An Epistle from Holofernes

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“Great Holofernes, Captain of the Host,
To Judith: Greeting! And, because his ghost
Neither forgets nor sleeps, peace to her heart!
He, being dead, would play a nobler part;
Yet, being a spirit unpacified, must seek
Vengeance. Take warning then; for souls that speak
Truth to the living, must be fed with blood.
Do not neglect his rites: give him that food
Without which ghosts are powerless to control
Malice which breeds by nature in the soul.
Take down the shining scimitar again;
Slay him a cock, a kid to ease his pain.
For otherwise his talk is double talk,
And he must haunt you. Then, where’er you walk,
Hear his blood dripping from your bag of meat
And, at your table, sitting in your seat,
See the Great Captain’s carcass; in your bed
Always upon your pillow grins the Head;
And bloodier whispers that infect the mind

Revenge in dreams the unacted deed of kind.
Think not the Jews nor the Jews’ god shall save:
Charms are not sovereign beyond the grave,
And he who warns you, though he wish you well,
Has arms to take and hold you even in Hell.”
Thus in a fable once I spoke to you;
Now other times require I speak it new.
How easy it would be if this were all,
Dear, then the house might totter: it should not fall;
Then, we should utter with our living breath
A healing language from the mouths of death;
In Judith you, in Holofernes I
Might know our legend. But, in days gone by,
This would have been a magic rod whose blow
Broke the parched rocks and made their waters flow.
We should have certainty to conjure with,
Acting the saving ritual of our myth;
The earthquake over, the air sweet and still,
Take courage against this sickness of the will;
For when in former times the myths were true,
For every trouble there was a thing to do:
He, who in faith assumed his Hero’s part,
Performed a solemn cleansing of the heart:
The lustral waters, spilling from the bowl,
Poured on the guilty hands and purged the soul;
And sacred dances acted as a spell
To set a lid upon the Hideous Well.
Myths formed the rituals by which ancient men
Groped towards the dayspring and were born again.
Now, though the myths still serve us in our need,
From fear and from desire we are not freed;
Nor can the helpless torment in the breast
Act out its own damnation and have rest.
Yet myth has other uses: it confirms

The heart’s conjectures and approves its terms
Against the servile speech of compromise,
Habit which blinds, custom which overlies
And masks us from ourselves—the myths define
Our figure and motion in the Great Design,
Cancel the accidents of name and place,
Set the fact naked against naked space,
And speak to us the truth of what we are.
As overhead the frame of star and star
Still sets rejoicing on the midnight air
Orion’s girdle, Berenice’s hair,
So when we take our legend for a guide
The firmament of vision opens wide.
Against the sweep of dark and silence lie
Our constellations spread upon the sky.
Plain is the language of those glorious ones;
The meteors flash through their glittering bones;
Freed from the sun of custom, they describe
What, by the daylight vision of the tribe,
We felt, unseeing. We in the mythic night
Know our own motion, burn with our own light,
Study high calm and shining, scorn the more
The beast that winks and snuffles at the door.

Yet the myths will not fit us ready made.
It is the meaning of the poet’s trade
To re-create the fables and revive
In men the energies by which they live,
To reap the ancient harvests, plant again
And gather in the visionary grain,
And to transform the same unchanging seed
Into the gospel-bread on which they feed.
But they who trust the fables over much
Lose the real world, plain sight and common touch,
And, in their mythopoeic fetters bound,
Stand to be damned upon infernal ground,
Finding, no matter to what creed they look,
Half their salvation was not in the book.
Then books turn vampires and they drink our blood,
They who feed vampires join the vampire’s brood
And, changed to hideous academic birds,
Eat living flesh and vomit it as words.
Our wills must re-imagine what they act
And in ourselves find what the fable lacked.
The myths indeed the Logos may impart,
But verbum caro factum is our part.
Thus, though our legend with its proving flame
Burns all to essence, shows in you the same
Temper of ancient virtue, force of will,
That saved the trembling people on the hill;
Though I myself in Holofernes know
Your bloody and greedy and insensate foe
And, at my feast, hear a relentless voice
Declare my grim dichotomy of choice:
Sound a retreat, or move to one event:
The headless carrion rolling in the tent;
Yet imaged new the fable is not plain:
Though Judith live and though the foe be slain,
Ours is a warfare of a different kind
Pitched in the unknown landscape of the mind,
Where both sides lose, yet both sides claim the day
And who besieges whom is hard to say;
Where each, by other foes encircled round,
Hears in the night far off the bubbling sound
Of the sweet springs that are to both denied,
And sees false watch-fires crown the mountain-side.
Where shall we turn? What issue can there be?
Through the waste woods we searched and found the Tree,
Sole of its kind, bowed with its precious fruit;
And lo, the great snake coiling round the root!
Was all our toil, our patience, then, for this?
Our prayers translated to a brutal hiss?
Our desperate hopes, the fears and dangers passed,
To end in death and terror at the last?
Reach me your hand; the darkness, gathering in,
Shrouds us—for now the mysteries begin:
The world we lost grows dim and yet on high
Figures of courage glitter in the sky;
And, though a desert compass us around,
Layers of water lie beneath that ground;
The fissure in the rock that sets them free
Feeds and refreshes our Forbidden Tree.
Already, though we do not feel it yet,
The unexpected miracle is complete;
Already, through the midnight hours, unseen
They rise and make these barren places green
Till the parched land in which we lost our way
Gives grace and power and meaning to the day,
Renews the heart, gives joy to every act
And turns the fables into living fact.
If in heroic couplets, then, I seem
To cut the ground from an heroic theme,
It is not that I mock at love, or you,
But, living two lives, know both of them are true.
There’s a hard thing, and yet it must be done,
Which is: to see and live them both as one.
The daylight vision is stronger to compel,
But leaves us in the ignorance of hell;
And they, who live by starlight all the time,
Helpless and dangerous, blunder into crime;
And we must learn and live, as yet we may,
Vision that keeps the night and saves the day.

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