Disquisition on Death
(From an unfinished poem, 1929)
Let us speak, my beloved, of death,
and of the divine right of kings. Let us discuss
the Constitution of the realms of darkness
and our vassalage and subservience to my Lord Barebones.
I have sung him often, prettily enough, in times past,
knowing him for a very honest gentleman,
an old friend of the family,
who has given advancement to my progenitors one and all
without discrimination or exception.
Yet what is he? All things to all men, indubitably,
according to the mood and the circumstance.
To me has he been in the nonage of my spirit
many things: a robber; a ghoul; a destroyer
page 70 of flesh and soul; a medicine, a sweet balm
for the wound of love. He has played the gravedigger
to many a Hamletish posture of my soul.
And once in the dead of night
as I lay dreaming deep did he come to me
in the guise of an old grey abbess, and took you, my beloved
from my arms, and led you away to that dark nunnery
where is no mingling of blood and wine to the glory
of God, but a mumbling over the beads for ever.
He has played many quips and pranks, has provoked
many unreal and illusory conceits,
as if to assure me he is no old sobersides
but a mere grim unreality who can crack a jest
and laugh with the best of these old tavern fellows.
I went through the market-place crying, There is no death,
and was greeted only by the frightened laughter of fools
who live in such terror of the dissolution
and decay of their pitiful bodies that they see
only the faggots, and not the fire of God.
Take comfort, little ones, I said. How should Homunculus
flare on the void, how should he cause a disruption
of the elements? That Leonardo at his going-out
was attended with lightning is well within our credence,
but surely death for the poor in spirit is only
a matter of degree, bringing no great change in their estate?
Yet it may be that their fear of the dark is well-founded,
for they are temporal stuff, rooted in earth,
reared on unleavened bread, and well may they find
the wine of immortality strange tipple.
But the soul of Leonardo was steeped in infinity,
and his death was but the merging of air and wind,
the mingling of a raindrop in a river,
a fading of music, a beautiful surcease
of thought and sense, like to the gentle passage
of a dove, weary of the world's sun, that drifts
on slumbrous wings to the darkness of the forest
and finds sweet rest among the shadowy leaves.
I went through the market-place and proclaimed the word,
but they mocked me, and there was fear beneath their mockery.
I sang that life and death are vain illusions,
that only the spirit of God exists, which they
in their folly had clothed in rags and rotten flesh.
I cried, There is only the king, and the king has no clothes on.
page 71 But they mocked, and passed on, striving in vain with laughter
to choke the fear that quickened in their breasts.
My ears listened to their laughter but my heart was deaf,
I went on my way and minded not their mockery,
for the derision of fools is a benediction.
It is this body-death they fear indeed,
this scavenger of flesh and all living substance,
this is the very fountainhead of fear.
How should so beautiful a thing as death
be a stench in the nostrils, be clothed in such bitter finality?
For death is but the digestive organ of God,
by its prime metabolism giving
fresh form and shape to the immortal spirit;
so that the leaf, the fruit, bowel and gut of swine,
the beggar's scabs, the flesh of emperors,
the lips of Guinivere and the blood of Christ,
dissolved and scattered, have worn a million shapes.
We are one flesh, one spirit, and all that is
shines fair in the eyes of God. Nothing so low
but is a part of us, of our true being,
and we love all, so we be pure in heart.
But some there be who defile God's living word,
saints and ascetics who sunder flesh from soul,
hoping in woeful ambition to raise man's spirit
to a higher dignity. They gaze on God's handiwork
and say, It is not good. They make of the flesh
a beastly and ungodly thing. So by their vile deceit
and betrayal of God's gracious trust have they brought
the spirit low and made it one in kind
with their blasphemous illusion.
But let us rather follow our father Rabelais,
who by the alchemy of a bright and loving mind
would raise all beastly things to the brink of godhead.
Kant's dead, the gods be praised.
That old man ruled me five years or more,
wagging the finger of reproof under my nose,
bloodless, lifeless, sexless he ruled me,
he and his system, a two-and-elevenpenny clock
with an alarm like the conscience of Calvin.
He's dead, and I no more eat German haggis.
I came upon him in a corner of the park
page 72 and pushed my umbrella through his newspaper,
so that he died old with no dazzling eyes.
Let him rot slowly.
Let his end be modest and seemly, no whit spectacular.
A decent, quiet end, if you please, Master Death.
In my youth I followed other metaphysicians
and whirling dervishes of the intellect
who prance in the meadows of the imagination
trying to catch the stars in butterfly nets.
In the mansions of my spirit did they dwell
like worms in a cheese. They consumed my substance, they walked
in my garden, nipping the flowers from their stalks,
inventing systems to break the bank of the cosmos.
But now at last am I quit of their black magic,
now in my mind
a place of trees and flowers where the bright horde
of the imagination, the children of my delight,
sing and make dances under the horned moon.
For reason is but a foolish serpent that takes
its tongue in its teeth and attempts to swallow itself.
I cried: I am weary of summer and her shrunken streams
and the arrogant sun that in the heavens marches
heedless through dry clouds when earth is faint.
I am tired of miraculous spring, the fire and fret
and the earth's clotted beauty. I have gazed in the sky
and heard the song of the death-enshadowed larks.
