That is the name of a Siegried Sassoon poem — “December Stillness” — written the year my parents were married, 1934.
Puts me in mind of “Silent Night.” Silent night, holy night….
My parents have been gone for years.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of the World War I poets, along with Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. He was the only one of the three to survive the war, Brooke dying from war-related blood poisoning, Owen from the guns a week before the Armistice. Sassoon also knew and was among those “soldiers…of death’s grey land…in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats…in ruined trenches, lashed with rain….” Yet he could manage to write, barely two decades after the universal cataclysm of that World War, of “December stillness, crossed by twilight roads” and tell us that he asked that stillness ( yes, he talked to the stillness) to “(T)each me to travel far and bear my loads.”
Religion, or a higher power, were largely swept out of Sassoon’s personal universe by the experience of the trenches, so far as I know. Or, raised by a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother, he saw what, to his mind, were the “limitations” of religious faith.
Not all who saw war ceased to see hope, and see it in an Infinite Being.
December, with its “grave diminishings of green and brown”( Siegried’s words). It is upon us now. I love December, because Christmas comes at the end of its Advent season.
I looked out early one Massachusetts December at the green surviving amid the bare brown of earth and bramble and, perhaps, traces of early snow behind what was my house then, a pleasant place in a pleasant town, more pleasant by far than what I call home now. I’ve escaped to the sub-tropics, an economic migrant.
(Why have I moved so often in recent years? What is this restless search for the “geographic cure”?)
There have been so many houses, so many homes in what still seems such a short time — but, really, so much time has passed, actually. There have been whole wars fought since that “brown and green” moment in Carlisle, Massachusetts. There has been, these days before Christmas in 2021, an unspeakable natural horror — a massively powerful, long-lasting tornado — that stripped away lives and structures in the dead of a Kentucky night — and the Illinois and Tennesee nights. Miles and miles of America’s heartland lies bare and ruined, plunged into “death’s grey land” and silence and darkness days before Christmas.
But in 1934, the year my parents found joy in marriage, followed by years of struggle, that stillness, that December stillness, spoke to the surviving war poet who would live to see another World War consume civilization. He lived, in fact, until the first day of September, 1967.
It was, he wrote back in that same year of 1934, the “love of life, when I was young/ Which led me out in summer to explore/ The daybreak world.”
A “daybreak world” that would be darkened, so deeply darkened by the most brutal of wars, civil and worldwide, all during a most bloody century.
But now, as those summer days of 2021 lead into these dark December nights, a welcomed stillness deepens here and there. Sometimes we have to be in a sanctuary to be mindful of it. A church, or chapel or our own little room.
True, there was little stillness in the long, violent, politically fraught summer of 2021. I cannot forget or cease praying for an end of that unwelcomed stillness in Kentucky that stretches for miles around now, through three states,in which structures and memories have been ravaged by the great violence of nature.
Still, in our current stillness, wherever we can find it, Siegried Sassoon would tell us, “The Daybreak World” abides. It awaits us, here, or hereafter, if we choose to believe it.
We call it hope. Many call it God. The words, the prayers, do not always come easily. God’s stillness, or what seems like His silence, vexes many in their strenuous groping after hope and peace.
Faith is the flame. It can be put out. Symbolically , really.
Meanwhile, we must travel far and bear our loads.
At the end of this long, sober,(even embarrassing) very lugubrious rumination, I must laugh a little. Even laugh out loud.
Mere trite meanderings. Siegfried must be chuckling along with me somewhere. I choose to believe so.
Time to head to the mall….praying as I go. Ho! Ho! Ho!