restricted access November 4: In Vain (Lycidas)

From: November

Indiana University Press colophon
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[ ∂∞ ] n o v e m b e r 4 In Vain (Lycidas) For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime. —John Milton, November 1637 November was a month of anniversaries for Lincoln, none of them particularly cheerful. He won both his presidential elections in Novembers . He delivered the Address. And, on November 4, 1842, he had gotten married. Dressing himself in unwonted fine clothing just before the wedding , which had not been publicized, Lincoln was asked by his landlord’s son, Where are you going? ‘‘To hell, I suppose,’’ Lincoln answered. Twenty-one years later, November 4, 1863, was moving day for the Lincolns: they moved back into the White House. During the warm months—the airless, muggy, unhealthy summer—President Lincoln and his family lived in the Soldiers’ Home, out of the central city. Washington City in those days was generally looked upon as a dirty jumble of government buildings, hovels, and brothels: pigs running in the ruts of tra≈c; soldiers and politicians roiling about the streets—a pleasant place compared to today, but uncomfortable in summer. Each day for half that year, President Abraham Lincoln had gone back to the Soldiers’ Home in the evening, sometimes late at night. (Judging by yesterday’s note to Seward, he had not gone home before midnight on the second.) Lincoln now moved with a small cavalry escort to and from the Soldiers’ Home. Riding n o v e m b e r 4 [ ∂≤ ] alone, he had been shot at more than once, on one occasion having a bullet hole in his hat to show for it. The picture almost would be amusing: the ungainly man in tall hat, stirrups comically low to the ground, shot at and suddenly galloping o√ holding the hat—except the bullet hole was so close to the site of the actual assassination wound. Walt Whitman would see the president on these escorted rides, regularly enough that eventually each man would acknowledge the other with a nod of the head. The poet observed that no photograph could ever capture the mobility and the deep, canny expression of Lincoln’s mysterious face. The rides ended for a few months this day. Except for the nineteen loads of furniture ferried into the White House—probably to Mr. Lincoln ’s embarrassment, if he stayed around to watch—it was an uneventful day, perhaps an opportunity to brood over the speech—a day like the previous, which he had described to Seward as ‘‘nothing new,’’ in which it was ‘‘all quiet’’ on all fronts. One reads those phrases with a thrill of foreboding today. They have become bitterly ironic. A tall man in black, sad and anxious, moves into the house of his mortality, while the fatal combinations twitch into place. In Washington the phrase ‘‘all quiet’’ already carried an ironic undertone. A sentimental, tragic song enlisted a common headline of the early phase of the war—‘‘All Quiet Along the Potomac: A Picket Shot’’—to lament the death of a lone soldier, ‘‘moaning out all alone the death rattle.’’ Both phrases Lincoln wrote in his note to Seward would be used for an even more horrible war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was titled in the original German Im Westen Nichts Neues (In the West, Nothing New). It was that war, World War I, which riddled the body of modernism, and blasted away the hopes of our fathers’ world, preparing the way for the Second World War’s devastation. Like the orphans who are here twenty-five years after leaving Vietnam , the people of the Western World are still groping the unfamiliar landscape of the post–World War I world. And just as Vietnam a√ected one generation—eroded its trust in government and reverence for traditional ideas—so the Great War has a√ected us all personally, whether we know it or not. If we have lost confidence in the human race, its institutions , and its reason; if we have little reverence for the ideas and ideals of three thousand years of Western civilization—it is in part because the First World War stunned the world of our grandmothers and grandfathers. It happened to the Europeans initially, of course, but the e√ects increasingly filtered into American thought during the twentieth century. Anyone who teaches the poetry of Wilfred Owen to students of British literature maunders in a no-man’s land between instruction and la- i n va i n ( l...


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