"So vast is art, so narrow human wit."
"Remembrance and reflection how allied. What thin partitions divide sense from thought."
"They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake."
- Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
This week, I once again stumbled upon the story of some enterprising folks in Haywood County (ca. 1880) who turned a quick buck by counterfeiting Indian artifacts. A full account of the tale (including illustrations) appeared here in The Great Haywood Artifact Scam (8/26/2008). Those clever Haywoodians would rinse their newly whittled soapstone carvings in rusty water to give them a phony patina of age and wear.
The incident is an apt metaphor for a lot of things involving Native Americans since then. With a line of potential suckers, urrr, customers ranging from oafish tourists to ditzy New Agers, it's been possible to peddle a whole bunch of severely twisted takes on Cherokee history and culture for a long, long time to the accompaniment of a ringing cash register.
I've had my own moments of romanticizing times and people from the past, but I'd rather not remain stuck in that delirium. It's like what Pope said about dreaming and waking. Reaching for the "real story" is usually a lot more interesting and a great deal more challenging.
Speaking of frauds camouflaged by the manufactured patina of the past, Chief Seattle's 1854 speech comes to mind. You know the one:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? blah, blah, blah...
It is quite lovely sentiment, deeply moving, Seattle's speech. But would a reader be disappointed to learn that it was created by a screenwriter in the 1970s? Whoops!
The Chief Seattle expose appeared here 9/10/07 in Ralph Oliver Waldo Wendell Emerson Holmes. When the speech was adapted into a kid's book in 1991 it sold 280,000 units in six months, helped no doubt by the attribution of the speech to "Chief Seattle, 1854" rather than "Ted Perry, 1971." Maybe you can't buy or sell the sky, but you sure can buy and sell the daylights out of a phony speech about how you can't buy or sell the sky.
The speech is lovely, even with (or especially with) a German (?) accent, but why gild the lily by calling it something it isn't...quite? And it isn't quite what Chief Seattle said.
I wonder if anyone else remembers what was (briefly) a big hit record of 1971, Les Crane's spoken word rendition of Desiderata ("Go placidly amid the noise and the haste...") I'd forgotten it, but working as a disk jockey back then, I had to spin that 45 every day. It was purported to be a poem from some hoary master of ancient wisdom, I'm not sure who. Nostradamus? Kahlil Gibran? Rod McKuen? Wasn't it found in Old Saint Paul's Church in Baltimore in 1692? That was part of the record's mystique. In fact, Max Ehrmann had written the lines in 1927, so poor Les Crane faced a unexpected crisis over royalties.
Holy cow! Les Crane (rhymes with Novacaine) actually won a Grammy for Desiderata, incredible as that may seem. I had not heard the record in decades, and on hearing it again I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.
A few months after the Desiderata sensation subsided, National Lampoon responded with Deteriorata, which would arguably prove to be a far more accurate prophecy of these times.
Once in a while, though, a touch of the romantic is a welcome thing to encounter. I just discovered a classic of nineteenth century archaeology, Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes, by Charles Jones, Jr. What a delight! Jones writes beautifully, he draws from obscure early documents, he catalogs in great detail many sites in Georgia and the Southeast, and he manages to slip in some literary references from William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the like.
Jones quoted a couple of lines from Bryant's poem, The Disinterred Warrior. It commands attention partly because of the warrior, yes, but more because of the way that people like Bryant, like Jones, had such a deeply heartfelt sense of wonder about the past and did not set themselves apart from it.
The Disinterred Warrior
Gather him to his grave again,
And solemnly and softly lay,
Beneath the verdure of the plain,
The warrior's scattered bones away.
Pay the deep reverence, taught of old,
The homage of man's heart to death;
Nor dare to trifle with the mould
Once hallowed by the Almighty's breath.
The soul hath quickened every part--
That remnant of a martial brow,
Those ribs that held the mighty heart,
That strong arm--strong no longer now.
Spare them, each mouldering relic spare,
Of God's own image; let them rest,
Till not a trace shall speak of where
The awful likeness was impressed.
For he was fresher from the hand
That formed of earth the human face,
And to the elements did stand
In nearer kindred, than our race.
In many a flood to madness tossed,
In many a storm has been his path;
He hid him not from heat or frost,
But met them, and defied their wrath.
Then they were kind--the forests here,
Rivers, and stiller waters, paid
A tribute to the net and spear
Of the red ruler of the shade.
Fruits on the woodland branches lay,
Roots in the shaded soil below,
The stars looked forth to teach his way,
The still earth warned him of the foe.
A noble race! but they are gone,
With their old forests wide and deep,
And we have built our homes upon
Fields where their generations sleep.
Their fountains slake our thirst at noon,
Upon their fields our harvest waves,
Our lovers woo beneath their moon--
Then let us spare, at least, their graves!
For the reader who goes through books with a highlighter, few pages of Antiquities will remain unmarked. Along with the little-known but well-documented information are digressions seldom found in modern archaeological tomes:
We stood in the midst of an ancient and extensive Indian burial-ground on one of the low-lying islands which fringe the Georgia coast. Earth and shell mounds were thickly congregated on every hand. A bold spring issuing from a sandy bluff — adjacent salt-water streams and wide-spread marshes filled with oysters, crabs, and fishes, and neighboring forests once abounding with game — rendered this, in the olden time, a spot highly attractive to the red-men. The solemnity of death and of desolation so far at least as this entombed race was concerned — rested upon every thing.
