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One of the most common misconceptions is that justice means getting what you want. It is a misconception that is not only wrong, but one that also carries the very real risk of perverting the course of justice. As the legal farce against Cardinal George Pell has proven: when such a belief is commonly held, it can lead to the imprisonment of innocent people and the disgrace of the entire legal system.
The Pell legal fiasco involved two trials and two appeals which culminated in George Pell’s conviction for historic child sex abuse being overturned by the High Court of Australia. The two trials began in August 2018 in the Victorian County Court. Pell pleaded not guilty to all charges. The first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury proved unable to deliver a verdict. The second trial ended in a guilty predict.
After his sentencing, Pell’s defence team appealed to Victoria’s Appeals Court. They argued that Pell’s conviction “could not be supported by the whole of the evidence” and that, therefore, no reasonable jury could have found him guilty. It was an unusual approach. Most appeals will attempt to overturn a jury verdict by arguing that the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury. Pell’s defence team, on the other hand, were claiming that the jury itself made the error. In order to show that the jury verdict was “not open”, Pell’s defence team had to show that the evidence presented at trial “precluded a guilty verdict.” As the Court of Appeals stated:
“Where the unreasonableness ground is relied upon, the task for the appeal court is to decide whether, on the whole of the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty.
The inquiry which this ground requires is a purely factual one, rather than a discrete question of law where the agreement is that the trial judge has made an error. When the reasonableness ground is relied upon, the appeal court reviews the evidence as it was presented to the jury. The appeal court asks itself whether – on that factual material – it was unreasonably open to the jury to convict the accused.”
According to the Court of Appeal’s review, the prosecution’s case rested on the argument that the accuser was a credible witness upon whom the jury could justify a guilty verdict. This view was shared by both Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell:
“Throughout his evidence, [the complainant] came across as someone who was telling the truth. He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution. As might have been expected, there were somethings which he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had the ring of truth.”
Conversely, both Ferguson and Maxwell judged that there was justifiable reason to doubt the testimonies of the “opportunity witnesses” whose testimonies contradicted the prosecution’s case. Ferguson and Maxwell both found that “the evidence of the opportunity witnesses varied greatly in quality and consistency, and in the degree of recall, both as witnesses and within the evidence of individual witnesses.” They argued that the repetition of events combined with the lengthy passage of time had conspired to put the validity of their testimonies under question. Incredibly, both Ferguson and Maxwell were willing to accept the accuser’s testimony as a true and accurate version of events even though their reasons for discounting the testimonies of the opportunity witnesses could be applied just as easily to him as it could to the others.
The Victorian Court of Appeals upheld Pell’s conviction with a two-to-one majority. The lone dissenter, Justice Mark Weinberg delivered a two-hundred-and-four-page dissent statingthat “in light of the unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses, the odds against [A’s] account of how the abuse occurred, would have to be substantial.” Weinberg did not believe that the prosecution had successfully discounted the testimonies of the “opportunity witnesses” and concluded that a reasonable jury would not have been able to reach a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unperturbed, Pell’s defence team applied to appeal to the High Court. It was granted because the highest court in the land believed there was sufficient argument to suggest that Pell had been convicted on insufficient evidence. Pell’s defence team based their appeal on the argument that Pell’s conviction could not be supported by the evidence and that the Court of Appeals had misapplied the legal test by requiring him to prove that the offending was impossible.
According to the High Court Summary, ‘A’ (the accuser is identified as ‘A’ in the High Court summary) testified that ‘B’ and himself had slipped out of the procession as it was approaching the metal gate to the toilet corridor. (A full description of both the layout of the Cathedral and the procession are contained within the High Court summary). From there they re-entered the Cathedral through the door to the south transept, made their way into the sacristy corridor, slipped into the Priest’s sacristy, and partook in a bottle of red communion wine. ‘A’ alleged that Pell caught them, exposed his penis, orally raped ‘A’, and forced his to remove him trousers so he could fondle his genitals. At this stage both ‘A’ and ‘B’ were crying and Pell is alleged to have told them to be quiet. ‘A’ further claimed that Pell re-assaulted him a month later by pushing him up against a wall and fondling his genitals.
