Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Katy's Musing: Beautiful Words

Today is Independence Day, aka the Fourth of July, in the U.S., where we celebrate our nation's birthday (actually, the ratification of the Declaration of Independence). In honor of that day, I want to quote three of my favorite pieces of writing, all having great historical significance in the U.S.

First is the opening of the aforementioned Declaration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
I think that's a gorgeous piece of writing. I love the groundedness of it, the formality, the courtesy. The next part, the one about all men being created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, is the part everyone knows. I still really love the beginning.

The next is the first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
I love its practicality: "In order to accomplish these things, this is what we're doing," but I also love the stateliness of the list of things to be accomplished by ordaining and establishing the Constitution. (Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen's account of the drafting of the Constitution is fabulous; she makes you believe it might not have happened, no mean feat...)

The last is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I've ever read, a true prose poem: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. (For a detailed examination of the address, both in context and as a pure piece of writing, I highly recommend Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
 Here's wishing you a safe and happy Fourth of July, whether you celebrate it or not.