Christopher Hitchens: No Prayer But A Poem

William Wordsworth, The Lost Leader.


I wonder if anyone has written on the etiquette of prayer, the social ethics of when it is appropriate to pray for another person.

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. I have every good wish for him and hope that his chemotherapy treatment is effective and he recuperates quickly. But even if I were the praying sort, which I’m not, I’m not sure I would pray for Hitchens, for fear that it would be disrespectful of one of his chief (and most admirable) personality traits, his fierce atheism. To pray for Hitchens is to risk playing the fool, as James Boswell did when he went to the deathbed of the God-denying David Hume. Childishly, Boswell kept asking Hume if he didn’t want to reconcile himself with his creator. Hume displayed great forbearance but the entire scene was farcical and did no credit to religion.


Like many people, I have fairly complicated feelings about Hitchens and I want to share a poem which does justice to the ambiguity I feel whenever I read him. Robert Browning wrote “The Lost Leader” as both a tribute to William Wordsworth and also a rueful reflection on the great poet’s political apostasy. Wordsworth had been a radical in his youth but as he grew older became a very complacent and unreflective conservative. What gives Browning’s poem its force is that he genuinely loved Wordsworth and pays handsome and accurate tribute to his stature as a poet. But despite this literary love, Browning is unwilling to ignore the unseemly side of Wordsworth’s political desertion.

Here is Browning’s poem:

The Lost Leader by Robert Browning

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the free-men,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!


We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more foot-path untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!


2 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens: No Prayer But A Poem

  1. The most important thing that I took away from reading Christopher Hitchens over the years is that – more often than not – what matters is not so much the opinions that are held as the manner in which they are reached. More often than not, for example, being anti-Iraq war and pro-healthcare makes a person a member of the “good liberals” club, but sometimes it can be indicative of the worst sort of conservative mind-set.

    FWIW, I do have a slightly interesting Christopher Hitchen’s story – I got to see him speak at Politics & Prose in DC. It was awesome. He was taking sips from a mini-bottle the entire time he was speaking about his book, God Is Not Great and when it came time to get my he looked at me with such bored contempt…it was…awesome. It felt like being insulted by Don Rickles.

  2. Nice piece. Trying to sort out my own thoughts and feelings about Hitchens, now in his end game. I saw a photo of the chemo-balded Hitchens with Richard Dawkins in the NYT recently. The Deadly Duo of Ardent Atheism! It strikes me that neither of them has really got beyond the epiphanies of their Brit genius childhoods (they both report very similar stories) and their early utter conviction that religion is nothing more than fairy tales for the naïve and needy. The unfortunate thing is that in their onslaught against organized religion, they seek righteously and relentlessly to deny what so many humans through millennia have held dear: the reality of spiritual life and religious experience. There goes the bath water, there goes the baby.

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