I was quite struck by Mayor Menino’s speech yesterday at the one year celebration of the Boston Bombing. Inside the Hynes Convention Center, Menino cites Ernest Hemingway’s quote that, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” Menino tells those present, “You are strong at this broken place.” I was moved by this reference because it so easily served it purpose of giving hope to those that have experienced despair or death as a result of the tragic bombing. I also wanted to remind myself about where it came from and what that setting might say to us today:
A Farewell to Arms is a novel written by Ernest Hemingway set during the Italian campaign of World War I. The book, published in 1929, is a first-person account of American Frederic Henry, serving as a Lieutenant (“Tenente”) in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. The title is taken from a poem by 16th-century English dramatist George Peele.
A Farewell to Arms is about a love affair between the expatriate American Henry and Catherine Barkley against the backdrop of the First World War, cynical soldiers, fighting and the displacement of populations. The publication of A Farewell to Arms cemented his stature as a modern American writer, became his first best-seller, and is described by biographer Michael Reynolds as “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I.”
So the premier American World War I novel is an excellent setting to reference for the Boston Bombing as the shock of World War I’s senseless killings on a mass scale help us to relate to, and to find hope in, the senseless killings at the finish line in Boston. And where did the title come from? A 1590 poem!
Peele wrote the poem on the occasion of the retirement in 1590 of Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611) as Queen Elizabeth’s champion knight, who performed in jousts before the queen each year on the November 17 anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession (1558) to the English throne. Lee continued to serve the queen as Master of the Royal Armouries, a position to which he was appointed in 1580. It is said that Peele’s poem was sung to the queen during Lee’s final jousting tournament on November 17, 1590.
You see, the wheels in my head are turning about the educational lessons learned over the centuries. And what have we learned? What more do we really know about war, bombing and death? Is hope all there is to learn? What can we learn about some of the victims of this bombing who simply just feel broken?
In fact, the learning I have come away with is not just that we are strong, too, but that weapons break us. The world, our lives in this world, are often about struggling in the face of adversity and with hope, succeeding to overcome that adversity, to walk and run again. But a larger lesson is embedded in another movemment to reduce the potential for this tragedy by giving up our need for weapons. Should so many resources be devoted to making, buying, and selling weapons? Perhaps we need to think more creatively about collaborating on and educational movement to say, “Farewell to Arms.”