[For those of us blessed enough to have visited Russell Kirk’s Piety Hill, we already know what charms have settled over the place, become one with the surrounding woods, the architecture, and the very home itself.]
Annette Kirk, that uncontainable force of nature, is, of course, the perfect hostess. And, who would not be enthralled with the variety and mystery of the place? It hovers, lingers, and penetrates all who would gaze upon it. Dancing girls leap from the roofs, lions sporting toupees welcome those who arrive by the front door, and stern Spiritualists (dead but not gone?) inspect from on high every person who actually enters into the realm of the Kirks.
The following served as one of Kirk’s last “To the Point” columns, syndicated in a number of papers around North America in early March, 1975. The historian Louis Filler thought this column more than a column. It was, he thought, even more than obituary. The closest comparison in the world of art would be a requiem, and one of the highest order. It was a requiem composed with courage by Kirk, a way to honor his ancestral home, burnt to nothingness on Ash Wednesday, 1975.
Interestingly enough, it harkens back to one of Kirk’s earliest writings, “Mementos,” awarded the best essay of the year (nationally) by a high school student in 1936 by Scholastic.
Though Kirk referenced Scott and Eliot directly in the article, Tolkien’s influence resides in it as well. Just as Niggle’s tree found a spot in the eternal grandeur of the Eighth Day, so does Kirk’s Old House.—Bradley Birzer]
From “An Old House Dies With Love and Honor,” by Russell Kirk, [To the Point column], The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, March 3, 1975.
My oldest friend was burnt on Ash Wednesday night and buried by a bulldozer next day.
I mean my ancestral house called Piety Hill, where I lived for 23 years and which five generations of my family have known. Piety Hill was a tall ‘bracketed’ building, Italianate, the best-preserved house in the county. It was much loved round about. Everybody knew its exterior, with the elaborate bay windows, and many knew the charming old rooms within. It had been built in 1878 by my great-grandfather, Amos Johnson, and it kept its gentle dignity to the last.
What happened? The older part of the chimney, the part built of oldfangled sand bricks, apparently crumpled from sheer age under the heat of a prolonged log fire down in the Ruskin fireplace. Five or six fire crews from the neighboring villages fought hard to save Piety Hill. Our local volunteers were heroes: one plunged like a salamander into the heart of the flames, but could make no headway against the roaring mass of white pine timbers and boards. Within a few hours, all was utterly destroyed.
The only thing saved from that inferno was a cheap cup. With the old house perished all the handsome old furniture and all the keepsakes of five generations and more—some pieces from the eighteenth century. The little miner’s poke of gold dust which my great-grandfather Isaac Pierce had brought back from the California gold rush came to its end at last, blown flaming on the wind over the roofs of the village.
Notoriously, Piety Hill was haunted—perhaps by the ghosts of my ancestors, who were Spiritualists in the old days. ‘Where will the ghosts go now?” more than one heart-struck neighbor asked. As for my wife and three little daughters and the several folk who dwell with us—why, we have the ‘New House,’ the massive brick wing we built a few years ago, and we can patch that up, though we are kitchenless just now.
The spectres of Piety Hill were a gentle lot, though sometimes startling, and I loved their shades as I loved every room of Piety Hill. I can recall my great-grandmother, Estelle Johnson, sitting her invariable place by the dining room stove, immaculate and erect and queenly in long black dress and high-buttoned black shoes. ‘This house has not settled an inch since it was built,’ she told me once, with justified affection. She was a very rational old lady, much reading good books, and every night, after dinner, she should retire to her room to talk with the dead.
‘Old houses have stood long enough if they stand until they fall with honor,’ says Bradwardine, in Scott’s ‘Waverley’ (my handsomely illustrated set of Scott perished in that Ash Wednesday fire.) Nothing dishonorable ever was done at Piety Hill by my ancestors. And, if love lasts forever, this house is laid up in Heaven.
On what has become the front wall of the New House, Annette and I mean to erect two bronze tablets, with lines from my old friend T.S. Eliot’s final great poem, ‘Four Quartets.’ One tablet will read thus: ‘Houses live and die: there is a time for building. And a time for living and for generation, and a time for the wind to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots, And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.’ No human creation, however lovely and lovable, endures forever. ‘Patience, cousin, and shuffle the cards,’ said Walter Scott, after such a blow as the destruction of Piety Hill dealt to Annette and me. At least the wind did not break the loosened pane of Piety Hill: our old house died with a bang, not a whimper.
The other Eliot lines are these: ‘And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.’ I had known Piety Hill since I was a baby. My ancestors had filled it with their collections of everything under the sun, and I had brought to it the mementos of my wanderings in three continents. Most of all I shall miss my great-grandfather’s splendid immense tall walnut bed, so very comfortable, on the headboard of which the dead were heard to knock, now and again, over the decades. In the end, their communication was tonged with fire all too literally.
‘The dead alone give us energy,’ Gustave Le Bon wrote. What energy I have came from those beloved dead of Piety Hill; what I know came, in large part, from the old books in that high-ceilinged house. I pray that my daughters may remember every vanished room. And now for building anew, stoutly as the Old House was built!
There is an eternal contract that binds society together, Edmund Burke tells us: it joins the dead and the living and those yet to be born. When I too am dust, our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren may love the New House as we loved the Old: for what is new today will be venerable then, God willing.
Ash Wednesday comes to us all, but after that comes Easter.