Mortality By John Betjeman

The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Shiver and shatter and fall
As the steering column of his comfortable Humber
Batters in the bony wall.
All those delicate re-adjustments
“On the one hand, if we proceed
With the ad hoc policy hitherto adapted
To individual need…
On the other hand, too rigid an arrangement
Might, of itself, perforce…
I would like to submit for the Minister’s concurrence
The following alternative course,
Subject to revision and reconsideration
In the light of our experience gains…”
And this had to happen at the corner where the by-pass
Comes into Egham out of Staines.
That very near miss for an All Souls’ Fellowship
The recent compensation of a ‘K’ –
The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Are sweetbread on the road today.

Mortality by John Betjeman

Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary of War

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If you want to know why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is such a thing of beauty, look no further.  The following two pages (at least on my Kindle) shows you how jam packed this book is with ideas and humanity.  Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were polar opposites in personality, but were a perfect team when working together.  The one thing they both personally shared was a deep understanding of mortality due to the fact that both of them suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones.  As well as losing family members, Lincoln’s first love died when he was young.  Stanton lost his first wife at an early age.  Excerpt:

That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected on his own painful acquaintance with death.  He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.

Oh!  Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:

The mossy marble rest
On lips that he has prest
  In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves.  Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable.  As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war.  “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?  But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”  

Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men.  “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom.  “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”