Beginning and End
It is said that Plato wrote eighteen drafts of the ﬁrst sentence of the Republic… Concerned with a lesser task, the Pilgrim has, nevertheless, much the same diﬃculty… There is ﬁrst of all the problem of choosing a motto which will be expressive of the Pilgrim’s point and purpose… After much inward debate we have momentarily inscribed the second last sentence of Pilgrim’s Progress on our staﬀ… It is the essence of a pilgrim’s life to begin by looking toward the end… Between us and the ﬁnal trumpets lies the terrible and beautiful panorama of human passions, of sadness and laughter, of beauty and horror, of eternal sameness and never ending change—all of which the Pilgrim purposes to survey… For so large a view he knows little enough—only that life’s gayest music is often threaded with the chord of the beyond and that we are in bitter need of clear eyes and dig nity, courage, and cleanness of soul… For a time we had chosen for our masthead the shining last four lines of Paradise Lost—the beginning of our pilgrimage:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Between the end of Paradise Lost and the end of Pilgrim’s Progress—the charnel house of man’s history and the temple of the City of God on earth— here is every pilgrim’s road’… In our own narrow path we have no axe to grind nor rod to break… We ask only that three of our rights remain sacred and inviolate—the right to believe, the right to wonder, and the right to laugh…
Having been compelled to meditate much on beginnings and endings we were especially interested in a fascinating discussion of the “Perfect Ending” by Quintus Quiz in a recent issue of the Christian Century… Spurred by his remarks we spent a happy hour dusting oﬀ famous books and reading the closing sentences again… Quintus remarks that he once read these wise words: “The perfect ending is generally to be found about seven minutes before the real end of a sermon, and about a page before the end of a book.”… Sometimes “seven minutes” is a very generous estimate… Should a book or play or poem end abruptly on a high note or should it modulate gently to a quieter key—that is the question… Quintus avers that there is no more moving passage in all literature than the end of the Phaedo where Socrates drinks the hemlock: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.”
The Pilgrim leans toward the trumpet ending… Books, like men, should burn out, not rust out… Shakespeare should have closed his most famous play with the dying gasp of Hamlet: “The rest is silence.”… All that follows is only Elizabethan dramatic convention… What is more moving than Heloise’s ﬁnal speech in Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard: “‘By whose grief our wound was healed: by whose ruin our fall was stayed.’ I wonder. Is that what men have asked of God?”… Or the breathless tension of the last line of Ibsen’s Ghosts, in which a horriﬁed mother sees her only son struck by a disease brought on him by the sins of his father… The boy sits motionless, suddenly blind to the glory of the coming dawn: “Mother, give me the sun—the sun!”… Or the majestic march of the closing verses of the Divine Comedy:
But yet the will roll’d onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the love impelled
That moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.
It is striking how even in these minor matters—ﬁt only for the speculation of an idly gracious moment—the perfect Book strikes the perfect note… The Old Testament ends with the moving words “Remember me, O my God, for good.”… And the entire divine revelation closes on a chord of quietly expectant prayer: “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”… No other words could have closed the Book so ﬁtly…
So it is with our pilgrimage… John T. McFarland sums it up in A Man and God:
They walked and talked—a man and God
A fragrance lingered where they trod,
A music circled as they spoke
And over them a glory broke.
They talked and walked down many years—
The way was called the Vale of Tears;
But he who walked with God received
Such comfort that he litt le grieved.
And walking thus, and talking so,
The man and God fared onward slow
Until they reached a secret spot—
God took him, and the man was not.
