Commonplace Book - Spring 2010

Awe

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By Anne Matthews

March 1, 2010


 

 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

John Keats, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” 1816


At dawn, when the Aegean Sea lay smooth as a burnished shield, you could hear a trireme from Athens while it was still a long way off. First came soft measured strokes like the pounding of a distant drum. Then two distinct sounds gradually emerged within each stroke: a deep percussive blow of wood striking water, followed by a dashing surge. Whumpff! Whroosh! These sounds were so much part of their world that Greeks had names for them. They called the splash pitylos, the rush rhothios. . . . In the final moments, as the red-rimmed eyes set on the prow stared straight at you, the oar strokes sounded like thunder. Then the ship either ran you down or swerved aside in search of other prey.

John R. Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, 2009


Ye who usher in compassion, usher in our pleas for compassion before the Master of compassion. . . . Ye who usher in tears, usher in our tears before a King appeased by tears.

—Prayer for the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur


As Oppenheimer left the [atomic bomb] control center, he turned to shake hands with Ken Bainbridge, who looked him in the eye and muttered, “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.” . . . In a 1965 NBC television documentary, [Oppenheimer] remembered:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’”

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus, 2005


The men of the infantry sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland.” Between each line of song they took three steps. At times 2,000 men were singing together in absolute rhythm and beat. When the melody gave way the silence was broken only by the stamp of ironshod boots, and then again the song rose. . . . At midnight pack wagons and siege guns were still passing. At seven this morning I was awakened by the tramp of men and bands playing jauntily. Whether they marched all day or not I do not know; but for 26 hours the gray army rumbled with the mystery of fog and the pertinacity of a steam roller.

Richard Harding Davis, “The German Army Enters Brussels,” 1914


The awe and dread with which the untutored savage contemplates his mother-in-law are amongst the most familiar facts of anthropology.

James Frazier, The Golden Bough, 1890


At five minutes after two, the last gun was fired, the cords divided, and the Balloon rose. . . . The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene rendered it highly awful. . . . I could distinguish St. Paul’s and other churches from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous bee-hive, but the industry of it was suspended.

Vincent Lunardi, on the first manned flight in England, 1784


Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed. The gratings on which we stood vibrated. We watched a hundred-ton steel shaft plunging down to that place where the water was, . . . where the water sucked out of Lake Mead roared through 30-foot penstocks into 13-foot penstocks and finally into the turbines themselves. “Touch it,” the Reclamation man said, and I did, and for a long time I just stood there with my hands on the turbine. . . . I walked across the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left . . . a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.

Joan Didion, “At the Dam,” The White Album, 1979


I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched. The blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns and old carved stones, the rough-hewn Tartars in their braids and homespun boots, the silver ice in the black river, the Kang, the Crystal Mountain. Also, I love the common miracles—the murmur of my friends at evening, the clay fires of smudgy juniper, the coarse dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 1978


Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop,
Slowly, grunt
On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape

A monument
Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want
Made lean Lent

Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,
Proceeded to swill
The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.

Sylvia Plath, “Sow,” The Colossus and Other Poems, 1960


Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

H. L. Mencken, Minority Report, 1956


Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.


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