The Waste of Our Ignorant Age

There was a time when American manhood stood up for law, order, liberty, tradition, the vigorous expansion of man’s power by scientific, technological, and agricultural innovation, the proliferation of classical and modern learning, the triumph of the arts in a characteristically American vein though building upon traditions more than 2,000 years old, and the deepening and purifying of religious faith in the souls of the people. 

We hear now that the great majority of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24—it is a mark of the madness and unseriousness of our times that the report I have read did not specify whether these were men only or men and women both—are unfit for military service. It is not clear to me what they or the rest of us are fit for, as we spend down our cultural heritage. I say it not in anger, but in urgency.

I have before me a birthday present, volume 43 of The Century Magazine, November 1891-April 1892, and I find the following poem, “Richard Henry Dana,” a pair of sonnets written by Darwin E. Ware, a close friend of Dana’s and fellow graduate of Harvard:

  O Spirit dauntless, whom no danger moved,
    Who loved the heaving vastness of the sea,
  With zest its threat of gale and tempest proved,
    And salty wastes found sweet with liberty;
  When the earth-bounding heaven, sphered above
    Thy country, with the muttering storm did lower,
  When the massed engineries of hate and love
    Thundered and flashed with elemental power,
  Like was thy course as when on voyaging bound—
    Steered, veering always by the central star,
  Unseen or seen, straight or rough capes around,
    Where thy soul’s pointers led thee, wide and far,
      Sure of the port, gold-gated, that would bless
      With peace, in freedom’s law of righteousness.

  Let fops and worldlings sniff, and pick apart,
    At foibles carp,—shades that great virtues throw,—
  And try in vain to brand, with specious art,
    Thy life with failure. Thee they could not know.
  Statesman and jurist with no curule seat,
    A patron to the sailor and the slave,
  One prompt the face of jealous power to meet,
    Withstand, and speak the truth, the hard cost brave;
  Leader of hopes forlorn that must be led,
    If country, honor, freedom are to live;
  Of God’s elect thou wert, and of such bred;
    Thee patriot saints thy place with them shall give,
      Whose strength in faith and courage ever lies,
      Whose unsought glory crowns self-sacrifice.

Dana, as some of our readers may know, was the celebrated author of Two Years Before the Mast, an account of his service as a sailor on a voyage round the world, which he embarked upon when he was 19 years old. It was not something you did on a lark. The work was grueling and the discipline severe, even brutal. Dana became a fearless fighter on behalf of seamen, who were often treated as little better than slaves; he and his friend Herman Melville were at one on this question. 

He was also, by religious conviction and personal inclination, a committed abolitionist, and this concern for the oppressed extended to all peoples. For Dana, abolitionism did not mean taking a comfortable intellectual position, waving a sign, making himself a bore at parties, and encouraging the disaffected to smash windows and plunder innocent shopkeepers. It meant hard work in his capacity as a lawyer, an author, and a statesman; it broke his health at least once, and subjected him to hatred and violence.

Dana was a man of letters, too, not just the great writer of memoirs of the sea, but an historian of American law. The poet Ware was no professional writer, either, but a lawyer with broad interests in literature and the arts. The poem above is well done: consider the ironic reversal clinched by alliteration, when Ware says that Dana found “salty wastes” “sweet with liberty.” Ware knows what I’ll wager that not one current English poet in 50 knows, that if you are writing in iambic pentameter and force is your aim, words like “patriot,” “muttering,” and “voyaging” ought to be pronounced as two syllables, with crowding vigor. He knows that if you violate normal word order, you throw into high relief the word that is in an unusual place: “Thee they could not know.” He feels the force of hard-hitting consecutive monosyllabic words that all demand stress: “the hard cost brave.” And he has a strong and sharp-seeing mind: Dana, he says, was a man of brave self-sacrifice, and that has gained him his glory, all the more glorious because it was unsought.

It is not my purpose here to bring up the old controversies regarding Reconstruction. My point is that Dana was a man arguing against other men, for the sake of “the sailor and the slave,” and for the common good. You could love him or hate him, but you had to meet him frankly in the fight for truth and justice.

He was a mature and serious man who dealt with realities, not fantasy or social fads. The Century, too, was not just a magazine for people with a taste for the arts—though it was that, and among its regular writers were those who stood up proudly for greatness where they found it, especially from fellow Americans such as John Singer Sargent, who could count among his patrons the formidable Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. You will not find in the current Atlantic an editorial observation on bichromate of potash and its uses as an agent in tanning. You will not find in the current National Review a long article on the recent eclipses of the sun. You will not find anywhere a thoroughgoing article on what science has and has not to say about immortality.

I am trying to imagine Mrs. Van Rensselaer encountering the garish ugliness of our wealthy public places, and the unhomely dreariness and dilapidation of our poor ones. 

I am trying to imagine Richard Henry Dana, who braved the icy and tempestuous waters about Cape Horn, who saw men flogged for small infractions of naval etiquette, hearing a verbal disagreement called “genocide.” 

I am trying to imagine the amateur poet Darwin Ware encountering the culturally empty and musically incoherent stuff we now call poetry. 

I am trying to imagine Seth Low, friend of The Century and newly installed president of Columbia University, reading the semi-literate effusions of his counterparts now, when they talk about anything other than the life of the mind, about which they hardly talk at all. 

After some wonderment at our miracle drugs, refrigeration, locomotion, radio, television, and computers, they would shake their heads with sadness. Was it for this they fought and worked and devoted their hearts?

America has problems, cultural, economic, and political, that cannot be addressed, let alone discussed, in the current climate of hysteria, irresponsibility, and ignorance. What tremendous waste! That any politician should have to spend a moment dealing with the madness of gelding boys and spaying girls, or addressing public school teachers who expose children to perversions; that any judge, anywhere, should have to waste—or should be encouraged to siphon up—millions of dollars dealing with the minutiae of what a religious person may or may not say in a public setting; that businessmen should feel compelled to hire, at extortionary cost, employees whose sole job is to ensure that they stay on the lee side of government regulations that have nothing to do with the work of the business and everything to do with words, attitudes, gestures, and feelings, those wispy things that float over the marsh of self-deception; tremendous waste!

“Your walls and culverts where the train approaches the main station are cracking and crumbling, littered with trash, and covered with obscenities. Why have you done nothing about them?”

“Four out of 10 of your children grow up without a father. What has happened to your sense of duty? Are your men all cads, and your women all slatterns?”

“You possess immense resources of metals and fuel, yet you do not lead the world in manufacturing. Why not? Do you no longer value your independence?”

“The prisons we built are more beautiful than the churches and schools you build, with cheapjack materials. Do you have no craftsmen anymore? What are your boys doing?”

“Titian and Leonardo are a moment’s call away, yet you mostly indulge yourselves with filth. What do your schools do with all the time they have? Where are your churches?”

“You have the greatest stretches of farmland in the world. But you have given much of it to huge businesses employing people with no stake in the land or the neighborhood. Why don’t you work to make farming more feasible for families?”

How would we answer?

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make—silly.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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