Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

25 May 2015

Memorial Day Musings

Two beloved poems come to mind on Memorial Day: Rudyard Kipling's Recessional (1897) and Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Soldier (1885). The former is responsible for the phrase "Lest We Forget." One of our local fire departments has a plaque aside the door that often features the names of recently deceased members. Below the name(s) are the words, "Lest We Forget." The poem is a reminder that the sovereignty of God surpasses pride-impaired temporal power.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Kipling's poem considers the "universal," the attitude of the government or the citizenry as a whole. As earthly rulers receive authority from God, to God they must render an account. There are echoes of the 51st Psalm, the Miserere ("Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness") in the second stanza, and in the final stanza, the 127th Psalm, Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum ("Unless the Lord build the house").

Hopkins traditionally treats the "particular," so his poem extols the nobility of "any given" soldier, likening him to Christ in terms of His sacrifice. As in the first poem, pride also motivates the first-person plural subject, but Hopkins fancies soldiers as types of Christ regardless of their personal disposition toward Him or His ideals.

YES. Why do we áll, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less; (5)
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of wár thére express.

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss (10)
Now, and séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry ‘O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too:
Were I come o’er again’ cries Christ ‘it should be this’.

The first word of this poem is peculiarly placed. By now, as a Hopkins fan, I should know better than to question him. I should just marvel at his Sprachgefuhl. It's the plain-and-simple affirmative, but the question he asks ("Why do we bless soldiers?") is ostensibly not a yes-or-no question. Perhaps it's the spontaneous, ebullient portent of a positive position ("Soldiers are manly, valuable, noble, and attractive, like Christ Himself").

The phrase "do all that man can do" reminds me of the former U. S. Army slogan "Be all that you can be." Do, be--recall, the military classified Sinatra "4-F," unable to serve because of his punctured left eardrum. He served, I suppose, by keeping the ladies interested in having someone to love, and the troops interested in having someone to fight.