It’s been a wet night and I walk out onto our front porch to enjoy the dripping-freshness of early- morning. Between the bottlebrush and the other trees in our yard, flimsy little showers of rain float down at random and I wait and think and pray about the various gatherings of fragile human beings called ‘my family, my communities, and my neighbours’. Especially those neighbours whose fragility seems right out there lately.
One of them having just had a near-fatal incident (and still doing it hard) and others who seem to want to punch each other out every day, and then there’s the others with whom a neighbourly affection is growing. And all of them brimming with that dreadful and captivating mystery, which GM Hopkins described as, ‘Christ play-ing in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, To the Father through the features of men’s faces.’ Those limbs and eyes often seeming to to be tortured (which we all know) and saying something to me that I don’t yet understand or even hear.
Then there’s the growing crowd of little boys who run up and down the street and tell me that our dog is a great-looking dog and want to know if she has pups and can they have one and have I ever had a car accident and do I live on my own and am I strong? Those boys looking so happy, and laughing and yelling and loving the sun and the rain and the trees, and I wonder what will become of them. And then there’s the girls, older, not so apparent, and heading out into the world.
I can’t help thinking of The Niebelungenliad: one of my favourite (and saddest) epic poems, which begins with the following words, ‘In the land of the Burgundians there grew up a maiden of high lineage, so fair that none in any land could be fairer. Her name was Kriemhild. She came to be a beautiful woman, causing many knights to lose their lives. This charming girl was as if made for love’s caresses: she was desired by brave fighting men and none was her enemy, for her noble person was beyond all measure lovely. Such graces did the young lady possess that she was the adornment of her sex…’2
And then, almost three hundred pages later, we come to this. ‘… There lay the bodies of all who were doomed to die. The noble lady (Kriemhild) was hewn in pieces. Dietrich and Etzel began to weep, and deeply they lamented both kinsmen and vassals. Their great pride lay dead there. The people, one and all, were given up to grief and mourning. The King’s high festival had ended in sorrow, as joy must ever turn to sorrow in the end.’3
And then I think of myself, hoping to be an influence of light and grace in those ‘eyes and limbs’ and trying to write about this stuff and wondering what I’m getting myself into. As another poet once said, ‘he who would … write well in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourable things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that is praiseworthy.’4 And, knowing what you know of your own battles with pride and frailty, you want to just walk away.
Which takes us back to where we were—in England three hundred years ago—and the great stuff- up: the restoration happened, Charles II was installed, and it looked as if everything Jon Cooke had done was in vain. But history shows that all was not lost. The people had gotten a taste of what the rule of law could do when it was softened and mediated by a parliament, and they never forgot it.
But in the meantime there were other forces at work. Wars were happening on all sides and England was well on the way to becoming a broken backwater. Then a small group of thinking men came up with the idea of a thing called the Bank of England. The idea being that the wealthy could invest their money in a place of safe-keeping and and get a return on it. Consequently millions of pounds were harnessed for the English war-effort.
‘The century came to a close and England moved on into the eighteenth century as a wealthy and powerful nation, and by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, England had wrung from France and Spain the monopoly of the slave-trade. But the slave-trade bred financial greed. It brutalised masters and slave’s lives, making labour undignified, which became a curse on the economic and political life of the eighteenth century.’5
The industrial revolution was spreading and the attitudes of the slave owners influenced many owners of mines, factories and mills in their treatment of their workers. … It is estimated that during that century the number of Africans carried into slavery, largely in British ships and largely from West Africa to America, ran into the millions … Because of the enormous sums of money involved in the slave trade, there were repeated financial scandals, leading to loss and ruin, the chief of which was the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which virtually wrecked the national economy.’6
‘Britain at this time was nation divided between the rich and the poor … Thus to steal a sheep, to snare a rabbit, to break a young tree, to pick a pocket for more than a shilling, and to grab goods from someone’s hand and run away with them were hanging offences. Executions at Tyburn in London were known as ‘hanging shows.’ … the transportation to Australia of men, women and children; the flogging of women, the pillory and the branding on the hand continued unabated.’
This unrestrained pursuit of greed, along with the strangulation of biblical Christianity, had further inhumane consequences ‘in the treatment and mortality of children. Their death rates tell a terrible tale, though statistics are only available for London. These show that between 1730 and 1750, three out of every four children born to all classes died before their fifth birthday. James Hanway, the Christian friend of ‘parish and pauper children,’ produced scores of statistics and pamphlets— preserved in the British museum library—revealing his investigations into the treatment and death rate of the parish infants. Death occurred time after time because of murder and the practice of exposing newly born babies to perish on the streets, as well as placing unhappy foundlings with heartless nurses, who let them starve or turned them into the street to beg or steal.’
‘Having abandoned biblical Christianity in favour of a soul-less ‘Religious Christianity’ that married itself to politics, the eighteenth century ‘became known as the “Gin Age” of England. Horrible child abuse was often the result of drinking strong, fiery, poisonous gin, which out-rivalled beer as the national beverage. Irish historian William Lecky defined the national gin-drinkers drunken-ness as the ‘master-curse of English life between 1720 – 1750.’7
[For the next episode of this reflection see Dark Nights and Choices part III]
1 Robertson G. The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold. Chatto & Windus 2005
2 Hatto A.T. The Niebelungenliad – Penguin Classics 1965 p.17 Ibid 291
4 (An Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642) Ricks C. Worcester College Oxford (in his Introduction to Paradise Lost) p.xi – Signet Classic. Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained – New American Library 1968
5 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World pp: 261-262 – Thomas Nelson 2011