« Potential Good News In A Place That Badly Needs It | Main | Payback's a B*tch »

April 03, 2005


Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

--Wilfred Owen

Chuchundra: I -- well, I can't exactly say I love that poem, it's not the sort you love, but it's lodged somewhere deep in my soul. Especially the middle third. Thanks.

Don Juan 1. 119.

Oh pleasure, you're indeed a pleasant thing,
Although one must be damned for you no doubt.
I make a resolution every spring
Of reformation, ere the year run out,
But somehow this my vestal vow takes wing;
Yet still I trust it may be kept throughout.
I'm very sorry, very much ashamed,
And mean next winter to be quite reclaimed.

History of the Night

Throughout the course of the generations
men constructed the night.
At first she was blindness;
thorns raking bare feet,
fear of wolves.
We shall never know who forged the word
for the interval of shadow
dividing the two twilights;
we shall never know in what age it came to mean
the starry hours.
Others created the myth.
They made her the mother of the unruffled Fates
that spin our destiny,
they sacrificed black ewes to her, and the cock
who crows his own death.
The Chaldeans assigned to her twelve houses;
to Zeno, infinite words.
She took shape from Latin hexameters
and the terror of Pascal.
Luis de Leon saw in her the homeland
of his stricken soul.
Now we feel her to be inexhaustible
like an ancient wine
and no one can gaze on her without vertigo
and time has charged her with eternity.

And to think that she wouldn't exist
except for those fragile instruments, the eyes.

Jorge Luis Borges

A (The?) baseball poem. Go Yanks.

I burn my candle at both ends,
It will not last the night.
But ah my foes and oh my friends,
It makes a lovely light.

- Edna St Vincent Millay

[And mad, mad propz to posting Wilfred Owen. He's probably my favorite 20th century poet, bar none.]

Methought I saw my late espousèd saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force though pale and faint.
Mine as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:
Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

-- John Milton

"Alcestis", by Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. A.S.Kline

Suddenly the messenger was there among them,
thrown into the simmer of the wedding-feast
like a new ingredient. The drinkers did not sense
the god’s secret entrance, holding his divinity
so close to himself, like a wet mantle,
and seeming one of them, this man or that,
as he passed through. But one of the guests
suddenly saw, in mid-speech, the young bridegroom,
at the table’s head, as if snatched up into the heights,
no longer reclining there, and, with his whole being,
mirroring, all over, a strangeness, that spoke to him, with terror.
And immediately after, as though a mixture cleared,
there was silence, only with a residue at the bottom
of clouded noise, and a precipitate
of fallen babbling, already offering the corruption
of musty laughter that has begun to turn.
Suddenly they were aware of the slender god,
and as he stood there, filled inwardly with his mission
and unyielding – they almost knew.
And yet, when it was spoken, it was greater
than all knowledge, none could grasp it.
Admetus has to die. When? This very hour.

But he broke through the shell of his terror
and stretched his hands from the fragments
outwards from them, to bargain with the god.
For years, for only one more year of youth,
for months, for weeks, for a few days,
oh, not days, for nights, for only one,
for one night, for just this one, for this.
The god refused, and then he cried out,
and cried out, and held nothing back, and cried
as his mother cried out in childbirth.
And she appeared near him, an old woman,
and also his father came, his old father
and both stood there, old, worn out, helpless,
by the howling man, who suddenly saw them,
as never before, so close, broke off, swallowed, said:
does it matter to you then what’s left, the dregs,
that will almost stop you from cramming your food?
Come: pour them away. And you, you, old woman,
what are you still doing here: you’ve given birth?’
And held them both like sacrificial beasts
in his single grasp. All at once he loosed them
and thrust the old people away, filled with an idea,
gleaming, breathing hard, calling: ‘Creon! Creon!’
And nothing but that: and nothing but that name.
Yet in his face stood the other name,
he could not say, namelessly expected,
as he held it out, glowing, to his young friend,
that beloved friend, through the table’s confusion.
‘These old ones (it stood there), you see, are no ransom,
they are used up, and done for, and almost worthless,
but you, you, in all your beauty’ –

