Ashes to Ashes: Halyards, Sheets, Shrouds, and Painters

The sailors among you will know what that title is all about. But it is not with those marine technicalities that I am going to start. Rather, I have in mind that painting by Georges de la Tour of a young woman (I seem to recall that it is the Magdalene) staring at a skull on her table. By our lights the whole thing is macabre. That lady is headed for trouble, and what she needs is some upbeat counseling.

Anyone familiar with the 2,000 years of Catholic forms of meditation will, of course, wish to lay a hand on the sleeve of the scandalized viewer and try to explain things. One may rummage in vain through the pages of a thousand contemporary books and articles on self-actualization and good mental health and fail altogether to find a syllable recommending what, to the Magdalene and hosts of ardent Catholics, is the very avatar of sound, sensible, solid mental health and freedom.

What we have there, of course, is a memento mori: a reminder of death. The idea is not that we need to wallow in “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous” revels about “tombs and worms and tumbling to decay” (my thanks to Poe for that glorious, alliterative line-up, and to Hopkins for the worms). The idea, quite sensible and wholesome if you think about it for more than the most rushed moment, is that unless you have a fixed, stark, and robust notion of just what that lovely head of yours is going to look like one fine morning, the chances are that your life might fritter itself away, “distracted from distraction by distraction” (Eliot, Four Quartets).

Which brings me, oddly, to our halyards. Do not for a moment sup-pose that I look upon sailors as especially susceptible to distraction. Some of my best friends are sailors, to coin a brand-new phrase. I even sailed around the Caribbean in a little sloop, 40 years ago, with two friends. I was most emphatically “crew,” let it be stressed loudly here. The only thing I learned was that there is no such thing, God help us all, as a rope on board. There are halyards, shrouds, sheets, lines, a painter, etc., but to suppose that any of these is a rope is a solecism guaranteed to paralyze everyone on board with disgust and contempt.

But—to establish some sort of thematic connection here between Georges’s painting and sailing—let me say that I live in a small town that has a splendid little harbor where scores of people moor their sloops, yawls, day sailers, and even ketches. Sailing is a noble activity. But, like all activities, it can ease itself toward being a sort of summum bonum for us mortals. It certainly has a definite cachet about it.

There is a phrase in Psalms that one comes upon every few days in the breviary, about “those who never think of God.” It is alarmingly easy to thus “never think” since “the world is so full of a number of things/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” The thing is, it’s not at all difficult to be as happy as a king while you are beating into a brisk northwest breeze with the spray twinkling and splashing over the gunwales.

But I pick on boats only because they are so beautiful and so obvious. My horse (there’s foxhunting in the fields and spinneys just inland from us, but I don’t hunt and have no horse), my books (this gets close to the bone for me), my backgammon, my therapist, my club, my very lawn and garden—anything can edge God over toward the margin. I could do worse than buy a cheap re-production of old Georges’s picture and mull it over.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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