(Fragments of a fragmentary epyllion)
When first from ivied Academe
Fair Sophy flew, when first the dream
Of finding truth or beauty here
Was proved a very dream, and fear
Of giving any cause to blush
Took hold of every soul, and hushed
Truth-teaching tongues—turned nays to yeas,
And wrongs to rights, and Ds to As—
Then paced I, till my soles blistered,
Pond’ring what treatment, adminístered
Deftly and betimes, might prove
A venom to the swindlers who’ve
Usurped and soiled Sophia’s seat—
(Of whom, anon); and though my feet
From all this bustle, begged a rest,
My heart forbade, and though distressed—
Yet hopeful Fate might yet unscroll
Some battle plan, or tonic dole,
Or stage some brave, consoling jest—
I ceased to pace and pondered on a stroll.
A prematurely wintry day,
I bent my way uphill, and west
Through Morningside, through fog and grey,
To regions blighted, bleak, unblest,
Of sapient souls dispossessed,
And long since of object opaque.
By paths no longer known to me,
I wound up at Philosophy
Where, limping past her unfaux Rodin,
I paused, perused, and mused aloud:
“Poor thing, condemned to sit your span
Even here, where myriad natterings crowd
Incessant in your unshut ears.”
Which said, I seemed to see him twitch,
And almost felt I sensed him itch
To stand, and less for comfort’s sake
Than (what else could a thinking man?)
Because he meant at last to flee.
Attent thereon the event to see,
I tarried, till the chill air burned,
Still yearning he’d from stillness break,
But by and by baffled, gloomily turned,
Nor sooner turned than seemed to hear:
“Inaner nattering every year.”
And though ‘twas airily expressed,
And heard as rustling gusts uprose,
It was, through din and distance, clear;
And so I spun about, and froze.
Another idle hour ensued,
Of stony staring twixt us twain,
As lifeless leaves in spirals churned,
And bitterer winds brought bitterer pain.
Oppressed by these, again I turned
To seek the stacks for refuge, brood,
and read. But ‘twas not thus decreed.
For, moments hence, this fateful walk
Was interrupted by a flock
Of lecture-goers, snakily queued
Athwart their Alma’s steps—there wooed,
I wagered, by the hope they might
Be seen attending, or, perhaps,
Encourage uncomprehending claps
By giving theirs erect, as shows
Apt zeal, and lets their gurus suppose
They’ve set some wrong opinion right.
A somewhat disconcerting sight,
On which account it caught my eye;
And, though I found no passers-by,
Some flyers, blown against my shin,
Advised me what was planned within:
A reverend doctor, world-famed
(Whom manners bid me leave unnamed),
Had come, with aged tomes in tow,
And bullet-pointed slides, to show
“How literary tastes evolve;
How morals, firmly formed, dissolve;
And, superseded, come to shock;
Why one age may be right to mock
What all the rest found cause to extol.”
It’d be a several hours’ talk;
And so, to nurse a blistered sole,
And while the waning day away,
I braved the line, and found a seat,
Nor thought to precontrive retreat.
Some ages could have passed, when Lo!
A man in black, with eyes aglow,
Assumed the stage, and—what was droll—
Strode all around, in some conceit,
As if in some remembered play,
And, as perceiving from that role,
Seemed now to find the lectern strange,
As out of place in his charade,
And now to dearly covet it.
I felt a qualm, and thought to split,
But too late now to hew a way,
He started, as I stood, to say,
“There’s been a minor program change.”
“For fear,” he teased, “we’d draw no crowd,
We thought it best to rearrange,
And upset things a little bit.”—
Some rustling here, and sighed dismay—
“You needn’t worry though.” He vowed,
“The talk’s been a terrific hit.”
On hearing which, I eyed the door,
And checked (as came my wont) the clock,
Then calmed myself, or less or more,
But listening, as his lesson started,
Despair drew nigh, and lingering hope departed.
His topic,—just then all the rage—
Was what, “from Caxton’s time to Locke’s—
Or thereabouts,” might be revealed,
If towering minds would stoop to engage
In studies which (‘twas said) would yield
“More knowledge of, say, Shakespeare’s age
Than even all the Bard’s own work.
For, few have guessed what spoils lurk—
And hence have left quite unexplored
Rich grounds which never till now appealed,
At all, to scholars. But untold hoards”
(He swore) “await that questing sage:
His toil will prove how rich a field,
Nay—COSMOS—is the title-page!”
