that for the time being he be left alone with his melancholy.
It's not "Dover Beach," but it's really a pretty good poem, though it would be greatly improved by the removal of nearly all the exclamation marks, a habit of the 19th century which perhaps did not sound quite the same to them as to us.
I wonder about that world which was in Arnold's time "powerless to be born." I think I can say without too much oversimplification that he found the skepticism of his age sterile, and he seems not to have had a clear idea of how it could become fruitful, really fruitful in the way that Christian civilization had been, though he thought that in time it must. Has that new world been born yet, or are we still waiting for it?
I feel fairly sure Arnold would have been surprised, maybe astonished, by what would happen to Europe in the 20th century. I know he would have been appalled: unprecedented material progress, unprecedented slaughter. Was that what was waiting to be born? The "rough beast" that Yeats so famously saw stirring? (You know that poem, probably; unfortunately politicians have been quoting it in recent years--unfortunately but also somewhat appropriately, though they usual don't get to that last bit.)
Or are we still in transit to some new and more Godless world? If we are, it promises to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of combination of 1984 and Brave New World. No one wants 1984, but I think there are a good many people who could read Brave New World and not understand that it is meant to depict a dystopia. After all, almost everyone is happy there, and isn't happiness what it's all about? Some of the mechanisms of 1984 would still have to be in place there, some means of insuring that people not only behave correctly, but that they think correctly. Those means needn't be violent; in fact violence, as the history of fascism and communism shows, is in the long run counter-productive because of the resistance it provokes. More likely it simply won't happen. Those who wish to get rid of God are finding the task rather more difficult than the skeptics of Arnold's time might have anticipated.
Speaking of getting rid of God: a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has just been released. I ran across this commentary on the movie, in which the screenwriter is quoted as saying “I think there are a lot of elements of what [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society.” I don't resent the removal of Christian themes in the movie (which, after all, is what you'd expect of Hollywood) nearly as much as I do the suggestion that its removal from everything that counts as real life is a fait accompli, and that the only "we" that counts is composed of those who have removed it from their own lives.
I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book. I know it means a lot to a lot of people. But I didn't read it until I was in my thirties, and as I recall it didn't send the meter any higher than "pretty good."
Last week I discussed the culture wars, and in particular the gun control debate, as being in part a conflict between two political visions, the "free citizen" model and the "sheep and shepherd" model. As I said in a comment in the discussion following that, I knew this would seem to be loading the question toward the former, because in our culture the latter sounds demeaning. But I actually do write this journal in a few hours on Sunday evenings, and nothing better presented itself. Still doesn't, actually. There is a great deal to be said for the sheep and shepherd model. It is, after all, the essential structure of the vision contained in Judeo-Christian religion, and in fact is the same image. And it may very well be the most natural and in the long run most effective and durable mode of government. It may very well be that all this self-government stuff is coming to an end, dependent as it was on certain cultural foundations which are not only decaying but the object of active efforts at demolition.
In any case, it is almost self-evident that the vision I attributed to the Founding Fathers, of "a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics," no longer has very much to do with our social reality. The typical or characteristic way of life in contemporary Western societies is that of a wage earner, a condition which is inherently more dependent and less free than that of one who lives by his own direct effort and property. Moreover, the characteristic employer, the paradigm that sets the tone and pattern for all, is a gigantic organization, whether "private" (corporate) or "public" (government), of the type which in textbook terminology is classified as a "machine bureaucracy." It's not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them.
While browsing the Arnold section of Poetry of the Victorian Period, I came across a line which I had completely forgotten, but which made me laugh. Someone, either Dr. Eugene Williamson, who taught me that subject, or a critic whom he perhaps quoted, held this up as being astonishingly bad:
Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?
Well, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote that, and he was no Keats; his best work came when he was much older. Still...that's awful. The rest of the poem (here) is not bad, though. In fact, it contains a phrase which became a sort of byword for Arnold's thinking. I'm not sure, but I believe he himself may have used it in his writings about the necessity of culture: the writers who "prop" his mind "saw life steadily, and saw it whole." That is a rare and important gift in any age.
Well, I've finished The Lord of the Rings, and I repeat what I said last week: if this is not a great work, I am no judge. I mentioned several weeks ago an essay that I'd published years ago in Caelum et Terra that I might dig out and publish here. Turns out I had done that a while back. I read it over the other day and it's still pretty accurate with regard to my opinion of the book. You can read it here.
Here, at Touchstone, is another appreciation of the late Billy Graham, one I thought worth passing on.
Here's what I have to put up with at St. Gregory, my Ordinariate (not-technically-a-)parish. In the Divine Worship liturgy, which incorporates various Anglican elements, we are instructed to "rehearse the Decalogue" (quaint phrase) on Sundays in Lent. Fr. Matt explains why. This is really just audio, and the one photo moves around a bit, so I recommend you look at something else and just listen. It's thirteen minutes long.
It's azalea time here. About 85% of them are this color, which is not my favorite, but I included this picture as an example of the way they're supposed to be grown. This doesn't show the entire bush, which is at least fifteen feet wide, and over six feet tall. They're supposed to be big and luxuriant like this.
