May 30th, 2011
The first Decoration Day (the original name of our modern Memorial Day holiday) was held in May of 1868, to commemorate those who gave their lives in service during the Civil War. It was a day for laying flowers and wreaths on the graves and monuments that represent our fallen warriors.
Despite an existing 19th century-precedent, the New York Nineteenth Century Society — of which I am a co-founder — decided to celebrate Memorial Day with a salute to Lord Byron. I can’t explain it, I know it makes no sense, but there it is. So we organized an excursion via railroad to Wave Hill, a botanic garden in Riverdale on the Hudson River. We called our gathering “Hours of Idleness: A Neoclassical Picnic.”
The company was motley and merry, some traveling by train, others by car, none by ferry boat. After a jolly picnic in the appointed area, we strolled about in smaller groups, equipped with some of the shorter poems from Byron’s Hours of Idleness, though I’m not sure how many bothered to read them — the views of the Hudson being all engrossing. When the heat became too much for us, we gathered on a shady lawn to loll about a while. That’s where I painted this atrocious watercolor.
I have lately begun to revolt against the constant use of digital cameras. It’s all too easy to let the documentation of a good time take over the very thing it is trying to record. So I brought my watercolors along instead. Of course, I am still grateful to the photographers — particularly since I would have other way of showing you my completed Empire dress. But that is for another post.
Until then, Happy Memorial Day, and deepest thanks to all who have served our country so bravely over the past century and a half.
Lines, Written Beneath an Elm…
By Lord Byron
Spot of my youth! whose hoary branches sigh,
Swept by the breeze that fans thy cloudless sky,
Where now alone, I muse, who oft have trod,
With those I loved, thy soft and verdant sod;
With those, who scatter ‘d far, perchance, deplore
Like me, the happy scenes they knew before;
Oh ! as I trace again thy winding hill,
Mine eyes admire, my heart adores thee still,
Thou droopi ng Elm ! beneath whose boughs I lay,
And frequent mused the twilight hours away;
Where as they once were wont, my limbs recline,
But, ah! without the thoughts which then were mine:
How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,
Invite the bosom to recall the past,
And seem to whisper as they gently swell,
“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”
When fate shall chill, at length, this fever’d breast
And calm its cares and passions into rest,
Oft have I thought ‘twould soothe my dying hour,
If aught may soothe, when Life resigns her power;
To know some Humbler grave, some narrow cell,
Would hide my bosom where it loved to dwell,
With this fond dream methinks ‘twere sweet to die,
And here it linger’d, here my heart might lie,
Here.might I sleep where all my hopes arose,
Scene of my youth, and couch of my repose:
For ever stretch’d beneath this mantling shade,
Prest by the turf where once my childhood play’d;
Wrapt by the soil that veils the spot I loved,
Mix’d with the earth o’er which my footsteps moved;
Blest by the tongues that charm’d my youthful ear,
Mourn’d by the few my soul acknowledged here,
Deplored by those, in early days allied,
And unremember’d by the world beside.
May 13th, 2011
When, to their airy hall, my father’s voice
Shall call my spirit, joyful in their choice;
When, poised upon the gale, my form shall ride,
Or, dark in mist, descend the mountains side;
Oh! may my shade behold no sculptured urns,
To mark the spot where earth to earth returns!
No lengthen’d scroll, no praise-encumber’d stone;
My epitaph shall be my name alone:
If that with honour fail to crown my clay,
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay!
That, only that, shall single out the spot;
By that remember’d, or with that forgot.
One of my favorite verses, from Byron’s compendium of verse Hours of Idleness, published in 1807. Clearly Byron achieved his goal, but perhaps not in quite the way he anticipated. I am reminded of this passage from Washington Irving’s essay on Westminster Abbey:
And yet it almost provokes a smile at the vanity of human ambition, to see how they are crowded together and jostled in the dust; what parsimony is observed in doling out a scanty nook, a gloomy corner, a little portion of earth, to those, whom, when alive, kingdoms could not satisfy; and how many shapes, and forms, and artifices are devised to catch the casual notice of the passenger, and save from forgetfulness, for a few short years, a name which once aspired to occupy ages of the world’s thought and admiration.
I passed some time in Poet’s Corner, which occupies an end of one of the transepts or cross aisles of the abbey. The monuments are generally simple; for the lives of literary men afford no striking themes for the sculptor. Shakspeare and Addison have statues erected to their memories; but the greater part have busts, medallions, and sometimes mere inscriptions. Notwithstanding the simplicity of these memorials, I have always observed that the visitors to the abbey remained longest about them. A kinder and fonder feeling takes place of that cold curiosity or vague admiration with which they gaze on the splendid monuments of the great and the heroic. They linger about these as about the tombs of friends and companions; for indeed there is something of companionship between the author and the reader. Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure; but the intercourse between the author and his fellow-men is ever new, active, and immediate. He has lived for them more than for himself; he has sacrificed surrounding enjoyments, and shut himself up from the delights of social life, that he might the more intimately commune with distant minds and distant ages. Well may the world cherish his renown; for it has been purchased, not by deeds of violence and blood, but by the diligent dispensation of pleasure. Well may posterity be grateful to his memory; for he has left it an inheritance, not of empty names and sounding actions, but whole treasures of wisdom, bright gems of thought, and golden veins of language.