Back when we were all becoming acquainted with the glowering face of Greta Thunberg, a student told me that he was planning to participate in a “walkout” to show solidarity with that petulant phony. Since the surprise and size of a walkout are essential to its impact, this heads-up suggested a different sort of protest. It suggested that it was a protest by apple polishers who want to get ahead.
There was a time when a young man who was eager to please parted his hair in the middle and recited “The Wreck of the Hesperus” to the old folks in the parlor. A young lady with similar ambitions brushed her hair, put on her best frock, and played “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior” on the upright piano. But the ways of simpering ingratiation have changed, and the young toadies of today take it to the streets.
This was apparent when the young Thunbergite asked if there might be, by any chance, a quiz on the day of the proposed walkout, and, if there were a quiz, whether his bold defiance of authority might be counted as an excused absence. I must add that he did not ask if protestors could receive extra credit, but I would not swear the idea never crossed his mind. This student’s attitude to dissidence appears to have been much like Pilate’s attitude to mercy. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters:
“Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”
As I said to the young man, a protest is not a protest if it doesn’t make the authorities angry, and a willingness to feel the sting of that anger is what we mean by the courage of convictions. The poor young fellow was taken aback when I mentioned authority and the sting of anger, for he had clearly, and I believe rightly, expected kudos for his misconduct. There is scarcely one professor in a hundred who would do anything but pat a student on the head for joining the children’s crusade of Greta Thunberg.
I don’t wish to be overly hard on this young man, or upon the Byronic hypocrisy to which youth is so naturally given. I have not outgrown my idle fantasies of dramatic heroism, although these fantasies run more to Horatius on the Bridge than Pierre on the Barricade. I expect most Orthosphere readers have thrilled to Macaulay stirring stanzas, and have imagined themselves shouting the same words amidst the wrack of battle, while they were in fact sipping hot cocoa in their bathrobe and bedroom slippers.
“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?”*
I began by describing the young Miss Thunberg’s expression as glowering, which means to stare with anger and malice. Originally Scandinavian, the word came to English by way of the Scotts, and originally meant to glow. This is its meaning in these lines from Robert Burns
Ye houlets, frae your ivy bower
In some ald tree, or eldritch tower
What time the moon, wi’ silent glower
Sets up her horn**
In time, however, the word glower came to denote an expressive glowing of the eye, most particularly a glowing that expressed the death wish. Personifying the evils of Hunger and Cold as a face that looking through the window on a family safe within their house, the American poet James Russell Lowell wrote:
“Let then guard both hall and bower;
Through the window you will glower,
Patient till your reckoning hour
Shall be tolled”***
The resemblance to Greta Thunberg is striking, for her “reckoning hour” will be a triumph of hunger and cold.
A leer is akin to a glower insofar as it denotes an expressively glowing eye, although a leer is a shooting glance and a glower is a fixed stare. The word comes from the Middle English ler, which meant cheek and was a close related to the word ear, and it therefore means a sideways glance that communicates either sexual desire or homicidal aversion.
Shakespeare uses the word in both ways. Here is Biron taunting Boyet in Love’s Labor Lost:
“You leer upon me, do you? There’s an eye
wounds like a leaden sword.”
And here is Falstaff speaking of a woman he proposes to seduce in The Merry Wives of Windsor:
“I spy entertainment in her; she discourses,
She carves, she gives the leer of invitation.”
By now all of us have heard the discourses of Greta Thunberg, and have felt the leaden sword of her glowering eye, but is there a man alive who will respond to her leer of invitation?
*) Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius,” Lays of Ancient Rome (1842)
**) “Elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson”
***) “Hunger and Cold” (1844)