As we begin Memorial Day weekend, we are sure to hear the usual drivel about the supposed glories of war and American exceptionalism. I offer as tonic this little poem by G.K. Chesterton, “The English Graves,” written in the wake of World War I. Chesterton was an English patriot who much preferred the tranquil peace of home to the ideological messianism of Woodrow Wilson and his contemporaries:
Were I a wandering citizen whose city is the world, I would not weep for all that fell before the flags were furled; I would not let one murmur mar the trumpets volleying forth How God grew weary of the kings, and the cold hell in the north. But we whose hearts are homing birds have heavier thoughts of home, Though the great eagles burn with gold on Paris or on Rome, Who stand beside our dead and stare, like seers at an eclipse, At the riddle of the island tale and the twilight of the ships. For these were simple men that loved with hands and feet and eyes, Whose souls were humbled to the hills and narrowed to the skies, The hundred little lands within one little land that lie, Where Severn seeks the sunset isles or Sussex scales the sky. And what is theirs, though banners blow on Warsaw risen again, Or ancient laughter walks in gold through the vineyards of Lorraine, Their dead are marked on English stones, their loves on English trees, How little is the prize they win, how mean a coin for these — How small a shrivelled laurel-leaf lies crumpled here and curled: They died to save their country and they only saved the world.