Robinson Jeffers

(10 January 1887 – 20 January 1962 / Allegheny, Pennsylvania)

Hellenistics - Poem by Robinson Jeffers

I look at the Greek-derived design that nourished my infancy
this Wedgwood copy of the Portland vase:
Someone had given it to my father my eyes at five years old
used to devour it by the hour.

I look at a Greek coin, four-drachma piece struck by Lysimachus:
young Alexander's head
With the horns of Ammon and brave brow-ridges, the bright
pride and immortal youth and wild sensitiveness.

I think of Achilles, Sappho, the Nike. I think of those mercenaries
who marched in the heart of Asia
And lived to salute the sea: the lean faces like lance-heads, the
grace of panthers. The dull welter of Asia.

I am past childhood, I look at this ocean and the fishing birds, the
streaming skerries, the shining water,
The foam-heads, the exultant dawn-light going west, the pelicans,
their huge wings half folded, plunging like stones.

Whatever it is catches my heart in its hands, whatever it is makes
me shudder with love
And painful joy and the tears prickle ... the Greeks were not
its inventors. The Greeks were not the inventors

Of shining clarity and jewel-sharp form and the beauty of God.
He was free with men before the Greeks came:
He is here naked on the shining water. Every eye that has a
man's nerves behind it has known him.

II
I think of the dull welter of Asia. I think of squalid savages along
the Congo: the natural
Condition of man, that makes one say of all beasts 'They are
not contemptible. Man is contemptible.' I see

The squalor of our own frost-bitten forefathers. I will praise the
Greeks for having pared down the shame of three vices
Natural to man and no other animal, cruelty and filth and superstition,
grained in man's making.

III
The age darkens, Europe mixes her cups of death, all the little
Caesars fidget on their thrones,
The old wound opens its clotted mouth to ask for new wounds.
Men will fight through; men have tough hearts.

Men will fight through to the autumn flowering and ordered
prosperity. They will lift their heads in the great cities
Of the empire and say: 'Freedom? Freedom was a fire. We are
well quit of freedom, we have found prosperity.'

They will say, 'Where now are the evil prophets?' Thus for a
time in the age's afterglow, the sterile time;
But the wounds drain, and freedom has died, slowly the machines
break down, slowly the wilderness returns.

IV
Oh distant future children going down to the foot of the mountain,
the new barbarism, the night of time,
Mourn your own dead if you remember them, but not for civilization,
not for our scuttled futilities.

You are saved from being little entrails feeding large brains, you
are saved from being little empty bundles of enjoyment,
You are not to be fractional supported people but complete men;
you will guard your own heads, you will have proud eyes.

You will stand among the spears when you meet; life will be
lovely and terrible again, great and in earnest;
You will know hardship, hunger and violence: these are not the
evils: what power can save you from the real evils

Of barbarism? What poet will be born to tell you to hate cruelty
and filth? What prophet will warn you
When the witch-doctors begin dancing, or if any man says 'I
am a priest,' to kill them with spears?


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Poem Submitted: Monday, April 12, 2010



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