Dr. Johnson Prays
One does not need to be heavy with years to have learned to look for beauty in unexpected places… Boswell’s picture of Dr. John son leaves one only slightly prepared for the news that the great Doctor wrote a large number of prayers,
modeled evidently upon the beautiful Collects for the public service… In his delightful “Amenities of Book-Collecting,” recently reissued by the Modern Library, A. Edward Newton proudly confesses that he has an excessively rare holograph of one of Dr. Johnson’s prayers… A gorgeous fusion of doctrine and devotion:
“Almighty Lord and Merciful Father, to Thee be thanks, and praise for all thy mercies, for the awakening my mind, the continuance of my life, the amendment of my health, and the opportunity now granted of commemorating the death of thy Son Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. Enable me O Lord to repent truly of my sins—enable me by thy Holy Spirit to lead hereafter a better life. Strengthen my mind against useless perplexities, teach me to form good resolutions and assist me that I may bring them to eﬀect, and when Thou shalt ﬁnally call me to another state, receive me to everlasting happiness, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Amen.” By the way, a literary study of the Collects—as perfect in prose as the most polished sonnet—is long past due…
High Jinks in New York
With reproachful eyes the Pilgrim notes that none of the contributing editors of The Cresset has commented on the most gaudy event in the news of the past month— the convention of the American Legion in New York… Perhaps they were struck speechless… The annual parade lasted a little more than seventeen hours… Saks-Fift h Avenue, Bests, McCutcheon’s, Arnold Constable, and most of the other big Fifth Avenue stores boarded up their windows and locked their doors… The New York Department of Sanitation revoked the scheduled vacations of 1,500 employees… The Police Department cancelled all leaves of absence… Every hotel room in the city was ﬁlled… One big hotel, ﬁnding that none of its present staﬀ had ever been through a Legion convention, imported an expert from out of town; his ﬁrst step was to order the removal of everything movable —even the Gideon Bibles—from rooms and corridors… The liquor trade estimated before the convention that the Legion would consume 160,000 gallons of liquor and 500,000 gallons of beer…
The New Republic reports: “The Legionnaires smashed windows, obstructed traﬃc, refused to let passengers enter or leave street-cars, destroyed hotel furniture… Some of them did, that is: the majority, as you might expect, were mild and meek Americans whose feet hurt and whose wives bullied them, even as you and I.”… The Nation says that it was “a week of howling bed lam during which a mob of patriotic, middle-aged adolescents of good will painted the town red, white and alcoholic blue.”… Now the record is complete… No comment…
In a recent issue of America F. J. Sheed comments with much gusto on the ﬁne art of singing around a piano… He notes that this is a special kind of singing not to be con fused with other ways of uttering song… “It is the one art that hasn’t any public; everyone is singing and no one is listening. Anyone not singing has no right to be there nor, I should imagine, any desire to be, for the noise must be horrible, were there anyone to listen to it. But no one is there to listen; each man is roaring his own lungs out, being simply and satisfactorily himself, happy in the knowledge that all his fellows are being simply and satisfactorily them selves, and secure in the certainty that no one can hear him.”
The magniﬁcent lunacy of the songs is worth including here… This:
I had a gal and her name was Daisy,
When she sang the cat went crazy.
Peeping through the knot hole
Of Grandpa’s wooden leg.
Who’ll wind the clock when I am gone?
Go, get the ax.
There’s a ﬂea in Lizzie’s ear,
For a boy’s best friend is his mother.
How happy am I when I get into bed
And a ratt le-snake rattles his tail at
my head And the gay little centipede void of
all fear Crawls over my pillow and into my ear.
Only nonsense? Or perhaps another escape mechanism for a generation afraid and alone?
Ironic Nature has ﬁnally permitted a spider to spin his web across our bedroom doorway… He had been alone so much and the summer days were warm and long… There is a tale of checks and balances here for a better pen… We get the ﬂ u—or the ﬂu gets us—retire to our bedroom for a cure—and our cure is the spider’s destruction… Through feverish eyes a spider is a monstrous thing… Thus nature has a queer way of restoring balances… A hu man being has to be cured and the spider gives way to the need for en trance and exit… Perhaps he had done the same thing to ﬂies… Was it Swift who wrote:
So, naturalists observe, a ﬂea
Has smaller ﬂeas that on him prey
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em
And so proceed ad inﬁnitum.
Less Than Truth
During the past decade various hands, more or less skilled, have set themselves to an analysis of the qualities of American humor that distinguish it from its European ancestry and its Oriental relatives… A fascinating study… Such connoisseurs of the subject as H. L. Mencken, Stephen Leacock, and a host of lesser lights agree that the essential quality of American humor is overstatement… It was Mark Twain’s stock in trade… It appears again in the gorgeous tales of the north woods concerning the doings of Paul Bunyan, the Blue Ox, and Johnny the Inkslinger… Who can forget how Bunyan spread his blue cloak on the ground so that it looked like a lake and the ducks ﬂying south dived for it, only to have their necks broken… Or the camp cooks who slabs of bacon to their feet and skated across the top of the stove to grease it for the morning ﬂapjacks… Our Tall Tales and Liars’ Clubs throughout the land carry on in the best tradition of “more than truth.”…
After all, what is humor?… What lakes us laugh and thus lightens the heaviness of living for a lifted moment?… We incline to the belief that any sudden and unexpected divergence from the real, the true, or the ordinary is of the essence of humor… The divergence may be either upward or downward—either overstatement or understatement… We incline further (any more of that and fall over) to the thesis that in its subtler abstraction from reality the latter is probably more civilized… There is the famous scene in one of Maeterlinck’s plays (we are too tired to look it up now) in which the villain on his black charger drags the heroine by her golden hair beside his stirrup, across the countryside, and with a ﬁnal gesture of boyish fun hurls her, still by the same golden hair, across the rough ﬂagstone of a court yard, until she cowers, bleeding and beaten, in an angle of the wall… Her next line is: “I am not happy here.”… Or the unconscious splendor of Alexander Smith’s remark in his famous essay on a hanging: “To be publicly executed is always a serious matt er.”… Or the remark of the mas ter at Eton who face to face with the body of a servant girl murdered by her lover and lying bloody in a passage way: “What dangerous clown has done this?”… Or the lady mission ary from India who reported to an Occidental audience that of her four converts three had been murdered and one had his tongue cut out—and then added with ﬁ ne delicacy: “There seems to be intimidation in the Indian villages.”…
Perhaps most typical of the best modern American humor is the work of Percy Crosby and Art Young… Both are masters of the sturdy, rough, blunt, and yet exquisite pictures of what is funny, and what is most pitifully funny, in our native life and character… The famous scene by Art Young comes to mind—a city night, two ragged children of the slums, and the captain,“Chee, Annie, look at the stars, thick as bedbugs!” A joke, a tender caress, a vicious protest… That type of humor rises to heights beyond laughter and becomes a social document—an eﬀectively savage attack on every kind of organized meanness, cruelty, and oppression.
