The Wind Is Rising
WATCHING the flood from his Ark, and seeing no break in the sky, Noah must have doubted that anchorage would be left on earth after this upset, and sighed.
Talk of trying a dove! No more an oasis, never again reason at ease under the palms!
In England now it is easy to understand his feelings. You can imagine our prospect. It was Noah’s. Havoc in full flood, traditional landmarks foundered, more of them nearly under, and no break in the weather. This very night, while recording that touch of nostalgia, there was an interruption; call it a blast against my shelter to remind me that chaos was without. Somebody remarked, ‘Here comes another.’ We judged the throbbing of an enemy bomber increase till the noise sounded loud overhead. It diminished. That one was past. We ventured out to read the news in the sky. Some of us will recall the splendor of Jupiter, these nights of war, with Saturn just under him. There they were, rising together, alone of the host of heaven, in a cloud opening. Elsewhere flares were floating down obliquely from the raiders, dissolving brief areas of night. The keels of low clouds were discovered in pitchiness to the south by livid gun flashes. We felt a jolt — and two more; they shook the ground. Somebody had caught it. (Do you wonder we are uneasy when opening telegrams and letters?) We could see, in fact, no sign of a break in desolation; and I went inside again to do more of this paper, if allowed.
All our nights are like that. What can we tell you of the way our world is going, when Vesper for us may be mistaken at first glance, on a calm evening, for one of the threats of battle, or a stray spark, showing hell’s lid is off, may be overlooked as a fixed star? One can rarely be sure. All one can do is to ignore, as well as possible, the common ugly omens, trust to luck, and go on with a task in hand. Morning is sure to come, for the majority of us.
There remains another certainty. It is the most important fact of all, but intangible. It is difficult to verify in any particular, and its outcome is unknown. Pervading this universal disaster are the human will and mind. It is not without cause that Hitler’s secret police infest most of Europe’s councils, churches, factories, and workshops, and that their ears attend to the talk in Germany’s army and in her schools. For man’s restless and inquisitive spirit, which made him what he is, has been known to be dangerous by rulers throughout history. The light of the mind has never been extinguished by any device of government, and never will be. Every trick for putting it out has been tried, and long before Herod slaughtered the innocents to make sure of cutting out the potential threat to his rule in one child unknown. Behind the show of the war, its dead in the foreground, its histrionics, and its breathless crises, is the silent wonder of nobody in particular, and everybody in general — a host of anonymous and speculative eyes. They are trying to see what good is in it, for them; whether good can be there at all, since benefits are forbidden, such as leisure and a garden, while orders for the destruction of home and hope must be obeyed; whether there is anything in the dread that society is moonstruck, and is busily and solemnly rending the sanctions for its continuance.
Rumors of these doubts in the populace have been familiar to the high and mighty since Moses — a rumbling in the distance heard by a man having power over many, which he may ignore for a time, superior as he is to the muttering of the low multitude in the back country of his governance. Yet these questions, arising from man’s irrepressible curiosity, at last become articulate and loud. We may hear a voice presently in a volume to overpower the guns. A cannon without a crew behind it is useless; moreover, a cannon can point in any direction. For, though a great man of destiny chooses his path to greater triumphs, yet he never knows where his choice will bring him out, because — so we are told — ‘ God directeth his steps.’ However that may be, — you may phrase the matter as you please, — his path never yet has led to what pride in its power had ordained. From out of the unseen, somewhere and somehow, another ordination works, and his path comes to a rum end. As life and mystery are one, and always will be, it seems to me better in every way to assume that human existence is purposive, and not the survival, so far, of industrious but aimless polyps. Some people, perhaps most simple folk, will always find the idea repugnant that love and pity are but chance issues of the blood, and, like disease and old bones, must pass to the discard, without increase. I say those simple folk are everlastingly right. If they are wrong, then whatever we may feel because Hitler buried Rotterdam’s unsuspecting folk under their own bricks and coping stones one summer’s day, and set fire to the mass so that the flames and stench should terrify others, yet the nature of his act would be no better and no worse than Herod’s with the other innocents — no different in nature from storms which flatten harvests. We are not going to have that; for if we accepted it, then not only would democracy be dead, but it would be better dead, because idiotic. But man in adversity will continue to declare, ‘Though the gods be against me, I will rise superior to the gods. Because it is better to be a glorious fool, whose high hope is ridiculous under the purposeless stars, than as the swine.’
