Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time
Last September during my trip to India I found myself in conversation with my aunt, a former principal and history teacher. We talked about our favorite periods in history (mine: colonial America and the Napoleonic era), and those moments of inspiration when everything clicked. There was also the discussion about current events, and how we can see glimpses of past actions in our current situations (with the nod to complexity).
We also discovered our mutual love for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–more specifically the Pslam of Life.
TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
The poem talks about living life to the fullest, that even though each life ended in death, our goal should not include blindly walking towards the end, without fully making our mark, without placing our footprints in the sand…
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again
She gave me a list of her other favorite poems (If, by Kipling; The Mountain and the Squirrel, Emerson; Wander-Thirst by Gould; Cargoes by Masefield; and a childhood love-the Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson), and with each one I was struck by the incredible imagery that invoked times past.
Like the poem Cargoes by John Masefield which talks of Stately Spanish galleon’s that drip through the tropics by the palm-green shores, and how it is juxtaposed with a Quinquirme of Nineveh from distant Ophir or the Dirty British coaster with a slat-caked smoke stack.
When we write about the past nothing expresses the feeling of the moment than a quotation from someone who was, well, in the moment–but poetry can capture another perspective. Often invoking high emotion it reveals how bystanders react to events around them–as in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Written in honor of a cavalry of British Forces during the Crimean War (1854-1856) that charged opposition forces had casualties of 247 out of 637. “The Noble Six Hundred” they were called–and to this day–their acts are memorialized in a poem read by students all across the world.
When can their glory fade?
O the wilde charge they made!
All the world wonder’d
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade
Noble six hundred
…and just because I love it so. Here is Wander-Thirst by Gerald Gould
Beyond the east the sunrise; Beyond the west the sea
And East and West the Wander-Thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness to bid me say goodbye,
For the seas call, and the stars call, and oh! The call of the sky!
I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But a man can have the sun for friend, and for his guide, a star;
And there’s no end to voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the rivers call, and the road calls, and oh! The call of a bird!
Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away
And come I may, but go I must, and if men ask you why,
You may put the blame on the stars and the sun,
And the white road and the sky.
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