Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

by Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

* * *

It's wartime right now -- though it's easy, sadly enough, to forget about it. The war is so far away and it only affects a few of us.

I still don't know how I feel about the war. On the one hand, war is always an evil. On the other hand, sometimes it's a necessary evil. I do wonder: is this war really worth what we're pouring into it? On the one hand, we couldn't exactly go in to destroy a dictator and then left Iraq in turmoil. On the other hand, is the region getting the least bit closer to stability? The whole thing tends to just upset me, especially when I see many people in my generation -- even people I know -- suffering through separation from those they love because of this war. Mostly, I'm just looking forward to it being over.

My anthology (The Top 500 Poems, edited by William Harmon) tells me that the title for this poem comes from Jeremiah, referring to God's judgment against Babylon, and that it was written during World War I. If it weren't for the simple, unchanginng realities of our lives, the tragedies of war might be too much to bear -- especially for those caught in the heart of one.


Santiago said...

If it weren't for the simple, unchanginng realities of our lives, the tragedies of war might be too much to bear -- especially for those caught in the heart of one.

I disagree. War is what obliterates all those realities which we naively believe to be "unchanging." The tragedy of war is too much too bear. It's not a "simple, unchanging reality" that can save us. Only a big truth -- the Resurrection. Nothing else is permanent or unchanging, not even the American suburbs.

John said...

I don't see how the Resurrection is changeable, though. You seem to think that's what she said.

War is not "too much to bear". If the weight of it were too much, nobody would ever have been able to carry it. There have been many historical instances where populaces have bravely carried the burden of a war upon their shoulders, because the war was necessary for the sake of the common good.

Having a war only rarely obliterates daily realities in the way you said. It merely puts them in context. It might obliterate what it means to us, or our taking them for granted, but it will never destroy those things that are true, but no less reality. These things are deeper than what you so very callously treat as shallow. There's nothing wrong with the American suburbs that a little humility and piety can't fix. their prosaic nature mostly comes from the stigma that it is given as a boring place... a stigma that rises from an attitude like yours. The suburbs are the true battlegrounds of America, and its heart. The family is the basis of society, and the American family is housed in the suburbs. That is a truth, as well as a reality. And the truths surrounding the family are the truths that reflect most closely to humanity: life, faith, communion, virtue, maturity, development, authority, order and peace. The suburbs are mystical insofar as they act as temples of the family, and harbors of reality. Not the petty realities, but of the real realities. The simple, unchanging realities. Children play the same games in the ruins of a war-torn city as they play on the suburban playgrounds. Although these true realities can't save us spiritually (I can't find anything in the blog post to give the impression that that was ever said), they give us hope for the future physically. I understand that often it is difficult for conservatives to conceive of a hopeful physical future, but I assure you it is that hope that gives people in wartime the superhuman effort to care for their children, even if they've lost hope in God.

On another strain of argument (as argument, you seem to love), the best soldiers do not fight for anything so abstract as "the Resurrection." The Resurrection has happened, that we know. It also will happen, which we also know. Neither of these things has ever started a war (that I'm aware of), although the love of God has sometimes started one. What makes the best soldier is not an ideology or a hatred, but a love. The best soldiers are not those who hate the enemy in front of them, but who love what is behind them. That is a simple, unchanging reality. It is more permanent and unchanging than the suburbs, because it is a part of human nature.

Sheila said...

The only point I was trying to make, Santiago, was that love for others, love of one's simple duty (whether plowing, cleaning one's suburban house, or dying on the front lines), and other simple though profound things help our nature to cope with the realities of war. As John pointed out, only love gets people through a war -- just as only love could be a motivation for the Resurrection (and the Crucifixion).

It is a simple fact that in the end, three things will remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. The love the "maid and her wight" have for one another, as well as the souls they raise up to heaven, can continue into eternity, while war is only a temporary reality. As Christians, we believe that however unbearable it seems, war too will pass away.

Santiago said...

Perhaps my tone is too antagonistic. It was prompted by what I perceived to be a banality: this talk of "simple things." Now that you define them, I see that they are not so banal. But I will defend my point in this way: War really is unbearable without grace, just like life, too, can be unbearable without grace. And the meaning of our lives, in wartime or in peacetime, is not derived by any prosaic or simple pleasures, but by the overarching Event that shaked and redefined the cosmos and history.

Dude, the suburbs can be pretty boring. The people are already pious, for the most part -- that might be part of the problem. Less cars, more walking, and more avant-garde theater in open air cafes might be the solution. All with Jesus, of course.

Sheila said...

If I can't solve the troubles of war with the love of families, I'm certain you can't save suburbia with avant-garde theatre in cafes. In my opinion, the people of the suburbs (the suburbs I know, at least) are not nearly pious enough. If they were, they wouldn't be a bit comfortable and boring. Prayer is "altogether too interesting," as Evan MacIan said in The Ball and the Cross. It might be more artistic to you if people did away with their cars, but I am far more concerned with whether they drive those cars to the places where people are in need.

Of course we need grace. Simple (although not prosaic! This is poetry, after all) pleasures get to happen at all because we have been redeemed instead of consigned to the destruction we merit in our fallen condition.

But I would still hold, in my love for the humble and very real over the highbrow, that family life (even suburban family life), with its need for great love, responsibility, and constant self-giving far transcends the life of the lover of art who would rather watch theatre than live real life.

I have always maintained that poetry should be a support for life -- life itself is always higher. I think the time I spent today with my little brothers far transcends the time I spend on the internet commenting on poetry. The poetry will fade, but the love I have given will never be forgotten.

John said...

There is no such thing as a boring suburb, only a boring person looking at it.

And war may be unbearable without grace, but it is easier than the simple things, the real things, the holy things.

You have to keep in mind, too, that Jesus tended away from the trendy. The gospels aren't designed specifically for the avante-garde, which usually translates to "full of itself". They were designed to transform the ordinary, the everyday, even what you might call "boring" into the mystical, the supernatural, the extraordinary. In this way, the gospels have far more in common with the suburbs than with the coffee house.