Conversation with Calliope

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Finierat dictos e nobis maxima cantus

The proper way to start a poem
Built on the old high generous plan
Is to invoke the Muse; and, though I’m
Bound to placate the harridan,
She can’t expect an epic proem:
The trick’s been lost; the best she can
Look for in these degenerate times
Is an O Thou to start the rhymes.

O Thou!”—You see it does sound silly—
Descend, my Muse!”—and that sounds worse.
“Descend and—” “Don’t be Uncle Willy!”
She says, appearing just like nurse,
The antiseptic smile, the chilly:
“Well, Master Alec, writing verse?
I’m sure I’ve told you times enough
I can’t be bothered with your stuff.

“Now that you’re fat and over forty,
It’s rather odd, you must agree,
My sisters having all proved haughty
Though wooed with assiduity,
You find that after all your forte
Was writing epic poetry;
And offer me this slightly battered
Bald rhymester—well, I’m scarcely flattered!”

“I’m very sorry, Miss,” I mutter,
“Indeed I beg your pardon, Ma’am!
But though we poets spread the butter,

The Muses must supply the jam.
The flood of things I have to utter
Threatens, you see, to burst the dam,
Without your aid, to whom belong
The lost arts of heroic song.

“You may be right about my figure;
It has perhaps filled out of late.
There’s no denying that a wig or
Toupee might enhance my pate.
But while you name with wonted vigour
Defects I grant without debate,
Yet there is one aspersion I
Must categorically deny:

“Your imputation of neglect,
That only in the last resort
With failing powers or prospects wrecked
I turn to pay you tardy court,
This, with concern, I must reject.
At fifteen years, or less, I sought
Your aid, and with that aid began
An epic on the Doom of Man.

“Though I suppose its verse was far
From mastery and blank at best,
Though Browning was the avatar
The style too well made manifest,
While Renan’s Abbesse de Jouarre
Supplied my scheme, yet all the rest
Was mine: contrivance, persons, tales
Made up in Bathurst, New South Wales.

“I gave it up, as you recall,
Before the end of Canto Two,
But not till I had planned it all,
Nor, though a child, until I knew
My bent and heard the poet’s call
That brings his promised land in view.
Though forty years have passed I still
Have not forgotten Pisgah’s hill.

“Who that has known it can forget
That first fierce moment of elation
When a young poet feels the jet
And vigour of his inspiration?
Not fame achieved compares, nor yet
Can love’s supreme intoxication.
And at that moment you were there
And smiling bent above my chair.”

“I own,” she answers less irately,
“That once you seemed a likely lad.
But think of all I’ve suffered lately,
The family troubles that I’ve had.
A sister can’t sit by sedately
And see things going to the bad:
There’s poor Miss Clio’s lost her wits;
Euterpe cursed with sinking fits;

“Terpsichore reels home each night
As drunk as any fiddler’s bitch;
And, since the time has passed you might
Behold the Muse without a stitch,
Turned prude at last and laced too tight
Thalia’s caught a nasty itch;
Unhinged by neurasthenic dreams
Melpomene just sits and screams;

“Erato—though, I won’t deny it,
She keeps her health and earns her crust—
Has lost her figure, needs a diet
And uplift for a sagging bust,
Spends half her nights in maudlin riot
And works for an Amusement Trust;
Urania’s lost the common touch
And only talks in Double Dutch;

“And Polyhymnia’s on a pension:
The sacred arts are out of date;
Gods are not asked for intervention
To save a technocratic state;
And if by chance or by intention
She’s present when they celebrate,
It is with an embarrased air
She mumbles some archaic prayer;

“As for myself, I must admit I
Am on the shelf, and that’s a fact,
The ramparts of my Trojan city
In ruins and its temples sacked,
And not by poets, more’s the pity,
Critics and scholars range the tract
Where Milton sang the world’s Te Deum
To pick up bits for their museum.

“For since society has ended
Its ancient pact with the divine,
The public actions which depended
On common faith to make them shine
Once gone, what use is left the splendid
Impetus of the epic line?
The chronicle of prose survives
For the small beer of private lives.

