From James Bratt
Memorial Day deserves a poem. Not the civil religious strains that once caught me at the altar rail at a small-town Episcopal church, receiving the sacrament to “America the Beautiful.” I almost chose Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed,” his elegy to the recently assassinated Lincoln. But nothing that august distinguishes our season. Let it be “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers then, a dirge from the 1920s, the frantic tawdry zoom time of the consumer society. Our consumption is less confident now, our spirit flattened by expensive forgotten wars, rotten bankers, frozen politics, and the pathetic strains of reality TV.
As it happens, Robinson Jeffers was born (in 1887) into Calvinism, son of a professor of Old Testament at the Presbyterian Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Papa had the boy reading Greek and Latin by age 5. He was less successful in keeping him in theism. Nonetheless, the son held on to stern judgments regarding human pretensions, and also could sound faint chords of the civic virtue which that other secularized Calvinist, James Madison, also remembered as being vital to a republic.