Thursday, October 13, 2011

Autumn Journal IX - Louis MacNeice

Now we are back to normal, now the mind is
Back to the even tenor of the usual day
Skidding no longer across the uneasy camber
Of the nightmare way.
We are safe though others have crashed the railings
Over the river ravine; their wheel-tracks carve the bank
But after the event all we can do is argue
And count the widening ripples where they sank.
October comes with rain whipping around the ankles
In waves of white at night
And filling the raw clay trenches (the parks of London
Are a nasty sight).
 In a week I return to work, lecturing, coaching,
As impresario of the Ancient Greeks
Who wore the chiton and lived on fish and olives
And talked philosophy or smut in cliques;
Who believed in youth and did not gloze the unpleasant
Consequences of age;
What is life, one said, or what is pleasant
Once you have turned the page
Of love? The days grow worse, the dice are loaded
Against the living man who pays in tears for breath;
Never to be born was the best, call no man happy 
This side death.

Conscious - long before Engels - of necessity
And therein free
They plotted out their life with truism and humour
Between the jealous heaven and the callous sea.
And Pindar sang the garland of wild olive
And Alcibiades lived from hand to mouth
Double-crossing, Athens, Persia, Sparta
And many died in the city of plague, and many of drouth
In Sicilian quarries, and many by the spear and arrow
And many more who told their lies too late
Caught in the eternal factions and reactions 
Of the city state.
And free speech shivered on the pikes of Macedonia
And later on the swords of Rome
And Athens became a mere unversity city
And the goddess born of the foam
Became the kept hetaera, heroine of Menander,
And the philosopher narrowed his focus, confined
His efforts to putting his own soul in order
And keeping a quiet mind.
And for a thousand years they went on talking,
Making such apt remarks,
A race no longer of heroes but of professors
And crooked business men and secretaries and clerks
Who turned out dapper little elegaic verses
On the ironies of fate, the transience of all
Affections, carefully shunning an over-statement
But working the dying fall.

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills
Though there were exceptions of course but only exceptions-
The bloody Bacchanals on the Thracian hills.

So the humanist in his room with Jacobean panels
Chewing his pipe and looking on a lazy quad
Chops the Ancient World to turn a sermon
To the greater glory of God.

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different 
And all so long ago.


  1. who the hell are you.

    you are god damn amazing.

    we must get to know you you!

    david and amy

  2. I've just completed an Ancient Greeks class and this is the perfect final touch. Thank you so much for this poem! It made me think...

  3. This is truly brilliant. Thank you so much!

  4. I moved to the secluded mtns of Appalachia last July. While everyone is very friendly, I have, as yet, met no educated poets. I miss them. Thankyou.

  5. I love this piece!
    It's depth to me, and it's appropriate ambiguity, are powerful and move the old Greek side of my mind to tears long held back. I print it and save every word and am so very grateful that it was written.
    Thank you, just thank you.

  6. Beautiful poem. Thanks from Spain ;-)