13 July 2008

The Destruction of Sennacherib (George Gordon, Lord Byron)

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

11 July 2008

The Empty Pew (John Betjeman)

In the perspective of Eternity
The pain is nothing, now you go away
Above the steaming thatch how silver-grey
Our chiming church-tower, calling 'Come to me,

My Sunday-sleeping villagers!' And she,
Still half my life, now kneels with those who say
'Take courage, daughter. Never cease to pray
God's grace will break him of his heresy.'

I, present with our Church of England few
At the dear words of Consecration see
The chalice lifted, hear the sanctus chime
And glance across to that deserted pew.
In the Perspective of Eternity
The pain is nothing - but, ah God, in Time.

10 July 2008

from War and Peace, volume I, part III, chapter 8 (Leo Tolstoy, trans. Anthony Briggs)

The deathly stillness was broken only by the clip-clop of hooves. It was the Emperors and their suite. As the two monarchs rode up to one flank, the trumpets of the first cavalry regiment struck up a military march. The sound appeared not to come from the buglers but as a spontaneous burst of music from the army itself, delighted at the Emperors' arrival. Through the music only one voice could be heard clearly, the genial, youthful tones of Emperor Alexander. He gave a few words of greeing, and the first regiment roared out, 'Hurrah!' The sound was so deafening, so prolonged and ecstatic that the men themselves felt a great shock, realizing the strength and enormity of their mass.

Rostov was standing in the front ranks of Kutuzov's army, those which the Tsar approached first, and he was seized by the same feeling as every other soldier in the army, a feeling of utter self-forgetfulness, a proud sense of mighty power and a passionate devotion to the man who was the cause of this sensation of solemn triumph.

Feeling as he did that at a single word from this man the entire vast mass of them (including him, no more than a grain of sand) would go through fire and water, commit any crime, face death or fight on to glory, he could not suppress a shivering thrill at the immanency of that word.

'Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!' thundered on all sides, and one regiment after another greeted the Tsar with the strains of the march followed by another 'Hurrah!' ... then the music again, then more and more hurrahs surging louder and expanding until they merged into one solid, deafening roar.

Waiting for the Tsar, each regiment in its rigid silence seemed like a lifeless body. But once the Tsar reached them each regiment erupted in new life and further clamour, joining in unison with the general roar from all down the line where the Tsar had been. And to the dreadful sound of these shattering cheers, moving in and out among the great rectangles of massed troops standing rigidly to attention as if turned to stone, some hundreds of men rode about casually, freely, defying all symmetry. These were the officers in the royal suite, and ahead of them road two men, the Emperors, on whom the uncontainable passion of all that mass of men was focused.

It was Emperor Alexander, young and handsome in the uniform of the horse guards with a cocked hat, who attracted most of the attention because of his pleasant face and his soft rich voice.

Rostov was standing near the buglers, and with his keen eyes he spotted the Tsar a long way off and watched him approaching. When the Tsar was only twenty paces away and Nikolay could clearly see every detail of Alexander's handsome, young and happy face, he experienced a surge of emotion and ecstasy such as he had never known before. Everything about the Tsar - every feature, every movement - seemed to him utterly captivating.

Coming to a halt before the Pavlograd regiment, the Tsar said something in French to the Austrian Emperor and smiled. Seeing him smile, Rostov automatically began to smile himself and felt an even stronger spasm of love for his Emperor. He longed for some means of expressing his love for the Tsar. His eyes watered from knowing it was impossible. The Tsar called up the colonel of the regiment and said a few words to him.

'My God! What would I do if the Emperor spoke to me?' thought Rostov. 'I think I'd die of happiness.'

The Tsar addressed the officers, too.

'I thank you all, gentlemen,' he said, every word sounding to Rostov like music from heaven. 'I thank you from the bottom of my heart.'

Rostov would gladly have died then and there for his Emperor.

'You have won the colours of St. George and you will be worthy of them.'

'Oh, if only I could die for him, die for him!' thought Rostov.

The Tsar said something else that Rostov couldn't hear, and the men, lungs bursting, roared their hurrah.

Rostov, too, thrusting forward in his saddle, roared with all his might, willing to do himself an injury cheering, as long as he could give full voice to his zeal for the Tsar.

The Tsar stood for a few seconds facing the hussars as if wondering what to do next.

'How could the Emperor wonder what to do next?' Rostov asked himself, but then sure enough, even this hesitation seemed to him majestic and enchanting, like everything the Tsar did.

The Tsar's hesitation lasted only an instant. Then the royal foot in its fashionable narrow-pointed boot touched the belly of his bobtailed chestnut mare. The royal hand in its white glove gathered up the reins, and he moved off, accompanied by a sea of aides bobbing up and down. He moved further and further away, stopping at other regiments, until eventually all that Rostov could see of him through the suite surrounding the Emperors was the white plume of his cocked hat.

