Monday, December 19, 2011

For Christmas / Harriet Monroe

The child wants a teddy-bear and tracks and engines that light up and go; the youth wants a lettered sweater or a million dollars or a sweetheart; Mr. Mussolini wants the earth; the poet wants the moon; the saint wants God. Here we all are, wanting something — and usually the unattainable.

One may measure a man or a civilization by the quality of his-its-wants, and his-its-miracle-power of transmuting them into forms of approximate reality. In other words, one's measure is the imagination both static and militant, the dream that cannot stop with a vision, an idea, but must be on the way toward some kind of fulfilment, whether in action or the arts.

Nearly two thousand years ago a great creative spirit gave the world a vision of truth and righteousness which stimulated the want-instinct of western nations into more activity than any earlier teacher had been able to arouse. Through all these twenty centuries this want-instinct has persisted. Though often dulled almost to obliteration by narrow interpretations, by vicious violations, by passionate persecutions, it is still a shining goal far ahead of the race, something beautiful and unattainable which illuminates and perpetually attracts man's slow and halting footsteps. Its persistence is a proof of its vitality; the fire once lighted refuses to go out. We flatter ourselves that the race has advanced a little during these twenty centuries toward the elusive splendor, but probably another two thousand years will find our successors but little nearer to that ultimate infinite illumination.

Christmas, as we know it, is a symbol, a recognition, a flower on the altar, a bow in passing. It says a tiny yes to the dream, it sings a little song. In lighting our small red candles, in giving our paltry gifts, we pay a slight tribute, not only to the infinite spirit of love typified by the great hero whose birth we celebrate, but to all the lesser heroes who have been strongly inspired by the beauty of his life and the triumphant tragedy of his death. We turn from our familiar paths to pause a moment at a shrine heaped with noble treasures; a shrine where, to the end of time, the spirit of man will receive and carry away a richer treasure than anything he can bring.

Harriet Monroe
from Poetry, December 1926

[Essay is in the public domain in Canada and the European Union]

Harriet Monroe biography

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