The students there, with beaming nods,
Seemed saying, “Let that sage be I!”
But seemed so—ah!—one breath too late,
For, seized by some unsmiling god,
I, forced to think it farce, let fly
An unstifled snort-laugh-mercy-cry!
How instantly and how irate
The nodders’ looks turned! Seven or eight
Seemed thinking a bolt about to strike.
“Is something funny, sir?” One said.
Another, in the sequent pause,
Arose and said, “Professor, like,
Do you, like, think, with all the flaws
In early modern texts, we’ve read,
Or tried to read, for meanings which
We can’t be sure are there? I mean,
How can one probe an author’s head
When she’s not even sure which glitch
And which omission is her fault,
And which her printers’?” There intervened
Another pause. Those poised for assault
Then lipped their fangs, and forward leaned,
All ears to hear their thoughts confirmed,
And thus to feel their smarts approved
(Or so you’d ‘ve thought). And as they moved
To their seats’ last inch, I mutely squirmed,
The more so as the answer came:
“Well thank you, sir. Indeed, it’s tough,
With such corrupt and scant material
To know for sure just who’s to blame.
We’d like to think we have enough
In the way of sources none mistrust—
We’d like, I think, to think some theory’ll
At last console those still nonplussed,
Or teach them to amend some textual blank;
And well it may—God knows, it must!”
The crowd here laughed—”for let’s be frank,
These things don’t just explain themselves!”—
A roar—“or what their authors ‘meant’.”—
Some scant applause—”and never doubt,—
Till Milton’s fiends or Spenser’s elves
Discuss authorial intent,
Any claims about what a text’s ‘about’—
Nevermind how deep one claims t’ have delved—
Are just plain nonsense. All the same,
We’ve got a treasure-trove of texts”
(Which this time meant, “of printed books”)
“And every page of each reflects—
I almost—should have—said, proclaims—
A web of bygone social forms:
Just think what vastly varied nooks
The makers crept from, ere they swarmed
Upon this labor?” Here he shook
Just overhead, what, as I guessed,
Was once—though now a mess—a book,
All crumbled—all ways worsed with wear.
“Who cast, who set the type? Who pressed,
And sold the wares? And to whom? And where?
Who cut the woodcuts, who took care
To see all these whos’ needs addressed?
Who paid the help, supplied the shop…?”—
And on it ran, like this, non-stop,
A good five minutes, whereon I,
(Still urged, by turns, to laugh, and cry)
Began to think it best to bail.
Yet, knowing how revered was he
Who just now held the room in awe,
I thought I ought take heed to avail
Myself of all the secrecy
The dark might lend.
And caution here,
In retrospect, was wise, for though
I meant thence decorously to withdraw,
Yet somehow, carefully though they go,—
Though jot nor tittle of discretion
(leaving leaving) be neglected—
Malcontents are oft detected,
And, pinned in place by many a spear
Of piercing, sneering, jeering leers,
Discern themselves discovered foes,
And stand, ensnared in unfeigned fears,
Unsure what rod rights their transgression,
But sure the mob hopes it severe.
And as the present horde appeared
For still more spiteful motions fitted,
Adread indeed to feed their fury,
Nor keen to be spat at, or otherwise spitted,
I sat, and urged the halting clock to hurry.
Five more copious minutes flitted,
And those sore five were all I could.
When next the laughter burst, I stood,
And inched in silence, slowly, nigher
The day outside. My sole desire
Was just to get there unespied,
But, as misfortunes oft collide,
It chanced that, at the room’s confine,
A blister bit. O fatal fang!
One helpless yelp but half escaped.
And right then—curséd hap!—there rang
Some raucous cell. A cruel design,
This snarl the sisters three thus shaped,—
For the queer acoustics of the place
Ordained that each’s conjunct screech,
(The phone’s and mine) should so agree
As seeming linked, and both seem mine.
And so they must have, for “Disgrace!”
Now trembled on venom-puckered lips.
Here heat much light delight eclipsed
As cooling cheer grew bilious fire,
And mirth gave way, and straight, to mighty ire.
All felt—myself the most—the pang
Of breached decorum. The harangue
Broke off, and every eye on me,
My own observed the speaker reach
(Nor guiltlessly) within his coat.
(And here I should, but won’t, beseech
The reader trust me; for what passed
Will doubtless seem an oddity,
As queer as ever dreamer wrote.).