In the meantime, most Londoners have not slept in their beds since August last. Many of them have lost home and bed. They snatch food and baths between warnings. And that is only the capital; there are other cities. I would not raise jealousy between British communities over the comparative intensity of their woes. For instance, how would you like to reside in the pleasant town of Dover? It is now called Hell Fire Corner. Bristol, which had an association with Maryland before Washington was born, has been cruelly used; and Southampton, from which the Mayflower sailed; Liverpool; Birmingham. The burial of the dead after one raid by night on Coventry occupied much of a week, and incidentally that city lost its cathedral, an exquisite example of a Gothic that was England’s own, the Perpendicular. A Nazi in his teens roving the night, not sure of his whereabouts but anxious to drop his load and get home, who knows nothing of history before 1933 and cares nothing, and nothing of the spirit except Hitler’s, and wants to know no more, blasts to dust the best the centuries have given us.
You in America must allow us some latitude. The news of the day is apt to confuse our philosophy, and give it considerable heat. Mussolini — for another fact we must look at — has proclaimed that his flying Fascists have been bombing London, though we know his little lot was shot down before it reached our coast. Still, his words raise another problem for us. Bomb Rome?
What, bomb the Holy City? Well, is not Athens with its Acropolis older than Rome, and holier, too, for some people? Mussolini has dropped bombs into Athens, and elsewhere in Attica, in Phocis, and Arcadia. Do you know Patras of Achaia? It gives you its own wine, after your first sight of Ithaca, before you continue up the Gulf of Corinth to Delphi and Mount Helicon. Mussolini blew holes in it before its people were aware he was at war with them. What had they done to him? Nothing whatever, being feeble. For that matter, he is the man for any murder, should he guess it might profit him. He declared war on us from Rome, though the British Premier and Lord Halifax together went to pay him their misdirected respects only six months before Hitler began to kill off the Poles. He declared war on us, and not we on him, and his periods would swell into a pæan if he heard that London was cinders, though he knows the British hated the idea of striking at Italy. We always have had a tender feeling for Italy and its people; and in war a tender regard for an enemy is hampering, and a help to your destruction.
Just here, since Rome and Athens come into it, let us note another fact, a most strange and oppressive fact. You have heard, of course, that the Italian battle fleet was sought at its moorings, and sunk by a winged weapon not yet in full plumage? And warships, we know, can protect themselves. The meaning of this is that man’s best efforts, from the Parthenon to St. Peter’s at Rome and Canterbury’s towers, as well as the Capitol in Washington, and all they stand for, are at the mercy today of that latest piece of human ingenuity, the aeroplane; and anarchists are about, able to fly anywhere. Had we not better give thought to it, and soon? That important question is but one of many which arise as you listen at night to the throbbing of a German bomber on his way, aware, as in your good fortune you hear him farther off, that there are others, your neighbors, alive that moment but anxious, who will see no morning sun.
Many riddles beset you, during the night watch in London and elsewhere. All the hours of the dark are yours for a watch — plenty of time for wondering. You in America are distressed by the reports of continuous battle and its ruin of good. But do you quite realize that so long after the founding of Athens, Rome, Massilia, Cadiz, Cordova, and Paris, — and of hundreds of communities which grew in pleasant places and formed the first schools of philosophy, medicine, and law and guilds of craftsmen, — it has come about that a recent clever device, the explosive engine, has loosed the bonds of their civility, which we had supposed had taken on the nature of the perpetual hills? All is adrift again. Noah’s flood was nothing to it. One marvelous piece of mechanism has turned the peoples of Europe into nomads once more. That engine may be good; but the devil, or a power of his kind, is driving it.
