“A hush of reverence for that vast dead
Who gave us beauty for a crust of bread.”
I came across this quotation, mis-attributed, in an essay, and found it rather compelling. Tracking down the source, however, proved to be surprisingly difficult. The attribution didn’t help, of course, sending me looking for a poet who didn’t exist, but mostly the problem was that this poem, and its poet, are both rather obscure.
Eventually, I tracked it down through a book of deliberately-unordered poems (which seems a strange editorial choice) and a website that initially claimed it was written by a German Engineer.
The actual poet is Anderson M. Scruggs, a man about whom little is recorded and even less is widely known. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Almost all that I know about him comes from this article. He was a dentist, as well as a poet. He was rather well-regarded, both personally and poetically. He almost always had a draft for a new poem on him, kept in an inside jacket pocket. He died in 1959, and he has been mostly forgotten.
I don’t really like that. Artists seek a form of immortality, and it seems unfair that an artist of his calibre should be denied even a small legacy. He and his work deserve to be remembered more than they are. So this post is a very small contribution to the very small field of Anderson M. Scruggs discourse.
The poem that I searched for is titled “Glory to Them”. It is reproduced in full below.
Glory to them, the toilers of the earth,
Who wrought with knotted hands, in wood and stone,
Dreams their unlettered minds could not give birth
And symmetries their souls had never known.
Glory to them, the artisans, who spread
Cathedrals like brown lace before the sun,
Who could not build a rhyme, but reared instead
The Doric grandeur of the Parthenon.
I never cross a marble portico,
Or lift my eyes where stained glass windows steal
From virgin sunlight moods of deeper glow,
Or walk dream-peopled streets, except to feel
A hush of reverence for that vast dead
Who gave us beauty for a crust of bread.
There’s a simple idea in the poem – Scruggs is honouring the architects and builders of great works: the masons who dotted Europe with Cathedrals, the Greek peasants who created the Parthenon. They were people from a simpler time than ours, people who lacked our technology, our opportunities, and yet they created something valuable for us now, something that they could not have understood the value of as they built it. His message is that those workers should be remembered, and deserve our respect.
I find that this poem captures something important and fleeting and hard to talk about. It’s the feeling you get when you look up at the soaring majesty of a Cathedral, and see the breadth of space held within fragile stone. It’s a sense both of total insignificance and wild wonder.
Scruggs writes about the contrast between our importance and our achievements. We are small, and fragile, and material, and yet we can create something beyond our own understanding, something that touches, just for a moment, the idea of the sublime. The workers who build cathedrals were weak and limited, toiling away at something without direct benefit for them, something to glorify a god they were only somewhat familiar with. The masons were not the same people reading and writing and philosophising; their faith was dictated to them, not discovered or expanded by their efforts. No single peasant reached the divine.
But thousands of them, each one small and meaningless on their own, created something incredible – “symmetries their souls had never known”. One human is nothing; we’re hairless apes. But humanity can and has created glorious things, things that make you realise that there is more to strive for than survival, that make you questions what our purpose is or could be.
What I get from this poem is gratitude and wonder. Wonder that people who had so little managed to create something so much more than themselves, and gratitude that they did so, that they gave us this miraculous thing. This is what awe is – mute incomprehension at the majesty of something, a mixture of fear and wonder that reminds you of what you are and lifts you up far beyond that at the same time.
It’s not an easy thing to talk about, and my garbled sentence structure and retreat to cliché demonstrates that. But what Scruggs writes about is an emotion I’ve felt fully only a handful of times – gazing up at the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, watching swallows flit about ruined cities in Georgia, standing before the ocean as a storm rolls in. It’s the numinous, the sense of an incomprehensible power beyond yourself, and though I have only reached in rare moments, each one of those moments is carved into me and who I am.
I am grateful to Anderson M. Scruggs that he captured this idea. He captured an elusive, important idea in fourteen lines, allowing us to crystallise a fragile idea. That’s what art is for. He was a good poet and I value what he created. Glory to him.