“How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?”
I found myself musing over these words penned by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats as, along with thousands of other Barbadians, I watched the opening of Parliament on May 5th. Yeats’ question is clearly rhetorical, and I doubt anyone would argue against the obvious beauty of the ceremonial proceedings: the order, precision, and discipline of our Defence Force, for example; their regimental colours worn with such pride; the music composed for and belonging only to them. And our own exceptional Police Band! Is there another anywhere in the world? And if there were, could they play our National Anthem with the same flourish and the same feeling that inspires our patriotism? Hardly.
And then there were the Parliament Buildings. Already architecturally outstanding, they provided the perfect setting for the display of colour and the height of fashion either in dress or ceremonial robes. Even Nature joined in the parade, granting us a bright blue sky and perfect weather. Beauty indeed!
But what about the “innocence” that Yeats associates with custom and ceremony? I should point out that the quote above is taken from his poem “A Prayer For My Daughter,” a richly textured poem with political and philosophical overtones as well as mythical references. It is also clear that the custom and ceremony the poet wishes for his daughter when she marries are of a certain kind.
But I wish to apply that term “innocence” to the specific occasion of which I’m speaking, and then to Barbados in more general terms. First of all, if we link the term “innocence” to what is good, pure, guileless and so on, it cannot be denied that ritual and ceremony have the capacity to bring us in touch with the best that we are or can be. We see what is possible when there is an atmosphere of order and discipline and each individual in a particular group is focused on bringing about a common good.
In addition, custom and ceremony validate the role of tradition and anchors us to our identity: I know who and where I am because this is the way we do what we do. Cultural ties are strengthened, social divides fall away even if temporarily, and we have a heightened consciousness that we are a part of our history in the making.
It is also true that custom and ceremony impress upon us the seriousness of an undertaking. As elected members of the Government filed into Parliament to take their places, it did not seem impossible to imagine that they, particularly the new ones, would keep their commitment to serve their country with passion and distinction; that they would hold fast to their ideals. Such is the power and impactful nature of ceremony.
Of course, there are times when we break with custom, as indeed we should. How could we not be proud of the fact that for the first time in Barbadian history, the House of Parliament was graced by a female Governor General, Dame Sandra Mason and The Honourable Prime Minister Mia Mottley; the Dame the epitome of graciousness and confidence; the Prime Minister clearly at ease in a setting which for her is as natural as breathing.
Barbadians are a politically savvy people. We understand that at present, there are pockets of dissatisfaction and cynicism in our country and that a multiplicity of challenges needs to be overcome. But we must move forward with a sense of hope and a willingness to engage with a measure of innocence again. Not a naïve and simplistic mindset, mind you, but one that allows us to put aside cynicism, distrust and even malice, and hold fast to a sense of hope and trust in our abilities as a people.
The beautiful ones are indeed already born. We are here; every Barbadian who remembers what Barbados was, and who believes that it can rise again with God’s help. Not by some magic wand waved by a Government who is expected to fulfil our every need, but by the willing heads, hands and hearts of us all.
(Esther Phillips is Barbados’ first Poet Laureate)