The Court of Appeals had found ‘A’ to be a credible witness, partly because he had knowledge of the interior layout of both the interior of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Priest’s sacristy. (Clearly it didn’t occur to them that he could have attained such knowledge without being abused). There are, however, two problems with ‘A’s testimony. The first concerns the lack of opportunity Pell would have had to commit the crime without being caught. If ‘A’, the prosecution, Ferguson, and Maxwell are to be believed, Pell was a brazen enough offender to molest two choir boys directly after Sunday Mass when the chances of getting caught would have been extremely high.
The second concerns the time of the offending. The prosecution placed the date range for the alleged offending between December 15th and 22nd 1996 for the first offence and February 23rd for the second offence. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was closed for renovations between Easter and November 1996. After it was reopened, Pell officiated two Sunday masses there – December 15th and 22nd December and presided over, though he did not celebrate, Sunday solemn mass on February 23rd, 1997. During this time, renovations to the Archbishop’s sacristy forced him to use the Priest’s sacristy, further enhancing the likelihood of getting caught.
It should come as little surprise that High Court found major inconsistencies between the way the Court of Appeals regarded the accuser’s testimony and the way they regarded the testimony of the “opportunity witnesses”:
“The Court of Appeal majority’s treatment of what their Honours rightly identified as the critical issue in the case was wrong for two reasons. First, Portelli’s evidence was unchallenged. Secondly, their Honours were required to reason in a manner that is consistent with the way in which a jury would be directed in accordance with the Jury Direction Act 2015 (Vic). Their Honours were required to take into account the forensic disadvantage experienced by the applicant arising from the delay of some 20 years in being confronted with these allegations. Their Honours, however, reasoned to satisfaction of the applicant’s guilt by discounting a body of evidence that raised lively doubts as to the commission of the offences because they considered the likelihood that the memories of honest witnesses might have been affected by delay.”
The testimony of Monsignor Charles Portelli, the former Master of Ceremonies, was of particular interest to the High Court. As Master of Ceremonies, Portelli’s duties included meeting Pell when he arrived at the Cathedral, assisting him with his vestments, and so on. Portelli testified that the two occasions Pell celebrated Mass in December 1996 were memorable because of the large number of people who wanted to meet Pell. He recalled standing beside Pell during the procession and seeing Pell hand his mitre and crosier to two altar boys whilst he stood at the west door greeting congregants. During the cross examination, Portelli stated that whilst it was possible that Pell only remained at the west door greeting people for a couple of minutes, he did not remember it. Furthermore, Portelli testified that even if he had, Pell would have been accompanied by Max Potter or another Priest.
Sacristan Max Potter concurred with much of Portelli’s testimony. Potter claimed that Pell spent twenty minutes to half-an-hour greeting congregants. When asked he stated that whilst it was possible for Pell to have left earlier than normal, it would have been unlikely at first because “it took him [Pell] a while to readjust, and [he] stayed in there welcoming people for a couple of months in the Cathedral.” Potter also backed up Portelli’s assertion that Pell would not have returned to the Priest’s sacristy to remove his vestments alone. Furthermore, Potter stated that he unlocked the Priest’s sacristy as the procession was making its way down the centre aisle and that he gave congregants five to six minutes to pray in the sanctuary before he and the altar servers removed the sacred vessels, a task that generally took around a quarter-of-an-hour.
Potter was suffering memory issues during Pell’s trial. In particularly, his testimony makes it unclear as to when exactly he unlocked the Priest’s sacristy. Other witnesses, however, also testified in Pell’s favour. Both Doctor Cox, the assistant organist, and Peter Finnigan, the choir marshal, recalled the Priest’s sacristy being a “hive of activity” following the Mass. Likewise, Jeffrey Connor and McGlone, both of whom were altar servers at the time, stated that they could recall no occasion in which the Priest’s sacristy had been left either unlocked or unattended. They testified that Potter had been waiting to unlock the Priest’s sacristy so they could bow to the crucifix and complete their duties.
Connor wrote of Pell’s “invariable” practice of greeting congregants on the steps of the Cathedral in his personal diary. Connor testified that he had never seen Pell alone whilst wearing his vestments, and that if he had the event would certainly have been memorable. McGlone concurred with Connor’s version of events testifying that he understood the Archbishop’s vestments were sacred and that certain prayers had to be said as they were being donned or removed. McGlone recalled he and his mother having a brief interaction with Pell.
The High Court unanimously concluded that no reasonable jury, working to the standard that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, could find George Pell guilty. They found that the possibility of reasonable doubt arising from the unchallenged evidence of multiple witnesses should have prompted the jury to entertain the possibility of reasonable doubt. As a result, they overturned Pell’s conviction.