There's a pale orange-pink color which I like better, also a dark red one which I like even better, but I didn't see any of those on the walk where I took this picture. I did see this nice white one, though. I like the white ones a lot but they very quickly take on a dingy and dilapidated look.
Yesterday, I started to write a comment on the Favorites of the Year thread saying that my problem with the thread was that every find that I had last year was a movie or book that I learned about on this blog, so everyone else already knew about them, and we had already discussed them. Then I remembered a song I had heard by Audrey Assad, and then another.
A while back I got an email from my friend Sheila in which she mentioned that she was listening to Audrey Assad's Death Be Not Proud over and over again. So, I listened to it, and bought it. It is based on John Donne's sonnet of the same name.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
At that time Ms. Assad had written about this song on her website and she said that she had written the song after several of her pregnant friends had miscarried. I read this in October, 2015, at which time my daughter had miscarried twice in about four months.
Then when Sheila and I traveled to North Carolina in the Fall of 2016, she brought along another album by Audrey.Assad, Inheritance, which includes the song, "Even Unto Death." This is a song which Ms. Assad, the daughter of a Syrian refugee (he came here as a child with his single, refugee mother), wrote after seeing the video of the 21 Coptic men who were executed by the Islamic State in February, 2015. I had never watched this video before because I didn't want to see anyone beheaded.
The video below contains the song, and part of the video of the martyrs—not the beheading—and Ms. Assad's explanation of the song. If you haven't seen the original video, you ought to watch this. Those men, except for maybe one, do not look like I would if I were about to be beheaded. They seem very calm and prepared for their deaths. When they first walk onto the beach and sink to their knees as one body, it is more like a liturgy than an exercise in violence, and as they kneel there with their executioners behind them, it is reminiscent of catechumens at Easter vigil with their sponsors.
When I had typed most of my comment, which was a great deal shorter than this, on the blog, I noticed that the two songs had a common theme, and it is a theme that anyone who has read much will recognize as being a recurrent theme for me.
I have planned close to a hundred funerals over the past three and a half years, and I have read all the readings that the Church has chosen for funerals aloud to the families many, many times. My favorite is from 1 Corinthians 15.
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death is your victory? Where, O Death is your sting?
I love to read this at a funeral, I read it at my mother's funeral. I love to stand there and look Death in the eye and spit. (I would never spit in real life. I'm a Southern lady after all.)
However, about two months while I was reading this to a family, I almost caught my breath in the middle of the scripture. Because now it's different. Now it's not my 89 year old mother, or even my own death that's in the balance, but my infant granddaughter. If she had died, I would not have escaped that sting. And yet I know that even in that case, Death would not have had the final word.
Thankfully, she is doing very well, and we are all beginning to breathe a lot easier.
I'm posting this here instead of on my blog because I wanted to post more-or-less anonymously, although anyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows who wrote this. I just don't want it to be easily found by a Google search because I don't want to intrude on my daughter's privacy.
While I was in the middle of writing this, I got an email that a friend—not a close friend, but a sister in Christ—has died. Her name is Flo. Please say a prayer for the repose of her soul when you read this.
If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....
This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.
As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.
For years I have been seeing this poem by Kipling described as having some sort of profound relevance. I read it, and it seemed interesting, but I didn't quite understand who these gods were supposed to be. It was only fairly recently that I learned the answer. A "copybook" in English schools of the time was for handwriting practice. At the head of each page was some sort of proverb or maxim, and the student was to copy it repeatedly down the page. The gods of the copybook headings, then, are those eternal truths of human life which we forget or ignore at our peril. It was written just after the end of World War I, in which Kipling lost his son. It begins like this:
AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race, I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place. Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall, And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
And ends rather chillingly. Please read the whole thing at the Kipling Society's site. (I'm not going to include it here because I'm pretty sure some of the lines are too long and wouldn't display properly.)
It does seem that our culture is determined to ignore every scrap of wisdom inherited from our ancestors. I thought of the poem a couple of days ago when I read this piece by Damon Linker in which he criticizes progressives for attempting to demonize and destroy perfectly natural and not necessarily unhealthy "particularist" impulses. Progressivism
displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.
Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic.
As you might imagine, liberals reacted angrily, and called it, of course, racist. The inclusion of "ethnic" in that list pretty much guaranteed that reaction. But ethnic solidarity is not necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly healthy and sane to prefer one's own place and people to others, and the fact that it can become pathological doesn't change that. It is generally not considered a bad thing by liberals when it involves, say, Jewish or Italian or Irish immigrants in early 20th century New York, or today when it takes forms that they can approve and enjoy: a Haitian enclave in a big city, for instance. Multiculturalism generally approves any presence here of a non-American culture. But how could that culture exist except as something particular, something which, by virtue of being what it is, is necessarily not something else?--and especially not a mere instance of interchangeable universal humanity.
I do think the Trump phenomenon, which I mostly deplore, has been fed by the sort of backlash that Linker mentions. But appears that progressives will not learn from it.