Continuing my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, the 29th September brings us the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term.
Today, September 29th, being Michaelmas – the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – in the Western Christian calendar, here is a Michaelmas sonnet by the inestimable Malcolm Guite. Includes both the written sonnet, and a recitation of it by Malcolm, a priest in the Church of England, and a gifted poet. With commentary, including this excellent short sketch of Michael (whose name means “Who is like God?”) himself:
“The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose.”
As if it weren’t enough that both the traditional date of the Autumnal Equinox, and my own birthday, fall upon this date, today is also the 80th anniversary of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s classic The Hobbit, back on 21 September, 1937!
The above picture is the cover art from the original Allen & Unwin (U.K.) edition; the one below is the cover of the paperback Ballantine (U.S.) edition which was my personal introduction, in 1977, to the world of Middle Earth:
My father, who was then hospitalized following a heart attack, had first The Hobbit, and then all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, brought to him by a friend to read; as he finished one, I proceeded to devour it in turn. They have remained a major influence on me – literarily, linguistically, and philosophically – ever since!
So I salute the great Professor Tolkien and his epic achievement. May he rest forever in the Undying Lands, beyond the Sundering Seas!
One of the striking features of the Edina list is how recent the titles are. Many of the selections were published in the 21st century. In fact, only four of the selections are more than 20 years old. In comparison, over half of the titles on the first list were at least 20 years old in 1908, with many of them averaging between 50 to 100 years old.
Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad…
A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built…
It’s good for children to understand the world in which they live, but as with any area in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world. Would it not be better to broaden their horizons and expose them to a balance of both old and new literature?
“If,” by Rudyard Kipling – one of the best-known, and arguably best, poets in the English language, aside from Shakespeare – has been a favorite of mine since childhood. My mother, an English major and sometime teacher, had a great love of poetry which she shared with me, and furthermore this poem hung on the wall of the room in which I slept when we visited her parents, my grandparents, in my boyhood days. It has been an inspiration to me for the greater part of a half-century.
But now it appears that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is drawing fire for posting it on his Instagram and Twitter feeds, due to claims that its author was “racist” (and, somewhat self-righteously, that Brady did not credit it to Kipling… although he did put it in quotes, and undoubtedly assumed – rightly, as it turned out – that everyone would recognize it and know who the author was).
For the record, I am no fan of Brady or the Patriots, but that really ticks me off.
Kipling was a man of his time and place. When he wrote “If,” Great Britain was at the height of its colonial power, an Empire on which the sun never set. The concept of “the white man’s burden” may be outdated and vilified now, but at the time it was a commonplace, and rooted in the same sensibility as “noblesse oblige” – the idea that those who were viewed (whether rightly or wrongly) as being at a higher level, had an obligation to care for and assist those viewed as inferior. That is to say, it was kindly meant, even if it was also mixed up with ideas of Empire and dominance, and even if it made assumptions which a more contemporary view understands as false.
Furthermore, the poem “If” has absolutely nothing even remotely related to race, class, colonialism, or Empire about it! It is about self-mastery, perseverance, determination to succeed against all odds, and to pick oneself back up, after failure, and try again. The idea that this is somehow “racist” is patently absurd; it’s ridiculous on every possible level.
And the use of this term as a tool with which to bludgeon anyone you don’t like or agree with is also absurd. We need to get off this kick, and soon – both with respect to contemporary political opponents, and even more so, with regard to towering giants of literature, history, philosophy, etc. – before we fatally undermine the foundations of Western Civilization itself.
Here is the poem in question. Read it for yourself, and see if it seems “racist” to you!
by Rudyard Kipling (1898)
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
“In a petition to the English department, Yale undergraduates declare that a required two-semester seminar on Major English Poets is a danger to their well-being. Never mind that the offending poets – Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, et al. – are the foundational writers in the English language. It’s as if chemistry students objected to learning the periodic table or math students rose up against the teaching of differential calculus.”
A cogent comparison. These are the very authors and poets whose works have formed the English language, and shaped Anglophone Western culture in ways too numerous to count. These pusillanimous petitioners – who owe what little ability to express themselves coherently which they may possess to the masters of literary expression they would, ironically, dispossess – may as well complain that the very oxygen in the air they breathe burns their lungs.
“The petition whines that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.”
It does, eh? Strange that it is only since the kulturkampf of the late 1960s that this alleged “harm” has existed.
Has it occurred to any of these arrogant, ignorant, sniveling idiots that America’s greatest years occurred during a time when the great works of the Western Canon wrought by the towering creative intellects now dismissed as mere “dead white males” were the only works – save for a few from other cultures that had similarly stood the test of time, and achieved like stature – that were seriously studied?
And that the beginning of America’s loss of motivation, drive, and standing in the world (mirrored, sadly, by the rest of the West) can be dated with some precision to the time period, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the kind of tripe represented by this petition first started to gain traction?
And yes, I know that correlation does not equal causation. But I also know that if there’s enough smoke, there’s bound to be some fire somewhere. And I know, further, that a tree cut off from its roots is bound to wither and die; the same can be said of a culture or society. Absent some sort of drastic and successful intervention, Western culture is dying; this petition is both another ax-blow to the roots, and also symptomatic of its death-throes.
As the article further notes,
“The petition’s implicit contention is that the major poets are too circumscribed by their race and gender to speak to today’s socially aware students, when, in point of fact, it is the students who are too blinkered by race and gender to marvel at great works of art.”
Amen. I would like to think that Yale – that highly esteemed Ivy League institution of higher learning – would laugh them out of the Dean’s office, if not expel them from its ranks. But I’m not going to hold my breath. I fear that Yale’s faculty, like most contemporary academics, having largely come of age during or after the aforementioned 1960s and 70s, is already too deeply in the thrall of the same disease as that infecting the petitioners. God help us!
J.R.R. Tolkien despised politics. It is, however, a natural question for someone to ask about his views here, as we live in a highly politicized age. So, what do we know about the great man’s politics? (essay by Bradley Birzer)
Resolutely apolitical in his personal habits, there are nonetheless things that can be said about Tolkien’s political philosophy. Some particular points of interest, with respect to this blog:
“Tolkien referred to himself in his letters as an anarchist of the non-violent variety. Almost certainly, Tolkien’s anarchism is neither [modern anarcho-capitalism nor anarcho-socialism]. Given his writings on the Shire, in particular, Tolkien almost certainly meant this in the sense that he was a Catholic and, therefore, that he believed in subsidiarity – that is the principle that power should reside at the most immediate level possible.
“… in the same letter that Tolkien called himself an anarchist, philosophically understood, he also argued that he would support an unconstitutional monarchy. Puzzling, to be sure. But, again, given Tolkien’s writings regarding Middle-earth, and especially on Aragorn, Tolkien almost certainly meant that a king should be bound by his oath to his people and, especially to Christ. Philosophically, Tolkien would have identified with St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in the great saint’s letter On Kingship. For Aquinas, the only true king was the king who behaved as would Christ, willing to sacrifice himself for love.”
Being somewhat of a philosophical anarcho-monarchist, myself, this makes perfect sense to me! As the great man put it, in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the section on “The Ordering of the Shire”:
“There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury as they called it, away north of the Shire. But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years, and even the ruins of Kings’ Norbury were covered with grass. Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.”
I especially love this concluding quote, by Tolkien himself:
“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”