Newgate News

Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 17 March 2012

"...a brave man and an English gentleman"

I was contemplating a post on how and why values have changed in the hundred years since Captain Oates walked out into the Antarctic blizzard - touching, perhaps, on the fact that progressive educators threw the concept of honourable self-sacrifice out with the bathwater of Empire, associating it inextricably with the now-despised 'officer class'.

There are times, however, when deploring the state of things becomes tiresome - and irrelevant in the face of something essential. Instead, for those of you who don't know it, I offer Derek Mahon's villanelle, which expresses that truth far more eloquently than I ever could:


Antarctica
by Derek Mahon

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced with vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time –

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Thought the night yield no glimmer, there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.


In memoriam:
Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates (17 March 1880 – 16 March 1912)

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