The year 2014 marks a centennial and a bicentennial. The centennial is well known: 1914 saw the beginning of World War I, a calamity perhaps unmatched until then in the history of the West. We will be reminded many times this year in centennial commemorations of the war’s terrible destruction, but also of its devastating political and cultural effects over subsequent decades, and of its continuing deep if often indirect contribution to today’s demoralization of the West.
Writing several years ago in this magazine about its seismic cultural consequences, David Frum quoted the concluding lines of “the most famous poem in our language about World War I”:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Latin, which translates as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” comes from an ode of Horace’s. As Frum pointed out, Horace’s line is one “that any educated Englishman of the last century would have learned in school.” Those pre-War Englishmen would, on the whole, have understood the line earnestly and quoted it respectfully. Not after the War. Living in the shadow of Wilfred Owen rather than Horace, the earnestness yielded to bitterness, the respect to disgust. As Frum puts it, “Scoffing at those words represented more than a rejection of war. It meant a rejection of the schools, the whole society, that had sent Owen to war.”
This year, a century later, the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take that rejection of piety and patriotism for granted. Or could this year mark a moment of questioning, even of reversal?
Today, after all, we see the full consequences of that rejection in a way Owen and his contemporaries could not. Can’t we acknowledge the meaning, recognize the power, and learn the lessons of 1914 without succumbing to an apparently inexorable gravitational pull toward a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret in the face of civilizational decline? No sensitive person can fail to be moved by Owen’s powerful lament, and no intelligent person can ignore his chastening rebuke. But perhaps a century of increasingly unthinking bitter disgust with our heritage is enough.
Besides being the centennial of World War I, 2014 also happens to be the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort McHenry, a minor battle during a conflict of infinitely lesser significance than World War I, the War of 1812. The bombardment of the American fort near Baltimore produced a poem. “Defence of Fort McHenry” is far less likely to appear in anthologies of the greatest poems of the English language than “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” But the greater work of art is not always the better guide to life.
Francis Scott Key’s poem, composed within hours of the American victory and set the next day to a popular melody, was within days a popular song and within weeks “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its first stanza is what is usually sung today, and it ends in a question:
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It’s perhaps fitting and proper that the national anthem of a nation dedicated to the question of whether societies of men can govern themselves by reflection and choice ends not in a boast but in a question.
But the last stanza, less often sung, does in fact end with a confident assertion:
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
A century after World War I, two centuries after Fort McHenry, do we dare take our bearings not from Owen’s bitter despair but from Francis Scott Key’s bold hope?