It is not difficult to see Pell as a casualty of the broader culture war – the ideological conflict over the fate of western culture – that has enveloped modern society. Pell’s outspoken traditionalism and fervent Catholicism combined with his contentious views on gay marriage, the morning-after pill, and the ordination of women has made him persona non grata for many social groups. Combine this with the Catholic Church’s admittedly abysmal response to child sex abuse allegations, and it isn’t hard to see why Pell was targeted. It is as though they thought they could punish the Church by convicting Pell.
It should go without saying that the sexual abuse of a child, whether it is committed by a stranger, a scoutmaster, or a Catholic Cardinal is abhorrent. It is more than reasonable to hold child abusers accountable for their crimes. However, it is more important to uphold those principles upon which our legal system is based. It is these principles that have allowed us to live in freedom and (relative) prosperity for as long as we have.
Although most people recognise the necessity of legal protections against miscarriages of justice, many do not believe that these protections should extend to people accused of sex crimes. There is an alarming trend where politicians attempt to use the spectre of child abuse to curry favour with the public. In many cases, these attempts involve violating time honoured legal principles. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, for example, has made several recommendations that state governments have only been too eager to lap up. Among the Royal Commission’s recommendations have been the abolition of statutory limitations on child sex abuse allegations and reformations to evidence law so juries can learn more about a defendant’s past.
In 2020, Victoria’s Attorney General, Martin Pakula introduced the Limitations of Actions Amendment (Child Abuse) Act 2015 which exempted cases where injuries had been acquired from the psychological, physical, or sexual abuse of a minor from the usual statutory limitations. Similarly, the Conversation reported in February 2020 that the New South Wales government had introduced a new would that would “make it easier for a jury to be informed about the prior convictions of a person on trial for a sex offence.” Similar laws are expected to be introduced in Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory.
These blatant violations of western legal jurisprudence have emerged from a pernicious belief that all who claim to have been sexually abused must be telling the truth. Pell’s lone accuser perfectly summarised this view in his statement following the High Court’s decision:
“I respect the decision of the High Court. I respect the outcome. I understand their view that there was not enough evidence to satisfy the court beyond all reasonable doubt that the offending occurred.
No one wants to live in a society where people can be imprisoned without due process and proper processes. This is a basic civil liberty. But the price we pay for weighting the system in favour of the accused is that many sexual offences against children go unpunished.”
Merely being accused of a crime does not make someone guilty. Our legal system requires that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt Weighting the system in the favour of the ‘victim’, as Pell’s accuser is suggesting, is no different than weighting the system in favour of the state. Under such circumstances a defendant would have no chance of defending himself against any charge brought against him.
Shortly after he was convicted, Anne Manne wrote in The Monthly that Pell’s conviction “enacted the dignity and power of the rule of law.” In reality, precisely the opposite happened. The rule of law is defined by the Australian Constitution Centre as “the idea that every person is subject to the laws of the land regardless of their status. It is the idea that you cannot be punished or have your rights affected other than in accordance with a law, and only after a breach of the law has been established in a court of law.” George Pell was treated with a special kind of vindictiveness because he was a Catholic Cardinal. He was not treated like everybody else.
The Rule of Law is supposed to be the opposite of the rule of power. It recognises that whilst it may be necessary to have leaders, no one individual ought to be master over his fellows. As Clive Staples Lewis once noted: “Aristotle said that some men were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” The Rule of Law is supposed to reflect the fact that Australia is a nation governed by law, not by rulers. The Australian legal system has tainted this principle by treating George Pell differently just because he is a Cardinal.
The George Pell legal fiasco has revealed deep corruption inside the Victorian legal establishment. When one considers the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Court of Appeals proclivity to ignore evidence that did not support the prosecution, the weakness of the prosecution’s case, and the relentless media witch hunt, it is hard not to think of the Pell trial as anything less than a calculated attempt to silence an outspoken conservative Cardinal. When cases like Pell’s come along, we should remind ourselves of that old Latin maxim: “let just be done though the heavens fall.”
In March of 2015, a Coloradan woman, Michelle Wilkins, was lured to a meet-up arranged on Craigslist and brutally attacked. During the attack, Wilkins, who was seven months pregnant, had her unborn child cut from her body. Wilkins survived the attack but, sadly, her child did not. And, as if to add insult to injury, Wilkin’s unborn child was not recognised as human under Coloradan law.
