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 suggested singing those words in a school, or anywhere, today, imagine the screams of outrage. Words like that, we’d be told, are a compendium of the prejudices of a white supremacist male. Where would the censorship start? Patriarchal language – men, brother. Èlitism – great. Discredited top-down history – lives of great men all remind us. Judgmentalism towards diverse lifestyles – forlorn and shipwrecked brother. And why brother? It’s sexist – can’t women get shipwrecked just as well as men? What sort of maritime glass ceiling is implied there? And what about “transgender” folk? Are they immune to nautical mishap? And non-binary and queer-curious? The whole piece is shot through with multi-genderphobia.
Why is the main, which anyway is just an èlitist word for sea, solemn? Couldn’t it be a fun cruise, at least until the shipwreck? And why forlorn? How can Longfellow know that the brother’s – and the sister’s, please, and better the other way round – lifestyle is not an alternative one with which they are perfectly content, and is merely perceived as forlorn and shipwrecked by bigots prejudiced by white bourgeois notions of success? Seeing? Didn’t Longfellow realise that there are other ways of apprehending and “seeing” might be offensive towards the visually impaired? Take heart? What on earth for? The forlorn and shipwrecked sibling doesn’t need to be exposed to this culturally racist cliché, which amounts to an old white man telling them to “get over it” when social justice demands that they are entitled to exemplary compensation payable by the heirs of the inventors and owners of ships for the hurt of having been shipwrecked. (And how do we know that the ship wasn’t on its way to enslave some BAME folk, in which case it was just as well it went down?)
As for footprints on the sands of time, well, we’d be told, we’ve had quite enough of those in the form both of the culturally and racial genocidal footprints of colonialists and imperialists the world over and the carbon sort we selfishly leave today. What we want in our postmodern world is fewer such footprints, not the encouragement to leave more. If Longfellow were writing today he’d be instructed, at the risk of losing a literature grant, to come up with some advice not about our egotistically aspiring to make our already over-privileged lives sublime but to make them sustainable. He’d be told to write some simple lines – not culturally inaccessible poetry – exhorting us to reduce consumption, do without plastic, take up veganism and walk everywhere to help restore the planet to the pristine harmony it enjoyed before all those “great men” came along with their discoveries and inventions and mucked it up.