But then he no longer saw his friend.
He hung back, and that which came, was her,
a little smaller almost than he knew her,
and slight, and sorrowful, in her bleached wedding dress.
All the others are only her narrow path
down which she comes, and comes – ( soon she’ll be
there in his arms, that have opened in pain)

But as he waits, she speaks: not to him.
She speaks to the god, and the god listens,
and all hear, as it were, within the god:

‘No other can be a substitute for him. I am.
I am his ransom. For no one else is finished,
as I am. What remains to me then of that
which I was, here? That is it, yes, that I’m dying.
Didn’t she tell you, Artemis, when she commanded this,
that the bed, that one which waits inside,
belongs to the other world below? I’m really taking leave.
Parting upon parting.
No one who dies takes more. I truly depart,
so that all this, buried beneath him
who is now my husband, melts and dissolves itself –
So take me there: I die indeed for him.

And as the wind changes, over the open sea,
so the god approached as if she were almost one of the dead,
and he was all at once far from her husband,
to whom, concealed in a slight gesture,
he threw the hundred lives of Earth.
He plunged, staggering, towards the two,
and grasped at them as if in dream. They were already
going towards the entrance, into which the women
crowded, sobbing. Once more he still saw
the girl’s face, that turned towards him
with a smile, bright as hope,
that was almost a promise: fulfilled,
to come back up from the depths of Death
to him, the Living –

At that, indeed, he threw
his hands over his face, as he knelt there,
so as to see nothing more than that smile.

True wisdom knows
it must comprise
some nonsense
as a compromise,
lest fools should fail
to find it wise.
Piet Hein

somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with this colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

e. e. cummings

As a counterpoint to the Donne sonnet, here is a rather different look at death: Dunbar's 'Lament for the Makaris.' Apologies for the length (I have cut slightly: here is the full version http://www.daypoems.net/poems/24.html) and for the fifteenth-century Scots.

I THAT in heill was and gladness
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

No state in Erd here standis sicker;
As with the wynd wavis the wicker
So wannis this world's vanitie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
Baith rich and poor of all degree:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knichtis in to the field
Enarmit under helm and scheild;
Victor he is at all mellie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

That strong unmerciful tyrand
Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
The babe full of benignitie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,
The captain closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewtie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awful straik may no man flee:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

In medecine the most practicianis,
Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
Themself from Death may not supplee:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

I see that makaris amang the lave
Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
Sparit is nocht their facultie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell has done infeck
Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
Fra ballat-making and tragedie:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
Alas! that he not with us levit
Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Good Maister Walter Kennedy
In point of Death lies verily;
Great ruth it were that so suld be:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Sen he has all my brether tane,
He will naught let me live alane;
Of force I man his next prey be:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Since for the Death remeid is none,
Best is that we for Death dispone,
After our death that live may we:--
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

-- William Carlos Williams

Either to disenthrone the King of Heaven
We war, if war be best, or to regain
Our own right lost. Him to unthrone we then
May hope, when everlasting Fate shall yield
To fickle Chance, and Chaos judge the strife.
The former, vain to hope, argues as vain
The latter; for what place can be for us
Within Heaven's bound, unless Heaven's Lord supreme
We overpower? Suppose he should relent
And publish grace to all, on promise made
Of new subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hyms, and to his Godhead sing
Forced hallelujahs, while he lordly sits
Our envied sovereign, and his altar breathes
Ambrosial odours and ambrosial flowers,
Our servile offerings? This must be our task
In Heaven, this our delight. How wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate! Let us not then pursue,
By force impossible, by leave obtained
Unacceptable, though in Heaven, our state
Of splendid vassalage; but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.

- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II

The Snow Monkey Argues with God

Four days the mother
Snow Monkey carries
her still-born baby
before she leaves it

by a rocky stream. Then
she finds a high place
where she can brood alone
and still see her sisters

with their babies.
Four days she groomed
what should have been
as lively as these others.

If the Snow Monkey hurts
this way, can she not
also know what death is?
Or at least what it is not.

The thing she left downstream,
is not like these babies,
tugging and pulling
at their mothers, trying

to focus four-day-old
eyes on falling water
and sunlight skittering
under moving tree-branches.

While she watches her sisters
tenderly nursing
their young, she must feel
the wordless

old quarrel: better
that this paradise be burnt
to a clean white ash
than for any living

creature to have to lay down
on streamside rocks
what has been loved, what
stinks to high heaven.

--David Huddle

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

-- Mushrooms - Sylvia Plath

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;
What seem’d my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

Section I
In Memoriam A. H. H.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I should add that much of the grimness and pathos of Dunbar's 'Lament' is lost once you realise that it can be sung to the tune of 'The Ballad of the Green Berets.'

What slim youngster, his hair dripping with fragrant oil,
Makes hot love to you now, Pyrrha, ensconced in a
Snug cave curtained with roses?
Who lays claim to that casually

Chic blonde hair in a braid? Soon he'll be scolding the
Gods, whose promise, like yours, failed him, and gaping at
Black winds making his ocean's
Fair face unrecognizable.

He's still credulous, though, hugging the prize he thinks
Pure gold, shining and fond, his for eternity.
Ah, poor fool, but the breeze plays
Tricks. Doomed, all who would venture to

Sail that glittering sea. Fixed to the temple wall,
My plaque tells of this ex-sailor who foundered and,
Half-drowned, hung up his clothes to
Neptune, lord of the element.

--Horace, Odes I.v (tr. J. Michie, slightly tweaked)

(Continuing the theme ...)

The Flytin' o' Life and Daith
Hamish Henderson

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
The flooers and trees, they're aa my ain,
I am the day an the sunshine,
Quo life the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mione,
Your lugs are deef, your een are blin
Your flooers maun dwine in my bitter win
Quo Daith, the world is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
I hae saft win's an healin rain
Aipples I hae an breid and wine
Qui life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine,
Whit sterts in dreid gangs doon in pain,
Bairns wantin breid are makin mane,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
Your deidly wark, I ken it fine,
There's maet on earth for ilka wean,
Quo life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine,
Your silly sheaves crine in my fire,
My worm keeks in your barn an byre,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
Dule on your een! Ae galliard hert
Can ban tae hell your blackest airt
Quo Life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine.
Your rantin hert in duddies braw
He winna lows my preeson waa,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine.
Though ye bigg preesons o marble stane
Hert's love ye canna presson in,
Quo Life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave and dug it deep
For war and the pest will gar ye sleep,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne,
Yell no keep my seed frae faain in,
Quo Life, the warld is mine.

ajay: I'm doing a course on Middle Scots poetry, so first of all, props to you for posting Dunbar, and secondly, I'm going to have to try the Green Berets thing on the prof (who, actually, may well not be familiar with the song, so it probably won't work anyway. But it's very funny, especially when sung in one's best approximated Middle Scots accent).

Right then. More poetry!

Epigram CI: Inviting a Friend to Supper
Ben Jonson

Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company:
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seem
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect: not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better sallet
Ush'ring the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then,
Lemons, and wine for sauce: to these, a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I'll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can:
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe'er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we'll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I'll profess no verses to repeat:
To this, if aught appear, which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese, and fruit there sure will be;
But that, which most doth take my muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid's, now, but shall be mine:
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as do their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring
Are all but Luther's beer, to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooly, or Parrot by;
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men:
But, at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple word,
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning: or affright
The liberty, that we'll enjoy tonight.

No props required, Lea: where I grew up the streets were paved with Middle Scots poetry. (Google Makars' Court)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad