Letter to Elizabeth Mayer: (January 1, 1940)


UNDER the familiar weight
Of winter, conscience and the State,
In loose formations of good cheer.
Love, language, loneliness and fear,
Towards the habits of next year,
Along the streets the people flow,
Singing or sighing as they go:
Exalté, piano, or in doubt,
All our reflections turn about
A common meditative norm,
Retrenchment, Sacrifice, Reform.
Twelve months ago in Brussels, I
Heard the same wishful thinking sigh
As round me, trembling on their beds,
Or taut with apprehensive dreads,
The sleepless guests of Europe lay
Wishing the centuries away,
And the low mutter of their vows
Went echoing through her haunted house
As on the verge of happening
There crouched the presence of The Thing,
All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure on the door,
But up the staircase of events
Carrying his special instruments,
To every bedside all the same
The dreadful figure swiftly came.
Yet Time can moderate his tone
When talking to a man alone,
And the same sun whose neutral eye
All florid August from the sky
Had watched the earth behave and seen
Strange traffic on her brown and green.
Obedient to some hidden force
A ship abruptly change her course,
A train make an unwonted stop,
A little crowd smash up a shop,
Suspended hatreds crystallize
In visible hostilities,
Vague concentrations shrink to take
The sharp crude patterns generals make,
The very morning that the war
Took action on the Polish floor,
Lit up America and on
A cottage in Long Island shone
Where Buxtehude as we played
One of his passacaglias made
Our minds a civitas of sound
Where nothing but assent was found,
For art had set in order sense
And feeling and intelligence,
And from its ideal order grew
Our local understanding too.
To set in order — that’s the task
Both Eros and Apollo ask;
For Art and Life agree in this
That each intends a synthesis,
That order which must be the end
That all self-loving things intend
Who struggle for their liberty,
Who use, that is, their will to be.
Though order never can be willed
But is the state of the fulfilled,
For will but wills its opposite
And not the whole in which they fit,
The symmetry disorders reach
When both are equal each to each,
Yet in intention all are one,
Intending that their wills be done
Within a peace where all desires
Find each in each what each requires,
A true Gestalt where indiscrete
Perceptions and extensions meet.
Art in intention is mimesis
But, realized, the resemblance ceases;
Art is not life, and cannot be
A midwife to society.
For art is a fait accompli.
What they should do, or how or when
Life-order comes to living men
It cannot say, for it presents
Already lived experience
Through a convention that creates
Autonomous completed states.
Though their particulars are those
That each particular artist knows,
Unique events that once took place
Within a unique time and space,
In the new field they occupy,
The unique serves to typify,
Becomes, though still particular,
An algebraic formula,
An abstract model of events
Derived from dead experiments.
And each life must itself decide
To what and how it be applied.
Great masters who have shown mankind
An order it has yet to find,
What if all pedants say of you
As personalities be true?
All the more honor to you then
If, weaker than some other men,
You had the courage that survives
Soiled, shabby, egotistic lives,
If poverty or ugliness,
Ill-health or social unsuccess
Hunted you out of life to play
At living in another way;
Yet the live quarry all the same
Were changed to huntsmen in the game,
And the wild furies of the past,
Tracked to their origins at last,
Trapped in a medium’s artifice,
To charity, delight, increase.
Now large, magnificent, and calm,
Your changeless presences disarm
The sullen generations, still
The fright and fidget of the will,
And to the growing and the weak
Your final transformations speak,
Saying to dreaming ‘I am deed.’
To striving ‘Courage, I succeed.’
To mourning ‘I remain. Forgive.’
And to becoming ‘I am. Live.’
They challenge, warn and witness. Who
That ever has the rashness to
Believe that he is one of those
The greatest of vocations chose,
Is not perpetually afraid
That he’s unworthy of his trade,
As round his tiny homestead spread
The grand constructions of the dead,
Nor conscious, as he works, of their
Complete uncompromising stare,
And the surveillance of a board
Whose warrant cannot be ignored?
