This Christmas my daughter bought for me a CD of Welsh hymns, folk songs, and patriotic anthems, sung by the burly baritone Bryn Terfel. He’s a tremendous performer, apparently renowned for his work in opera around the world. If you want to see merriment and mischief sparkling in the eyes of somebody in the midst of the most strenuous aria in the male repertoire, check out Mr. Terfel as Figaro, singing Largo al factotum in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
But when someone approached Terfel with the opportunity to sing these Welsh songs along with a traditional male choir, Terfel seized upon it with a will. It is his first major Welsh album, and at first he couldn’t make up his mind on what to sing. Finally he settled upon the songs that meant the most to him, as he put it – “songs, hymns, and folk music which have been a part of my life and I’m sure of the lives of many others,” “pearls” which he had sung “from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll to Tokyo, from Libanus (our local church in Pantglas) to Carnegie Hall.” It is clear in context that Terfel isn’t making light of the local church or the village of the outrageous name (abbreviated at that; its full name is a great deal longer). He loves the land of his fathers.
One of the patriotic anthems especially moves me. Most anthems laud the greatness of your country. We are the home of the brave. Britannia is meant to rule. When I was a boy, I accepted without thinking much about it that it was good that America was big, fourth among the nations in area, fourth in population, first in coal production, first in the manufacture of cars, first or second in Olympic medals, first in wealth, first in television commercials, first or second in about everything.
But there is something contrived about that attachment to bigness. If you renovate your house and make it three times as big as it used to be, you do not necessarily have three times the home. If you combine ten schools into one, you do not have ten times the single school; you have something different in kind. If you hustle your child into ten activities to make more of him, he ends up vanishing into the schedule, and his home knows him no more. A beauty mark is small. When it grows twenty times as big, we don’t call it a beauty mark anymore. We call it malignant melanoma.
That’s why I found especially charming the song Cymru Fach – translated as “Dearest Wales,” but really meaning “Little Wales.” And Wales is little, little enough to love. Here is the song’s refrain:
Annwyl wlad, mam a thad! Dearest land, mother and father!
Os nad yw hi’n fawr, mae hi’n ddigon Though not large, yet surely enough
I lenwi, i lenwi fy nghalon, To fill, to fill my heart,
Annwyl wlad! Dearest land!
It isn’t just a piece of sentimentality tacked on to the end of every verse. It’s of the essence of the song. The singer doesn’t boast of Welsh leadership in the world. He doesn’t long to stand upon the observation tower of the highest office building in Cardiff. He doesn’t love Wales the Superpower. He doesn’t think that the Prince of Wales is some comic-book Savior of the Nations, with a red GW or LL on his cape.
No, when he thinks of Wales, he thinks of things he can love, because they are small – “each mountain, each valley, each river – little Wales.” Sure, he can wander far from those places, but in a moment, in the beat of a loyal heart, he will dream his way back to the fangre fy mebyd, “the sanctuary of my childhood – little Wales.” There’s no diseased gigantism there. It isn’t even the Wales where he grew to be a Very Important Welshman. It’s a sanctuary, a holy place, somewhere protected from the evils of the kingdoms of the world beyond, and all their pomps, and all their empty promises. It is a sanctuary for a child, too, someone little enough to love the rocks and rills, and not to think of them as annoying things to clear away for building a shopping mall.
In other words, if you really love a place like Wales, you will have made yourself great enough of heart to see through the emptiness of Big.
Yet man has a fascination for Big. It is where he turns first for his false gods. Think of the pyramids, those massive slave-built tombs, where the divine pharaohs were to assume their big places in the world beyond. Think of the Sears Tower, now the Willis Tower, that massive glass and steel monument built in homage to wealth. Think of the kingdoms of the world laid out before the young carpenter and his would-be campaign manager.
Christians pay homage to that mysterious God who made himself manifest to the prophet not in the big things, though He could have done that and sometimes did, but in the still small voice. He chose not Babylon to bring His law to the world, but the little no-account children of Israel. He was born not in a palace but in a stable. His messengers were not the scholars and statesmen, but some fishermen, a tent-maker, a tax collector, and women whose testimony could not be accepted in a court of law, for the world that could not save itself by its vast wisdom must be saved by His divine foolishness, for the foolishness of God is wiser than men.
