Monday, August 22, 2011

Paying for Patriotism

Somebody was recently remonstrating with me in connection with certain remarks that I have made touching the history of English misgovernment in Ireland. The criticism, like many others, was to the effect that these are only old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago; that the present generation is not responsible for them; that there is, as the critic said, no way in which he or I could have assisted or prevented them; that if anyone was to blame, he had gone to his account; and we are not to blame at all. There was mingled with his protest, I think, a certain suggestion that an Englishman is lacking in patriotism when he resurrects such corpses in order to connect them with crime.

Now the queer thing is this: that I think it is I who am standing up for the principle of patriotism; and I think it is he who is denying it. As a matter of fact, I am one of the few people left, of my own sort and calling, who do still believe in patriotism; just as I am among the few who do still believe in democracy. Both these ideas, were exaggerated extravagantly and, what is worse, erroneously, or entirely in the wrong way, during the nineteenth century; but the reaction against them today is very strong, especially among the intellectuals. But I do believe that patriotism rests on a psychological truth; a social sympathy with those of our own sort, whereby we see our own potential acts in them; and understand their history from within. But if there truly be such a thing as a nation, that truth is a two-edged sword, and we must let it out both ways.

Therefore I answer my critic thus. It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered. If that is what is meant, it is not very difficult to see that it is quite true.

But it is equally true that I did not ride with Chaucer to Canterbury, and give him a few intelligent hints for the best passages in The Canterbury Tales. It is equally true that there was a large and lamentable gap in the company seated at the Mermaid; that scarcely a word of Shakespeare's most poetical passages was actually contributed by me; that I did not whisper to him the word "incarnadine" when he was hesitating after "multitudinous seas"; that I entirely missed the opportunity of suggesting that Hamlet would be effectively ended by the stormy entrance of Fortinbras. Nay, aged and infirm as I am, it were vain for me to pretend that I lost a leg at the Battle of Trafalgar, or that I am old enough to have seen (as I should like to have seen), ablaze with stars upon the deck of death, the frail figure and the elvish face of the noblest sailor of history.

Yet I propose to go on being proud of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Nelson; to feel that the poets did indeed love the language that I love and that the sailor felt something of what we also feel for the sea. But if we accept this mystical corporate being, this larger self, we must accept it for good and ill. If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst. Otherwise patriotism will be a very poor thing indeed.

G.K. Chesterton, 'Paying for Patriotism', The Common Man.

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