Legal abortion – which I will define as the state approved murder of an innocent life – is a barbarity no civilised society should tolerate. As the Canadian clinical psychologist and YouTube sensation, Jordan Peterson (1962 – ) commented, “abortion is clearly wrong. You wouldn’t recommend someone you love have one.”
However, this is not to say that abortion isn’t a deeply complex and emotive issue. On the one hand, it is a procedure often used by desperate or easily persuaded women who feel that aborting their unborn child is the only option open to them (which it very rarely is). On the other hand, it is a form of murder cynically exploited by feminist extremists for political purposes.
Pro-choice proponents have several arguments in favour of total and free access to abortion.
The first argument, and the one that carries the greatest degree of credibility, concerns the health of the mother and her ability to safely carry a child to term. The Washington Post, for example, reported a story about an Indian girl who had been repeatedly raped and eventually impregnated by her uncle. An abortion was performed when it was decided she was too young to carry her child to term.
In all honesty, this is a sentiment which I have a great deal of sympathy for. It is very difficult for a woman to be a mother if she is dead, and it would be as wrong to sacrifice the life of the mother for the child as it would be to sacrifice the life of the child for the sake of the mother.
But the argument that abortion is necessary when the health of the mother is in jeopardy does not necessarily translate into the full, absolute, and unquestionable right to abortion. It is merely an argument for the preservation of the life of the mother.
The second argument concerns the health of vitality of the child itself. Often, however, this kind of argument is often used as a disguise for a desire to engage in eugenics. Claiming that a child with down syndrome should be aborted, for example, is the same as saying that people afflicted with certain maladies should not be afforded the same right to life as everybody else.
The third argument concerns instances where pregnancy has been instigated through an act of rape or incest. Whether or not rape should be sufficient grounds for an abortion is a tricky one to grapple with. On the one hand, the mother did not choose to be placed in the situation she has found herself in. And, by extension, birthing, and most probably raising, a child borne of rape may prove to be an insurmountable emotional turmoil for the mother. On the other hand, however, the child did not choose to be conceived through rape, and it is immoral to punish an innocent person for the crimes of another.
In reality, however, the rape justification for abortion is merely a red herring. It is a backdoor method for justifying the total, absolute, and unquestionable access to abortion.
The fourth argument concerns the idea that a woman has the right to abort her unborn child because she has the absolute right to bodily autonomy. In Texas last year, Judge Earl Leroy Yeakel III (1945 – ) overturned Senate Bill Eight which prevented doctors from performing evacuation and dilation abortions by mandating that a child’s heart must stop beating before the procedure can be performed. Yeakel claimed that the decision to abort a child outside the womb is “solely and exclusively the woman’s decision.”
This is the easiest argument to refute. An abortion does not only affect a woman’s body, it also destroys the life of a separate, innocent human being. Furthermore, the right to choose when to have a family is one shared by all people up to a point. A man has the right to wear a condom, he can have a vasectomy, and so forth. Likewise, a woman has every right to use contraceptive birth control, a diaphragm, a female condom, a cervical cap, an intrauterine device, and more. Couples can even refrain from having sex. But the right to family planning ends the moment a child has been conceived.
The fifth argument, and the one that is the most egregious, is the argument that an unborn child does not count as a human life. Much of this is the result of language. We use Latin words like “foetus” and “embryo” to fool ourselves into believing an unborn child is not a human being.
Therein lies the rub. People have always justified evil and immorality by altering the parameters of their morals to suit themselves. People have always justified murder by claiming that the person they are killing is not human. They may argue, for example, that murder is wrong, but that they are justified in aborting their unborn child because they do not see that child as human.
And the biological and physiological question of whether the unborn child is a human being is, without any shadow of a doubt, yes.
This is the case right down to the genetic level. Virtually every cell in our bodies contains thirty thousand or more different genes that are spread out on long strands of DNA known as chromosomes. Now DNA is very special. It is the chemical building block that makes us who we are. It determines whether or not we will go bald, what our eye and hair colour will be, how tall we will be, and much more besides.
If there is anything that DNA is good at it’s replicating itself. This can occur in two ways. At the most basic level, DNA replicates itself through cloning. At the most complex, one set of DNA merges with another set of DNA through sexual intercourse. And in doing so it creates an entirely unique individual.
