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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck

Edith Cavell

Title:     Edith Cavell
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

Edith Cavell[1]

To-day, in honouring the memory of Miss Edith Cavell, we honour not only the heroine who fell in the midst of her labours of love and piety, we honour also those, wherever they may be, who have accomplished or will yet accomplish the same sacrifice and who are ready, in like circumstances, to face a like death.

We are told by Thucydides that the Athenians of the age of Pericles--who, to the honour of humanity be it said, had nothing in common with the Athenians of to-day--were accustomed, each winter during their great war, to celebrate at the cost of the State the obsequies of those who had perished in the recent campaign. The bones of the dead, arranged according to their tribes, were exhibited under a tent and honoured for three days. In the midst of this host of the known dead stood an empty bed, covered with tapestry and dedicated to "the Invisible," that is, to those whose bodies it had been impossible to recover. Let us too, before all else, in the quiet of this hall, where none but almost religious words may be heard, raise in our midst such an altar, a sacred and mysterious altar, to the invisible heroines of this war, that is to say, to all those who have died an obscure death and have left no traces and also to those who are yet living, whose sacrifices and sufferings will never be told. Here, with the eyes of the spirit, let us gaze upon all the heroic deeds of which we know; but let us reserve an honoured place for those, incomparably more numerous and perhaps more beautiful, of which we as yet know nothing and, above all, for those of which we shall never know, for glory has its injustices even as death has its fatalities.

Yet it is hardly probable that among these sacrifices we shall discern any more admirable than that of Miss Edith Cavell. I need not recall the circumstances of her death, for they are well-known to everybody and will never be forgotten. Destiny left nothing undone for the purest glory to emerge from the deepest shadow. In the depths of that shadow it concentrated all imaginable hatred, horror, villainy, cowardice and infamy, so that all pity, all innocent courage and mercy, all well-doing and all sweet charity might shine forth above it, as though to show us how low men may sink and how high a woman can rise, as though its express and visible intention had been to trace, with a single gesture, amid all the sorrows and the rare beauties of this war, an outstanding and incomparable example which should at the same time be an immortal and consoling symbol.

And one would say that destiny had taken pains to make this symbol as truthful and as general as possible. It did not select a dazzling and warlike heroine, as it would have done in the days of old: a Judith, a Lucretia, nor even a Joan of Arc. There was no need of resounding words, of splendid raiment, of tragic attitudes and accessories, of an imposing background. The beauty which we find so touching has grown simpler; it makes less stir and wins closer to our heart. And this is why destiny sought out in obscurity a little hospital nurse, one of many thousands of others. The sight of her unpretentious portrait does not tell one whether she was rich or poor, a humble member of the middle classes or a great lady. She would pass unnoticed anywhere until the hour of trial, when glory recognizes its elect; and it seems as though goodness had almost eliminated the individual contours of her face, so that it might the more closely resemble the pensive and sad smiling faces of all the good women in the world.

Beneath those features one might indeed have read the hidden devotion and quiet heroism of all the women who do their duty, that is, of those whom we see about us day by day, working, hoping, keeping vigil, solacing and succouring others, wearing themselves out without complaint, suffering in secret and mourning their dead in silence.

She passed like a flash of light which for one moment illumined that vast and innumerable multitude, confirming our confidence and our admiration. She has added a final beauty to the great revelations of this war; for the war, which has taught us many things that will never fade from our memory, has above all revealed us to ourselves. In the first days of the terrible ordeal, we did not know for certain how men and women would comport themselves. In vain did we interrogate the past, hoping thereby to learn something of the future. There was no past that would serve for a comparison. Our eyes were drawn back to the present; and we closed them, full of uneasiness. In what condition should we find ourselves facing duty, sacrifice, suffering and death, after so many years of peace, well-being and pleasure, of heedlessness and moral indifference? What had been the vast and invisible journey of the human conscience and of those secret forces which are the whole of man, during this long respite, when they had never been called upon to confront fate? Were they asleep, were they weakened or lost, would they respond to the call of destiny, or had they sunk so deep that they would never recover the energy to ascend to the surface of life? There was a moment of anguish and silence; and lo, suddenly, in the midst of this anguish and silence, the most splendid response, the most magnificent cry of resurrection, of righteousness, of heroism and sacrifice that the earth has ever heard since it began to roll along the paths of space and time! They were still there, the ideal forces! They were mounting upward, on every side, from the depths of all those swiftly-assembling souls, not merely intact but more than ever radiant, more than ever pure, more numerous and mightier than ever! To the amazement of all of us, who possessed them without knowing it, they had increased in strength and stature while apparently neglected and forgotten.

To-day there is no longer any doubt. We may expect all things and hope all things from the men and the women who have surmounted this long and grievous trial. If the heroism displayed by man on the battlefield has never been comparable with that which is being lavished at this moment, we may also say of the women that their heroism is even more beyond comparison. We knew that a certain number of men were capable of giving their lives for their country, for their faith or for a generous ideal; but we did not realize that all would wrestle with death for endless months, in great unanimous masses; and above all we did not imagine, or perhaps we had to some extent forgotten, since the days of the great martyrs, that woman was ready with the same gift of self, the same patience, the same sacrifices, the same greatness of soul and was about--less perhaps in blood than in tears, for it is always on her that sorrow ends by falling--to prove herself the rival and the peer of man.


[Footnote 1: Delivered in Paris, at the Trocadero, 18 December, 1915.]

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Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: Edith Cavell