Cold Pastoral: The Security of Nouns

An item on the radio this morning was discussing the security situation in Iraq and describing the ferocity and ruthlessness of the security services as they struggle with insurgents, snipers, and roadside bombs. Nothing unusual there you might think. Except that there was an insight into the language used by security personnel which was revealing of how deep Iraq’s crisis has become and what it means for us in our comfortable lives. Apparently security personnel are allotted ‘nouns’ to defend, by which they mean ‘people, places, and things’, an elementary school definition from years ago. Of course linguists no longer limit their definition of ‘noun’ to these three items. Are the security services no longer defending ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’? What about ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’?

This seems a withdrawal of sorts and a sign of desperation. Or perhaps our appointed forces are simply not able to comprehend–through stupidity or lack of education or both–the complexities of what they are really protecting. Either way this is a frightening tell-tale. When you are reduced to defending people and property alone you have reached the back of the cave and there is no way out. Though he could not have anticipated the horrors of twenty-first century guerilla warfare, Keats knew a thing or two about how limited this world-view is and what its human consequences might be:

Ode On a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

1819

Posted by Chris Routledge

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