Ten days before his death in 1940, Edward Frederic Benson, author of Dodo, The Blotting Book, Mrs. Ames, the Mapp & Lucia novels, and a host of ghost stories, delivered a final autobiography to his publishers. The cleverly named Final Edition reveals a number of secrets and memories the author felt it was time to share. He wrote about his mother, widow of one of Queen Victoria’s Archbishops of Canterbury, her companion, his siblings, and various friends. He was the last family member to survive, as he had no children, nieces, or nephews. Such a fate meant his getting to write what he pleased without censorship.
Among the anecdotes, some of which drag on for pages, I enjoyed the opening of chapter five where he described a “total or nearly total eclipse of the sun” that he experienced with his brother Hugh in August 1914.
Benson’s brother, an ordained priest, had converted to Roman Catholicism in spite of being a son of a Protestant Archbishop, and he was awaiting a response to find out if he would be serving as Chaplain to Catholics on the Western Front of World War I. Benson wrote that they checked the bible and found that “the darkening of the sun was not a phenomenon allocated to Armageddon, but to the Day of Judgment, something final and apocalyptic was clearly at hand.”
The two men found the eclipse most interesting and gazed “at the reflection of the diminishing orb on the surface of a bucket of water, where it could be regarded without bedazzlement. The heat of the summer morning was chilled, the circular spots of light filtering through the foliage of the Penzance Briar became crescent-shaped as the eclipse increased: the birds chirruped as in the growing dusk of evening and went to roost. Then through the darkness and silence there sounded the crackle of gravel under the bicycle of a boy from the post office with a telegram for Hugh. It was to tell him that Pope Pius X was dead. This added to the sense of doom and finality.”
By comparison, Jerry Lewis’s death didn’t carry the same weight when it came to portents in the 2017 eclipse this week. We also have advanced warnings of solar and lunar events with certainly more precision than I suspect they had a hundred years ago. Therefore, we were able to plan the day and drive over to a nearby hilltop where one can see four volcanoes in a single panoramic spread: Mounts Jefferson, Hood, Adams and St. Helens.
We didn’t take a bucket of water, even though the sight of a crescent on its surface would have been interesting, but a bottle of sparkling wine and our ISO approved sun-gazing glasses. Being more than 50 miles north of the Path of Totality, we didn’t experience total darkness, but certainly in the moments before totality, a breeze began blowing and the bright sunlight of a warm August morning dimmed to the point that the outdoor lights on the farmhouses below us came on.
In the cool duskiness, had it been night we’d have remarked about the brilliance of a full moon brighter than we’d ever seen, but knowing it was the sun with only a small percentage of its light shining down on us, we marveled at our star’s ability to light the earth while mostly blocked out.
In those short minutes, we gazed at the sky then at our surroundings, remarking how vital is the sun for life on this planet. Once we noticed the moon’s movement, a rooster crowed in the distance, some small birds took flight overhead, and then there was the “crackle of gravel” as cars drove off the hill. We waited for everyone to leave as the heat built and the light returned.
Benson made a few more mentions of contemporary fears in 1914, the idea that if one needed to identify the antichrist, the German Kaiser would have fit the bill, and how a sense of foreboding was connected to a total eclipse. Such attitudes seem strange to me in an age where there were already motorcars and electric lights, but in the pre-television age of World War I, the moon landing was still over a half-century in the future. In fact, the Space Age wouldn’t begin until after a second world war had ended.
What has changed in a century? The Internet, self-driving cars, personal telephones, endless news cycles, and a global economy, but more importantly, what hasn’t changed? There are still madmen terrorizing the planet, marching armies, and displaced refugees.
We have embraced technology, we have gained a greater understanding of space, and we recognize the science behind an eclipse. Why, then, do we continually fail to learn the lessons of peace and love?
© 2017 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1