Europe goes back past all its achievements to the dread and vagrancy of the sixth century, when law had gone and the predatory tribes were overflowing; I won’t say back to the Stone Age, for it seems that in those days a man had a fair chance of raising annual corn for a family without molestation. Anyhow, those early peoples knew of nothing better, and we do. We are weary of this blasting never-ending tramp of armed ignorance, especially as now its bayonets assist, by Hitler’s orders, the migration of millions of people from one region to another, serfs in his new order. Amity showed itself when men first came together to experiment with the crafts, and at last made the cathedral of Chartres, as a sign; but now the conquering engines are parked about Chartres. Its citizens have strayed; nobody knows where they are. To have known morning light, and the form of what was good, and then to sit as now we must in night absolute, when nothing is sure except that two thousand years of building up are coming down, needs a stout heart for keeping alight a private lamp, in case it may be wanted.
We are back in the wilderness. That is the truth in this affair. We are back in the wilderness; and whether for forty years, or less, or forever, depends more on what America thinks and does than perhaps America cares to acknowledge. Instinctively we turn from the regard of a truth which not only astounds but challenges all our desires and our preconceptions of reality. Can the reality be dissolution? We had better be frank about it. It can be. These days have been called glorious. Glorious they are when, dreading that the worst will happen, one has seen in the sky some of the few thousand young men going east to halt the oncoming horde of destroyers, winged this time — and they did halt them. There has been nothing like it since Thermopylæ We have now, thanks to them, another chance. But the days are not glorious. The captain of the armed merchantman Jervis Bay, when his convoy is attacked by a battleship, stands♦ towards it and holds it off, that his charges may get clear; but his ship goes down, her guns still firing while her gunners work in water. We have such men. Nevertheless, the days are not glorious. They are evil. They cruelly expose human folly, ignorance, wickedness, and ineptitude, and treachery where the trusting multitudes never expected to see it.
There is a legend which relates that once upon a time a strange star appeared over a hamlet of no importance, and some watchers, no more worthy of notice than shepherds, heard a word or two out of nothing, telling them not to fear, for this bright visitation meant, to men of good will, peace on earth. We need not believe this unless we want to, but whether or not shepherds ever saw a star without a name, and heard a message of peace unfamiliar to the lowly, it is certain there was a babe about then, for later a man appeared who threw a light entirely new on the laws and the prophets. His astonished listeners most likely misunderstood him often enough; adoration is liable to err; mistakes were sure to happen with the teaching of one whose mind moved in a dimension outside common experience. But the spirit of his way of life is as verifiable as sunlight. It can be rejected, and it is, by nations insisting on their sovereign rights, and by all systems of politics and economics officially sanctioned, for it does nothing to justify authority in the control of our goings and comings. Yet, because that ancient story has solaced men of all sorts and conditions with the hope of a fuller life, it has been established by at least the decoration of the arts and the solemnity of a variety of ritual. For twenty centuries it has been a promise of gladness in a better way of living.
Is that hope of fellowship to be put out, the last gleam? Yes, even that, which is all we have now. We hear that the Hollanders, as one of war’s jokes in uniform, had to submit their Christmas cards to Dr. Goebbels’s officers. Why has that robin got a red breast? What does that mistletoe mean? We had better laugh where we can, because there is nothing funny in the news — except to men of ill will — that Christian priests are under duress in most of Europe; their prayers have to satisfy the police as well as God. As you may remark, they are getting only what they deserve, since they have always provided another crucifixion whenever secular authority desired to assert rights superior to an accepted moral order. So they have, yet the altar has kept an original validity, and before it men have given homage to a thought above good and evil. If the Church has been dark and empty, there could be a candle in the sanctuary for anyone who chose to light it.
That is where we are. Though warfare can be Christian no more than black can be white, this war is the first among Europeans in which the aggressor has avowed his purpose to subvert the moral sense on which our law rests. A new gospel is to be forced on us. Saint John’s, we must suppose, is useless, in an age of motor spirit. Troubled mankind throughout the ages has looked for a Messiah with an evangel, and the strangest of these apparitions takes our eyes. No celestial portent marked this advent. No angelic choir touched harps of gold above man at war with man to herald peace on earth. Nothing like that. There was no star, but a meteor — a dive bomber. No manger in a stable, with tranquil creatures about, sure that all was well; a thundering armored car instead, and a furious redeemer, behind him the smoke and flames of the cities through which he had passed. There can be no question of his nature; he gives no blessing, but shouts, ‘War is the most natural, the most everyday matter. War is eternal. War is life.’ He has not come to fulfill, but to destroy.
