Saturday, January 16, 2010

Two Horatian Odes

Two ‘Horatian Odes’ after Marvell, using his famous, but surprisingly little used metre. Both poems are elegiac, about General Sherman after his death in old age, and Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. This tends to remove the inner tremor of Marvell’s poem, drawn as it is between rejoicing and misgiving at the living and very active Cromwell’s fearsome potential.

The poem by Louise Guiney is, I think, superior. The Stoddard poem is too long, isn’t quite able to overcome its own snobbery, and veers into a deplorable racism. But then maybe Stoddard, uneasy with Abraham Lincoln’s untutored genius, has more of the Marvellian weighing up.

But the interesting thing is that these are two poems in the critical heritage of Marvell, Marvell as the republican who can, like Horace before him, recognise Augustan greatness and allow it scope. Guiney seems deliberately to re-work Marvell’s opening in hers – that pleasingly quirky ‘early-armoured citizen’ is the ‘forward youth’ who rises to the moment, taking the corselet off the wall, ready for the struggle ahead. Guiney liked Sherman’s refusal of high office, and in the stanza beginning ‘Would have nor seat nor bays, nor bring / The Caesar in him to be king’ she is also thinking about Cromwell. In the quatrain from line 17, ‘In whom the Commonwealth withstood / Again the Carolinian blood’, we hover between Sherman’s campaign through Carolina, and the English Civil War.

Marvell perhaps also supplies a model for a certain slipperiness. Sherman’s recourse to, or indeed, invention of total war as he marched his armies through the south turns into the grand, carefully bland praise of ‘To conquer like a friend’, which reminds me of Marvell’s Irish implausibly affirming Cromwell’s praises best.

Guiney subscribes to the Roman model for her hero (‘A simple Roman excellence’), Stoddard has such big ideas (one suspects) about the Romans that Lincoln (‘Common his mind’) doesn’t match up (‘No hero this of Roman mould’). Stoddard’s seems to me a more Victorian poem. It moralises with an explicit reference to the Christian God ‘(God lets bad instruments / Produce the best events)’, which Marvell’s poem avoided doing in such a studied fashion. And this happens at a point where Stoddard has to correct violently after the reflections on John Wilkes Booth (‘Tyrants have fallen by such as thou’) seem to be pulling him far away from his proper theme, as his evident difficulties accepting a hero who was ‘One of the people’ surface and bring him to side for a moment with the assassin. ‘Victorian’ too is the way Stoddard poeticizes that most American of machines for Lincoln’s funeral procession, a wood-burning railway engine, into ‘the awful car!’

Guiney is more enthusiastically republican. She does go in for some of that American obsession with flags, but the sentimental note of the battle flags fading over the tomb worked well in its way.

What I cannot imagine, is Browning or Tennyson producing poems that engage as intelligently with the Marvellian mode. For this, one has to blame Queen Victoria (her existence, and England with its a compromised democracy).

Louise Imogen Guiney, ‘Sherman: An Horatian Ode’

This was the truest man of men,
The early-armored citizen,
Who had, with most of sight,
Most passion for the right;

Who first forecasting treason's scope
Able to sap the Founders' hope,
First to the laic arm
Cried ultimate alarm;

Who bent upon his guns the while
A misconceived and aching smile,
And felt, thro' havoc's part,
A torment of the heart,

Sure, when he cut the moated South
From Shiloh to Savannah's mouth,
Braved grandly to the end,
To conquer like a friend;

In whom the Commonwealth withstood
Again the Carolinian blood,
The beautiful proud line
Beneath an evil sign,

And taught his foes and doubters still
How fatal is a good man's will,
That like a sun or sod
Thinks not itself, but God!

Many the captains of our wrath
Sought thus the pious civic path,
Knowing in what a land
Their destiny was planned,

And after, with a forward sense,
A simple Roman excellence,
Pledge in their spirit bore
That war should be no more.

Thrice Roman he, who saw the shock
(Calm as a weather-wrinkled rock,)
Roll in the Georgian fen;
And steadfast aye as then

In plenitude of old control
That asked, secure of his own soul,
No pardon and no aid,
If clear his way were made,

Would have nor seat nor bays, nor bring
The Cæsar in him to be king,
But with abstracted ear
Rode pleased without a cheer.

Now he declines from peace and age,
And home, his triple heritage,
The last and dearest head
Of all our perfect dead,

O what if sorrow cannot reach
Far in the shallow fords of speech,
But leads us silent round
The sad Missouri ground,

Where on her hero Freedom lays
The scroll and blazon of her praise,
And bids to him belong
Arms trailing, and a song,

And broken flags with ruined dyes
(Bright once in young and dying eyes),
Against the morn to shake
For love's familiar sake?

The blessèd broken flags unfurled
Above a healed and happier world!
There let them droop, and be
His tent of victory;

There, in each year's auguster light,
Lean in, and loose their red and white,
Like apple-blossoms strewn
Upon his burial-stone.

For nothing more, the ages thro',
Can nature or the nation do
For him who helped retrieve
Our life, as we believe,

Save that we also, trooping by
In sound yet of his battle-cry,
Safeguard with general mind
Our pact as brothers kind,

And, ever nearer to our star,
Adore indeed not what we are,
But wise reprovings hold
Thankworthier than gold;

And bear in faith and rapture such
As can eternal issues touch,
Whole from the final field,
Our father Sherman's shield.

Richard Henry Stoddard,

Not as when some great Captain falls
In battle, where his Country calls,
Beyond the struggling lines
That push his dread designs

To doom, by some stray ball struck dead:
Or, in the last charge, at the head
Of his determined men,
Who must be victors then.