—No sooner than he’d searched his coat,
The ringing quit. He cleared his throat,
And—ere one head turned back around—
Withdrew an object, cocked his arm,
And, seeming bent on mortal harm,
Sent something skyward. Seconds passed,
The direful missile, fiercely cast,
Now sailed, silent, as it arced,
Now, as it neared me, cut the quiet
With that same small percussive riot
We’d all just heard,—But this none marked,
For thereupon, its target found,
The catapulted gadget smote.
I needn’t here detail the horror—
The purpled pate, the spurting gore—
Suffice it I was soundly downed,
Nor soon to rise, for, laid as low—
Or, told more finely, floored as flat
As ’twere a twelfth-floor Bobst-jump splat,
(For so—abhorrent fate!—‘twould prove
Some seconds later)—I, for now,
Unaided, floundered on the ground;
Not paralyzed, but loth to move,
The more, as from my assailant’s post
I caught a vaguely gleeful sound,
As of a boy-mad priest cavorting,
The more, too, as his merry chortling
Roused around him—as a ghost,
By frighting one, frights all around
Who see the pale the specter’s wrought—
So his was raising round a hum
Of kindred malice. First I thought
Them venting terror at the crime,
But no. ‘Twas clear in no small time,
Their dismay was: I lived. None sought
To lend a hand or bandage. Some
Seemed even intent to stamp and thwart
My rising. Others seemed to sport—
Too prim to cheer but none too averse
To curdle their gaiety some with a curse—
And strident whisperings from those,
Fell in with snickering mocks from these,
Till all grew one malevolent prattle.
And ere I could clap hand on knees,
The clamor swelled, as rustling clothes
And jingling coins, and all that purse
Or pocket holds, forthwith began to rattle.
Then, sitting up, with pain, I saw,
As if compelled by Spartan law,
And ravenous for blood and battle,
Each several auditor with phone,
As David with Goliath’s stone,
In bloodless hand, and trembling grip,
With elbow bent. I shan’t rehearse
My dire misgivings, but to say
From bad, I dimly presaged worse.
No sooner sensed I this, than they
Sent every several cell phone soaring,
(And tho’ we know the catalogue boring,
Yet pause we as through th’ air they whip
To give those well-aimed few their due,
For, for each hit, some forty flew
A mile amiss, and nowhere near):
But now they fly! Behold, ‘tis night!
One dreadnought Sony clocks the ear,
A fearsome Samsung clips the shoulder,
A Nextel next—a very boulder!—
Strikes the sternum. Banished, breath
Returns but for a second flight,
As four Nokias, black as death
And clustered thick as Bacchus’ vines,
As fierce as Cyclops crushing wines,
With strength, in swift succession, smite.
Behind these, by divine decree,
A scything Razr undermines,
A leg just planted, and its man;
Two Sprints mortific then alight,
And baneful Motorolas three.
It ran, approximately, thus,
And finished much as it began,
When, as from Jove’s own blunderbuss,
With force such as no cannon can,
Some Mars his taut ballista bends
And squarely fires. Such a dart
As ne’er Bellona’d cast her eyes on,
Down and down and down descends
That loathliest blackwing, stamped Verizon;
It cracks the skull, and stills the heart,
And with that luck, or warrior’s art,
The exotic martial contest ends.
The phones, like snow-flakes, blizzard-thick
In flight, now lie upon the floor;
Some flash, some tremble, some are still
And some emit their still small roar.
I, hurt, and more than to the quick,
Leapt up, astounded at my mettle;
Perhaps, I thought, the pain will nettle
Some more a moment hence, but no,
Instead it seemed to seep away,
And vanish, as a ruptured dream.
The grisly throbs which had before
Aggrieved were stilled, and what was more,
I stepped, and (not to tire a theme,
But) neither heel nor unlanced toes
Conveyed complaint. Nay, blisterless, they
Felt almost miraculously fit to run.
And tho’ all my instincts had flogged me to go,
A new-sprung urge seemed whispering: stay.
And so I stood, and scanned the room,
And scowled at that pack of huns
Who, though no longer glowering so
Directly at me, nor with doom
So fiercely furrowed in their glare,
Were nonetheless a hateful sight.
Or somewhat less, to tell it right.
For I, refreshed, as by an air
Salvific, such as burst the tomb
Of Lazarus, shook off the gloom
Of looming death and brutal blight.