What happens when a once Christian nation forgets the child in the manger? The Big returns with a vengeance. All of the great miserable movements of the last century were conceived as giants, plodding, wrecking, heedless giants, obliterating every small precious thing in their way. Down comes the giant foot, and the neighborhood school is crushed to splinters beneath. Over the land sweep the ideologues like locusts, and they leave no stalk of corn standing; and suddenly simple and innocuous folkways are declared “unconstitutional,” or not in harmony with global standards.
No one can in fact love “the globe,” because it is but a Big Abstraction, not like the earth beneath our feet, or the stars above our heads. Love is supplanted by a passion for some man-made idea to be applied relentlessly and ruthlessly, to which anything may be sacrificed, from the life of a baby to the common good itself. No one can in fact “think globally,” but man in the grip of gigantism regularly forgets the local, which is his business.
No one can love Wales, and wish that it were just like the United States, or any other place in the world, or all other places in the world. To the patriot, the very rocks and rills of his native land are precious. They speak to him. If they are black with coal, then in his eyes those black lumps glint like diamonds. If the mountaintops are barren, the lichen upon the bare rocks are not yellow but gold. If the streams are sluggish in the lowlands, so much the better for catching bass on a lazy afternoon.
Beloved country! To love your home because it is your home is a grand thing, fit for someone great of heart. Let the petty and meddlesome go for the globe.
[…] Anthony Esolen: Something Better than a Giant […]
Re: Bigness — you may already be familiar with it but if not, pick up a copy of Booth Tarkington’s novel The Turmoil and read the anti-Bigness homily that serves as the novel’s intro. Hard to believe he wrote it almost exactly 100 years ago. You can also find it as the intro to his “Growth” trilogy, of which The Turmoil is a part.
The CD sounds like a good one, btw.
I’m a New Jerseyan, and I’ve always tended to view my state as my homeland and other parts of the US as slightly foreign. Not that I don’t love the people in those other places and recognize our shared culture, but we’ve got a lot going on over here; I love this place, and it is enough to fill my heart, as that song says.
This was a great post. I thank you for writing it, and for turning me on to Mr. Terfel. I enjoy baritone singing and I had never heard of him.
If you haven’t heard of it, I’d like to suggest to you the Leopold Kohr book Breakdown of Nations. It’s a great political book written in praise of small states, confederations, the political order of the Holy Roman Empire, etc. if you get my drift. Seems like it’d be up your alley.
The giants given us by our poets tend not to be very smart. And of a latter-day giant Owen Barfield said this: “it is no part of my case that push-and-pull empiricism is weak or ineffectual, only that it is, like other giants, ignorant” (PD 35-6).
There’s some old-fashioned affectionate eloquence in Arthur Machen’s 1920s autobiography Far-off Things, expressive of his loving memory of the “wonderful magic Gwent” of his Welsh boyhood.
I remember reading an essay by historian Stephen Ambrose about the fighting spirit of American soldiers in World War II. Ambrose calls those Americans “citizen soldiers,” men who fought fiercely not so much for the big ideas of Country, Democracy, and Freedom as for the little tangibles: picnics, baseball, and a good day’s work. It’s fitting that in keeping the little things in mind, the soldiers let the big things take care of themselves. As always, Professor Esolen, I enjoyed your essay.
My mistake. “Citizen Soldiers” is the title of one of Ambrose’s books. The essay that I read, also written by Ambrose, was a distillation of the book’s argument. I think it was published in TIME magazine some years ago. I hope that I appear less stupid now.
As always, the comments I receive at Front Porch Republic are the wisest and most instructive of all.
It’s been a while now that people have recommended to me the works of Booth Tarkington. I haven’t read him, but plan to rectify that this summer.
One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare belongs to Richard of Gloucester, who is conniving at the execution of his brother Clarence, and is hoping for the imminent death of his brother, King Edward IV. They can get lost, he says, “And leave the world to me to bustle in.” That one line expresses everything I loathe about modern politicians. They believe that the world is their arena for bustling. Nobody minds his own business. I am speaking of both parties here, though I am thinking of the moment of that Hag in Every Man’s Haggis, she of the foul mouth and the forked tongue.
You always have a knack for touching on several kindred topics all at once. Wales has something of Tolkein’s Shire about it, at least in my imagination (I’ve never been there). Folk music, humane smallness…
Tarkington is most certainly up your alley. I’d never heard of his Growth trilogy, but actually wrote a paper back in college on his Penrod books. You’ll find great sympathy with the view of innocent, mischievous boyhood presented therein.
Yes! The first ‘Penrod’ book is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
Tark’s great novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ is the middle novel of the three. The three books were written separately then later combined as a trilogy.
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