Nor as when sink the civic great,
The safer pillars of the State,
Whose calm, mature, wise words
Suppress the need of swords.

With no such tears as e'er were shed
Above the noblest of our dead
Do we to-day deplore
The Man that is no more.

Our sorrow hath a wider scope,
Too strange for fear, too vast for hope,
A wonder, blind and dumb,
That waits---what is to come!

Not more astounded had we been
If Madness, that dark night, unseen,
Had in our chambers crept,
And murdered while we slept!

We woke to find a mourning earth,
Our Lares shivered on the hearth,
The roof-tree fallen, all
That could affright, appall!

Such thunderbolts, in other lands,
Have smitten the rod from royal hands,
But spared, with us, till now,
Each laurelled Cæsar's brow.

No Cæsar he whom we lament,
A Man without a precedent,
Sent, it would seem, to do
His work, and perish, too.

Not by the weary cares of State,
The endless tasks, which will not wait,
Which, often done in vain,
Must yet be done again:

Not in the dark, wild tide of war,
Which rose so high, and rolled so far,
Sweeping from sea to sea
In awful anarchy:

Four fateful years of mortal strife,
Which slowly drained the nation's life,
(Yet for each drop that ran
There sprang an armèd man!)

Not then; but when, by measures meet,
By victory, and by defeat,
By courage, patience, skill,
The people's fixed " We will !"

Had pierced, had crushed Rebellion dead,
Without a hand, without a head,
At last, when all was well,
He fell, O how he fell!

The time, the place, the stealing shape,
The coward shot, the swift escape,
The wife, the widow's scream---
It is a hideous Dream!

A dream? What means this pageant, then?
These multitudes of solemn men,
Who speak not when they meet,
But throng the silent street?

The flags half-mast that late so high
Flaunted at each new victory?
(The stars no brightness shed,
But bloody looks the red!)

The black festoons that stretch for miles,
And turn the streets to funeral aisles?
(No house too poor to show
The nation's badge of woe.)

The cannon's sudden, sullen boom,
The bells that toll of death and doom,
The rolling of the drums,
The dreadful car that comes?

Cursed be the hand that fired the shot,
The frenzied brain that hatched the plot,
Thy country's Father slain
Be thee, thou worse than Cain!

Tyrants have fallen by such as thou,
And good hath followed---may it now!
(God lets bad instruments
Produce the best events.)

But he, the man we mourn to-day,
No tyrant was: so mild a sway
In one such weight who bore
Was never known before.

Cool should he be, of balanced powers,
The ruler of a race like ours,
Impatient, headstrong, wild,
The Man to guide the Child.

And this he was, who most unfit
(So hard the sense of God to hit,)
Did seem to fill his place.
With such a homely face,

Such rustic manners, speech uncouth,
(That somehow blundered out the truth,)
Untried, untrained to bear
The more than kingly care.

Ay! And his genius put to scorn
The proudest in the purple born,
Whose wisdom never grew
To what, untaught, he knew,

The People, of whom he was one.
No gentleman, like Washington,
(Whose bones, methinks, make room,
To have him in their tomb!)

A laboring man, with horny hands,
Who swung the axe, who tilled his lands,
Who shrank from nothing new,
But did as poor men do.

One of the People! Born to be
Their curious epitome;
To share yet rise above
Their shifting hate and love.

Common his mind, (it seemed so then,)
His thoughts the thoughts of other men:
Plain were his words, and poor,
But now they will endure!

No hasty fool, of stubborn will,
But prudent, cautious, pliant still;
Who since his work was good
Would do it as he could.

Doubting, was not ashamed to doubt,
And, lacking prescience, went without:
Often appeared to halt,
And was, of course, at fault;

Heard all opinions, nothing loath,
And, loving both sides, angered both:
Was--- not like Justice, blind,
But, watchful, clement, kind.

No hero this of Roman mould,
Nor like our stately sires of old:
Perhaps he was not great,
But he preserved the State!

O honest face, which all men knew!
O tender heart, but known to few!
O wonder of the age,
Cut off by tragic rage!

Peace! Let the long procession come,
For hark, the mournful, muffled drum,
The trumpet's wail afar,
And see, the awful car!

Peace! Let the sad procession go,
While cannon boom and bells toll slow.
And go, thou sacred car,
Bearing our woe afar!

Go, darkly borne, from State to State,
Whose loyal, sorrowing cities wait
To honor all they can
The dust of that good man.

Go, grandly borne, with such a train
As greatest kings might die to gain.
The just, the wise, the brave,
Attend thee to the grave.

And you, the soldiers of our wars,
Bronzed veterans, grim with noble scars,
Salute him once again,
Your late commander---slain!

Yes, let your tears indignant fall,
But leave your muskets on the wall;
Your country needs you now
Beside the forge---the plough.

(When Justice shall unsheathe her brand,
If Mercy may not stay her hand,
Nor would we have it so,
She must direct the blow.)

And you, amid the master-race,
Who seem so strangely out of place,
Know ye who cometh? He
Who hath declared ye free.

Bow while the body passes---nay,
Fall on your knees, and weep, and pray!
Weep, weep---I would ye might---
Your poor black faces white!

And, children, you must come in bands,
With garlands in your little hands,
Of blue and white and red,
To strew before the dead.

So sweetly, sadly, sternly goes
The Fallen to his last repose.
Beneath no mighty dome,
But in his modest home;

The churchyard where his children rest,
The quiet spot that suits him best,
There shall his grave be made,
And there his bones be laid.

And there his countrymen shall come,
With memory proud, with pity dumb,
And strangers far and near,
For many and many a year.

For many a year and many an age,
While History on her ample page
The virtues shall enroll
On that Paternal Soul.

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