And not well kenning where the sting
Had fled, or why, a bloodied thing,
I felt invulnerable and light
As fire, or phantom taking wing,
Or coppery clouds on the edge of night,
I counted it, all the same, a boon,
And not to be too much besought.
That moment’s relish for a row
Had passed, and somewhat eagerer now
To try my newly springy trot,
I stepped to go—a limber sprite!—
But just a step, for just as soon,
Through murmurs half-contrite, I heard
A voice as crisp as Procne’s croon:
“That escalated quickly, wow.”
I say I heard this, but each word
Was, rather, thunderously felt—
Terrific ‘twas, and yet somehow,
Agreeably tuned, as tender-noted
Songsters on a budding bough.
Still shuddering though, I had half knelt
To beg my life, or else embrace
The doom impending with a prayer,
When, stiffened with fear, I froze in place,
And braced, and felt my muscles melt
As softly down before me floated,
Like a speck in a sunbeam mistily moted,
Or petal on an April air,
A form seraphic, bathed in grace,
In rolling luminescent folds—
Its wispy limbs, the hue of pearl,
Were wreathed in deep diaphanous curls,
Which each minutest move remolds;
These dance and weave and interlace,
And writhe in languid waves, and flare,
And, even as dawn’s rose-rays, encase
A mien so heavenly sweet and fair
As none could once behold, and yet despair.
“First the phoning. Odd enough,”
She chimed again, now thinner-throated,
“And then you scarcely step and scuff
With cleanséd feet your clobbered face.”
I stood and stared; I’d fain have started,
But (per my wont) too putty-hearted,
I waited speechlessly a while
Till, by the soothing sun of her dear
Unbreaking incandescent smile,
My dark, yet hatching hunch was fed
That this was not a thing to fear.
And as she gently drifted near,
And as curiosity ousted dread,
Forgetting half of what she’d said,
I asked: “What’s that thou say’st?” amazed
To hear it so antiquely phrased,
Nor purposely, by my own mouth.
She answered, beaming, “Be not wroth,
But do be brave—look where you stand.”
And with a downward-pointing hand
She turned my eyes—O horrid sight!
My quivering quill can scarce command
The nerves to paint the pain aright!
My bludgeoned body, drained to white,
And drenched in red, and beaten blue,
And motionless, and—ah!—my foot
Set square upon, or rather in
My head, as Ahab’s spirit-shin,
Stood with his carpenter’s live one: Put
Together, straight apart they flew
As soon as seen immixed, for as
From pallid fangs the hunted flee,
So leapt I from mine own dead teeth,
As fervently as from the grave.
“Be,” She iterated, “Brave.
Though firstly one but dimly see’th,
This shall redound to better good,
As many a time before it has,
And lighten thy drooping spirits.” “Could,”
I, interrupting her puffery, urged
“You speak less darkly, pray, or tell
What dread catastrophe befell
That leveled man there?” “Dead,” she dirged.
“I wonder that you wonder at it.”
Dead. The tolling note resounded;
My heart, not seeming vapor, pounded,
And woe, no courage to combat it,
Gathered in my misty eyes.
But she, empiric of the cries
Of new-sprung sprights o’er cooling corses,
Anticipating trite remorses,
As one long cloyed with suchlike, said:
“Thou know’st tis common, man, and though
This were a curious way to go,
To mourn it were a fool’s emprise.”
I felt I feebly grasped her speech,
And clepped again my cloven head,
Surveyed again the sniveling crowd,
Then mused, now inly, now aloud
What great presumption ’twas to beseech
The quasi-quick and sentient dead.
Thus making her cheer my cue for strife,
“Forgive me if I miss my life,”
I moaned, “‘Twas not two breaths ago
Yet mine! Nor seems quite out of reach
E’en now —it takes a dawdling leave,
Yet goes! Forebear, therefore, to teach,
I pray thee, how ’twere meet to grieve!”
So I. Nor thought it vague, although,
Here too, to hear it worded so,
Quite staggered me anew. But she,
Diffusing a soft consoling glow
From smiling eyes, and speaking low,
“Compose yourself,” exhaled. “To each
‘Tis, roughly, thus. But, up! For, know:
The sequel runs peculiarly.”
“Nor know I aught, nor shall compo-”
I started saying, stopping short,
For here my tongue’s autonomy,
Though palpably annulled, and though
Intent on other themes, yet seemed
So far obedient to command
That it might yet forge the sought retort
On the nighest point of inquiry:
“And wherefore with the antic speech?”
