On Saturday, we went to Miss Em's graduation. We will spare you the video of the graduation speech delivered by our own Miss Em. Sunday, we recovered from the long drive. Today, I was planning to write yet once more on the Edmund Andrews saga, which gets curious-er and curious-er. Then I remembered that it is Memorial Day. Today, if any day, we should count our blessings and remember.
Even though I don't teach too much "war literature," I am lucky enough to have repeatedly taught two of the greatest masterpieces of the genre: The Iliad and Beowulf. Both poems are about mortality and the meaning of life. Both are also about memory.
Below is a brief excerpt from Beowulf (translation by Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy, 2002). Like most poems that purportedly glorify war, this is also an anti-war poem. Beowulf explores the threats to peace that come both from without us and from within us. This poignant moment is a flashback. A nameless man laments the death of his community as he buries their treasures.
Hold now, Earth what men may not,
the hoard of the heroes, earth-gotten wealth
when it first was won. War-death has felled them,
An evil befalling each of my people.
The long-house is mirthless when men are lifeless.
I have none to wear sword, none to bear wine
or polish the precious vessels and plates.
Gone are the brothers who braved many battles.
From the hard helmet the hand-wrought gilding
drops in the dust. Asleep are the smiths
who knew how to burnish the war-chief's mask
or mend the mail-shirts mangled in battle.
Shields and mail-shirts molder with warriors
and follow no foes to faraway fields.
No harp rejoices to herald the heroes,
no hand-fed hawk swoops through the hall,
no stallion stamps in the keep's courtyard.
Death has undone many kindreds of men.