A Terrible Beauty is Born

A Terrible Beauty is Born

On occasions I stroll through the iconic Waverly cemetery. Since I live in the nearby neighbourhood it is both a convenient and a wonderful place to reflect. It is also where my paternal grandparents are buried as well as numerous uncles and aunts.  A dear friend who died 20 years ago is there as well and her grave is near the famous monument to the Irish freedom fighters.

The Irish monument was built in 1898 not that long after the cemetery was opened. It is a marble and mosaic structure. It commemorates the Irish rebellion of 1798. It also commemorates the part played by the Wickham chief Michael Dwyer who led the English on a merry dance until his surrender in 1803. He surrendered on the condition he be transported to America. The Brits though reneged and in 1806 he was sent to Botany Bay.

It is when I pass this monument that the words of W.B.Yeats ring out

‘All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.’

Yeats was referring to the botched Irish nationalist uprising of 1916 and the executed leaders of that uprising. But I feel that his words have a universal meaning allowing us to acknowledge that we all possess a sense and a longing for beauty that so many of the materialistic and worldly values forced on us attempt to undermine. We can find ourselves so easily seduced by power because of our innate fear of being powerless.

1916 was a watershed moment in Irish history for its effects became irreversible. There was a point of no return. Ironically it was more symbolic than military or political. It was about good people who died and from whose deaths a beauty was born. The verse of Yeats was an oxymoron used to describe the dual effect of the Easter Uprising.

It was terrible because of the senseless deaths. Yet there was beauty because our eyes were opened to make us aware of the rich potential of the human condition and the desperate need to experience such beauty.

Beauty and ugliness seem to be our companions on the travels that we make in life. It is a confirmation that we live with oxymorons. The question that we must come to terms with is just how do we get our heads and hearts round this seeming conundrum.

The opposition treasurer Joe Hockey was recently interviewed by Alan Jones, who Hockey himself had previously described “As the greatest broadcaster of all time”. Jones asked “Why do we feed asylum seekers but not farmers and cattle?” He compared asylum seekers with cattle assuming that the nourishment of the former takes second place to feeding cattle.

As we know Mainland Excision Laws recently passed parliament so that all processing is now to be on Manus Island and Nauru. Such a move would have been untenable, even unimaginable years back. But now it has bipartisan approval and ratification. What has happened for us to allow this to happen?   Why does feeding cattle become a priority over feeding humans? Where does ‘turning back the boats’ rest with our sense of being human?

Desperate to stay in power, or on the other hand to achieve it, it would seem that both sides of politics work on the underbelly of the Australian psyche. Power and fear are compatible bedfellows. They feed off one another. That is where Jones is so good at his trade and why politicians feel the need to grovel to him.

It is precisely here that ugliness raises its head. But then what of beauty? Now the oxymoron starts to make sense. TS Eliot summed it up ‘When good does evil in its struggle against evil, it becomes indistinguishable from its enemy.’ 

Those seeking to flee persecution, those cursed by entrenched poverty and a dehumanized way of living, take the risk to find new beginnings in sheer desperation. The horror of Siev X with the loss of over 350 lives, most of whom were women and children, readily comes to mind and tells its own story.

All this is in the belief of a future that offers them hope. This in turn allows for the possibility of beauty entering their lives. Is the goal of the asylum seekers really any different from those who fought for a free Ireland? We are who we are we are in need of one another. That is at the heart of a community and the world is in fact that Global community. There doesn’t have to be a separation between us and the objects that make up our world.

To be real we must become lovers of life in all its complexities and uncertainties. I sense that we all long to become real and to know what authenticity feels like. But this has a down side that at times may be hard to take on board. In a world that by and large judges by appearances and the need for security the greatest temptation is to become unreal so that any uncomfortable situation need not be faced.

Let us go back to the Irish monument at Waverley cemetery and to the words of Yeats. We will only discover beauty when we can face ugliness and act upon. Ugliness is running rampant when a ranting Jones and weak kneed politicians pander to the fears of a tabloid indoctrinated public and where asylum seekers become no more than objects to be pitied or at worse nuisances that must be excised from our shores.

To discover beauty we must order our lives in such a way that beauty will arise from the ashes and glow. Only that permits all and sundry to see what life can offer.

Do those with power or those seeking power believe that it can only be attained by catering to a fragile underbelly inflated by the tabloids of detritus? If so then ugliness expands and beauty is diminished. We become no different from the empty shibboleths espoused by the seekers of power. We need to always keep in mind that the courage and tenacity of those in search of beauty is evidence enough of the extraordinary depth of the human spirit.

So as I leave Waverley cemetery with the cold chill in the air becoming more pronounced. I reflect on the words of Yeats, on the Irish monument, on my friend buried nearby and on my family members. I ponder the tragedy of Siev X and the other drownings which are becoming all too frequent. I feel for those persecuted in their own countries. All they desire is to start a new life, a life that dignifies their existence. I am saddened to see that the slogan ‘Turning back the boats’ could be a vote winner for the next elections. Perhaps John Keats sums up how I feel. ‘Truth is beauty.’ But truth as with beauty comes at a cost.


John Hill

10th of June 2013

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