by William H. Benson
March 27, 2003
“When April with his showers hath pierced the drought
Of March with sweetness to the very root,
And flooded every vein with liquid power
That of its strength engendereth the flower.”
With those four lines of English words Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century began his Canterbury Tales of thirty pilgrims travelling together and telling the stories of their lives.
From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens to Emerson to Thoreau to Dickinson to Twain and to Robert Frost. Dramatists, novelists, essayists, humorists, and poets–they each loved words. They loved the English lanuguage, its syntax, its vocabulary, and its grammar, and each used it and then left it in a better condition than when they had found it.
English is “the treasure of our tongue” and has been transported around the globe. It has become the most widely spoken language in the history of humankind, the linguistic wonder of the modern world. Stephen Baker, an immigrant to America from Hungary, said, “No doubt English was invented in heaven. It may be the lingua franca of the angels. No other language is like it.”
So often in classrooms across the nation, about when March turns to April, the English instructors put aside their units on composition and short stories and novels and dust off their lessons on poetry. It is the season for poetry. Especially in the midsts of war, we do need a poet.
If Shakespeare is England’s national bard, then America’s is Robert Frost, born on March 26, 1875. He reached national prominence on a cool day in January of 1961 when he stood on the Capitol steps at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and read his poem, The Gift Outright:
“The land was ours before we were the lands. . . .
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war).”
And it was Robert Frost who wrote Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
On September 14, 2001 seated in the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. were our nation’s governing officials–President Bush and his family, his father and mother, and former President Clinton. On that day prayers were spoken, songs were sung, candles were lit, tears were shed, and decisions were made–promises to keep.
The columnist Mona Charen put it this way in her column last week. “The President declined to buckle to the conventional wisdom. . . . Bush stood his ground. . . . He understands the link between extending freedom and making the world safer for Americans. . . . He is pursuing a Pax Americana. . . . And then in the wake of victory, America will help to create the first democracy in the Arab world.”
It appears to me that President Bush made up his mind to go to war against the “faceless cowards” that day while seated in the National Cathedral, mourning the tragic loss of lives, and nothing since has dissuaded him from that decision. Promises to keep.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily asked the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute? And the Stage Manager replied, “The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.”
And Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “When we become tired of our saints, we can still turn to Shakespeare.” And we, as Americans, speakers of the English language, not only have Shakespeare and Chaucer to turn to, but we also have thinkers like Emerson and Robert Frost. As March gives way to April, we can hope that war will give way to peace.