Friday, June 17, 2016

Two Poems by Stephen Spender

Epilogue to a Human Drama

When pavements were blown up, exposing nerves,
And the gas mains burned blue and gold
And stucco houses were smashed to a cloud
Pungent with mice, dust, garlic, anxiety:
When the reverberant facades
Of the palaces of commerce,
Isolated in a vacuum of silence, suddenly
Cracked and roared and fell, and the seven-maned
Golden lions licked the stony fragments:

Then only voice through deserted streets
Was the Cassandra bell which rang and rang and rang
As if released at last by time
Towards those fires that burst through the walls—
Prophetic doom opened to the nostrils,
Blood and fire streaming from the stones.

The City burned with unsentimental dignity
Of resigned wisdom: those stores and churches
Which had glittered emptily in gold and silk,
Stood near the crowning dome off the cathedral
Like courtiers round the Royal Martyr.
August shadows of night
And bursting days of concentrated light
Dropped from the skies to paint the final scene—
Illuminated agony of frowning stone.
Who can wonder then that every word
In burning London seemed out of a play?

On the stage, there were heroes, maidens, fools,
Victims, a chorus. The heroes were brave,
The rescued appeared passively beautiful,
The fools spat jokes into the skull of death,
The victims waited with the humble patience
Of animals trapped behind a wall
For the pickaxes to break with sun and water.
The chorus assisted, bringing cups of tea,
Praising the heroes, discussing the habits of the wicked,
Underlining the moral, explaining doom and truth.

Ultima ratio regum
[The Last Argument of Kings]

The guns spell money's ultimate reason
In letters of lead on the spring hillside.
But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
Was too young and too silly
To have been notable to their important eye.
He was a better target for a kiss.

When he lived, tall factory hooters never
summoned him.
Nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve 

to wave him in.
His name never appeared in the papers.
The world maintained its traditional wall
Round the dead with their gold sunk deep as a well,
Whilst his life, intangible as a Stock Exchange rumour,
drifted outside.

O too lightly he threw down his cap
One day when the breeze threw petals from the trees.
The unflowering wall sprouted with guns,
Machine-gun anger quickly scythed the grasses;
Flags and leaves fell from hands and branches;
The tweed cap rotted in the nettles.

Consider his life which was valueless
In terms of employment, hotel ledgers, news files.
Consider. One bullet in ten thousand kills a man.
Ask. Was so much expenditure justified
On the death of one so young and so silly
Lying under the olive trees, O world, O death?

Stephen Spender published numerous books of poetry: Nine Experiments: Being Poems Written at the Age of Eighteen, privately printed, 1928; Twenty Poems, Basil Blackwell, 1930; Poems, Faber, 1933, Random House, 1934; Perhaps (limited edition), privately printed, 1933; Poem (limited edition), privately printed, 1934; Vienna, Faber, 1934; At Night, privately printed, 1935; The Still Centre, Faber, 1939; Selected Poems, Random House, 1940; I Sit by the Window, Linden Press, 1940; Ruins and Visions: Poems, 1934-1942, Random House, 1942; Poems of Dedication, Random House, 1947; Returning to Vienna, 1947: Nine Sketches, Banyan Press (Chicago), 1947; The Edge of Being, Random House, 1949; Sirmione Peninsula, Faber, 1954; Collected Poems, 1928-1953, Random House, 1955, revised edition published as Collected Poems, 1928-1985, Faber, 1985; Inscriptions, Poetry Book Society, 1958; Selected Poems, Random House, 1964; The Generous Days: Ten Poems, David Godine, 1969, enlarged edition published as The Generous Days, Faber, 1971; Descartes, Steam Press, 1970; Art Student, Poem-of-the-Month Club (London), 1970; Recent Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, 1978; Dolphins, St. Martin's, 1994.

His poems have been published in various periodicals and newspapers such as American Scholar, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune Book World, New Republic, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, New York Times Magazine, Washington Post and others. Spender was also a playwright, essayist, translator, and editor (The Poetry Foundation).  

Stephen Spender (February 28, 1909 - July 16, 1995)  

1 comment:

  1. From Ken Previti:

    "The guns spell money's ultimate reason/In letters of lead on the spring hillside."

    Yesterday our local Bass Pro Shop was flooded with people wanting to buy rifles - the "big ones," the ones that are actual assault-type weapons. The prices were incredibly high and the choices were limited; there were not enough in stock to go around so orders were taken by grumpy customers who thought the waiting was unfair and wrong-headed. They wanted to buy the big-ones before the "gay" government tried to take away their guns. I listened to this as I walked past to buy a pair of cargo pants that were on sale. Several of the men waiting in line at the gun counter (All were men over 55, most of them had beer bellies.) exchanged information about where to buy really-big-assault weapons which they claimed were simply overpriced and too expensive for what they felt were good-enough big-ones, guns from $1,700 to $4,000 each. The manufacturers had a regular arms-race and price-inflation combination going after a massacre of gays in Orlando. I didn't buy the cargo shorts there. Somehow it felt wrong to give profits to a store such as this chain store. I bought a pair of cargo shorts at Bealls.

    Here is a clip of Bobby Kennedy from 50 years ago.