“FREELY THEY STOOD
WHO STOOD, AND
FELL WHO FELL.”
The Tasmanian Peace Trust
1993 Annual Lecture
Arms and the man I sing…so Virgil began his epic.
Men bear arms, and fight, and poets are there to sing it.
Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilles…
There would come a day when sacred Ilion perished,
but never a day to eclipse the shining dactylic hexameters.
Of man’s first disobedience… another splendid beginning;
though Milton wrote in fetters, as Blake observed, of God,
and at liberty when he wrote of Satan and fallen angels,
for Milton was a true poet and one of the devil’s party.
Homer to me in childhood was a true encyclopaedia.
I knew how to dress for battle, how to order a funeral feast.
I lived with the splendid heroes in a world without abstraction,
where spears pushed eyeballs out and went dean through the socket,
and heads were cut off with helmets on and lifted high
while the victor gloated and boasted of mothers and widows weeping
My friends came in to play with billy-carts for chariots
and kerosene-tin shields my clever father made us—
Hephaistos under the house with our treble death-shouts round him-
back in the Golden Age we celebrated glory
with our sapling bows and spears, swift-footed and great-hearted.
Under the house in a trunk from which we used to sneak them
were Norman Lindsay’s propaganda posters for World War One.
We called it the Great War, not envisaging another.
Germans like mad gorillas in pickelhaubes threatened
innocent wives and children. Our fathers went to shoot them
with three-o-threes and cannons, and stab them with their bayonets.
My father had come back, but some had not, and some
had lost a leg or arm, and one man had a hook
where his hand used to be before the shell exploded.
But the Great War was over. We wore our paper flowers
on Poppy Day, and heard The Last Post, and remembered.
Hector, Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Diomedes—
Patroclus, Priam, Pheidas, Sarpedon, Stentor, Nestor—
some died in the next war, and some were girls, for no one
would ever play Hector’s wife or Achilles’ captive mistress.
Golden lads and girls, etcetera. Remaining
among the living still, I think of those companions.
Who, now, can watch or hear the news not seeing
or thinking about war? The world is full of darkness.
Death and the images of death are all about us.
As in the Iliad the black blood flows out, soaking
the dust in which men fall, life rushing from their wounds.
“No use. Here at last the gods have summoned me death wards.”
Thus Hector, and all who live without the support of hope,
except the hope that they may not die without a struggle.
Think of Andromache calling her lovely-haired handmaidens
to draw a hot bath for Hector when he came back from the fighting,
and heard from the great bastion the noise of mourning and sorrow.
The worst moments of pain are not in war and dying,
but, in this matchless poem, in the evocation of peace:
as, on Achilles’ shield, the earth and sky and water,
the sun, the waxing moon, the glittering constellations,
the brides led through a peaceful city with flaring torches,
the young men in the circle of the dance, with flutes and lyres,
the children gathering sheaves, the kind, sweet fruit of vineyards,
the herdsmen with their dogs, the valley of glimmering sheep flocks,
Or when Hector thinks of the world of human conversation
when he rejects the thought of bargaining with Achilles,
talking to him gently like two young people together,
and they race by the washing hollows of stone where the Trojan women
washed their clothes to shining in the days when there was peace.
Homer, Ovid, Isaiah: read in the original language
to Milton in his blindness; these were his favourite books.
War and metamorphosis and a promise of salvation,
read to him by his daughters until he sent them out
to learn embroidery,”manufacture proper to women”.
Perhaps they would have preferred to stay home reading Ovid.
When Hector dies, Andromache is at home doing embroidery.
But in Paradise Lost it’s Adam making a wreath of roses
who hears the terrible news and drops his floral arrangement,
and calls his wife “defaced, deflowered, to death devote. ”
But the infinite variations of the decasyllabic line
somehow have never made the Father and Son exciting.
It starts off well: we see the defiant Satan in hell,
superior fiend, great sultan, calling the flower of heaven
to light on the firm brimstone, erased from the book of life.
Was Blake right? are true poets all in a sense unchristened?
Surely Milton charged to the brim with immortal defiance
poured himself alive into the figure of Satan.
Indeed in his latter years, when his daughters were reading him Homer,
he ceased to attend any church, and belonged to no communion.
God, in Paradise Lost, is self-conscious about his existence,
which seems a little absurd if he really was uncreated;
he sends his angels on messages just to be sure they do them;
thank God that the God of Paradise Lost docs not exist outside it.
Like Satan that God is contained in the beauty of Milton’s style.
As Keats said, it’s a greater wonder every day.”
What is your image of peace? I would ask you all, if I could,
to offer to those gathered here a glimpse of your inmost vision.
Happy are those who have known it and felt it, however briefly.
How can we grasp it now, with violence all around us?
Imagine a world where all are courteous and friendly,
where men have lived together in loving generations,
changing the wildness of nature to fruitfulness and beauty,
working and resting and making great works of art for the future,
finding what’s lost and mending what’s broken and blessing existence,
fearing nothing and hating nothing and doing no evil.
Imagine Milton, blind, being read to by his daughters:
Homer is put aside; they are reading from Isaiah.
“There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse…”
they read about a world of harmony and beauty
in which an ideal king shall judge with righteousness,
the sea is sheer abundance, the animal world is peaceful,
the sucking child and the weaned child are unharmed by the serpent,
marvellous stuff: read on: but what happened to the Assyrians?
The angel of the Lord went forth and smote their camp;
two hundred thousand odd, behold they were all dead corpses.
It took five hundred years to change from storytelling
in metre, rhythm, rhyme committed to the memory,
where nature’s powers were gods, and spoke aloud, to writing.
In these exciting days of literary theory
how can we imagine the impact of the alphabet?
It gave us an enormous model of abstraction,
the written word a further abstraction of the spoken,
it gave us terms and concepts for a new type of discourse.
Why did writing not give us a way of escaping old troubles,
a way of approaching our problems with logic, and finding solutions?
Philosophy, love of wisdom, Philos, friend, and Sophos, wise.
Another way of construing it is to read it as wise friends,
the members of the early Pythagorean brotherhood.
“Blessed land of the Greeks, you house of all the heavenly,”
wrote Holderlin, and still we turn to the patron saint of philosophy,
Socrates, Plato’s teacher, who taught us how to ask questions,
calm in the face of death, immortalized in the Dialogues,
“the bravest and the wisest man of all we knew in our time,”
said Plato, who gave us the image of our unenlightened condition:
prisoners chained in a cave from their childhood, looking at shadows,
who have not seen the just and good and beautiful in their truth,
but who, having seen the unbearable light, would say with Homer
“Better to be a serf than to live after this manner.”
But this is not a rehearsal of the thoughts of great philosophers
from Parmenides of Elea, the father of metaphysics,
to Wittgenstein in the trenches of World War One, contending
with the French and British and Russians and logic and propositions
and the death in an aeroplane accident of his first and only friend.
No wonder he took to a kind of Schopenhauerian mysticism,
and wrote the mysterious sentence that has haunted many a poet:
whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,
which prompted the mathematician Frank Ramsay to remark
“What you can’t say, you can’t say, and you can’t whistle it either.”
Think of Bertrand Russell, a conscientious objector,
imprisoned, but working away at Principia Mathematica.
He thought ethical propositions had no claim to objectivity,
but for his own moral values endured the shame and the spitting.
Russell said, “Language comes first, and thought follows in its footsteps.”
Language is part of us, not a thing external to human life,
but a complex of skills we learn, whereby we learn to think.
In Paradise, interpretation would pose no problem.
The secrets of hearts arc revealed through unmediated knowledge.
(Thank God that time has not come: I prefer to contain my own secrets.)
Augustine, to whom we owe the idea of “original sin”,
says “if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say”—
a feeling with which most poets are totally familiar.
Heaven, in Paradise Lost, is a place where all is open,
free from the possibility of any alteration;
I prefer reading of Satan’s journey through the abyss.
Under the gloss of religion the ancient furies retain their power,
and Paradise, Mohammed said, lies in the shadow of swords.
I read an account of a beaver confronted with a recording
of running water; the creature finding no leak in its dam
attempted at once to piaster the recording apparatus.
So with us and our language: sign, signal and symbol
must be a perceptible something which cannot be abstracted
from the framework of the world in which they acquire meaning.
“Only in the stream of life and thought do words have meaning.”
