Monday, November 11, 2013

Luytens and Curzon Remember "The Glorious Dead"

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return, ye sons of men:”
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
Bruce Cole writes in The Wall Street Journal how England remembers "The Glorious Dead" of WWI: both with the Cenotaph designed by Edwin Lutyens and the ceremony prepared by Lord Curzon of Kedleston. First, the monument, with the note that it depicts no overt religious symbolism, and yet that many saw religious symbolism in the empty "tomb":
The Cenotaph struck a deep emotional chord. In a memo to the War Cabinet just four days after the Peace Day parade, Mond noted the "growing public" interest in a permanent Cenotaph and wrote that Lutyens was eager to design it "on the same line." The War Cabinet, which included Winston Churchill, approved the new Cenotaph. Few monuments of such distinction have been conceived in such haste and built with such speed.

Other than replicating the wood and plaster with Portland limestone there was almost no change in the design, except for one important refinement: entasis, a principle used by the ancient Greeks, in which vertical lines are given a slightly convex curve as they taper upward to fool the eye, which would otherwise see them as out of true alignment. The result was a minimal but sophisticated arrangement of shapes, moldings and setbacks derived from classical prototypes. Bereft of any overt religious, national or didactic symbolism, its power arose solely from its stark, somber, unadorned form.

The Cenotaph's unveiling on Nov. 11, 1920, was heightened by another solemn commemoration: the burial of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was returned from France for entombment in Westminster Abbey to memorialize the thousands still missing.

Draped with two large Union Jacks, the Cenotaph was unveiled by George V as the gun carriage bearing the Unknown Warrior stopped at the monument on its way to the Abbey. Thus, the memorial function of the Cenotaph, crowned by an empty sarcophagus, was heightened by the presence of an unknown soldier. Relatives of the missing were comforted because, as they said, it was possible to believe that he might be their husband, son, father or brother. For many, the vacant tomb of Lutyens's Cenotaph would recall Christ's resurrection and its embodiment of salvation for their fallen

Describing the ceremony, the Times of London reported that Big Ben "boomed out, louder, it seemed, than ever one hears it even in the stillness of dawn." The king "released the flags...they fell away, and it stood, clean and wonderful in its naked beauty. Big Ben ceased; and the very pulse of Time stood still. In silence, broken only by a near-by sob, the great multitude bowed its head."
And then Cole describes the ceremony for the dedication of the Cenotaph, which has become the ceremony for each Remembrance Day:
The dedication ceremony designed for the new Cenotaph gave increased meaning to the monument. The event was planned by a member of the War Cabinet, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, an epitome of English aristocracy and privilege. As Viceroy of India, he was the impresario of the great Delhi Durbar of 1903, a spectacular two-week pageant of Imperial pageantry featuring a cast of thousands.

Curzon, who had organized the events around the unveiling of the temporary Cenotaph, was now asked to design the ceremony for the dedication of its successor. But if anyone thought he would create a majestic procession, they were wrong.

Instead, he produced something very different, a service of the utmost modesty and sobriety that would complement Lutyens's austere monument. The ceremony would be minimal, poignant and brief: the hymn "O God Our Help in Ages Past," the doleful "Last Post," and two minutes of silence, not of prayer but in memory of the fallen. Some nine decades later, Curzon's touching ceremony is still celebrated at the Cenotaph on Britain's annual Remembrance Day.

Curzon insisted that the ceremony should be for veterans and war widows. Similarly, places for the service in the Abbey, he declared, were to be assigned not to "society ladies or the wives of dignitaries, but to the selected widows and mothers of those who had fallen, especially in the humbler ranks."

This aligned with the widespread democratic appeal of the Cenotaph, which neither proclaims victory nor sentimentalizes the fallen, but instead brilliantly evokes the loss of millions.
This explanation makes me think of one advantage of having a national Church: the inclusion of a beautiful Christian hymn, Isaac Watts "O God Our Help in Ages Past", based on Psalm 90, as part of a national ceremony. England may have grown more secular since that "war to end all wars" but the hymn is still part of the ceremony.
Image source: wikipedia commons.

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