O often, often must he face,
Whether the critics blame or praise,
Young, high-brow, popular or rich,
That summary tribunal which
In a perpetual session sits,
And answer, if he can, to its
Intense interrogation. Though
Considerate and mild and low
The voices of the questioners,
Although they delegate to us
Both prosecution and defence,
Accept our rules of evidence
And pass no sentence but our own,
Yet, as he faces them alone,
O who can show convincing proof
That he is worthy of their love?
Who ever rose to read aloud
Before that quiet attentive crowd
And did not falter as he read,
Stammer, sit down, and hang his head?
Each one, so liberal is the law,
May choose whom he appears before,
Pick any influential ghost
From those whom he admires the most.
So, when my name is called, I face,
Presiding coldly on my case,
That lean hard-bitten pioneer
Who spoiled a temporal career
And to the supernatural brought
His passion, senses, will and thought,
By Amor Ratioualis led
Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
In concrete detail saw the whole
Environment that keeps the soul,
And grasped in its complexity
The Catholic ecology,
Described the savage fauna he
In Malebolge’s fissure found,
And fringe of blessed flora round
A juster nucleus than Rome,
When love had its creative home.
Upon his right appears, as I
Reluctantly must testify
And weigh the sentence to be passed,
A choleric enthusiast,
Self-educated WILLIAM BLAKE,
Who threw his spectre in the lake,
Broke off relations in a curse
With the Newtonian Universe,
But even as a child would pet
The tigers Voltaire never met,
Took walks with them through Lambeth, and
Spoke to Isaiah in the Strand,
And heard inside each mortal thing
Its holy emanation sing.
While to his left upon the bench,
Muttering that terror is not French,
Frowns the young RIMBAUD guilt demands,
The adolescent with red hands,
Skillful, intolerant and quick,
Who strangled an old rhetoric.
The court is full; I catch the eyes
Of several I recognize,
For as I look up from the dock
Embarrassed glances interlock.
There DRYDEN sits with modest smile,
The master of the middle style,
Conscious CATULLUS who made all
His gutter-language musical,
Black TENNYSON whose talents were
For an articulate despair,
Trim, dualistic BAUDELAIRE,
Poet of cities, harbors, whores,
Acedia, gaslight and remorse,
HARDY whose Dorset gave much joy
To one unsocial English boy,
And RILKE whom Die Dinge bless,
The Santa Claus of loneliness.
And many others, many times,
For I relapse into my crimes,
Time and again have slubbered through
With slip and slapdash what I do,
Adopted what I would disown,
The preacher’s loose immodest tone;
Though warned by a great sonneteer
Not to sell cheap what is most dear,
Though horrible old Kipling cried
‘One instant’s toil to Thee denied
Stands all eternity’s offence,’
I would not give them audience.
Yet still the weak offender must
Beg still for leniency and trust
His power to avoid the sin
Peculiar to his discipline.
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.
O Who is trying to shield Whom?
Who left a hairpin in the room?
Who was the distant figure seen
Behaving oddly on the green?
Why did the watchdog never bark ?
Why did the footsteps leave no mark?
Where were the servants at that hour?
How did a snake get in the tower?
Delayed in the democracies
By departmental vanities,
The rival sergeants run about
But more to squabble than find out.
Yet where the Force has been cut down
To one inspector dressed in brown,
He makes the murderer whom he pleases
And all investigation ceases.
Yet our equipment all the time
Extends the area of the crime
Until the guilt is everywhere,
And more and more we are aware,
However miserable may be
Our parish of immediacy,
How small it is, how, far beyond,
Ubiquitous within the bond
Of one impoverishing sky,
Vast spiritual disorders lie.
Who, thinking of the last ten years,
Does not hear howling in his ears
The Asiatic cry of pain,
The shots of executing Spain,
See stumbling through his outraged mind
The Abyssinian, blistered, blind,
The dazed uncomprehending stare
Of the Danubian despair,
The Jew wrecked in the German cell,
Flat Poland frozen into hell.
The silent dumps of unemployed
Whose aretė has been destroyed,
And will not feel blind anger draw
His thoughts towards the Minotaur,
To take an early boat for Crete
And rolling, silly, at its feet
Add his small tidbit to the rest?
It lures us all; even the best,
Les hommes de bonne volonté, feel
Their politics perhaps unreal
And all they have believed untrue,
Are tempted to surrender to
The grand apocalyptic dream
In which the persecutors scream
As on the evil Aryan lives
Descends the night of the long knives;
The bleeding tyrant dragged through all
The ashes of his capitol.
Though language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief,
Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense,
And often when the searcher stood
Before the Oracle, it would
Ignore his grown-up earnestness
But not the child of his distress,
For through the Janus of a joke
The candid psychopompos spoke.
May such heart and intelligence
As huddle now in conference
Whenever an impasse occurs
Use the Good Offices of verse;
May an Accord be reached, and may
This aide-mémoire on what they say,
This private minute for a friend,
Be the dispatch that I intend;
Although addressed to a Whitehall
Be under Flying Seal to all
Who wish to read it anywhere,
And, if they open it, En Clair.


Tonight a scrambling decade ends
And strangers, enemies and friends
Stand once more puzzled underneath
The signpost on the barren heath
Where the rough mountain track divides
To silent valleys on all sides,
Endeavoring to decipher what
Is written on it but cannot,
Nor guess in what direction lies
The overhanging precipice.
Through the pitch-darkness can be heard
Occasionally a muttered word,
And intense in the mountain frost
The heavy breathing of the lost;
Far down below them whence they came
Still flickers feebly a red flame,
A tiny glow in the great void
Where an existence was destroyed;
And now and then a nature turns
To look where her whole system burns
And with a last defiant groan
Shudders her future into stone.
How hard it is to set aside
Terror, concupiscence and pride,
Learn who and where and how we are,
The children of a modest star,
Frail, backward, clinging to the granite
Skirts of a sensible old planet,
Our placid and suburban nurse
In Sitter’s swelling universe,
How hard to stretch imagination
To live according to our station.
For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes;
As proper people find it strange
That we are changed by what we change.
That no event can happen twice
And that no two existences
Can ever be alike; we’d rather
Be perfect copies of our father,
Prefer our idées fixes to be
True of a fixed Reality.
No wonder, then, we lose our nerve
And blubber when we should observe
The patriots of an old idea
No longer sovereign this year,
Get angry like LABELLIÈRE,
Who, finding no invectives hurled
Against a topsy-turvy world
Would right it, earned a quaint renown
By being buried upside-down;
Unwilling to adjust belief,
Go mad in a fantastic grief
Where no adjustment need be done,
Like SARAH WHITEHEAD, the Bank Nun,
For, loving a live brother, she
Wed an impossibility,
Pacing Threadneedle Street in tears,
She watched one door for twenty years
Expecting what she dared not doubt,
Her hanged embezzler to walk out.
But who, though, is the Prince of Lies
If not the Spirit-that-denies,
The shadow just behind the shoulder
Claiming it’s wicked to grow older
Though we are lost if we turn round
Thinking salvation has been found?
Yet in his very effort to
Prevent the actions we could do,
He has to make the here and now
As marvelous as he knows how
And so engrossing we forget
To drop attention for regret;
Defending relaxation, he
Must show impassioned energy,
And all through tempting us to doubt
Point us the way to find truth out.
Who think you’re doing as you please
In telling us by doing ill
To prove that we possess free will,
Yet do not will the will you do,
For the Determined uses you,
Creation’s errand-boy creator,
Diabolus egredietur
Ante pedes ejus — foe,
But so much more effective, though,
Than our well-meaning stupid friends
In driving us towards good ends.
Lame fallen shadow, retro me,
Retro but do not go away:
Although, for all your fond insistence,
You have no positive existence,
Are only a recurrent state
Of fear and faithlessness and hate,
That takes on from becoming me
A legal personality,
Assuming your existence is
A rule-of-thumb hypostasis,
For, though no person, you can damn.
So, credo ut intelligam.
For how could we get on without you
Who give the savoir-faire to doubt you
And keep you in your proper place,
Which is, to push us into grace?
Against his paralyzing smile
And honest realistic style
Our best protection is that we
In fact live in eternity.
The sleepless counter of our breaths
That chronicles the births and deaths
Of pious hopes, the short careers
Of dashing promising ideas,
Each congress of the Greater Fears,
The emigration of beliefs,
The voyages of hopes and griefs,
Has no direct experience
Of discontinuous events,
And all our intuitions mock
The formal logic of the clock.
All real perception, it would seem,
Has shifting contours like a dream,
Nor have our feelings ever known
Any discretion but their own.
Suppose we love, not friends or wives,
But certain patterns in our lives,
Effects that take the cause’s name.
Love cannot part them all the same;
If in this letter that I send
I write ‘Elizabeth’s my friend,’
I cannot but express my faith
That I is Not-Elizabeth.
For though the intellect in each
Can only think in terms of speech
We cannot practise what we preach.
The cogitations of Descartes
Are where all sound semantics start;
In Ireland the great Berkeley rose
To add new glories to our prose,
But when in the pursuit of knowledge,
Risking the future of his college,
The bishop hid his anxious face,
’Twas more by grammar than by grace
His modest Church-of-England God
Sustained the fellows and the quad.
But the Accuser would not be
In his position, did not he,
Unlike the big-shots of the day,
Listen to what his victims say.
Observing every man’s desire
To warm his bottom by the fire
And state his views on Education,
Art, Women, and The Situation,
Has learnt what every woman knows.
The wallflower can become the rose,
Penelope the homely seem
The Helen of Odysseus’ dream
If she will look as if she were
A fascinated listener,
Since men will pay large sums to whores
For telling them they are not bores.
So when with overemphasis
We contradict a lie of his,
The great Denier won’t deny
But purrs: ‘You’re cleverer than I;
Of course you’re absolutely right,
I never saw it in that light.
I see it now: The intellect
That parts the Cause from the Effect
And thinks in terms of Space and Time
Commits a legalistic crime,
For such an unreal severance
Must falsify experience.
Could one not almost say that the
Cold serpent on the poisonous tree
Was l’esprit de géométrie,
That Eve and Adam till the Fall
Were totally illogical,
But as they tasted of the fruit
The syllogistic sin took root?
Abstracted, bitter refugees,
They fought over their premises,
Shut out from Eden by the bar
And Chinese Wall of Barbara.
O foolishness of man to seek
Salvation in an ordre logique!
O cruel intellect that chills
His natural warmth until it kills
The roots of all togetherness!
Love’s vigor shrinks to less and less,
On sterile acres governed by
Wage’s abstract prudent tie
The hard self-conscious particles
Collide, divide like numerals
In knock-down drag-out laissez-faire,
And build no order anywhere.
O when will men show common sense
And throw away intelligence,
That killjoy which discriminates,
Recover what appreciates,
The deep unsnobbish instinct which
Alone can make relation rich,
Upon the Beisehlaf of the blood
Establish a real neighborhood
Where art and industry and mœurs
Are governed by an ordre du cœur?'
The Devil, as is not surprising —
His business is self-advertising —
Is a first-rate psychologist
Who keeps a conscientious list,
To help him in his ticklish deals,
Of what each client thinks and feels,
His school, religion, birth and breeding.
Where he has dined and what he’s reading,
By every name he makes a note
Of what quotations to misquote,
And flings at every author’s head
Something a favorite author said.
‘The Arts? Well, Flaubert didn’t say
Of artists: “Ils sont dans le vrai.”
Democracy? Ask Baudelaire:
“Un esprit Beige,” a soiled affair
Of gas and steam and table-turning.
Truth? Aristotle was discerning:
“In crowds I am a friend of myth.”’
Then, as I start protesting, with
The air of one who understands
He puts a Rilke in my hands.
‘You know the Elegies, I’m sure —
O Seligkeit der Kreatur
Die immer bleibt in Schoosse — womb,
In English, is a rhyme to tomb.'
He moves on tiptoe round the room,
Turns on the radio to mark
Isolde’s Sehnsucht for the dark.
