Recently, I read an essay by James M. Barrie called ‘Courage’. It’s not an essay so much as the transcript of a speech Barrie delivered to the ‘red gowns of St Andrews’* on May 3, 1922.
The speech was given on the occasion of the students’ graduation. The year when the speech was given is significant in terms of understanding it – this is the shallow historical dip between two world wars. A kind of historical curtsey. And Barrie is more than aware of both the horrors of the war that has ended, and the threat of another to come.
My own theme is Courage, as you should use it in the great fight that
seems to me to be coming between youth and their betters; by youth,
meaning, of course, you, and by your betters us. I want you to take
up this position: That youth have for too long left exclusively in
our hands the decisions in national matters that are more vital to
them than to us. Things about the next war, for instance, and why
the last one ever had a beginning.
But I’m forgetting why I wanted to write about Barrie’s essay. What I wanted to remark and remember. Two main things.
One is the extraordinary connections between unlikely folk. And the idea of silence. Did you know that J M Barrie and Captain Robert Scott were pen-pals? Friends? And that one of the last things that Captain Scott wrote was a letter – perhaps unfinished – to the author of Peter Pan? I certainly didn’t, until now. Barrie reads a small section for this letter, as a demonstration of courage. In introducing the letter he writes:
The writing is in pencil, still quite clear, though toward the end some of the words trail away
as into the great silence that was waiting for them.
The great silence. This is how we often think of the Antarctic. And of death. You rarely hear of a chattering death. Of a great clamour of voices. Death is, instead, that great silence into which Scott and his companions are remembered as having passed with courage, and dignity. Not all of us pass so easily. And sometimes death’s silence creeps its cold fingers backwards into life. Stealing stories. Stealing sentences. Stealing words from the mouths of those who stand in her portal. Many elderly people lose their memories (and many not so old); death’s silence rudely interrupts their lives. Laying down swathes of forgetfulness.
When I think of Scott I remember the strange Alpine story of the youth who fell down a glacier and was lost, and of how a scientific companion, one of several who accompanied him, all young, computed that the body would again appear at a certain date and place many years afterwards. When that time came round some of the survivors returned to the glacier to see if the prediction would be fulfilled; all old men now; and the body reappeared as young as on the day he left them. So Scott and his comrades emerge out of the white immensities, always young.
Barrie goes on after this anecdote to talk about beauty. The way it illuminates and separates those who recognise it, and value it. Those who seek it, forgetting themselves and the world around them. Perhaps Barrie thinks of himself, the dour writer, as one of those who seeks beauty and ‘forgets’ to stay in the world. Who enters into the great silence willingly, and swims up through the ice, decades later, still silent. Preserved. Barrie’s image of lost heroic youth seems unkissed Snow White than Peter Pan to me, however. More Rip van Winkle. I imagine those old men who stood on the glacier and peered down at their silent friend’s preserved youth. I can’t help thinking that their courage is overlooked in this anecdote. That the anecdote verges a little too close to that old cliche about the glories of living fast and dying young. The young death as saintly, admirable, glorious. What about those old men? Those survivors? What about all the years of roaring life they must have lived. Wives and children, work and walking, thinking, talking, singing. They did not stay forever young. They are not preserved in pretty silence. Thank god, I hope they thought. Thank god I got to live my life. And am living it still.
Ok – what else. I’m working out of sync, but this is a blog, after all, not an ordered essay 🙂 Barrie introduces his speech with an analogy about roses in December. He writes:
You have had many rectors here in St. Andrews who will continue in bloom long after the lowly ones such as I am are dead and rotten and forgotten. They are the roses in December; you remember someone said that God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.
Here, again, there is some gesture towards romanticising the youthful bloom. The fragile and temporary nature of beauty. And of remembrance. Perhaps this is natural in a speech haunted by the spectre of war. And of the war dead. The dead soldiers we remember are often young: we mourn for them not just because they are dead, but because they are the dead and maimed potential of a nation. They are the never-realised early bloom of possibility. The young, who will never grow old. Iconically (though not always, or even mostly, in fact) they are sons, rather than fathers or grandfathers. Brothers rather than husbands. Boys, and not men.
So, for me, roses in December, read in the context of this speech, are a terribly sad image. And today, as I walked the streets of Amsterdam, I saw some roses in December. Frozen flowers, clustered in buckets in the bloemgracht. Red roses in the white snow. Red roses reminding me of the red gowns of those young men of Saint Andrews. White snow reminding me of the glacier where that unnamed boy died, and of the Antarctic where Scott huddled with his men writing that last letter to his friend.
Red roses with crisp, frozen petals. Flowers that are so frozen that they have no scent. Stems so stiff that if you clutch them too quickly they will snap rather than bend.
* The red gowns of Saint Andrews is a synonym for the students that study there, particularly those enrolled in the Arts, Sciences, and Medicine Faculties. In 1672, red gowns were introduced as a way to quickly identify students so that they could be kept out of the local taverns. Over time, the red gowns became more affectionately associated with freshman at this old Scottish University.