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“Golden lads and girls all must”

— Ten years ago today, in the early morning hours in my residential college office, an agitated student came to the door to tell me that Britain’s Princess Diana had been severely injured in a car accident. The student ran off to her room to see if there were more details on the TV.

Those were still the early days of web-based news reporting, but I pulled up a page of headlines on the computer at my desk and saw the breaking news banner appear: Princess Diana killed in Paris car crash.

Within hours memorials began to appear spontaneously on students’ doors throughout the college. More than one student was crying. The scenes that began to play out in our small collegiate society were being played out in parallel in hundreds and thousands of homes, schools, towns, and neighborhoods all around the world.

Many in the academic world reacted to the whole affair with the smug disdain that that academic world is famous for. In so doing they betrayed the disdain they really had for many of their own students, especially their female students. Reflexive academic prejudice blinded them to one of the most authentic cultural outpourings of a generation, an outpouring that skilled teachers everywhere should have been able to use to bring their students into living contact with some of the deepest roots of human psychology and Western civilization. And those in small residential colleges were in a position to do this better than anyone.

Diana’s funeral was broadcast on September 6th. It began before dawn in the eastern United States, but even so, a pajama-clad group, almost all female, gathered in our residential college common room to watch. Few remained dry-eyed. Some estimates placed worldwide viewership at two and a half billion, making it the largest communal event in human history. I am a great believer in the importance of ritual and ceremony in collegiate life, and if there’s anything to be said for the British Royal Family it’s that they know how to do ritual and ceremony. Young people need to see events like this, and to participate in them, because it roots them in the world.

In that same common room a few days earlier the college’s faithful Star Trek watching group had seen one of the best episodes of the Voyager series, “Scorpion II,” in which a member of the cybernetic Borg collective was forced to form an alliance with Voyager’s human crew. The cyborgs—millions of minds instantaneously linked, able to absorb and process information on a planetary scale—were for the first time seen up close, and for the first time we saw their visceral contempt for the preposterously self-important humans. “You are erratic,” one declared; “conflicted, disorganized.” Humans are so inferior that they are hardly worthy of attention. “You lack harmony. Cohesion. Greatness.

In the pre-dawn hours as I watched Diana’s casket pass down the nave of Westminster Abbey, draped with a red and blue and gold royal standard and flanked by scarlet soldiers, I remember thinking that the cyborg was wrong: we have harmony, we have cohesion, we have greatness.

For many of us, Diana’s funeral was the first time we had heard John Taverner’s bone-shaking “Alleluia,” which reaches back to Shakespeare and further back to the Greek Orthodox liturgy and the New Testament for its text, and it has remained with us ever since. As the voices groaned, then rose, then soared over the audible tread of the Welsh guards, the ghost of Aristotle surely felt katharsis being performed on half the human race:

State funerals—those most communal of rituals—are not about the powerful dead, they are about the powerless living. Those who sneer at them are sneering at their fellow human beings. Prayers at this funeral were offered for a princess, yes, but also to the Lord of the Broken-hearted on behalf of “all for whom today’s service rekindles memories of grief untimely borne.” And that’s hardly a Christian sentiment alone. In the Iliad we see the public grief for the hero Patroclus washing over the entire Greek camp, even its war-slaves, and “calling forth each woman’s private sorrows.”

A good residential college should be consciously structured in ways that encourage teaching through every aspect of collegiate life. Without a weekly newsletter, for example, you can’t have a poem-of-the-week, and without a poem-of-the-week, you can’t demonstrate how great literature often achieves its greatness by sitting quietly in wait while the world catches up to it. That was something I tried to teach during the week after Diana’s death, perhaps not very well.

For surely the story of Diana—the blonde, fashion-model princess sought out by every clothes designer in Europe; with the scowling royal mother-in-law; hunted by the flash-cameras of paparazzi; sniped at by tabloid gossip columnists around the world; tragically killed with her new lover; and her gravesite already a place of pilgrimage for thousands—surely the story of Diana had been so bizarre that it couldn’t be connected with anything instructive in the literary or historical past.

I guess that’s so. The only remotely relevant thing I could find to include in my residential college newsletter that week was a song from Shakespeare:

Fear no more the heat ’o the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021