A respected English critic of letters, who is a Churchman and a man of peace, recently declared bitterly that only old men would call this a war against Antichrist; he was sure no young man would call it that. So am I. Young people — and it is one of their virtues — are embarrassed by the grandiose, which is bald, usually. None but fools who have disregarded the obvious trend in the past twenty years of the world’s affairs would give this war such a name. Still, would our critic call the acts of the Nazis the acts of the apostles? Are they proJesus? War is an obscene outrage on the mind; we have long known that. But this new evangel would establish the outrage, our earth to be a pasture of hate burning — Erebus for Helicon.
Hitler was implored by many peaceful men having authority not to begin bloodshed, for we had learned what that meant, and not so long ago; he himself had seen it. Let us reason together! But the path he had prescribed for Germany was not in reason; only tanks could make it. He had to be deaf to appeal. Yet his guns, he promised, would not fire if we submitted to him and gave up our arms, while he kept his. As only German rights existed, there was nothing for reason to do. But the sons of Adam never remove their fences and landmarks, and part with the things they have made, if they think there is a chance of keeping them; and when, beyond their goods and chattels, they are told that their souls are of no importance and must be of a uniform caste, like dirt, from now on, then many of them prefer death to death-in-life. We dare not be Miltonic and speak of Antichrist; we only know sorrowfully that the innocents are dying while their fathers are in bonds. Nevertheless, it does happen that young men must be either martyrs or soldiers. They have no other choice. Though how we should love to see the sky as it used to be, its horror gone!
When will it go? Will the defeat of Hitler bring out the sun, and all be well again? You ponder that, as the night passes. The resources of civilization already are scattered. Even health services must be extemporized in ancient cities for emergencies amid wreckage. Peril does not end with the explosions. Doctors are fearful, now that unaccustomed humanity is exposed to the raw elements in a continuous extension of corruption. Children must do without schools, and students without libraries. One famous London school and its library, well known to American scholars because it is unique, have been closed; that this library is a universal repository of all the evidence the social sciences possess is significant. Its librarian, who sleeps in a near-by cellar while supervising the wide dispersal for safety of his precious collection, that accumulation of many years of research and patient ordering, looked sternly at me while displaying the vacancy where knowledge used to be systematically arrayed. He made no sage comment, though he is a doctor of letters, versed in the humanities. All he said was, ‘Blast Hitler.’
Our blackout is haunted by many doubts, problems, questions, angers, and desires. Though the lights are dim or out in Europe, verities of the spirit remain. For that reason you may find any evidence you look for, because the actualities of war, even victory, can be as deceptive in their outcome as the waywardness of the minds which dictate ways and means or resist them. Movements of armies, invasions by aeroplanes, excursions of dictators and diplomats, give shape to strategy, yet the shape is only provisional. There can be no finality in material conquest while the moods of men and women are changeable. Cities are ruined, universities shut, fruitful industry has ceased, factories are ash and rubble, and transport is disrupted; there is consternation when a weight of armed men appears suddenly in another region; harvests rot because the hands to gather them are absent, people sicken in an area that has been harassed too much; oil stores burn, tonnage sinks, money is spent; and over devastation, far in the background, loom the spectres of famine and revolt.