“My sister Clio shares, of course,
At least a measure of the blame;
An epic loses half its force
Not built round some historic name,
Some legend which at least for source
Has deeds that Truth will not disclaim;
Its greatness rests on a conviction
That heroes happen outside fiction.

“And since historical research
Has lost the name of noble action,
Proved most ideas in state and church
Mere subterfuge of greed and faction,
That great men do not lead: they lurch
Between rebellion and reaction,
By documented texts it can
Abolish the Uncommon Man.

“And as for the Uncommon Woman
Who blessed the Hero’s hearth and bed,
Divine Calypso or the human
Penelope he chose instead,
Your psychological acumen
Thrusts in where angels fear to tread
And proves her something in between
A mirage and a love-machine.”

“Madam,” I say, “although no stranger
To the misfortunes you relate,
I can’t believe your fame in danger
Or think the mode so out of date;
For though the dog is in the manger,
No hand has locked the stable gate:
The wingèd horse is free and still
May light upon your sacred hill.

“The Muses and the modes you mention
Have fallen, I grant, on evil days;
Slovenly craft and cheap invention
May parch the spring and blast the bays,
Your art alone, without declension
Preserves its splendour and its praise.”
“Poor comfort,” she retorts, “and small
When no one writes it now at all.

“The epics of the past perhaps
Survive like Tadmor in the waste,
Impressive still, but in the lapse
Of ages men first lose the taste
And then the skill; while, on the maps
Their sites forgotten or misplaced,
They wait, as ancient ruins should,
For Horace Walpole’s Mr Wood.

“There was a time the poet’s mission
Was to give men their daily bread,
The crown of life, the timeless vision
Which linked the living with the dead.
When Homer spoke, the great tradition
Of verse commanded, taught and led;
With Milton it began to nod,
And Cowley was its Ichabod.

“ ‘Who now reads Cowley?’ Who indeed
Reads Homer now or his translator
But schoolboys and the dons who breed
Their kind in every empty crater?
Can some fresh Milton rise to feed
Blind mouths in Learning’s incubator,
Or Pegasus his flight renew
Boiled down for academic glue?

“For after Cowley came Defoe’s
Invention of domestic fiction;
The comic epic dressed in prose
Drove out heroic deeds and diction;
Pamela’s budget of chaste woes
Pleased more than Homer’s whole depiction
Of Troy and Milton’s War with Hell
Less than the Death of Little Nell.

“So by a sort of Gresham’s Law
The novel rose, the epic died,
Nor could be resurrected nor
Remade, for all that Arnold tried.
‘What did they kill each other for?’
Old Kaspar’s small granddaughter cried,
Which marked, since Kaspar could not say,
How a whole world had passed away.

“Well, if you still would venture on it,
Go in and try it: you will find
To poems longer than a sonnet
Your readers deaf, your critics blind.
Even the few prepared to con it
Will lack enlargement of the mind.
No lion-soul acquires its habit
From close acquaintance with the rabbit.

“Long narratives are out of fashion;
Sustained invention does not please;
And sacred truth and moral passion
Belong to former centuries.
Yet epic stakes its reputation
On public taste for things like these.
Readers who give your poem a glance
Will settle for a police romance.”

“All that you urge is cogent, Madam,”
I say, “and sure the Muse knows best;
Yet if a simple son of Adam
May speak and venture to contest,
The epic gifts, suppose I had ’em,
Will quickly put me to the test
And if I fail, I may at least
Make way against the Blatant Beast.”

“Well, if you must, you must, my hearty,”
She answers with a little frown.
“If con amore match con arte,
My scholar yet may grace the gown.
But if we must prolong this party,
You might invite me to sit down,
For legs, though not of mortal clay
Will tire and I have more to say.”

“A thousand pardons, pray be seated;
Allow me to pull up a chair!
Forgive me, being somewhat heated,
If I forget the proper care
With which the Muses should be treated:
Their visits are extremely rare.
To honour this poor house of mine,
May I suggest a glass of wine?”

“Thank you, although the drink I treasure
I don’t suppose you have—I mean
Of course to ask you for a measure
Of pure, unblushing Hippocrene?
No? Well, I should accept with pleasure
A drop of anything between
From nectar down to mortal pottle;
No glasses though: bring out the bottle!”

The wine poured out, I take my chair.
She tastes and nods and says: “Not bad!
Now let’s get back to where we were:
Your epic poem. Suppose you had
The wit, have you the time to spare?
That jeu d’esprit, your Dunciad,
Cost you six months, as I recall,
And only four books, after all.

“Four books and comic stuff at that,
And yet it caused you quite a coil
Before you had it neat and pat,
Long days of unremitting toil
And nights of labour when you sat
Keeping your modest pot aboil
Or tossed in fever on your bed
With verses seething in your head.

“Can you conceive the dedication
Those mighty works demand? Or can
You summon up the concentration,
That service of the entire man
Required to plan, to mould, to fashion
To grind the grain and bolt the bran?
A task so long, so great, so dread,
So Pope, my foster child, once said,

“As leaves a man, this side the grave,
Scarce time to breathe, no time to be
Friend, neighbour, husband, nay, to have
The care to plant and tend a tree,
Much less in the long run, to save
His soul or meet eternity.
If not, just fold the napkin round
And hide your talent in the ground.”

“Ah, there’s the rub indeed,” I say;
“The doubt you raise, I feel and share it.
Most poets are employed today,
Own cars, eat well, drink vintage claret
—Your glass is empty by the way—
Hogarth’s poor poet in his garret
Or truckling at a patron’s board
Has gone for ever, praise the Lord!

“But though the Lord be praised, I wonder
Are poets so much better off?
Though now they have their share of plunder
And get both forefeet in the trough,
To earn their bread they have to squander
The hours they once were masters of;
In fact the poet’s calling pays
Much worse than in the bad old days.

“Those bad old days (would they were with us!)
Saw Ariosto trim his light,
Debase his art, deploy his mythus
To lick the boots of Este’s knight.
Well, let it wring the critic’s withers,
At least he had the time to write.
Odd jobs as envoy or commando
Still left him years for his Orlando.

“Admit he flattered, grant the note
Of adulation gross and crass,
The King of France who turned his coat
Considered Paris worth a mass.
And shall I sneer while I devote
My days to lecture-room and class?
There’s nothing sours the Muses’ soil
Like eight good hours of honest toil.

“And while that garden blights and sours
On which a full sun rarely shines,
The poets labour after hours
To raise a crop of stunted lines,
Like serfs who round the baron’s towers
By day manure the baron’s vines
And, while exhausted muscles groan,
By moonlight cultivate their own.

“The serf well knew the serf’s condition;
He knew his wine was harsh and thin.
The well-fed poet’s dwindling vision
Soon cuts his coat to suit his skin,
Thinks the great tuns of the tradition
Not equal to his kilderkin,
And that no House of Fame surpasses
His week-end cottage on Parnassus.

“See Esau tamed, in Jacob’s lobby
Run errands now for Jacob’s house;
His birthright bartered for a job, he
Plans mountains that bring forth a mouse;
For art diminished to a hobby
Yields just what hobby-time allows.
Why does he do it? Save your breath:
As poet he would starve to death.

“Take my own case: the world of letters
Is what, God help me, I profess;
For lecturing about my betters
Each year they pay me more or less
Four thousand pounds. Ask what I get as
Poet!—at a random guess
For poems forged with sweat and tears,
Four hundred pounds in forty years!

“Now take the Greeks—” Says she, “Young fellow
I’d rather hear you on the purse.
Your theme grows warm as you grow mellow
(Though frequently your rhymes get worse).
Let’s take the Greeks; but please don’t bellow.
You argue prettily in verse.
Go on! I like to hear you speak,
Especially as you know no Greek.

