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The Commemoration Post by :whoops Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2838

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The Commemoration

Eleven o'clock in the morning found the village at its field and household affairs, with birds abroad and dogs at home assisting in various ways. The plovers wove black and white webs over the water-meadows, gulls were like drifting snow behind the plow. In a cottage garden the dog, high on his haunches at the length of his chain, cocked his ears towards the huswife in the wash-house, hoping against hope for a miracle. Luxuriously full, the cat slept on the window-ledge. Meantime a roadman was cleaning a gutter, a thatcher pegged down his yelm; a milkmaid, driving up the street in a float, stopped, threw the reins over the pony's quarters, and jumped down, very trim in her overall and breeches. The church clock struck eleven.

She turned, as if shot, and stood facing the church whose flag streamed to the south. The roadman straightened himself and leaned upon his mattock; the huswife shut the back door, and the dog crept into his barrel. The schoolyard, accustomed at that hour to flood suddenly with noise, remained empty. But the milkmaid's horse drew to the hedge for a bite, the birds on the hillside settled about the halted plow, and the cat slept on.

We are what we are, all of us. Beasts and birds are not sentimental. Things to them stand for things, not for thoughts about things. I have seen young rabbits play cross-touch about the stiffened form of an unfortunate brother. I have seen a barnyard cock flap and crow, standing upon the dead body of one of his wives. Directly a creature is dead it ceases to be a creature at all to those which once hailed it fellow. It becomes part of the landscape in which it lies; and with certain beasts which we are accustomed to call obscene it becomes something to eat. But dogs which have lived long with us are not like that. I knew two dogs which lived in a house together and shared the same loose-box at night. One night one of them in fidgeting, bit upon an artery and bled to death. Never again would the survivor enter that sleeping place. Dogs have learned from us that things may stand for thoughts.

Anything that persuades the British people to spend two minutes a year in thought is a good thing; for thinking is not congenial to us. Feeling is; and feeling may perhaps be described as thinking about thinking. We feel still, as we felt at the time, the wholesale, hapless, heroic and entirely monstrous sacrifice of our young men; but it is out of the question to suppose that we thought about them--or, for that matter, that any nation in the world did; for if we had thought as we felt the scythe would have stopt in mid-swathe and Death been robbed of a crowning victory! But we did not think; and we were not thinking just now when we stood still in the midst of our interrupted affairs. The act sufficed us. It was a sacrament. An act, that is, a thing, stood for a thought about a thing--namely heroic, hapless death. Of such sacraments, maybe, is the kingdom of this world, but not, I am persuaded, the Kingdom of Heaven; and assuredly not of such, nor of any amount of it, will be a League of Nations which is anything more than a name.

The thought, or the feeling, of those two minutes here in the village, or in the city eight miles away, where in full market the same opportunity was taken, was concerned in all human probability, with the hapless dead rather than with means to preserve the living from hapless and unnecessary death; and yet, so curiously are we wrought out of emotion, sensibility and habit, some good besides piety may come out of a memorial Eleventh of November. Pitying, recording, respecting the dead or perhaps the bereaved, it may presently become a fixed idea with us that avoidable death is taboo. It may be borne in upon us on the next occasion when stung pride, outraged feeling or panic fear is sweeping like a plague over our land, that nothing but sorrow and loss was gained by the Four Years War. That is just possible, but no more than that, we being what we are. Yet, unless we learn to think rather of life than of death, there is no other way. As in religion, faith comes before works, and you must fall in love with God if you are to believe in Him, so it is in politics. Emotional conviction must precede action. And the conviction to be established is that war is a crime and in some nations, a vice.

In the Middle Ages a great and ever-present fear of death coincided with an extraordinary neglect of life. Whole companies, whole classes of men thought of little but death; yet they killed each other for a look or a thought; in war whole cities were put to the sword and fire, as the Black Prince put Limoges. Timor mortis conturbat me! So men shuddered and wailed, but took not the smallest trouble to keep each other alive. The Black Death swept off at least a third of the population of Europe; yet after it things went on exactly as before. If nations had then possessed the technical skill which they have to-day, it is quite on the cards that France in the Hundred Years or Germany in the Thirty Years War, would have been emptied of its folk. The will thereto was not wanting, that's certain.

Well, we are a little better than that. Sanitation has at last become a fixed idea. And there is another thing. We no longer consider a man as magnified by his office, but rather that the office is magnified in that a man is serving it. In the old days the splendour of an army on the march was reflected upon the men composing it, and glorified every one of them. Now it is the other way. We are apt to see the army glorious because it is composed of men. Lord Kitchener's host, perhaps, has taught us that. We are getting on, then, if we are beginning to take manhood seriously.

It is something at least, and so much to the good, that we have imagined a new sacrament, and found it in the attitude, if not in the act of thought. "Who rises from his prayer a better man, his prayer is answered," said a wise man; and if that is true, the King may save his people yet. But to enable him to do it we must pray for the living rather than the dead, and pray for Good Will among them. For that is what we want.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Commemoration

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