In Memory of Robert Byrd
photograph of Bruce Jaeger playing with Senator Byrd
Poetry, simply put, is beauty defined.
Today, among the many other remembrances and celebrations of Robert Byrd’s life, we’d like to reflect upon the Senator’s life-long love and support of the arts. While Congress has lost the longest-serving member in its history, and West Virginia has lost one of its tireless advocates, we all have lost an individual who carried himself through the halls of Congress with a sense of purpose and responsibility, with a sense of historical (and poetic) perspective we wish to see in all our elected officials.
Senator Byrd was a man who would come from a segregationist South, as a former member of the KKK, who would later renounce those views–and would renounce his early opposition to the Civil Rights legislation that transformed America. His story of change is also the story of a changing perspective in many rural communities. The Senator was not afraid to admit his mistakes, and to correct them; and as his opposition to the second Iraq War so clearly demonstrates, he was also not afraid to take unpopular positions when he felt that government was not working in the best interests of the American people.
These are personal qualities that Senator Byrd would learn from his rural upbringing, but also from the pages of books written in far-distant places, far-distant times. There are precious few lawmakers (or, for that matter, poets) who can now quote from both Shakespeare and The Bible, Tennyson and The Constitution. Here is Senator Byrd enlisting the help of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to remember his good friend Ted Kennedy:
Like many of this country’s best artists, Senator Byrd was able to see with a historical and cultural perspective that could trade lines of Tennyson with fiddle runs, to see a broader and richer spectrum of human expression. Though this may be less commented on in the memorials to come, he was also an accomplished fiddle player. Here he is, atop Mount Parnassus, on stage at the Grand Ole Opry:
Lastly, here is Robert Byrd with accompaniment, playing fiddle and singing a song equal to poetry’s greatest works: “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”