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What is Precious

Pride is a cheap substitute for dignity. It is a mask we wear to cover our shame: a veil for our dishonor.

When I was a boy, I loved my 10th grade British Lit class. There was something about the British poets, especially the Elizabethans and the high Romantics, that aroused in me a sense of the noble and honorable.

And there was Lovelace, who wrote a poem that has stayed with me over these 30 years, though as I recall my teacher and perhaps even my class found it something like contemptible. I’m going to write it below, but before you read it ask yourself or your wife (girlfriend, best friend, etc.) this question: Which should I (or, do you want me to) love more, you or my honor?

To my teenage mind, this question cheapened my then girlfriend. But having thought for one or two seconds about that question, read this poem, the one by Lovelace:

Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind
That from the nunnery
of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly

True, a new mistress now I chase:
The first foe in the field
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

But this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore
I could not love thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honor more.

We wrote this poem off as a young man’s hang up for fame and glory – a desire so intense he was willing to leave his wife behind and to let her suffer while he engaged in the childish pursuit of glory among the boys.

For all I know, we were right. But something lies hidden in those last two lines that intrigued me even as a teenager and that has become more and more valuable to me as I have wasted away into the late middle ages.

Lovelace is quite clear and assertive in his claim, and he effectively emphasizes it through the poetic form.

I could not love thee, dear, so much

Notice how he stretches out the thought through eight strokes and adds a little comma phrase, not only to keep the rhythm but also to slow the line down and stretch it out a little bit more. He rhymes the third with the first line of the stanza and uses the rhythm to raise the feeling that something profound is coming. We need resolution in the last line, or the poem fails.

So does he. He has wrestled with his decision (he is going to fight in the English Civil War), as he has with the poetic form. He needs to bring about an internal resolution just as much as he needs a poetic one. He seeks an internal harmony between his love for his wife and his devotion to the cause.

This resolution can only be found in one place:

I could not love thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honor more.

How unsatisfying that resolution is to many modern readers, perhaps especially Christian readers. Read it to yourself and to some friends and see what they say. I have found that people consistently write Lovelace off as a fool or a knave. Girls are offended to not be first. Adults think him intemperate. Boys think he’s nuts.

I think they need to rethink their assumptions. To use Lewis’s language, they may have been debunked.

Have you seen the historically awful, but dramatically stimulating movie, The Patriot? The one with Mel Gibson. Do you remember the scene when the British officer decides to burn the church down and what the colonial said to him?

There’s no honor in that.

To which the British officer replied something like, “Nobody will ever know about it.”

I am quite certain that no British officer would have said anything like that then, though I’m sure it’s not unusual now. Nevertheless, the exchange captures something about human nature.

If one can hear the words, “There’s no honor in that,” and not hesitate, then he doesn’t have a healthy soul. The opposite of honor is not humility and it is certainly not an increased capacity to love others. The opposite of honor is shame.

Shame is the defining condition and fear of our souls, which hunger for honor like our bodies hunger for food. Shame is an unnatural feeling to humans, as death is an unnatural state. We feel it only because we are broken, and it should compel us to seek wholeness.

When we lose our appetite for honor, we have not attained holiness or justice or anything worth attaining – we have become bestial. Furthermore, we have become a danger to society and to civilized life. The only way to keep a person who has lost his love for honor under control is to apply force, through law and the sword.

Freedom is not conceivable in a world without honor. Nobody would die for it.

Thus both order and freedom depend on our love for honor.

Why is honor so important? Because to lose our self-respect (not self-esteem, as used in the conventional literature) is to lose ourselves. Because to lose the hope that we can become honorable is to make ourselves less than a man.

You ought to be able to say to the looters in London (this week), “There’s no honor in that,” and it should stop them. Nothing else ought to be needed.

What do you think would happen if you said that to them now? A laugh would be their kindest response. If one of them is thoughtful, you would get a blank stare. Most of them wouldn’t hear you and would, if needed, knock you out of the way.

Why? Because they have been debunked. They have been reduced, despised, castrated. They have internalized the dogma of the age without the opportunity to profit from it. They have been told they are the product of natural selection and nothing more.

That’s an easy doctrine for an Oxbridge professor or a mainstream journalist. It’s easy for a college student too, because he needs good grades and is intimidated by the naturalistic assumptions of his teachers.

All of these people are honored for believing that man is nothing. They are allowed to feel manly because they are so tough-minded that they can admit that mankind is a blob of protoplasm waiting to become manure. They can write about how meaningless life is and profit from the proclamation. They don’t need to think about what it does to their inner self because the only one they believe they have is a Freudian slip anyway.

Millions are unable to form a nihilistic rock band, write a college syllabus, or receive prizes from others who run from their idea of God. They have to find other means to escape the despair that defines modern man. Some have access to wealth. Some to drugs. Some to prostitutes. Some don’t.

Some fall into depression, cut themselves, kill themselves. Some turn their anger on their neighbors and are violent and steal.

It’s all the same disorder. All of us love honor far too little.

When I am impatient, I have forgotten that there is no honor in that.

When I am inconsiderate, I have forgotten that there is no honor in that.

When I am slothful, lustful, prideful, idle in my talk, greedy, envious, or unkind, I have forgotten what I am and I have forgotten that there is no honor in that.

Stephen Spender captured something of this vision in one of his poems. He wrote:

I think continually of those who were truly great
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

The plague of our age is that people do not think continually of those who were truly great. Indeed, they have no conception that one can be “truly” great. They have forgotten. They will not be feted. They will not leave the vivid air signed with their honor.

Lovelace didn’t forget. He knew that his very capacity to love a woman was bound to his honor: that if he compromised the latter he forfeited the former. If Lucasta had quoted the silly pop song of the 60’s to him and said, “Billy, don’t be a hero,” he would have perceived that she despised him and he would have fled, for honor’s sake. And he would have been right to do so.

May God grant that I might feel shame when I ought to feel shame and that I might recover some trace of the honor for which He made me.

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