But all his tactics are dictated
By problems he himself created,
For as the great schismatic who
First split creation into two
He did what it could never do.
Inspired it with the wish to be
Diversity in unity,
An action which has put him in,
Pledged as he is to Rule-by-Sin,
As ambiguous a position
As any Irish politician,
For, torn between conflicting needs,
He’s doomed to fail if he succeeds.
And his neurotic longing mocks
Him with its self-made paradox
To be both god and dualist.
For, if dualities exist,
What happens to the god? If there
Are any cultures anywhere
With other values than his own,
How can it possibly be shown
That his are not subjective or
That all life is a state of war?
While, if the monist view be right.
How is it possible to fight?
If love has been annihilated
There’s only hate left to be hated.
To say two different things at once.
To wage offensives on two fronts.
And yet to show complete conviction.
Requires the purpler kinds of diction,
And none appreciate as he
Polysyllabic oratory.
All vague idealistic art
That coddles the uneasy heart
Is up his alley, and his pigeon
The woozier species of religion,
Even a novel, play or song.
If loud, lugubrious and long;
He knows the bored will not unmask him
But that he’s lost if someone ask him
To come the hell in off the links
And say exactly what he thinks.
To win support of any kind
He has to hold before the mind
Amorphous shadows it can hate.
Yet constantly postpone the date
Of what he’s made The Grand Attraction,
Putting an end to them by action
Because he knows, were he to win,
Man could do evil but not sin.
To sin is to act consciously
Against what seems necessity,
A possibility cut out
In any world that excludes doubt.
So victory could do no more
Than make us what we were before,
Beasts with a Rousseauistic charm
Unconscious we were doing harm.
Politically, then, he’s right
To keep us shivering all night,
Watching for dawn from Pisgah’s height.
And to sound earnest as he paints
The new Geneva of the saints,
To strike the poses as he speaks
Of David’s too too Empire Greeks,
Look forward with the cheesecake air
Of one who crossed the Delaware.
A realist, he has always said:
’It is Utopian to be dead,
For only on the Other Side
Are Absolutes all satisfied
Where at the bottom of the graves
Low Probability behaves.’
The False Association is
A favorite strategy of his:
Induce men to associate
Truth with a lie, then demonstrate
The lie and they will, in truth’s name,
Treat babe and bath-water the same,
A trick that serves him in good stead
At all times. It was thus he led
The early Christians to believe
All Flesh unconscious on the eve
Of the World’s temporal interference
With the old Adam of Appearance.
That almost any moment they
Would see the trembling consuls pray.
Knowing that as their hope grew less
So would their heavenly worldliness,
Their early agapė decline
To a late lunch with Constantine.
Thus Wordsworth fell into temptation
In France during a long vacation,
Saw in the fall of the Bastille
The Parousia of liberty,
And weaving a platonic dream
Round a provisional régime
That sloganized the Rights of Man,
A liberal fellow-traveler ran
With Sans-culotte and Jacobin,
Nor guessed what circles he was in,
But ended as the Devil knew
An earnest Englishman would do,
Left by Napoleon in the lurch,
Supporting the Established Church,
The Congress of Vienna and
The Squire’s paternalistic hand.
Like his, our lives have been coeval
With a political upheaval,
Like him, we had the luck to see
A rare discontinuity,
Old Russia suddenly mutate
Into a proletarian state,
The odd phenomenon, the strange
Event of qualitative change.
Some dreamed, as students always can,
It realized the potential Man,
A higher species brought to birth
Upon a sixth part of the earth,
While others settled down to read
The theory that forecast the deed
And found their humanistic view
In question from the German who,
Obscure in gaslit London, brought
To human consciousness a thought
It thought unthinkable, and made
Another consciousness afraid.
What if his hate distorted? Much
Was hateful that he had to touch.
What if he erred? He flashed a light
On facts where no one had been right.
The father-shadow that he hated
Weighed like an Alp; his love, frustrated.
Negating as it was negated,
Burst out in boils; his animus
Outlawed him from himself; but thus,
And only thus, perhaps, could he
Have come to his discovery.
Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?
As he explored the muttering tomb
Of a museum reading room,
The Dagon of the General Will
Fell in convulsions and lay still;
The tempting Contract of the rich,
Revealed as an abnormal witch,
Fled with a shriek, for as he spoke
The justifying magic broke;
The garden of the Three Estates
Turned desert, and the Ivory Gates
Of Pure Idea to gates of horn
Through which the Governments are born.
But his analysis reveals
The other side to Him-who-steals
Is He-who-makes-what-is-of-use,
Since, to consume, man must produce;
By Man the Tough Devourer sets
The nature his despair forgets
Of Man Prolific since his birth,
A race creative on the earth,
Whose love of money only shows
That in his heart of hearts he knows
His love is not determined by
A personal or tribal tie
Or color, neighborhood, or creed,
But universal, mutual need;
Loosed from its shroud of temper, his
Determinism comes to this:
None shall receive unless they give;
All must coöperate to live.
Now he is one with all of those
Who brought an epoch to a close,
With him who ended as he went
Past an archbishop’s monument
The slaveowners’ mechanics, one
With the ascetic farmer’s son
Who, while the Great Plague ran its course,
Drew up a Roman code of Force,
One with the naturalist, who fought
Pituitary headaches, brought
Man’s pride to heel at last and showed
His kinship with the worm and toad,
And Order as one consequence
Of the unfettered play of Chance.
Great sedentary Cæsars who
Have pacified some dread tabu,
Whose wits were able to withdraw
The numen from some local law
And with a single concept brought
Some ancient rubbish heap of thought
To rational diversity,
You are betrayed unless we see
No codex gentium we make
Is difficult for Truth to break;
The Lex Abscondita evades
The vigilantes in the glades;
Now here, now there, one leaps and cries
‘I’ve got her and I claim the prize,’
But when the rest catch up, he stands
With just a torn blouse in his hands.
We hoped; we waited for the day
The State would wither clean away,
Expecting the Millennium
That theory promised us would come.
It didn’t. Specialists must try
To detail all the reasons why;
Meanwhile at least the layman knows
That none are lost so soon as those
Who overlook their crooked nose,
That they grow small who imitate
The mannerisms of the great,
Afraid to be themselves, or ask
What acts are proper to their task,
And that a tiny trace of fear
Is lethal in man’s atmosphere. The rays of Logos take effect,
But not as theory would expect,
For, sterile and diseased by doubt,
The dwarf mutations are thrown out
From Eros’ weaving centrosome.
O Freedom still is far from home,
For Moscow is as far as Rome
Or Paris. Once again we wake
With swimming heads and hands that shake
And stomachs that keep nothing down.
Here’s where the devil goes to town
Who knows that nothing suits his book
So well as the hang-over look,
That few drunks feel more awful than
The Simon-pure Utopian,
He calls at breakfast in the rôle
Of blunt but sympathetic soul:
‘Well, how’s our Socialist this morning?
I could say “Let this be a warning,”
But no, why should I? Students must
Sow their wild oats at times or bust.
Such things have happened in the lives
Of all the best Conservatives.
I’ll fix you something for your liver.’
And thus he sells us down the river.
Repenting of our last infraction
We seek atonement in reaction
And cry, nostalgic like a whore,
‘I was a virgin still at four.’
Perceiving that by sailing near
The Hegelian whirlpool of Idea
Some foolish aliens have gone down,
Lest our democracy should drown
We’d wreck her on the solid rock
Of genteel anarchists like Locke,
Wave at the mechanized barbarian
The vorpal sword of an Agrarian.
O how the devil who controls
The moral asymmetric souls,
The either-ors, the mongrel halves
Who find truth in a mirror, laughs.
Yet time and memory are still
Limiting factors on his will;
He cannot always fool us thrice,
For he may never tell us lies,
Just half-truths we can synthesize.
So, hidden in his hocus-pocus,
There lies the gift of double focus,
That magic lamp which looks so dull
And utterly impractical,
Yet, if Aladdin use it right,
Can be a sesame to light.

(To be concluded)