“And on the Greeks, you might recall,
The towns which strove for Homer dead
To build him a memorial
Were those where Homer begged his bread.
There never was an age at all
Gave poets three meals and a bed
Though every age is apt to cast
Regretful glances at the past.

“In every Paradise, professor,
The charmer lures, the serpent lurks;
When academic chores depress or
Committees gall and teaching irks,
Just think of Chaucer, the Assessor
Of Customs and the Clerk of Works;
And yet by candlelight he made
The time for Troilus and Criseyde.

“Think of Camoens as trustee
Serving the absent and the dead;
Hated, reviled, imprisoned, he
Could still contrive his Lusiad;
View Milton in his misery
Unfaltering, and Tasso mad,
And judge if your condition bears
The least comparison with theirs.

“What genius has a mind to speak
Mere circumstance will rarely throttle,
But, if the wine is thin and weak,
It makes no sense to blame the bottle.
Our hidden cause is still to seek;
It is not found in Aristotle
For he was born before the long
Decline and fall of epic song.

“He knew it at its peak and prime
And gave no thought to its decay.
Longinus too, on the sublime,
On this had nothing much to say
And Vida looked to see it climb
To greater triumphs in his day.
But what the worthies never knew
The steadfast Muses keep in view.

“The gift of prophecy they hold,
Although it is the lesser gift,
The past and future they behold
And poets sometimes catch its drift,
Catch glimpses of the Age of Gold
And sometimes see the curtain lift
Upon the face of things to come
When other oracles are dumb.

“But though the Muse bestows the vision
She very seldom gives it scope,
Lest prophecy subvert his mission
By fostering the poet’s hope
Through dim surmise and intuition
To cast creation’s horoscope:
The task for which we grant the bays
Is still to celebrate and praise.

“That task in which he may not shirk or
Falter, on his hope of bliss,
Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke
(The Devil himself once vouched for this)
Is, nobly, without crank or quirk or
Default, to show it as it is,
And through his art to bring to birth
New modes of being on the earth.

“This is the task that we assign,
Not to haruspicate or scry;
The poet’s part in the divine
Stops this side of divinity—
Let’s have another flask of wine
Before I start to prophesy,
For now the time has come to show
Things that the Muse alone can know.”

I fetch the second bottle out
And while I draw the cork, I ask:
“First would you please resolve a doubt?
If celebration is our task,
I think I know what that’s about;
The second part still wears the mask.
What does it mean—or must I wait?—
New modes of being to create?”

“Some truths can not be uttered save
By myth,” she says, “or like recourses:
(Socrates’ Fable of the Cave;
Swift’s Fable of the Talking Horses).
Though Wittgenstein turn in his grave,
The mind has other means and forces
‘Whereof one cannot speak’ to show
The inenarrable we know.

“So, pace Wittgenstein, I shall
Tell you my meaning in a fable;
And, though you may not grasp it all,
It has a grace which may enable
The heart to answer to its call;
While Logic builds its Tower of Babel
The truth it seeks and seeks in vain
May fall like dew upon the plain.

“In the beginning was the Word
—My myth, you see, is scarcely new—
But though it was, it was not heard;
The earth was void and nothing grew
Upon the barren rock; no bird
Flashed singing through the barren blue,
And in the blue and barren deep
There was no life to swim or creep.

“It was as wild a world to see
As e’er returned its Maker thanks:
Mountains in savage majesty
Thrust upward in colossal ranks
And searing ice and scorching scree
Ground slowly down their ragged flanks,
While plains upheaving from their beds
Dried out in desert browns and reds.

“And then the Word began to move,
Itself unmoved, the quickening Will,
By infinitesimals it wove
As in the womb it quickens still.
The endless edifice of love
Felt life’s first step upon its sill
And in that primal globule furled
Lay all the orders of the world.

“Orders of being come to birth
Evolving in the cosmic dance.
Each fills and each creates a dearth
Filled by the next in its advance:
Enfolding to transform the earth
First came the mantle of the plants
And with the beasts in their degrees
Made up the living entities.