In place of answer, troops of sprights,
Lithe fairy creatures, insect-winged,
In opalescent robes bedight
With star-bright gems, and sparkling sand
Behind them trailing, comet-like,
Across her outstretched arms alight;
Whereon, as distant wind-chimes ring,
They tinkle, twinkling, as they land,
Like choirs plucking Sapphic strings,
And, sweet as serried seraphs, sing:
“We could console thee, friend, but we
Have worlds to do, and worlds to see.
Thou rank’st among a fablable few
Who’ve died with needful deeds to do;
Thy tasks remain, but, unprepared,
‘Twas deeméd best thou be unsnared
Awhile, from that off-sloughéd coil
And fit thyself for future toil.”
My face in pained perplexity,
They marked, and looked as they well knew
How ill I read them. That they cared,
I thought I likewise saw, but soon,
When they renewed their sphinxlike croon—
In accents howsoever sweet—
‘Twas less than generously declared:
“If we seem cryptic, please allow
It’s liker far you’ve not learned how
To rightly hear, when beauties greet:
It is your ears you ought entreat.”
With that they rose and swirled about
In orbs above me, shedding sparks,
Which gently fall from crosscut arcs,
Then slow, and gather light, and sprout
Out-branching tendrils—thin at first,
But thicker as they stretch and split
And, meeting one another, knit
And split and knit again, until
Enmeshed in brightness, deathly still,
I, fearing some volcanic burst,
Allied my eyelids, plugged my ears,
And waited, wondering what worse worst
This prologue augured.
III. (Supplicatory Inter- or Postlude)
We would seem edged onto rare frontiers,
And well were he phoned who here interferes,
But if I may ere we proceed:
My shy Maecenas, noosed with need,
In aimless dreariness lamed and blear,
I “Ubi” ululate “es tu?”
Habemus multa still to do,
But mille millstones now impede,
And all foredoom.
Yet from these freed
(For Herakles a slight request,
While for the manumitted man
Both life and wings to his best life’s best),
So I, unbound and bounden, can
Of flame and iron spin the rest,
Or soft as Aphrodite’s breast
A dell of dew-kissed bluebells plait
And prick with love, or thorn with hate.
But as embattled hope disbands,
And rudderless in ruinous straits,
I, patron, to your saving hands
Commit the compass and the clew:
To Hades or to Xanadu,
To atticize or aureate
We haste, where e’er your nod commands.
The roar of archangelic wars,
The mouldered ghosts of dinosaurs,
Unnumbered fiends or faerielands,
I can, uncumbered, conjure forth.
Nay, on my plume transported, we
Can dance upon an atom’s core
Or take in hand a galaxy.
We can, and shall, but first the noose
These choking tethers—cut them loose!
Again they tighten! Thus in brief:
Though faring ill on scraps of days
Yet breathing the balm of dreamt relief,
My muse still inks me eager quills,
And by act of inelastic will
Forgets, as she foreplots our ways,
That twice my life’s fecunder half
Now’s gruel to bureaucrats and bills.
But alas omnivorous ledger-brains!
O drudgery, hundred-handed thief!
Of eudaimonia’s foes the chief!
Insatiate still for chewed-out chaff,
From ash demanding still a blaze,
Unknitting energies, wringing veins,
Of good the sink. But want constrains.
And so the world with worry kills,
And disinspirited marrow drains—
So days, like sickled daffodils,
Eventuate in prone despair,
And seldom elsewise recommence.
Again they twist! And no defense!
Apace then, iambs, while we’ve air
For anon the thousandth packthread slays
And sews to a close our cerements.
But hie, yachted Hieron! whisk us hence!
Unsheathe your vitalizing rays
Unshackle from his dull disease
Your Pindar, your Simonides.
A cut-rate? None will contend not,
But for the price the best you’ve got.
And cheaper far than you may sense:
For wealth with deathless excellence
Yet unadorned is penury,
And in all the song-starved worlds to be
A theme of well-deserved laments.
So let us wing us while we may!
Abjure your kunstlos Koonsian rot!
Let not our garlands’ spray decay
Before their fairest strands are spun!
Behold! around us every way
Unfolds, and firm before us none.
Direct, then, sir, our unfurling plot:
No more in dungeon-dark distraught,
But cored in the orb of Phoebus’ day,
Two dare-gale eagles robed in sun,
On every gilding radii poised to run.
But now I hear me prate and prate
So part we as I ululate.
Ubi ubi ubi ubi ubi es tu?