Even the traditions of the locality were forgotten, and the grand old live-oaks which knew these sleepers during their waking hours whispered no legends of their customs, their wars, their loves, their lives, or their deaths. Their feeble "footprints on the sands of time" had been obliterated by the tread of a statelier civilization, and there were none to care for their graves. The same sun was sinking to his rest. The breath of the myrtle and the orange still perfumed the ambient air. Kindred waves washed the bermuda-covered shore and dashed their spray, as in former days, against the roots of the vine-clad cedars.
Eagles of the same bold flight soared majestically in the tranquil heavens, and contiguous woods were vocal with the notes of birds native here for centuries. The same blue sky, the same soft sea-breezes, the same generous mother earth, kindred forests and flowers, the same loves and voices of Nature, but all else how changed! The living Indian frequented no more his favorite groves.
Autumnal leaves long ago covered the last trace of his rude hut. His watch-fires were dead. His council-lodge years ago mouldered into utter decay. His village was converted into a cotton-field, and the ploughboy trampled upon and furrowed mound-tombs hallowed by unrecorded memories of chiefs, warriors, priests, medicine-men, and the nameless dead of tribe and family.
Never more will weeping mother with trembling hand fashion the funeral-vase. The sorrowings circle will never again assemble around the sepulchral fires, nor stalwart arms above the ashes of the dead heap the grave-mound. Beaten upon by the rains and wasted by the winds, there will soon be scarce a vestige of these tumuli. Few, if any, will gather up and deposit in some secure resting-place these neglected bones as they whiten in the sun and crumble into dust amid the fields of the present owners of the soil.
"Mors sola fatetur
Quantula sint hominum corpuscula."
The world, waxing old, forgets the names, palaces, pyramids, and sky-searching towers of even those who once held mighty sway over vast domains; and, in the wreck of ages whole nations, living and dying without letters, are remedilessly engulfed in the great ocean of oblivion.
As we mused amid these silent, storm-beaten graves, the mournful strains of the Coplas of Manrique entered with peculiar pathos into our saddened, thoughts.
"Our lives are rivers gliding free
To that unfathomed, boundless sea —
The silent grave.
Thither all earthly pomp and boast
Roll, to be swallowed up and lost
In one dark wave.
Thither the mighty torrents stray,
Thither the brook pursues its way,
And tinkling rill.
There all are equal. Side by side,
The poor man and the son of pride
Lie calm and still."
[Jorge Manrique was a fifteenth century Spanish poet whose best-known work Coplas por la Muerte de su Padre, was translated into English by Longfellow - see note below]
With the recognition that our ultimate fate is obscurity, the counterpoint to the melancholy of Manrique, Longfellow, and Bryant is found in Alexander Pope's Ode on Solitude. Sunny by comparison, he composed it prior to the age of twelve. At about that point in his life he endured serious health problems that deformed his body and stunted his growth, ands left him with a severe hunchback. He reached a height of only 4 ft 6 in. Because he was a Catholic at that time in England, Pope had been isolated from school and society and his poor health only alienated him further.
Ode on Solitude
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
How funny that, 300 years later, the English faculty at Yale would see that his resting place was marked.
How funny that the twelve-year-old who embraced obscurity and who was dealt less than the full measure of humble life he envisioned, is now the second most frequently quoted writer (after Shakespeare) in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Pope's greatness is of the type not soon forgotten, his words granting him a kind of immortality. But I like to think that every human life contains flashes of greatness, even if that greatness remains humble, private, unseen.
The past has fallen on hard times, twisted into a lie when it's not outright destroyed. A lot of people are crowded around a blazing fire fueled by the burning of the testaments of history.
I don't know what life will be like when civilization enters an advanced stage of Alzheimers, but we're about to find out. Revisit Ray Bradbury's remarkably prescient Fahrenheit 451 and you will note that the exercise of memory is one of the most rebellious acts that one can commit.
Thankfully, the archaeological scholarship of Charles Jones uncovers fragments of what it meant to be human, fragments of long-ago greatness, along with the fragments of bone and stone and clay that suggest the story of those who were here before us.
Don Jorge Manrique flourished in the last half of the fifteenth century. He followed the profession of arms, and died on the field of battle. Mariana, in his History of Spain, makes honourable mention of him, as being present at the siege of Ucles; and speaks of him as 'a youth of estimable qualities, who in this war gave brilliant proofs of his valour. He died young; and was thus cut off from long exercising his great virtues, and exhibiting to the world the light of his genius, which was already known to fame.' He was mortally wounded in a skirmish near Canavete, in the year 1479.
The name of Rodrigo Manrique, the father of the poet, Conde de Paredes and Maestre de Santiago, is well known in Spanish history and song. He died in 1476; according to Mariana, in the town of Ucles; but, according to the poem of his son, in Ocana. It was his death that called forth the poem upon which rests the literary reputation of the younger Manrique. In the language of his historian, 'Don Jorge Manrique, in an elegant Ode, full of poetic beauties, rich embellishments of genius, and high moral reflections, mourned the death of his father as with a funeral hymn.' This praise is not exaggerated. The poem is a model in its kind. Its conception is solemn and beautiful; and, in accordance with it, the style moves on -- calm, dignified, and majestic.' ~ Longfellow's Poetical Works, prnt. by Routledge, 1883.
Full poem as translated by Longfellow
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