Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright

I wanted to take a brief look at some quotes from poems by George Herbert (1593 – 1633) in A Man Could Stand Up:
He hoped McKechnie, with his mad eyes and his pestilential accent, would like that fellow. That fellow spread seventeenth-century atmosphere across the landscape over which the sun's rays were beginning to flood a yellow wash. Then, might the seventeenth century save the fellow's life, for his good taste! For his life would probably be saved. He, Tietjens, would give him a pass back to Division to get ready for the concert. So he would be out of the strafe...Probably none of them would be alive after the strafe that Brigade reported to be coming in...Twenty-seven minutes, by now! Three hundred and twenty-eight fighting men against...Say a Division. Any preposterous number...Well, the seventeeth century might as well save one man!

What had become of the seventeenth century? And Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan, the Silurist?...Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky!...By Jove, it was that!...Old Campion flashing like a popinjay in the scarlet and gilt of the Major-General, had quoted that in the base camp, years ago. Or was it months? Or wasn't it: 'But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariots hurrying near,' that he had quoted? Anyhow, not bad for an old General!

The only satisfactory age [the seventeenth century] in England!...Yet what chance had it to-day? Or, still more, to-morrow? In the sense that the age of, say, Shakespeare had a chance. Or Pericles! or Augustus!

Heaven knew, we did not want a preposterous drumbeating such as the Elizabethans produced--and received. Like lions at a fair...But what chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedgerows, slowly creeping plough-lands moving up the slopes?...Still, the land remains...

The land remains...It remains!...At that same moment the dawn was wetly revealing; over there in George Herbert's parish...What was it called?...What the devil was its name? Oh, Hell!...Between Salisbury and Wilton...The tiny church...But he refused to consider the plough-lands, the heavy groves, the slow highroad above the church that the dawn was at that moment wetly revealing--until he could remember that name...He refused to consider that, probably even to-day, that land ran to...produced the stock of...Anglican sainthood. The quiet thing!

But until he could remember the name he would consider nothing...

The name Bemerton suddenly came on to his tongue. Yes, Bemerton, Bemerton, Bemerton was George Herbert's parsonage. Bemerton, outside Salisbury...The cradle of the race as far as our race was worth thinking about. He imagined himself standing up on a little hill, a lean contemplative parson, looking at the land sloping down to Salisbury spire. A large, clumsily bound seventeenth-century testament, Greek, beneath his elbow...Imagine standing up on a hill! It was the unthinkable thing there!

(from No More Parades, Part Two, Chapter 2)

As Tietjens surveys no-man’s land in the morning, comparing the destruction (of men and earth) with the English countryside, the rising of the sun and the sound of the cornet bring to mind the first line of George Herbert’s poem “Virtue”. The poem has a calming effect even though it speaks of death and destruction. The one exception to everything ending, according to the poem, will be virtue, living on though “the whole world turn to coal”. The poem proves to be fitting for the situation, both with the carnage surrounding him and with the values Tietjens tries to maintain.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Herbert makes another appearance in Chapter 4 of Part Two, although I wonder if the misquote is deliberate:

Don't we say prayers before battle?...He could not imagine himself doing it...He just hoped that nothing would happen that would make him lose control of his mind...Otherwise he found that he was meditating on how to get the paper affairs of the unit into a better state...'Who sweeps a room as for Thy cause ...' It was the equivalent of prayer probably...

Except “The Elixir” (also part of Herbert’s The Temple) says for "Thy laws". That one word is a minor alteration but it makes a world of difference, changing the concept from man working within God’s framework to having God’s blessing for battle. Tietjens’ said in the opening chapter of Parade’s End that poetry wasn’t his strong suit but the change feels deliberate in order to conform to Tietjens' thoughts at the moment (similar to Tietjens misquote of the Alice Meynell poem in that opening chapter).

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