Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Bridge Sublime

It seems as if in one were cast
The present and the imaged past;
Spanning, as with a bridge sublime,
That fearful lapse of human time;
That gulf, unfathomably spread
Between the living and the dead.

Thomas Love Peacock
Newark Abbey, August, 1842
with a reminiscence of August, 1807

There is a theory of historical reenactment which calls for participants to not only assume the costume, custom, and occasionally characters of people from the past, but to also recreate their world view by studying the literature, science, etc. of the time. In this way they prepare themselves to respond (or at least attempt to do so) to any situation in the manner that the person they are representing might have done.

The limitations of this plan are obvious of course, but it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive invented to date. And it certainly pays due homage to the importance of material records -- be they written, drawn, recorded, etc. -- in communicating beyond our own generation. Washington Irving phrased it far better than I ever could in his word picture "Westminster Abbey" from "The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon," 1819:

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.

Reading that, I begin to think I've been wasting my time with all this knitting. (I must admit here that I just purchased enough yarn for three more pairs of stockings.) Perhaps I should drop my needles in favor of a pen...

On the other hand, perhaps my fondness for reading old books comes from the same source as my penchant for old clothes. When I read a novel or a poem written 150 years ago, I feel somehow closer to not only the writer but to all the others who have read and understood it over the years. When I puzzle through the 1852 instructions for a chemise, I feel a kindred spirit with the many women -- now long dead -- who bent their needles at this very project before me.

Today, a friend who has no interest in sewing, and who prefers the Beat Poets to my musty tomes, pointed out that music is yet another sublime bridge to the distant past. Be it symphonic, operatic, or even a country aire cannibalized by Aaron Copeland, music indeed hath charms to send the modern breast back 150 years. I must resolve to remember this hint in the hopes of enticing more people into appreciation of the 1850s.

God bless Stephen Foster.

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