He Who Outlives This Day

October 25, 1415

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
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 Crispin’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 remember’d.
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 remember’d;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

– Wm. Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3

October 25, 2009

In addition to his titanic literary talents, William Shakespeare was politically savvy and knew how to ingratiate himself with the powers that were. Some have gone so far as to claim the Histories (which included Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV (parts 1 & 2), and Henry VI (parts 1 & 2) as well as Henry V) were written primarily as Tudor propaganda during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His depiction of Richard III as a depraved and deformed monster who was overthrown by the noble and virtuous Henry Tudor, Elizabeth’s grandfather, is a case in point. In any event, the St. Crispin’s day speech may well have been written to remind the English of Elizabeth’s exhortation to her forces to successfully repulse the attempted Spanish invasion of 1588, and thus foster English nationalism. It evidently served both of them well.

In addition to King Henry V’s victorious battle of Agincourt in 1415, St. Crispin’s was the day of the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War in 1854 wherein the less successful Charge of the Light Brigade occurred, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 when the U.S. Navy consigned nearly the entire Japanese fleet to the bottom of the sea. Quotations from Henry’s speech have furnished many a title and pithy quote for military as well as other works of fact and fiction.

St. Crispin’s Day remains a Black Letter Saint’s Day on the Anglican Calendar (for obvious reasons), but not on the Roman. It seems that the Vatican II Council decided there was insufficient evidence that St. Crispin ever existed. Perhaps accurate history, but, as an Orthodox priest of my acquaintance once remarked, bad PR. Shakespeare, however, knew that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. (Quote from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, (John Ford film, 1962)

Bob

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