Among the gentlemen of the suite, Rostov noticed Bolkonsky, sitting in a slack, indolent pose. Rostov remembered yesterday's quarrel and again wondered whether or not to challenge him. 'Of course not,' Rostov reflected. 'How could anyone even think or talk about such things at a time like this? A time of such love, such bliss, such self-sacrifice, what do our insults and squabbles matter? This is a time when I love everybody and forgive everybody,' thought Rostov.

When the Tsar had inspected almost all the regiments, the troops began their march past, and Rostov, bringing up the rear on Bedouin, so recently bought from Denisov, was the last rider in his squadron, and completely exposed to the Tsar's view.

Still some distance away from him, Rostov, a first-class horseman, twice put his spurs to Bedouin, urging him into the frenzied, eye-catching trot which Bedouin always fell into when he was worked up. Bending his foaming nose down to his chest, arching his tail, virtually floating in mid-air without touching the ground, Bedouin seemed no less conscious of the Tsar's eye upon him as he lifted his legs in a graceful high action, trotting past in superb style.

Rostov himself drew his legs back and sucked his stomach in, very much at one with his horse, and rode past the Tsar with a frowning but ecstatic face, looking a 'wight devil', as Denisov would have said.

'Bravo, Pavlograds!' shouted the Tsar.

'My God! I'd be so happy if he ordered me to go through fire here and now,' thought Rostov.

When the review was over the officers of both groups, the reinforcements and Kutuzov's men, began to break down into little clusters. The talk was of honours won, the Austrians and their uniforms, their front line, Napoleon and the trouble in store for him one Essen's corps arrived and Prussia came in on our side. But the main topic of conversation in every circle was Emperor Alexander, his every word and gesture recalled with huge delight.

They were united in a single desire: under the Emperor's leadership to march on the enemy at the earliest opportunity. With the Emperor himself in command they could not fail to conquer any foe - this was the opinion of Rostov and most of the officers after the review. After the review they all felt more confident of victory than they would have done if they'd had a couple of victories behind them.

03 July 2008

from Peter Duck (Arthur Ransome)

book II, chapter 20, Blazed Trail

'Who blazed that tree?' said Titty.

'What tree? Where?' cried Captain Flint and a moment later was scrambling and slipping down over a slope of rock to a ragged pine-like tree, one of the forest's outposts on the mountainside, to look at a large scar where the rough bark had been sliced away.

'It wasn't a woodman did that,' said Captain Flint eagerly. 'He took two blows at it from above.'

Titty found herself wondering who it was who asked the executioner to sharpen his axe and cut boldly, when the clumsy fellow got nervous and took three blows to lop off a head of English chivalry or something like that. It was queer the way things came shooting into your mind just when you were really thinking of something quite different.

'It might be a ship's carpenter,' said Peter Duck, picking his way carefully down.

book II, chapter 32, Whose Steps in the Dark?

Nancy and John, pulling short, hard strokes, and lifting their oars well clear of the water between them, drove the Swallow shorewards. There was very much less swell than on that evening when he had sailed round here with Captain Flint, but there was still enough to break on the low reef outside Duckhaven. As they came nearer, John, when he glanced over his shoulder, could see the white splash of the spray over the rocks, and was glad to see it, because it gave him something to steer for. He was rowing with a bow oar and keeping time with Nancy. Now giving a harder pull or two, now easing a little, he was able to keep Swallow heading for the end of the reef. Nancy left the steering to John. She set herself only to pull as steady a stroke as she could, and did not allow herself even once to look over her shoulder.

'Is he there already?' she asked breathlessly, for they were putting all they could into their rowing.

'I can't see anybody,' John panted back.

They plugged on. Even for Nancy's lurid taste things had been happening too fast. Besides, it was all very well to be the Terror of the Seas, but real pirates, like Black Jake and his friends, were altogether different. Bullies. Cowards and bullies, five of them together going for an old man and a boy. Nancy clenched her teeth and dug in so hard with her oar that she all but made John get out of time with her. She did, indeed, feel his oar just touch her back.

'Sorry,' said John.

'My fault,' said Nancy.

They would have said just that if they had got out of time while rowing together on the lake at home. They said it now, though they were rowing in at dusk to an island of landslide and earthquake and half-mad pirates roaming about with stolen guns. Still, some things were the same as usual. Wherever you were you said 'Sorry' if you bumped 'stroke' in the back with the bow oar, and you said it was your fault if you had happened to change the time unexpectedly because you were thinking of something else.

They plugged on.