Friday, November 11, 2005

Veteran's Day / St. Crispin's Day

I love Henry V, and especially this speech, you know, the one before the battle of Agincourt:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I was so moved the first time I read the speech that I thought I should, indeed, remember St. Crispin's day. So, I looked around, looked it up. And along the way, I learned that by the late 16th century, no one in England celebrated or memorialized St. Crispin's day nor the Agincourt battle.

There's a deep irony in this speech when we think of it coming out of the mouth of a 16th century actor on a London stage. (There's a commonplace that the sudden abundance of English chronicle history plays in the period was complexly related to nationalism related to the English victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, which adds to the irony level.) The irony level rises again when Henry speaks of the battle dead a few scenes later, and the report speaks primarily of those who have "names." Once the battle's done, there's no sense of brotherhood with the yeomanry or laborers. Pistol drives the point home by noting that he'll "steal" back to England where he'll "steal."

I make an effort every fall when I teach Shakespeare to teach Henry V during the week of October 25th, hoping that I'll actually manage to be doing the St. Crispin's day speech on St. Crispin's day. Doing that speech on that day highlights the irony and reminds us of the transitory nature of human memory and memorial. It's humbling to realize that memories, even of the most culturally or nationally important events don't last much longer than "whiles any speaks / That fought with us" in whatever important battle or war. Once the war generation dies off, specific memorial moments lose importance, fade from memory, or are replaced, alas, by more recent events the culture or nation needs to memorialize.

When people talk about remembering the September 11 tragedies until the end of time, I can't help but think back to the great St. Crispin's day speech.

When I was a kid, my family had some special friends, H and T, a married couple who, if I recall correctly, had met as soldier and nurse during WW I. Today, even though H and T can't speak any more, I'm remembering them, and I'll stop at the 11th hour and remember what they meant to me, and think about what that generation went through in the "war to end all wars." Only it wasn't, and didn't, and I have a feeling we'll continually have new wars and tragedies to memorialize until long after I'm no longer remembered.


  1. Anonymous8:21 AM

    Although we may not note the date of St Crispin's day, I can assure you that here in England the victory at Agincourt is not forgotten. Even football hooligans have been known to shout 'Remember Agincourt!' if the opposing side is French.

  2. Anonymous1:47 AM

    I am also teaching English Literature, and I would be very interested in finding out whether St. Crispian's Day was celebrated in Shakespeare's time. You said it wasn't - do you know any secondary literature which one could quote?