‘This other Eden, demi-paradise’
In William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” John of Gaunt, an aging, frail power broker, approaches his death while considering the rule of his wretched nephew Richard.
Richard, poor kid, was made king at age 10 and, though essentially a fop, has to struggle with two great problems: his own inability to focus on affairs of state, and his growing awareness that all around him know he is utterly inept — an entitled party boy who constantly sees himself as a victim. His fallback, even as he careens toward his destruction, is his belief that he has been anointed and therefore he cannot be questioned. Occasionally he wants to be compared to Christ.
John of Gaunt has the appalled response of a patriot. He describes Richard as “Light vanity, insatiate cormorant, consuming means, soon preys upon itself.” A cormorant is a diving bird who moves with great speed under water and pierces its victims with its beak. To be underwater is to be in the subconscious, propelled by forces none can see from the land. Gaunt watches Richard’s reckless extravagance and realizes that this mismatched king is consuming himself.
And then John is lifted, in the freedom of the dying, to say what is most true to himself, most valued. He bursts into a kind of spontaneous hymn of love of his country: England is, to him, “This other Eden, demi-paradise … this happy breed of men, this little world; this precious stone, set in the silver sea … this land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land … that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
It makes me weep to read these lines and to realize that we’re back in a similar tragedy. We have lifted into power a man with no access to his own weaknesses, a liar, an adulterer, a failing businessman who burned through vast fortunes, a false patriot who has made himself an asset of hostile powers, and who now thrashes in their grip. And we have lifted Donald Trump there in a time of relative peace and prosperity, simply to preserve white male dominance and insist on continuing to recklessly exploit this fragile earth our island home.
Like old Gaunt, I, now in my 75th year, Iament the betrayal of our dear, dear land. And with Gaunt, I revere the one he calls “This world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son.” I also lament that so many of my fellow believers support our current head of state.
There is, however, a big difference between Richard and Donald, and a big difference between John of Gaunt and all who read this. Donald is not a king. And we are not Donald’s subjects. In our land — of fruited plains and purple mountains’ majesty, of freshwater seas and human loveliness of every hue — we are not subjects of an anointed one. We are citizens. We do not have to have a convulsion of regicide to lead to yet another insecure monarch. We can vote this president out of the government. Here, we rule. Old and young, sick and well, scared and bold, we can rise, ballot in hand, and vote for plain Mr. Biden, a decent man whose heart is committed to what is most dear about our land: the belief that we are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Jeff Black lives in Saranac Lake.