1. i’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s Heroes, a splendid book inexplicably available for free here. A sample excerpt, from his chapter on Sir Walter Raleigh:

He spent his last night not in the tower but in the gatehouse prison at Westminster, and was killed on a scaffold erected in Palace Yard. He was in a jaunty mood and said he would rather die on the scaffold than of a fever. He said he was not afraid to meet God, who had forgiven him his sins. He ate a hearty breakfast, and smoked one last pipe. His death is one of the best documented of all public executions, replete with fascinating detail. Palace Yard was rammed with people, and he had to push his way through them to get to his own scaffold. A man offered him a glass of fine sack wine, and he drank it, cracking a joke: “It is a good drink, if a man might tarry by it.” On the scaffold, Ralegh looked around and saluted all he knew, friends and enemies. It was a great turnout of old Elizabethan grandees and new Jacobean celebrities. Among them was John Pym, the great future parliamentarian, and Sir John Eliot. The latter, after witnessing Ralegh’s death, changed from a fervent monarchist into a bitter opponent of the Stuarts. The condemned man was allowed to make a tremendous speech. Then he knelt down to pray. He then stood up, gave away his hat and whatever money he had.

He shook hands with all the gentry on the scaffold and embraced his friend Lord Arundel, and said: “I have a long journey to go, and therefore I take my leave.” He insisted on the executioner showing him the axe, ran his thumb along the blade and said: “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.” His last words were “Strike, man, strike!” His head fell off after two strokes, the lips still moving. The headsman held up the head by its hair but declined to speak the traditional words “Behold the head of a traitor.” A great groan went up from the crowd, and a voice cried: “We have never had such a head cut off.” The killing of Ralegh was judged a miserable act of cruelty and meanness of spirit even at the time, and drove a hefty nail into the cause of the Stuart absolute monarchy. It gave dignity to a man who had not always possessed it in life, and ensured him a heroic immortality. Did he deserve it? A hero is not judged by ordinary moral standards. He becomes heroic by the image he fixes of himself in our minds. Ralegh’s image, brash, bold, proud, brave, adventurous, scintillating and rash, is enormously potent. With all his faults he is an overwhelmingly attractive figure. If he came into the room, now, we would recognize him instantly, and be delighted to see him.

Modern academics would despise this excellent prose style as insufficiently jargon-ridden, lacking in grovelling references to Foucault and Derrida and Lacan, and altogether not adequately sterile and lumbering and dishonest. It is an interesting if unsavoury phenomenon, that over the last two decades, in academia at least, lucid, graceful, exact prose has come to be regarded as disreputable, old-fashioned, old hat (akin to Morris Dancing), whereas murky, ugly, almost incomprehensible, and often totally meaningless, prose is taken to be authoritative, and the closer it comes to the incomprehensible, the fraudulent, and meaningless, the greater its authority. It seems part of a general revulsion from the human, from elegance and meaning and precision.

Further in Heroes, there are good chapters on Wellington and Wittgenstein, among many others. In the former, i read:

When the Earl of Winchelsea, a booby, said that Wellington’s emancipation of the Catholics was the prelude to reintroducing popery, the duke called him out, and a bloodless duel was fought in Battersea Park.

A booby. i have long desired such a word. It perfectly fits a certain type of idiot, not so much malign as ridiculous, almost beneath contempt, almost. i aim to use this word more in the future, and will no doubt encounter many fitting objects.

2. Reading of Raleigh’s death i think of my own – not the death to someday come, but the last, a generation before elberry was sadly born. i mostly remember being young and old from that life; the intervening years must lack the force to press easily through, to now. That death was not unwelcome; i died well, in good company, and felt the simple care & affection of the last person i saw. Though my life had gone badly wrong, at the time i felt relieved to have come to the finishing line in at least recognisable shape, that is, not insane. One of Dr Johnson’s last notebook entries is for a prayer “against despair”, and both Johnson and my last self would have been much relieved to quit this life in something other than utter destitution of mind and spirit. There was nothing terrible about that death, and the only judgement after was what Eliot, in Four Quartets, calls the rending re-enactment of all you have been; then fools’ approval stings and honour stains.

Death is casual; it is life which must be attended to. i have often been accused of being morbid – the first accuser being my mother, when i was 9, and i first realised we would all die (she screamed at me to shut up, telling me that “people don’t say things like that,” and “it isn’t the done thing!” – quite rightly, too: people don’t say things like that). i have had many accusers since, mostly women. But when i consider these rosy-tinters, those who imagine they won’t die, and that one should not be aware of death or the dead, it seems that they live purposeless, trivial lives, avid of distraction and gossip. Gossip can be interesting; but i think one must also lucidly acknowledge death, as true mother of all – for i suppose most people have died before, and certainly will again.

It is this certainty which gives us leverage on life, otherwise so uncertain, so curious, so unmapped and hazardous and fell. That we have died, and will die, is certainty enough to light a course through the dark of life. This will strike the modern man as inexplicably morbid, for to him death is a terrifying denial, a blank, a sterile nothing. For the rad trad, the chap in love with tweed, death is rather a strange illumination. He is at home with death. Thus the “holy place” i found in Kiel, a large, usually deserted graveyard full of trees, unmistakeably close to the gods. Wodan, Thoth, Ishtar, Hermes – gods of secret wisdom, of death and initiation. The gods come to us through death; the house of the dead is a light to men; in death we find the great yew, fatal, immortal, ours. So in Egypt; so now.

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