A poem for our times (alas)

Events of the past few weeks have made me think of what I consider Auden’s greatest poem.
Note the behavior of the “crowd of ordinary decent folk.” Please don’t be one of them.
W. H. Auden
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “A poem for our times (alas)”

  1. One of my favorite poems inspired by one of my favorite poems. Book 18, line 535 unfortunately will be there:

    And Hate was there with Confusion among them, and Death the destructive…

    But we need to remember by what we are surrounded, from lines 606-607, which encompasses everything within its bounds:

    He made on it the great strength of the Ocean River
    Which ran round the uttermost rim of the shield's strong structure.

    If we forget this, we may well end up watching motionless and mute, because we think that there is nothing strong behind us.

  2. It's a fine poem, but doesn't quite fit. Auden was writing about the bureaucratic totalitarianisms of fascism and communism. Trumpism is, so far, more what Aristotle and Madison feared about democracy: the rule of a mob swayed by passions not reason. If Trump gets his deportation force, them we may see the soulless bureaucratic version.

    Hitler even had to destroy the mob aspect of his movement in the SA, to replace it with the mechanical obedience of the SS. IIRC the last attempt of the Nazis to use the mob was Kristallnacht: they had hoped to spark a pogrom, with masses of ordinary Germans joining in an assault on the Jews. That did not work. However, the Nazis did learn that while the ordinary Germans would not join in a pogrom, neither would they intervene to protect their neighbours. So the way was clear for the bureaucratic Final Solution.

  3. I'm surprised this one hasn't come up yet. Ozymandias

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away."

    1. Ozymandias has always been my favorite poem. "Always," as in "for 60 years, since I first red it in high school."

      Sadly, it takes a long time for that statue of stone to erode away. I've been waiting over 50 years for the erosion of the barricades erected by some of our notable Southern leadership in response to the civil rights actions of the LBJ government in the sixties. I thought we were moving towards that end with the election of President Obama, but the intervening eight years have shown me how foolish I was.

      I know I will not outlive the current Ozymandiases of my dismay; I wonder if my grandchildren will.

  4. The poem is a bit unfair to Pharaoh Ramses II, for whom Ozymandias was a later Greek name. He exploited the peasants to build great ego-trip monuments like Abu Simbel, and fought unnecessary imperialist wars to extend his rule into Palestine and beyond. But he kept the peace in Egypt, signed the world's first recorded peace treaty with the Hittites, and ruled till his death at 90, which was not followed by collapse. So you have to account him more successful than Louis XIV or Qin Shi Huang.

    I can't find support for the idea that Egyptian pharaohs adopted any universal claim like "king of kings". They did not control the whole Middle East and knew it. SFIK the Persians invented the idea with Cyrus, who styled himself "King of the Four Corners of the World." That was actually progress, as the Achaemenid Empire respected the traditions and religions of its many subjects (see the Tanakh/Old Testament), rather than treating the conquered as disposable slaves like the Assyrians.

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