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A poem for the West
By Robert Bové
Kudos to editor Dale Ahlquist and the American Chesterton Society for lovingly producing a new edition of Lepanto, G. K. Chesterton's martial masterpiece of a poem about that seventh day of October 1571, when Don Juan of Austria and his ships destroyed a superior fleet sent by Turkish Sultan Selim II to the Gulf of Lepanto (now Naupaktos), an armada equipped and manned to conquer Venice and Rome. It was the greatest naval engagement of its time, one still studied at Annapolis, as are the gargantuan WW II naval battles at Midway and Okinawa. 1571 is one of those dates, like 1492, that the Muslim world remembers and the West tries to bury in the cloying syrup of tolerationism that has gripped even Spanish voters who should know better, March 11, 2004 being the alarm they are struggling to suppress.
Lepanto contains not only the poem, first published in 1911, but two essays by Chesterton, copious notes demonstrating the remarkable literary and historical grasp the author had, and new essays commenting on the text and contexts including a particularly illuminating piece by historian William Cinfici. Putting the poem and the times it illustrates squarely in our era, Cinfici says:
"Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims have focused upon trying to eliminate the state of Israel and upon fighting around the periphery of the Islamic world, as is currently the case from Chechnya to Kashmir, from Ivory Coast to Indonesia. However, the question is whether we have reached the point that Hilaire Belloc predicted would come when Muslims rise again to challenge the West."
Only a somnambulist would doubt that Belloc, at least on the matter of a resurgent Islam, knew whereof he prophesied. Again, from Cinfici:
"It is noteworthy that the despots who have emerged in recent years, from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, do appeal to a significant portion of the Arab and Islamic world, despite their brutality even to fellow Muslims, because of their casting of the conflict as one between Islam and West. Although overpowering Western forces led by the United States snuffed out Saddam's regime, the irony remains that the Islamic world still has a better chance of re-uniting under one leader than does the Christian West. That is because there is no Christian West."
But there is a democratic West, and the U. S., its standard bearer, means, if not to convert the Islamic world to Christianity, at least to convert it to a reasonable facsimile of democracy. That is the purpose of this war, a purpose obscured neither by the war's deepening fog -- nor by appeasers at home and abroad.
"Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
And if our troubadours, our poets, now sing of our demise -- and they do, so many of them -- then where may we find such a poet. In a democratic system, where a prince?
If one's politics runs to extreme isolationist right or anti-American left, the answer to the latter question is George (Bush) II, caricatured in many a fever dream as a cowboy prince out to make the world his ranch. That would be the Islamist position as well.
Regarding the former question, we just may have a poet who connects the dots from a Lepanto to our times -- and from Lepanto back to Roland. University of Texas Professor Frederick Turner -- who, since 9/11 at least, has been writing pointed poems (and essays) adopting the patriotic voice -- writes in his "On Hearing that Spain Has Capitulated to the Terrorists":
Where once the great guns of the fleets
Spanish voters have bought themselves a little if any time before the next attacks, but the price of course is immense: their integrity, their very identity. We post-moderns would do well both to read Chesterton and to recall Roman poet Juvenal -- no Christian he -- when he wrote, "Count it the greatest sin to prefer life to honor, and for the sake of living to lose what makes life worth living." Pray for the Spaniards of today we may, but we, the long-memory living, must turn a deaf ear to the half-living who are dead to their own Western heritage, who would demoralize us as they themselves have been demoralized, thus becoming the despicable creatures the Islamists say we are.
Wrote Chesterton on the eve of WW I (in an essay included in Lepanto): "Europe, in the age in which [Don Juan] lived, was, as it is now, in one of its recurring periods of division and disease." And, sadly, it is again, while minarets rise in Rome and Paris, their radical clerics calling for the death of Americans and Jews -- and conversion of the rest by terror.
Robert Bové writes from Brooklyn Heights, NYC, and teaches English at Pace University in Lower Manhattan. His latest book of poetry and prose is The UFOs of October.
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