She was born in August, A.D. 1937… Somewhat doubtfully her mother said we could hold her and watched with the eyes of a Duse at a high school performance… Life immediately became somewhat complex… Since she was not yet civilized she made no insistent demands on her momentary environment, but the process of holding her was nevertheless vastly complicated… There were wriggling feet that had to be kept under a blanket, a spine that needed support, and a head that had to rest somewhere… Clearly, the problem called for a delicate fusion of mathematics and physiology… Only two hands to be distributed to strategic places—and always, since she seemed to regard our face with more resignation than pleasure, the consciousness that one hand ought to be left free to wave, tickle and chuck… Of course there was also an ethical problem… She had little past and knew no future… For a moment, there fore, everything in her life depended on the eﬃciency with which we held her…
Ever since Lamb wrote the most charming of all familiar essays in English—Dream Children—no one else should touch the subject… And yet —if God continues to be patient, our momentary lovely burden will hear the wild, mad, solemn bells ring on New Year’s Eve A.D. 2000… The Pilgrim and his readers will be sleep ing on that night… Perhaps it is bett er so… Tonight her eyes are unafraid and clear—staring into eyes that are fearful of the anguished rid dle of the years… Sleep, my baby, Sleep—there are madmen across the two wide waters who hold more of your temporal destiny in their drip ping hands than you know… For a few more years you will know only tenderness—until one day you too will become aware of the world’s seething cauldron of hate… And then you too will begin to wonder— and you will do one of two things… You will either putter around in life, content with building a wall and a web around your little plans and small hopes and creeping ambitions—or you will, if you believe in God (as I think you’d better), make your heart a chal ice for a few drops of the world’s blood and tears… And when you know, ﬁnally, that the ultimate Good begins in Is. 53:6 and ends in John 3:16 you will be wise beyond man’s knowing and strong beyond man’s hope… New Year’s Eve A.D. 2000 will mean only that you are nearer again to us who held you for a mo ment in 1937… Other than that we know nothing that we must tell you tonight.
While reading the exhaustive book reviews for the ﬁrst issue of The Cresset we were suddenly re minded of Ambrose Bierce’s famous one sentence review: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” It has never been said better…
Through Eastern Canada at twilight of a summer day… The little towns of Ontario lie warm and still as night wraps its mantle… Is it pure imagination or is it true that our neighbors to the North possess a strength and stability which we lack?… Every time we cross the border we get that notion… There is less fever in the air, less haste, less hysteria… Some of the strength of the tight little isle seems to have ﬂown the Atlantic and come to rest in Canada… By the way, a summer twilight in Ontario brings back the minor strains of Grey’s “Elegy.”… Despite the fact that it has become the darling of all Wednesday Afternoon Shakespeare and Knitting Societies, it is still competent verse…
Do any readers of the Pilgrim live at the end of a road?… If we have any so blessed by time and circum stance, The Cresset will gladly publish an essay on how it feels… To live somewhere where no one passes by, where everyone who comes down the road is coming to see you, where the sole purpose of the road is you—that must be worth talking about in the 20th Century…
Up Michigan Boulevard on a silver October night… Ten thousand lights… How hard men try to put away the dark… Their lights and their thoughts are all of a piece— frail, frantic hands pushing darkness back… Perhaps it is especially here that the vigilant spirit can hear the pulse-beat of eternity… The lights — and an old lullaby whispers up the canyons of Michigan Boulevard:
Sleep then; sleep is best
The roads are many where we go astray
All, all, by the one way
Come home, at the one heart have rest.