“The joy to see that green brocade
Bald scarps and shadow lake and rill,
Carpet bare clays with lawn and glade
Is something hard to grasp, until
One sees the dead moon-landscape made
By an abandoned copper mill
(As in Tasmania you have seen)
Breathe, burgeon and resume its green.

“Then gradual in the womb of kind
The second mystery began:
The order of the conscious mind
Perfected in the race of man,
Gave eyes to groping needs and blind
And freed the will to search and plan,
A revolution as profound
As that which clothed the barren ground.

“Civilization when it came,
After long ages in the mould,
Formed the new hearth for a new flame,
Though kindled first in tribes too old
To leave a history or a name,
Or see from magic arts unfold
Within the world of mind the third
Order of being from the Word.

“Freed from those ends which men foresee
And meet with predisposing skill,
The arts themselves propose the free
And unknown ends which they fulfil.
To shape the new entelechy
Of life, the autotelic will
Transfigures and transforms the span
Of all we mean by social man.

“But here I ought to make a pause.
You catch my drift?—So far, so good.
New modes of being, till their laws
Prevail cannot be understood
Beyond the process and the cause;
The end will still be misconstrued
By minds unable to apply
The logic of analogy.

“For instance, scientists agree
In thinking, and they may be right,
There was a time when none could see
Except in shades of black and white.
What must it have been like to be
The first few born with colour-sight,
And how could they explain or find
Words to convince the colour-blind?

“That passion of scarlet, turquoise, gold
In feather, scale or leaf or shell,
Orchid or rose as they unfold
Their delicate, breathless miracle,
How could those drab, grey minds be told
With only grey, drab words to tell,
And lash or straitjacket, no doubt,
For those who dared to brave it out.

“Anger or pity, or derision
Would be the least they could expect
Yet, see, they have imposed their vision
And made their foes a dwindling sect,
Achieved by means of binary fission
What argument could not effect;
So, verbum sap., don’t preach or shout—
Just work to bring the thing about.

“But now, my friend, we have to turn
To that deferred, prophetic answer;
You cannot guess, divine or learn
The cause, so hear it while you can, sir,
Why epic cannot yet return.
I promised in an earlier stanza
Footnotes to Malthus and remarks
On certain doctrines of Karl Marx.

“But what I have to tell embraces
Much more than Marx or Malthus guessed.
The future of the human race is
Somewhat precarious at best.
The day when mere survival places
All other values to the test
May not be far away; indeed
Man’s deadliest instinct is to breed.

“And breeding as he does unchecked
By Nature, Law or Common Caution,
No cornucopia can expect
To pour forth plenty in proportion,
Nor human skills for long perfect
New means to eke his dwindling portion:
Since self-control is too much bother
They’ll end by eating one another.

“My main concern of course is not
This anthropophagous dilemma;
Not last decay but that first spot,
The earthquake’s first foreboding tremor.
The final inference is what
Should be implicit in the lemma
And what must bring man to the worst
May well pervert his nature first.

“A plague like locusts, lemmings, lice
Breaks out like fire, typhoon, or flood,
And swiftly as it grows, it dies;
The human plague, less understood
Through slow millennia takes its rise,
At every step, so far so good!
And yet as each divide is crossed,
Some measure of the whole is lost.

“Man wants but little, even so
By little wants he is misled:
‘Man wants but little here,’ you know,
‘Nor wants that little long,’ was said
By Edwin just about to throw
Fair Angelina on his bed;
Which lost the girl her pilgrim’s permit,
And left him an unlicensed hermit.

“Their vows abandoned with their habits
The ‘Law of Measure’ set aside
Alas, the phrase is Irving Babbit’s,
This precious hermit and his bride
Bred, as you might expect, like rabbits
And had produced before they died,
Counting great-grandchildren as well,
Two hundred from that single cell.

“But death by then was just the stitch in
Time devoutly wished by both.
They’d seen the life their love was rich in
Imperilled by its very growth.
It is not only in a kitchen
Too many cooks can spoil a broth,
And families perish by inflation
Into a tribe, a horde, a nation.