Suppose the original sin had been not disobedience
but cruelty. What then? What would Milton have written?
We learn to speak,unaware of the new symbolic dimension
that differentiates us from the other creatures on earth.
How can we understand ourselves without understanding
how language itself can lead us into wisdom or into folly?
The study of language is not like that of empirical science.
Without language there’d be no science or any theory whatever.
In the academic world there is nothing egalitarian—
mathematics and physics are great, sociology low on the ladder,
genetics more highly regarded, shall we say, than assertiveness training.
But it wasn’t the Poets’ Union that gave us atomic weapons.
The behaviourists say that between what a man hears and what he says
there is nothing at all. This comes of working with rats and pigeons.
“The hypothesis,” says Skinner, “that man is not free is essential
to the application of scientific method to human behaviour.”
Think of what Pavlov achieved in developing Soviet science:
he taught dogs to get things wrong, to slaver when food was absent;
it did everyone good to know that dogs can be deceived.
To Homer again, to Odysseus returning to his own kingdom:
he comes to the swineherd’s homestead; four fierce and powerful dogs
trained by the swineherd’s master hand fly to attack him.
Odysseus has the presence of mind to sit down and drop his staff;
the swineherd sends them flying with shouts and a shower of stones.
“Old man,” says the swineherd Eumaeus, that was a narrow escape.
The dogs would have made short work of you, and the blame would have
fallen on me”
Later, the two stand talking outside Odysseus’ palace.
Stretched on the ground in a dung-heap lies an old dog full of vermin;
Argus, Odysseus’ old dog, pricks his ears and raises his head.
Too weak to come nearer his master, he wags his tail and flattens
his ears. Odysseus brushes a tear away and listens
as the swineherd tells of the speed and power of the dog when he was young;
inside the palace, a banquet; outside, after nineteen years,
an old dog knows his master and succumbs to the hand of death.
Darwin said he could not bear the suffering of the creatures.
What we share with human beings is the same thing that we share
with all the other animals: the ability to feel pain.
Language is the basis of our consciousness and thought,
but, more than that, the basis of human civilisation;
it is the common idiom in which we think with others;
not in literature, nor scripture, but in ordinary speech
through intonation, gesture, tone, we share our daily lives.
This is what freedom truly means: that we can talk to others,
say without fear of punishment what we believe and feel,
resolve our human problems without violence or hatred.
The worst pain of all and the final humiliation,
the torturer’s evil hope, is a mind torn into pieces
so the broken body lives without a mind to comprehend it.
“Geworfenheit,” wrote Heidegger, an odd word meaning “thrownness.”
We are thrown into the world; we did not choose our parents,
nor had we power to choose our own historical epoch.
The nightingale that sang to Keats remains immortal;
it is art that stays to sing to passing generations,
and human hearts find confidence in archetypal songsters.
Anxiety is simply a part of our existence.
Socrates called philosophy a meditation on death.
Heidegger’s greatest wonder was “that there are things in being.”
So let us look at the living world with a kind of Socratic pleasure:
discover again and again the need for a calm and merciful vision
of what has been, and what is now, and what might be in the future;
and fight, if we must fight, for truth “and stand among the foremost
fighters, and endure our share of the blaze of battle.”
The Tasmanian Peace Trust
The Tasmanian Peace Trust was established in 1986 to provide funds for seeding peace making activities initiated by individuals and community groups. It is a non-political legally constituted body operating under a Deed of Trust and working to raise funds from the public by way of donations and interest-free loans.
Twice a year the Trust invites groups and individuals to submit peace projects for support from the interest generated from these Trust funds.
The Trust’s ability to support projects is limited by the amount of money available from interest on the capital fund held by it The Trust now seeks to build its capital fund so that it can increase the level of support for individual and community group peace initiatives. Offers of help should be addressed to the
Tasmanian Peace Trust.
G.P.O. Box 430E
Gwen Harwood was born in Brisbane in 1920. She came to Tasmania in 1945 and his lived here ever since. Her four children attended The Friends’ School. In 1989 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her services to literature.
Published by The Tasmanian Peace Trust, Hobart
Printed and bound using recycled paper by:
Tasmanian Association of Disabled Persons Abilities Centre,
112 Grove Road, Glenorchy.