But how can it do this safely? The answer lies in a process known as meiosis. When the human body makes sex gametes – sperm and ovum – it does so by making a copy of a previous cell. When it does this it keeps itself attached at one point and then condenses to make an ‘X’ shape. The four chromosomes then embrace and transfer some of their genetic material to each other. Finally, the cell split twice to create new sperm or ovum that carries a unique genetic package.
In other words, every sperm cell and every ovum carry a set of chromosomes that has never existed before and will never exist again.
Human beings have a grand total of forty-six chromosomes or twenty-three pairs. The moment a child has been conceived a full set of these chromosomes, known as a diploid, is established. It will receive twenty-three chromosomes from its father and twenty-three chromosomes from its mother.
The average pregnancy lasts between thirty-seven and forty-two weeks. During this time the child growing inside a woman’s body will go through all kinds of wonderful and miraculous changes. At three weeks, it’s brain, heart, gastrointestinal tract, and spinal cord have begun to form. By the fourth and fifth weeks, the heart is pumping rudimentary blood through the child’s veins with a steady rhythm. By the sixth week, the child’s fingers and toes have begun to form, and the child’s heartbeat can now be detected. By the end of the second month, all the child’s essential organs have begun to form.
And there’s still another seven months to go! By the fourteenth to sixteenth weeks, the child will begin to move around, its liver and pancreas will have begun to secrete fluid, and its fingerprints will begin to form. By the seventeenth to the twentieth week, the mother will be able to feel her child moving around inside her, it’s heartbeat will be detectable via a stethoscope, and its fingernails, toenails, eyebrows, and eyelashes will have started to grow.
By the twenty-fourth through to the twenty-sixth week, the child’s brain will be rapidly developing, the nervous system will be developed to a sufficient enough degree to give the child some control, albeit minutely, over its own movements, it will have developed a startle reflex, and its sleeping cycles will be perceptible to the mother. A child born at this stage can survive outside the womb with the assistance of modern medical technology. By the thirty-third to thirty-sixth week, the child will shift into the birthing position and will rapidly put on weight. Within weeks, a fully formed human being will be born.
Any discussion about abortion must begin with the scientific truth that an unborn child is a human life. Only after that truth has been acknowledged can factors like the health of the mother, the vitality of the child, cases of rape and incest, and bodily autonomy can be considered. The preservation of innocent life is the most important responsibility for every person living in a free society. The way we respond to this issue will define us for decades to come.
This is our weekly theological article.
For most of my life I have had a great affinity for cemeteries and graveyards. A gentle stroll through the neat and peaceful rows of graves, pausing occasionally to read the inscription on the headstone of someone who lived and died long before I was born has been the source of great pleasure for me.
I believe cemeteries and graveyards are important for two reasons. First, they are incredibly artistic. One cannot help but notice the well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, the magnificent sculpting’s of the headstones, and the often-poetic rhetoric of the epitaphs. Second, I believe that cemeteries and graveyards provide people with a physical connection with their cultural heritage and allows them to tap into their ancestral past. As Doctor Celestina Sagazio, a historian working for Melbourne’s Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, observed, cemeteries and graveyards provide a clue into the daily lives of people throughout history.
Modern culture has little time for the contemplation of death. That would go against ‘positive thinking’ and the perpetual lie of ‘eternal youth.’ This, however, stands in stark contrast with the convictions of most of our forebears. From antiquity through to the early twentieth century, the consideration of death was considered a good motivator for leading a virtuous and meaningful life. Recent studies affirm this belief, finding that the contemplation of one’s own mortality acts as a motivator for assessing one’s values and goals and can greatly improve physical health.
The phrase, ‘Memento Mori’, is said to have originated with the Ancient Romans. Tradition in Ancient Rome dictated that a servant or slave should stand behind a triumphant General during his victory parade. This servant or slave would whisper in the General’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento Mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”).
Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the concept of ‘Memento Mori’ took on new motifs. The engraving, ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1539) by Georg Pencz (1500 – 1550) depicted a scythe-wielding skeleton commanding an oxen-driven chariot. Similarly, the dance of death – involving skeletal figures – lead everyone from the Pope to the humble ploughman in a final dance of death. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many New England graves were adorned with epitaphs like ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Hora Fugit’ (‘the hour flees’) and were emblazoned with images of skulls, bones, winged death’s heads, hourglasses, and other symbols of death and the passage of time.
