Alas, the books pile up faster than I have time to read them – or, in some cases, even look at them.
Some months ago, I received an unbidden package from the U.K., and I’ve only just now broken the cellophane on the two books that were enclosed. Notting Hill Editions is “devoted to the best in essayistic nonfiction writing.” It’s an excellent series, sized for the “Tube-bound intellectual,” according to the very thorough website, which includes Harry Mount‘s weekly journal. Beyond their portability, the superb cloth-covered books in a rich spectrum of colors are classy and very affordable at £ 10.00 each.
The two that arrived in my mailbox are the orange-bound edition of Zbigniew Herbert‘s classic Still Life with a Bridle (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter) and Hubert Butler‘s The Eggman and the Fairies, Irish Essays (edited by John Banville), in a suitably Irish green.
In gratitude for the gift, I can do no better than site a few passages from both. I have not chosen these passages entirely at random; they are neither the most representative nor the most elegant passages of the books, but instead I was drawn by two eloquent passages about mysterious nature of mercy and charity.
Butler’s discussion of “the movement for the rehabilitation of Celtic saints, which had begun in chivalry, [and] had ended in sterility.” The author, who died at 90 in 1991, writes in “Saints, Scholars and Civil Servants”:
Ailbe in infancy: he worked his way up to lions
But why should it be undermining to our morals or bruising to our national pride if one were to argue that the Irish saints were many of them the tribal gods of a gentle and intelligent people, whose racial origins retreat so far into history that to use the national terms for them, Celt, Iberian, Gaulish, would not be easy? I was brought up in the diocese of St. Canice, but the less I believed in him, the more I was fascinated by him. He covered five Irish counties and as many Scottish and Welsh ones with his churches and miracles. He left his crozier in Iona, the little toe of his right foot in northern Italy, and, standing on one leg, was fed by seagulls in the Gower Peninsula. He is a link between the medieval world and one that is immemorially old. Those who treat him as a monastic fiction are as wrong as Cardinal Moran, who saw him in his own image as a busy Irish prelate with widespread diocesan responsibilities. The lives of the Irish saints reflect an ingenious innocence, a primaeval charity, that links them with Greek legend and the beginnings of poetry. For example, when St. Ailbe, travelling in Italy, resurrected two horses and their groom, who had been killed by lions, he took pity on the hungry, disappointed carnivores and arranged for a suitable meal (an aptum prandium) to come down Heaven for them on a cloud.
Of course we’ve always loved Herbert – Seamus Heaney says, “He shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” Herbert’s essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:
Defended his honor more than his life
When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.
The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …
Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.
Banville on Butler below: