If this uncertain age in which we dwell Were really as dark as I hear sages tell, And I convinced that they were really sages, I should not curse myself with it to hell, But leaving not the chair I long have sat in, I should betake me back ten thousand pages To the world's undebatably dark ages, And getting up my mediaeval Latin, Seek converse common cause and brotherhood (By all that's liberal—I should, I should) With poets who could calmly take the fate Of being born at once too early and late, And for these reasons kept from being great. Yet singing but Dione in the wood And ver aspergit terram floribus They slowly led old Latin verse to rhyme And to forget the ancient lengths of time, And so began the modern world for us.
I'd say, O Master of the Palace School, You were not Charles' nor anybody's fool: Tell me as pedagogue to pedagogue, You did not know that since King Charles did rule You had no chance but to be minor, did you? Your light was spent perhaps as in a fog That at once kept you burning low and hid you. The age may very well have been to blame '
For your not having won to Virgil's fame. But no one ever heard you make the claim. You would not think you knew enough to judge
The age when full upon you. That's my point.
We have to-day and I could call their name
Who know exactly what is out of joint
To make their verse and their excuses lame.
They've tried to grasp with too much social fact
Too large a situation. You and I
Would be afraid if we should comprehend
And get outside of too much bad statistics
Our muscles never could again contract:
We never could recover human shape,
But must live lives out mentally agape,
Or die of philosophical distension.
That's how we feel—and we're no special mystics.
We can't appraise the time in which we act. But for the folly of it, let's pretend We know enough to know it for adverse. One more millennium's about to end. Let's celebrate the event, my distant friend, In publicly disputing which is worse, The present age or your age. You and I As schoolmen of repute should qualify To wage a fine scholastical contention As to whose age deserves the lower mark, Or should I say the higher one, for dark. I can just hear the way you make it go: There's always something to be sorry for, A sordid peace or an outrageous war. Yes, yes, of course. We have the same convention. The groundwork of all faith is human woe. It was well worth preliminary mention. There's nothing but injustice to be had,
No choice is left a poet, you might add,
But how to take the curse, tragic or comic.
It was well worth preliminary mention.
But let's get on to where our cases part,
If part they do. Let me propose a start.
(We're rivals in the badness of our case,
Remember, and must keep a solemn face.)
Space ails us moderns: we are sick with space.
Its contemplation makes us out as small
As a brief epidemic of microbes
That in a good glass may be seen to crawl
The patina of this the least of globes.
But have we there the advantage after all?
You were belittled into vilest worms
God hardly tolerated with his feet;
Which comes to the same thing in different terms.
We both are the belittled human race.
One as compared with God and one with space.
I had thought ours the more profound disgrace;
But doubtless this was only my conceit.
The cloister and the observatory saint
Take comfort in about the same complaint.
I can just hear you call your Palace class: Come learn the Latin Eheu for alas. You may not want to use it and you may. O paladins, the lesson for to-day Is how to be unhappy yet polite. And at the summons Roland, Olivier, And every sheepish paladin and peer, Being already more than proved in fight,
Sits down in school to try if he can write Like Horace in the true Horatian vein, Yet like a Christian disciplined to bend His mind to thinking always of the end. Memento mori and obey the Lord. Art and religion love the somber chord. Earth's a hard place in which to save the soul, And could it be brought under state control, So automatically we all were saved, Its separateness from Heaven could be waived; It might as well at once be kingdom-come. (Perhaps it will be next millennium.)
But these are universals, not confined To any one time, place, or human kind. We're either nothing or a God's regret. As ever when philosophers are met, No matter where they stoutly mean to get, Nor what particulars they reason from, They are philosophers, and from old habit They end up in the universal Whole As unoriginal as any rabbit.
One age is like another for the soul. I'm telling you. You haven't said a thing, Unless I put it in your mouth to say. I'm having the whole argument my way— But in your favor—please to tell your King— In having granted you all ages shine With equal darkness, yours as dark as mine. I'm liberal. You, you aristocrat Won't know exactly what I mean by that.
I mean so altruistically moral I never take my own side in a quarrel. I'd lay my hand on his hand on his staff, Lean back and have my confidential laugh, And tell him I had read his Epitaph.
It sent me to the graves the other day. The only other there was far away Across the landscape with a watering pot As his devotions in a special plot. And he was there resuscitating flowers (Make no mistake about its being bones) ; But I was only there to read the stones To see what on the whole they had to say About how long a man may think to live, Which is becoming my concern of late. And very wide the choice they seemed to give; The ages ranging all the way from hours To months and years and many many years. One man had lived one hundred years and eight. But though we all may be inclined to wait And follow some development of state, Or see what comes of science and invention, There is a limit to our time extension. We all are doomed to broken-off careers, And so's the nation, so's the total race. The earth itself is liable to the fate Of meaninglessly being broken off. (And hence so many literary tears At which my inclination is to scoff.) I may have wept that any should have died Or missed the chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied; Un me as much as any is the jest. I take my incompleteness with the rest God bless himself can no one else be blessed.
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori. And were an epitaph to be my story I'd have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover's quarrel with the world.
Was this article helpful?