Longfellow, wrong fellow

I came across some lines by Longfellow I remember my mother singing in the kitchen, a song learnt in her schooldays at University High in Melbourne in the late 1920s. They seem to me to illuminate some of the changes in our society since then.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints that, perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Inspiring though they were considered in the past, if anyone today suggested singing those words in a school, or anywhere, imagine the objections. Patriarchal language – men, brother. Elitism – great. Discredited top-down historylives of great men all remind us. Judgmentalism towards diverse lifestyles – forlorn and shipwrecked brother. How can we know that the brother’s lifestyle is not an alternative one with which he is perfectly content, and is merely perceived as forlorn and shipwrecked by those blinded by bourgeois notions of success?

Sexism – why shouldn’t the "brother" be a sister, or transgender? Seeing? Well, there are other ways of apprehending, and "seeing" might just be a bit inappropriate towards the visually impaired. Take heart? [S]he doesn’t need to take heart, whatever that means, just to have her/his human rights recognised, to be affirmed as a person and to have a suitable recompense paid for the disadvantages inflicted by "society" in the course of shipwrecking her/him.

As for footprints on the sands of time, well, we would be told there have been quite enough of those, thank you, in the form both of the culturally genocidal footprints of colonisers and imperialists the world over and the carbon sort we selfishly leave today. What we want today is fewer footprints, not the encouragement to leave more.

If Longfellow were writing today he would be instructed, at the risk of losing an arts grant, to put some lines together not about our egotistically aspiring to make our own lives sublime, but exhorting us to devote our efforts to restoring to the planet the sublimity it had before all those "great men" came along and with their discoveries and inventions mucked it up.

Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus

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