A communist turns to me, as the talk goes on, and remarks that the war should be stopped and a revolution begun. One does not answer that. It does not seem helpful to plan a new life as a sequel to suicide. Another man, a pacifist, shocked by the massacre, is for peace, no matter how it come; only peace. One can see no hope there. We know sadly what the Nazis have done to others, after an assurance of peace. Young Czechs are still being shot for remembering their dead. The Hollanders and the Belgians were promised peace, and awoke one morning to find all their movables pouring in wreckage to the sea. Their lands had been upended. We have been told that wrong is what harms Germany, and that right is anything to her advantage. So where is peace? We should rejoice to hear of its whereabouts; and, when for a spell the night is not shaken by the guns, in the silence we feel we would give anything to know we should never hear that sound again. But what must we give for peace? We do not know, and cannot learn. Hitler’s armored divisions, meanwhile, are somewhere near the ports they won on the North Sea and the English Channel. They have said nothing of peace in the war they began.
Londoners groping to their duties in a blackout, or working desperately by the glare of buildings alight, correcting tangles of tram cables, telephone wires, and fire hose, perched aloft patching the roof of a gasometer which has an unexploded bomb in its belly, stopping the floods of broken water mains while the blasts continue, entering a furnace in the hope of saving people entrapped, — and worse tasks, better not described, — these men know there can be no recompense. They are but salving the remains of a world which has passed — something with which to start another. Mothers awake at night in a subterranean corridor, watching their children uneasy on concrete, whose fathers are in the army or afloat, or above somewhere putting out flames, would like to be told not only when they can begin life anew, but how and where. Nobody can tell them. They are not aware, not yet, that the sanctions which kept a continent in being are broken and gone; and that to establish populations on the land again and in the factories, willing to work, other sanctions must be discovered on which to base a social life which the poisons of ambition, envy, pride, privilege, and injustice cannot corrupt. Where there is inequity there is no fellowship; and fellowship is life, and lack of it is death. We are coming down to first things. This wreckage some day will be cleared, and we will begin anew.
For there will be Renaissance. The knowledge of what we ought to do is at hand, and the spirit which must breathe life into it is the sense of comradeship in a common cause. The wind is rising. This war is itself a revolt against mechanicalism and the regimentation it exacts. Men hate it, in their hearts. It was the dominant machines that fashioned the kind of world in which Hitler’s growth into a universal nightmare was as likely as the plague where there are rats. Let us not waste time searching for the blameworthy. We and our ordinary goings-on must bear our share of the blame. Hitler brought about the succession of deafening crises out of which the war came, but he was no more a matter of chance than seedtime and harvest. There was the grain, and nurturing, and now we have the crop. The origins of this war survived the last shot of 1918. All Europe kept to its old opinions and devices. So did America. Our political, economic, and social histories from 1918 will hardly bear scrutiny by a sensitive student. And the world is never better than the expression of its common impulsions. We have no mystery to contemplate. As we are, so are our cities, and our prospects. There can be nothing better about us till we have the light and the will to shape a reality more comely under the sun.
The immutable laws, which govern the stars, work independent of our clever policies and aims. We may attempt, as we have attempted in the past, to outwit them by subtle play; but the consequence of falsities is as inevitable as disease out of dirt. The Galaxy has to obey, and attempts by men to escape from the same control must end in calamity. If we discover ways to harness elemental powers, and then use those released new forces for profit, outside a moral order, we shall suffer the fate of Prometheus. That is why Western civilization is in anguish now. We shall continue to suffer, and to suffer after this war which has us in chains, unless our experience teaches us the right use of knowledge and the need of communion. A fairer time will be at hand, as certainly, when we want it seriously enough to work and pray for it in humility and understanding.
How remarkable it is, the help of the poets, when there is no other help! Cities are in ruins, and the abominable threatens us, but the word is still with us, as it was in the beginning. Poetry, we are told, is for solace. It is only a way of escape. It is aside from life’s realities. This nonsense is still repeated, though the truth is that when a civilization goes the way of all flesh its energy survives in its books, art, science, and architecture. If men would but look there, and cease to despair because what was false in society has come to its own, they would know what is possible in the variety of life’s great adventure. We see what could be made of our earth, if we willed it. I turned to Traherne the other night, while the sounds of reality were those of Tophet. Our policies and our economics will never come to anything but what they deserve. We see now what that is. Listening to the bombers and the guns, I was wondering where to find the right way of escape. Traherne told me: ‘You will never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error.’ It looks as if we should have to believe something in earnest, at last.