Thursday, September 22, 2005

Al Stewart's Question

What if you reached the age of reason
Only to find there was no reprieve
Would you still be a man for all seasons?
Or would you just have to leave
We measure our days out in steps of uncertainty
Not turning to see how we’ve come
And peer down the highway
From here to eternity
And reach out for love on the run
While the man for all seasons
Is lost behind the sun.

Henry Plantagenet still looks for someone
To bring good news in his hour of doubt
While Thomas More waits in the Tower of London
Watching the sands running out
And measures the hours out from here to oblivion
In actions that can’t be undone
A sailor through darkness
He scans the meridian
And caught by the first rays of dawn
The man for all seasons
Is lost behind the storm.

And I should know by now
I should know by now
I hear them call it all around
Oh, they go
There’s nothing to believe in
Hear them,
Just daydreams, deceiving
They’ll just let you down

What if you reached the age of reason
Only to find there was no reprieve
Would you still be a man for all seasons?
Or would you just disbelieve?
We measure our gains out in luck and coincidence
Lanterns to turn back the night
And put our defeats down to chance or experience
And try once again for the light
Some wait for the waters of fortune to cover them
Some just see the tides of ill chance running over them

Some call on Jehovah
Some cry out to Allah
Some wait for the boats that still row to Valhalla
Well, you try to accept what the fates are unfolding
While some say they’re sure where the blame should be falling
You look round for maybe a chance of forestalling
But too soon it’s over and done
And the man for all seasons
Is lost behind the sun

-Al Stewart, "A Man for All Seasons," from Time Passages, 1978

Recently I bought a cassette of Al Stewart’s Time Passages at public radio station WGLT’s "Recycled Music Sale." I knew the title track, of course,with its wonderful refrain, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight," but the song I played and replayed was "A Man for All Seasons," which relates the ordeal of Thomas More to present times.

It seems at first that Stewart is simply expressing the futility of life. But if that were all, why is the song so intriguing? My own interpretation is that he’s asking the listener whether he or she can stand up for principle in the face of "no reprieve." It’s too easy in postmodern times simply to disbelieve—in God, or in one’s own principles, rather than face condemnation. Or one can "just leave," washing one’s hands of the whole affair. And while "the man for all seasons is lost," Stewart is imploring his audience to find the man for all seasons in himself or herself in an age where such principled courage is considered passé.

Thomas More went to his death because he refused to sign oaths of allegiance to King Henry VIII, specifically to accept Henry as the head of the Church of England and to recognize his children by Anne Boelyn successors to the throne. More is, in an indirect way, one of the first victims of the Anglican Communion, of which I am a member. But I believe he is very much in the tradition of the great Christian martyrs, as are Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Thomas Ridley, who were burned to death during the reign of Catholic queen Mary Tudor.

Unlike some early Christians, few of us aspire to martyrdom. And very few will be put in the situation of Thomas More. But in this postmodern world, we are constantly pressured to betray our beliefs and principles. The voices which call out, "there’s nothing to believe in" are stronger than ever.

Can one still be "a man for all seasons?" I hope and pray one can, even as I hope and pray I will never be put to such a test