Sewanee in Ruins
Part I



The Romantics were right.
Gothic buildings are best seen in ruin:
sky-sprung clerestories in wild brambles
     —bare ruin'd quires
Romanesque arches reconstructed by the mind,
tumbled-over stones to stumble on in a field
of grey violets,
in a place you can no longer drive to.

When I walk by the Neo-Gothic
duPont Library at the University of the South,
its new stone roughed-up, peachy
after October rain,
my mind sees the façade stripped of half its masonry
by Virginia creeper and torn fog.
I smile into leaves of the bramble stock,
strong and ugly,
aggressively shiny in the mist.

But I come from the cemetery,
where the past is buried under stone.
I smile into the broad, pleasant faces of my students,
the black among the white,
—for we are one people—,
yet my ,mind is with men I have heard of and read of
who, possessed by a fatal romanticism,
killed at fourteen,
ate burnt corn from their own fields,
and wore the dead enemies' shoes
in 1865, when everything burned but the brick chimneys
and a way of talking.

I touch with my tongue my four gold teeth,
answer to the name Sir
and feel out of place
in my twenty-year-old tweeds
among these boys and girls
who call themselves men and women,
these ripe-fruit bodies and untouched smiles,
these peacock blue, canary yellow, billiard-table green
resort clothes from L.L. Bean—
initials emblazoned as on silver—
and hundreds of tiny alligators that never snap.

I climb the 1890s Gothic battlements to my classroom
and teach these fortunate young men and women
their history,
and the old lost nation's name for this spot:
Rattlesnake Springs.
Two coiled rattlesnakes spelled into a slab of rock.
On the Hawkins farm,
out behind where St. Mary's was,
the large stone made a floor for their sheep shed.

Saawaneew in Algonquin,
though white men didn't know it,
meant The South:
from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico.

The words of someone's old diary or letter from 1860:
Nine bishops in their robes
and 50 or 60 clergymen in surplices and gowns
and some 5,000 people formed a procession
and headed by a band playing Hail Columbia
marched to the spot
where the main building of the university
was to be.
Here Old Hundred was sung by the vast multitude.

Those confident, cotton-flush Southerners,
fifty years from the wilderness,
with their horse races, cockfights, African slaves,
their code of duello and decanter,
their railroad cars full of Sir Walter Scott romances,
their 19th-century optimism
and half-a-million cotton dollars as endowment,

their "Southern Oxford,"
as they always called it.

The hogsheads of hams, the barrels, and boxes, and bags
of groceries, the cartloads of crockery and glass, the
bales of sheeting and blankets, and acres of straw beds,
indicated that Southern hospitality for once
had entered upon the difficult undertaking
of outdoing itself. . . .

Yet even then,
there was a feeling as of a great danger
near at hand,
a yawning chasm which all feared to look upon. . . .

Next April
the bells of the old Charleston churches,
St. Philip's and St. Michael's,
chain-rang in celebration.
But a clear-headed observer, if one could be found,
looking off the Battery past Fort Sumter
into the immense ocean and sky,
must have felt mostly dread.

The rest of the oft-told tale is too well known,
how war devastated the land,
the two armies passed over, fighting as they went.
The frame houses built for Mr. Fairbanks
and for Bishops Elliott and Polk
have been burnt to the ground,
the cornerstone blown up by Federal stragglers—

the six-ton block of marble
that 34 yoke of oxen
had dragged up the mountain from the quarry at Elk River.

We are encamped (21st Indian Infantry)
on the top of the Cumberland Mountains,
on the site of the grand Southern University
that was to have been. . . .
Near our quarters is a very large spring
of the clearest and finest water I ever drank.
We expect no real fight between here and Atlanta.

My pleasant-faced, well-mannered freshmen
from South Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama
laugh at the word Yankee,
considering my use of it a kind of local color.
To them the Great War of the Sixties
is something like a football game they're sorry we lost.

And I have no quarrel in the world with them,
awed as I am by their youth
and their innocence of history.

To wear expensive clothes,
to enjoy wearing them
—or just not to think about it—,
to go through the seasons as from one party to the next,
to known no enemies,
to turn from boy or girl May- or June-like
into man or woman,
to make 18-year-old love in the back seat of a Cadillac
on a warm Delta night—
this is the way to be young!

Not to ride and kill with Forrest all over Tennessee
or die with Jackson at Chancellorsville
or Polk at Pine Mount,
or come back from war
with health and nerves and all you own destroyed.
The privilege of being young,
the luxury of ignoring history-
this is what their great-great-grandfathers fought for,
though they lost.

For the flaws in their Neoclassical structure,
for the evil in their midst—
the evil of owning human beings—,
they paid, all of them and all of us,
punished by a vengeance only New England could devise—
though only three Tennesseans out of a hundred in 1860
had owned a slave.

The Armies of Emancipation,
having loosed the fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword
were free to go West and kill Indians.
The machines tooled in that war economy
eased the North on plush velvet and iron rails
into its Gilded Age,
and reconstructed the South
into share-cropping and hunger
that lasted till the war economy of the 1940s;
and a deeper thirst,
not satisfied by the Coke you drink
while flying Delta over kudzu fields out of Atlanta,
reading The Last Gentleman, by Walker Percy.

History stopped for us in 1865,
then started again as memory:
the grey and gold
of the good-smelling, broadcloth uniform,
the new, beautiful, handsewn battle flag,
the West Point strategists, the Ciceronian orations,
the cavalry charges—
The band struck up Dixie's Land
as we hit the top of the mountain

then the heads shot off friends' shoulders,
the desertions, the belly-killing stench of dead flesh,
the forced marches over hard-scrabble Virginia roads—
and Richmond like a brick graveyard.


© 2008 Richard Tillinghast, All Rights Reserved