Getting Away From It All

Sometimes I find it useful to clear my head of the madness of our times. I put myself in the company of well-educated but otherwise ordinary people who don’t watch our television, read our newspapers, comment on our current events, slobber over our pornography, and enlist as infantry in the great march of lemmings into the maw of the future.

I open one of my volumes of The Century: June 1918. Here’s what I find. It begins with a poem, “On Hearing the Carillon of Antwerp Cathedral.” The poet notes that on July 30, 1914, “the bellmaster of Antwerp gave a concert on the chimes.” The following evening, the great bell Gabriel called the Belgian men to war against the German invaders.

Then a short story, “The Emerald of Tamerlane,” a humorous meditative piece on similarities between Washington and Teheran, where the story is set.

Then a magnificent 10,000-word essay, “The Religion of a Man of Letters,” delivered by Gilbert Murray, as a presidential address to the Classical Association. Few college professors could make much of it now. Murray assumes that you are conversant with Goethe, Aeschylus, Milton, Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Browning.

Here are words no professor now would write:
“A scholar, I think, secures his freedom by keeping hold always of the past, and treasuring up the best out of the past, so that in a present that may be angry or sordid he can call back memories of calm or of high passion, in a present that requires resignation or courage he can call back the spirit with which brave men long ago faced the same evils. He draws out of the past high thoughts and great emotions; he also draws the strength that comes from communion or brotherhood.”

Then an even longer historical essay, sprightly and stocked with photographs, “The Renaissance of the Puppet Play,” referring to Voltaire, Haydn, Maeterlinck, George Sand, and Punch and Judy.

Then a meditative piece called “Nature Lore,” by the naturalist John Burroughs; a humorous love story, “Nettle and Foxglove,” and then a grim analysis, “Quebec and the Draft,” of Canadian politics and the indifference of French Canadians to the outcome of the war.

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer by William A. Coffin, 1890 [Museum of the City of New York]
Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer by William A. Coffin, 1890 [Museum of the City of New York]

After some war drawings comes another long essay, by Rose Strunsky (women authors are well represented in The Century), “The Russian Revolution – An Interpretation.” It’s a hopeful work, too hopeful as it turned out. But the author was certainly correct to say that the West had better understand the “religious” force of the revolutionaries. “People do not go to their death for political reforms,” she says, “and the Russians have gone ‘to their death like bees flying to honey,’ as Tertullian said of the Christian martyrs. The Russian Revolution has indeed all the psychic traits of that early martyrdom.”

Then a wistful love poem with a delicate ending: “I read your eyes this morn and saw / That hope is more than fear.”

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer – I’m not inventing the name of this prolific author – on the establishment of public arboretums, “A Living Picture-Book for Artists,” for don’t we know that artists are to be found outdoors, drawing and painting from the beauties of nature?

That is followed, or balanced, by a first-person account, “Oh, About Average,” of a sailor in the merchant marine during wartime. How does an intelligent sailor write? “It would be a proud business for a man to go about,” says Nelson Collins, “this carrying of food to the beleaguered nations in whom he believes and who are depending and dependent on him, even if the task were only one of activity and skill and perseverance in the ordinary emergencies of the sea-carrying trade, if he went about it amply protected in life and limb.” But during war “he runs the greatest of all dangers, the double peril of sea and foe.”

Following a story about a fortunate failure at the hunt, “The Pink Crane,” there comes another hopeful essay, “Russian Women and Their Outlook,” in which we are encouraged to visit war-worn Russia to “measure the moral superiority of women,” who do necessary work while “for a year the streets, public conveyances, and resorts have been full of idling men in uniform.”

What women become when divorced from religious faith, the author never considers, because he no doubt never considered it possible. What they become when divorced from common sense, he does consider, when he discusses the “women’s battalion” of the Russian army, disbanded by the Bolsheviks:
“What thoughtful man could watch without a lump in his throat the drilling of its awkward squad, the lines of the girlish figures so tender and unmartial, the womanly garb so little suited to military exercises! . . .Had Amazonism spread along the fronts of both sides, another great wing of our civilization would have crumbled. Think of the effect upon women of getting accustomed to use of the bayonet! Upon men of becoming habituated to deadly hand-to-hand combat with women!”

Then a chapter from a serialized novel, The Boomerang; an article, “Garden Conscription – the Solution of the Food Problem”; a humorous short story, and a couple of humorous poems, including “To a Hen Crossing a Road,” which ends with these magniloquent lines, musing about when

                  The primal hen crossed the primeval way

And some rude (probably arboreal) Shaw

Startled the forest with the world’s first why.

No polls, no political jabbering, no speculation upon Democrats and Republicans, no porn, no obscenity, no naked ladies smearing themselves with chocolate and calling it art, no advertisements, no blaring headlines SEX SEX SEX, no blathering about “hate speech,” no nail-biting about the Supreme Court Royal, no recommendations for federal intrusion into local or family affairs, no cult of celebrity; nothing hateful, nasty, coarse, impious, or stupid.

Nothing that would now be printed in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Sweet air after sewage, and sanity (even when the authors are wrong) after madness.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.