The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca (4BC – AD65) advised: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” The careful contemplation of mortality and the deliberate awareness of death has a profoundly positive effect on the health and vitality of the soul.
This week for our cultural article we will be looking at the Now is the Winter of Our Discontent soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Richard III.
The play, which was first published in 1597, deals with the rise and fall of the Machiavellian king, Richard III. It follows Richard as he lies, cheats, manipulates, and ultimately murders his way from the position of Duke of Gloucester to the Kingship of England. Then, finally, it follows his fall from power as he struggles to keep his kingdom unified, and ends with his death at the Battle of Bosworth field and the declaration of the Tudor dynasty.
William Shakespeare is one of the most important figures of the English Renaissance, living through the reign of Elizabeth I and the early years of James I. Over the course of his life, he published over thirty plays, as well as numerous poems and sonnets.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd, 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, was an alderman and successful glove-maker. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of an affluent farmer. Young Shakespeare probably received an education at Edward IV Grammar school in Stratford. There he would have become familiar with the Roman dramatists, Latin, and the basics of Ancient Greek.
At eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Together, the couple would have three children: Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet (who would die in childhood). He would die at the age of fifty-two on April 23rd, 1616.
RICHARD III – CHARACTER
Countless villains, from Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine to Lord Voldemort, owe their existence to Shakespeare’s infamous character. Shakespeare presents Richard to us as a murderous psychopath, a Machiavellian villain driven by jealousy and a mad lust for power.
The word “now” implies that the play is taking place in the present. Similarly, “sun” is a pun referring to both warmth and brightness of summer and to the son of the Duke of York. Ultimately, Richard is referring to the brief period of peace brought about by his brother’s, Edward IV’s, ascent to the throne of England.
Here Richard tells us that all the hardships his family had endured have been buried in the “deep bosom of the ocean.”
The Yorks have won the War of the Roses (for now) and wear the laurel wreaths of victorious heroes upon their heads. The weapons they used have been hung on the walls to memorialise their victory. And now, with peace and order restored, the call of battle has morphed into the sound of people chatting and being friendly with one another. There is even a little dancing. If war were a person, Richard tells us, his gruff facial features have been smoothed out into something kinder and more pleasant.
King Edward, Richard informs us, is no longer riding into battle and commanding his army to put the fear of God into his enemies. Instead, he is making love to music in a lady’s chamber.
Once a week, King Alfred Press will be examining a work of Western Culture. These works can include literature, poetry, film, art, music, or anything else considered ‘cultural.’
This week we will be examining the poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The poem was published in 1648 as part of a volume of verse entitled Hesperides, written by lyrical poet and cleric, Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674). (It was one of twenty-five-hundred poems Herrick would write in his lifetime).
Over the course of his eighty-three years, Herrick lived through the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), James I (1566 – 1625), Charles I (1600 – 1649), and Charles II (1630 – 1685), as well as the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the subsequent English Commonwealth (1653 – 1660) under Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658).
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The opening line, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, provides clues to the poem’s influences. In the Wisdom of Solomon (chapter two, verse eight), the phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.” The closing line of De Rosis Nascentibus, attributable to either Ausonius or Virgil, is:
“Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.”
In English, this translates to: “Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that your life-times hastes away.” Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) the Faerie Queen has a young man in the Bower of Bliss sing:
“Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time,
Whilest loving thou mayst loved be with equall crime.”
Whilst, Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) sonnet eighteen begins with the couplet:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date.”
Interestingly, the title of Herrick’s poem may provide us with a clue as to its intentions. The poem’s title addresses itself to ‘the virgins’ – young, beautiful woman – and advises them ‘to make much of time’ – use their beauty and their youth while they still have the chance.
Herrick’s poem is one of the most famous examples of ‘Carpe Diem’ type sentimentality. The term, ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’, is a Latin sentiment attributable to the Roman lyrical poet, Horace (65BC – 8BC). We are asked, by Herrick and Horace, among others, to understand the brevity of our lives and to make the most of what ever precious moments happen to be presented to us. In this sense, to the Virgins is an advisory poem, an attempt by Herrick to impart some wisdom to us. “The sun is only going to shine on you for a brief moment”, Herrick appears to be telling us, “so make the most of it.” Even beauty and youth fades: “and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying.”