After I wrote about Remembrance Day, I was driven to thinking of A Farewell To Arms, the Elizabethan poem by George Peele (not the Hemingway novel which used its title.)
Where Remembrance Day is about the 'glorious dead' (and is usually filled with war poetry), A Farewell To Arms is perhaps its reverse. It answers the question 'How should those who survive conduct their lives?'
The answer, says George Peele, is generally in thinking about the present and the future, not the past. His poem is about an old soldier, a retired knight, who puts aside thoughts of youth - he wants to spend his time serving his queen (or 'goddess'), who still lives:
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
His golden locks Time hath to silver turn'd; O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing! His youth 'gainst time and age hath ever spurn'd, But spurn'd in vain; youth waneth by increasing: Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen; Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.
His helmet now shall make a hive for bees; And, lovers' sonnets turn'd to holy psalms, A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees, And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms: But though from court to cottage he depart, His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.
And when he saddest sits in homely cell, He'll teach his swains this carol for a song,-- 'Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well, Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.' Goddess, allow this aged man his right To be your beadsman now that was your knight.
The beadsman (or bedesman) is someone who prays for the soul of others. The dictionary says 'paid to pray', but the poem suggests it can be someone who does it for simple duty.
George Peele was addressing Queen Elizabeth I, so this is not a poem for republicans, except where the queen is a metaphor for those who survive.
I rather like the lines:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen; Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees, And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
Of course, eventually doing anything on your clapped-out knees is an impossibility, but you get the metaphor.
Here's my father's last visit to Granny Buttons, at Loughborough in December 2006, with my sister. His knees were too far gone to come aboard, sadly.
I call it 'celebration creep'. It's the tendency for public holidays and ceremonies to grow and grow and grow in duration. Les Dawson once remarked that he knew it was Christmas because the shops were full of Easter eggs.
I've been scornfully accused of not caring about the modern Remembrance Day because I'm now moaning about seeing 'poppies' on lapels all through October, and it can't be far off before we all start sending each other greetings cards to mark the event.
It's not true that I don't care. Whenever I'm in a village new to me, especially when on the waterways, I love looking at the war memorials and gravestones, and seeing the poignant roll of names, and the stories they evoke. Especially when there are several similar surnames. I remember.
That, for me, means far more than a sheep-like wearing of a poppy for three weeks, and I bet few other people bother to do it.
But I was thinking yesterday of my father (always an old soldier, nota 'veteran'), who died about three years ago and would wear a poppy on the right occasions. The only picture I have of him wearing a poppy was the year before he died, when he'd just turned 90.
I forget the exact circumstances, but it was the Sunday before Remembrance Sunday in 2007, and he had hosted a luncheon drinks reception with other old neighbours and was bidding them farewell. My sister appeared at the door just as I clicked the shutter. Looking at the picture now, it's a kind of valediction by my father, and we put it on the front of his memorial service.
A poppy was appropriate for Corporal Denny, who saw action in 1940 in the retreat from France, and lost half his platoon. He sported the poppy on Sunday 4th Nov 2007 for church and his reception and he wore it again the following Sunday for the Remembrance Day service.
As a colonial policeman he had his share of further 'action', particularly in the Kenya after the war, and the terrorism of Aden in the 1960s, which was worse for him.
He spoke little about the war or the atrocities he witness later - not out of trauma, but from an old-fashioned sense of duty. You did not spend your life worrying about the past or grieving, you merely did your job and got on with the next job and didn't moan.
Any remembrance was done in a very ceremonial sense, and the poppy was part of a dress uniform, like the bow tie. I think his bigger bravery was faithfully nursing his second wife through her last two years of senility.
His own final words, on 4th July 2008, were "I'm fine."
I'm not sure if my dislike of this new month-long public remembrance obsession is inherited from my parents culturally or genetically, but we are the the sort of old-school family who consider all these roadside flower shrines a bit, er, foreign and un-British, and we don't like the new industry of public grieving.
Anyway, if month-long poppy wearing is your sort of thing, Happy Remembrance Day!
Whatever your view, though, if you are interested in the subject, I recommend Remembrance, an hour-long programme broadcast on Radio 4 last Saturday and available this week to listen again.