The emptiness of the sky and the teeming fullness
of the earth's belly are an affront to the mind of man,
an irony too bitter for the soul to contemplate.
The godlike spirit of man has suffered eclipse.
Yet I believe with the deep faith that lives
in my mind and blood that this vanquishment of the spirit
is illusory, and a figment of fear—that lie
the past tells of the future. But for the wise
in the moment of vision there is neither past nor future
but eternal present in which all things exist.
In the wide wastes of time, that boundless desert
where only mirage and traveller's tale are true,
there lies no hope for the fallen spirit of man.
I am no babbler of the world's golden age.
Time and man's scheming will not mend the wall.
page 73 The Sphinx smiles, say some, I say she sneers.
But love's bright eye may pierce the painted veil
and in the visionary moment ransom life
from the entanglements of time and fear.
The innocence that burns in the heart of man
has been shrouded in darkness by the destroyers,
Onan, Calvin, Automaton, black Trinity.
They have spilled the wine of life and preached us fear.
They have dragged truth and love at the world's heels.
They have decked out truth in the world's finery, saying
that all men are equal in the sight of the Devil,
that the blood that surges through the veins of Smith is royal
and the marrow in the bones of Jones imperial stuff;
and their flattery has persuaded our belief.
Kings, emperors and the princes of this world
are but regents of darkness, ruling a shadowy kingdom,
and with the passing of days their ramparts fall.
But where is the tower that shall outlast all time,
that pilèd centuries besiege in vain?
O it is builded in the heart of man,
and innocence, that thin taper in the dungeon
brought to the yard may blind the world's great sun.
Let us speak lastly of the decease of love.
(Love, with ruddy lips, and dew on his wings,
with gossip of the court and tales of heaven,
to what has love come, sweet love!) First let me say
not Pandarus with a hundred maids at heel,
not Helen with her whorish tricks, the delight
of young and old, not Eve's self with the juice
of the fruit new-bitten dribbling fresh at her lips,
had moved me, but that death sent his merry procuress,
beguiling spring, to stir my sleeping heart.
Do you remember the morning you and I
walked on the tall cliffs among the flowers,
and the broad sun-dazzled ocean
towering from under us to the high horizon,
and the sea-wind, and the blue water mocking
the battlemented rocks? So deep we waded
through seas of sunlight, drunken with the spring,
that we forgot the grave and the hungry earth
page 74 crying for its supper, knew only the living fire
within our veins. We were two trees that blossomed
with mingling boughs, and the golden hive of desire
swarmed in our branches. Suddenly, you recall,
the air was thick with music and thrown flowers,
and the foam-born goddess with her singing maidens
descended from a cloud and hallowed us
with pagan benedictions. Then, alas,
the lady left us, and time ran its course.
We climbed through the bracken one evening, you and I,
along the familiar path our feet had made.
You will remember the setting sun and the far
golden hills like mice embalmed in honey,
and the sky of china blue, and the mist in the valley;
and the trees that towered above the gloom like peaks
of jagged greenstone, and the brown boles beneath.
You will remember, as I do, the hush that fell
over the world, and the one cricket chirping.
We climbed, you know, beyond the trees, then down
by the little stream that bubbles under the fern,
and lay in the soft darkness beside the waters.
There was a mystery. You and I became one.
There's no knowing how it happened, or how
by the mere merging of body and perishable dust
grace should have bloomed in us: but I have heard
that old greybeard, that ragged seer who stalks
in the gutters of my brain and eats dry crusts
pending his kingdom, I have heard him tell
how love was the perfect merging of two souls,
and of all men's souls in God, but that man dreamed
a lie, and set the gulf of fear betwixt
the flesh and spirit to sunder them in twain;
and yet how later lovers may o'erleap
the fearful chasm and make God's covenant
on earth again … But there, it's an older tale
than I have made it, and I heard it firs
from a nightingale in Eden, long ago.
So did we lie in darkness, lulled by the music
of a hidden stream. (O lovers, let me speak
this wisdom: never make love by running water.
It is a symbol, and a mockery of holy things.)
So did we love. And my body, that burned in flame,
page 75 remembered nothing. It was my spirit that led me,
some five years after, to climb again through the bracken,
alone, or with a ghost, to the selfsame spot.
The path was overgrown. In the western sky
was a moon like a clipping from a man's thumbnail,
or as I recall it more like a shive of cheese,
with a few stars peering like rats from their holes
bright-eyed and gluttonous. All that remembered vale
that you and I so loved was like a well
sucked dry of its sweet water. I turned, and ran.
Were I Endymion with a world to gain
I would take the stars and scatter them under your feet,
were I a Spanish knight upon a charger
with lance a-tilt would I ride, drunken with love,
gallop and capture yon cloud-castle gleaming
gold on the world's rim, I would make you empress
of twelve horizons. But I have neither the time
nor the inclination. I am a weary man
who has outlived himself, whose lust is chastened,
and I am already a little tired of your caresses.
I have no fear that passion, pure and sweet,
should curdle into hate and cruelty:
for see, I cast it as a worn-out coat
to time's consuming fire. So dying, it lives.
So dying sleeps until his Easter day.