The days seem long now, and life is long
Although the years hurry away to death;
No-one can daunt time; the young and strong
Are weak before it draws their dying breath.
It races, and they race, and still they lose;
The beds they tumble in grow comfortless.
How could imagination ever choose,
Since out of more there comes always less?
The gangling bunch of nerves which reach the brain
From every corner of the fleshly kingdom
Collects the news of beauty, but the pain
Of memory will devour comfort’s crumb.
What is remembered of the years at last
Is nothing but the folly of the wise,
Prudence too much, or too much folly past,
No calculation helps the man who dies.
What comes back is that every choice is wrong,
No action finished as it was conceived,
The body withered while the hope was strong;
No itch it suffered ever was relieved.
O mind, the frenzy of a fluttered nerve,
What did you see as you went on your way?
What do you see now? Nothing will serve
To mitigate the horror of that day
When all goes crumbling to its final end;
The end of ends was far before that time.
No purpose was achieved, nothing could lend
The colour of intention to the climb
From that first pulp which once within the womb
Lived as unknowing as the wisest man,
To reach that image-decorated room
Death wipes as clean as when he first began.
Yet the pulp rises like a loaf of bread,
The harbouring belly swells, and then ejects
A naked clown who falls upon his head;
His parents see, he does not see, his prospects.
The reason of the world is in those two,
The one that bore, the one that set the seed;
The child is what he must be, and what grew
Once in the dark, finds what it is to feed.
Before the eyes can focus, ears can hear;
A cloud of sound bursts on the sleeping brain:
Then forms take shape, hunger may come, or fear,
An ancient pattern growing once again.
Love flashes from the eyes that wear the paps;
The peace they give resembles gratitude.
What deceits on both sides! The love perhaps
Following the particle it must extrude,
The gratitude compelled by satisfaction
Unable to attribute its delight:
A blind cradle rocks, and the exaction
Returns the infant to his sacred night.
So from this darkness does this ignorant
Grow senselessly, a tree without a root,
Only his predecessors confident
These vague extensions are a hand or foot.
So words collect which have no meaning yet,
Like dross upon the brain in sucking-time;
Sights veer and cloud and are indefinite;
The child moves in the chaos of his prime.
Movement it is that brings definition,
The toe, the toy, the blow or else the fall.
Wisdom creeps in then like the Evil One
To advise how to bully and to call.
And so to play, and give to fantasy
Control of every monster in the way;
Mind like a platitude will always see
Itself victorious in the shining day.
And then to youth, certain and arrogant,
Or weak and frightened when it finds defeat,
Still groping with its stream of youthful cant
To find a proper use for hands and feet.
The feet which lead him to the proper prize,
The hands which seek for softness once again;
The conjugation mastered by the eyes
Inflecting what until it turns to when.
To climb upon the body that he chose,
Yet did not choose but willingly obeyed,
Those breasts, that belly, that imagined rose
Blooming under the bush which marks its glade.
The bed of love declares itself supreme,
Yet not the love but only the desire
Which finds its solace there, is the true dream
Throwing itself upon its funeral pyre,
That desire which must flicker and then blaze
So often in what seem long years ahead,
Twists itself into many shapes and plays
Far subtler games than any in a bed.
The conqueror is happy on his horse,
The politician revels in acclaim,
The petty thief approves his clever course:
The hope that drives their movements is the same.
Justification in the eyes of men:
The lies crowd round the winner and he laughs.
And when he fails, as he must fail?
Ah, then He lies to please himself, and laughs and laughs.
So the word grows upon a tree of nerves,
To deceive all who take it for the fruit.
What fruit is there? The dying body serves
At last to stultify it from the root.
It came first rather as a bird to perch,
Twittering perhaps upon an utmost twig:
The dying body leaves it in the lurch,
The structured growth solid and gaunt and big.
The twig has lost its sap, the word its meaning.
Can it fly after that? The flock that fell
Bird after bird from nowhere, and sat preening,
Rises no more, and has no news to tell.
A twitter here and there is taken up
By other birds, perched upon other trees:
Then silence: other mimics fill the cup
Of the surrounding world, and seek to please.
And other movements bustle and are lost,
Of other bodies moving as they must,
For no word suits them, and their hopes are crossed
As others were which now compose the dust.
If any came, it was the only Word
From the beginning and beyond the end:
It was made flesh—which you may think absurd—
And if it was not, no man has a friend.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 3, on page 49
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