“What Edwin found to be the case
Proves true in history’s arena:
Huntress or victim of the chase,
Angelica or Angelina,
Each future mother of the race
So ravishing in her demeanour,
By instinct still, and natural bent, is
Another Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

“No hunter of the Age of Fable
Had need to buckle in his belt;
More game than he was ever able
To take ran wild upon the veldt;
Each night with roast he stocked his table,
Then procreated on the pelt.
And that is how, of course, there came
At last to be more men than game.

“No matter: man’s invention can
Snatch triumph from his worst mistakes.
Soon cuts of beef and pork began
To take the place of feral steaks,
Next bread, and sifting out the bran
He turned his plain loaf into cakes.
—And as for cake, mankind will do
Their best to eat and have it too.

“It does not work: a time must come
—A fact that man is slow to learn—
Patch, plan, put off, explore and plumb,
You face the point of no return;
The Providential Voice is dumb,
And Wisdom, weeping by her urn,
Proffers in place of Nature’s fruits
Synthetic pulps as substitutes.

“Effects of over-population
Converge, no matter where you start;
The economics of inflation
Follows the same curve on the chart
To where ersatz provides the ration
Alike for belly, mind or heart.
Then Muses geared for mass production
We make, to save us from seduction.

“For though it once made Plato groan,
Deceptions in the cause of grace,
We use at times and freely own.
The singer of the Works and Days
Watching his lambs on Helicon
Learned this and told it in a phrase:
‘The Muses speak true things at will,
Though falsehoods lie within their skill.’

“Already these factitious muses
Spread their synthetic wares abroad;
Their sooterkins promote their views as
Members of Trust and Fund and Board;
The Great Society produces
Only the arts it can afford,
Stamped, sterilized and tinned and tested
And standardized and predigested.

“Quite soon, let Observation view,
As systems and their nostrums cramp us,
The world from China to Peru,
The wild from taïgá to pampas,
The last tame bison in the zoo,
The last tame poet on the campus
Is all she’ll find, poor Observation,
Of all the former free creation.

“Well, there’s your answer! In a word
To look for natural forms from this
Synthetic template is absurd.
The Word itself, their genesis
And goal withdraws and is not heard:
With Man disposing, God in his
Good time can scarce propose, or move
By patient, prescient, procreant love.

“So first the great forms, as I said
A while ago, must disappear.
Epic, like tragedy, is dead;
The doom of all the rest is near,
Just as this wine whose living red
Delights the sense must go, I fear,
For where the vineyard stood, will be
A Coca-Cola factory.”

So saying she takes her glass in token
And drains it off and sets it by,
The silence as we sit unbroken
By motion, syllable or sigh,
While in my face she reads unspoken
Sad scrutinies of how and why,
And then at last to my relief
She smiles and intercepts my grief.

“There is no need for you to ask it:
If this is how the arts collapse,
Are all the eggs then in one basket?
Do all the poets then, poor chaps,
Labour in vain? And is the task it
Pleases us to set, perhaps
Mere throwing dust against the wind,
As pointless as it is unkind?”

“Why yes,” I answer, “while agreeing
That Sodom’s arts prevail of late,
Shall no just man succeed in fleeing,
Leaving salt witness at the gate?
And what of those new modes of being
The Muse assigns us to create?
Can, while her mysteries unfold,
She palter, and blow hot and cold?”

“Look in my eyes,” she says, “and read
The answer to that doubt, my friend!”
And in that depthless gaze indeed,
Where all uncertainties have end,
Where lights in endless Light recede
And all the partial visions blend,
Rapt by its Universal theme
I hear her speak, yet seem to dream:

“Although the great Un-culture wins,
Though Sodom’s values tip the scales,
Another providence begins,
The Word withdraws but never fails:
As in past ages, dressed in skins
And following the forest trails,
In those vast woods, each little clan
Preserved the entity of Man,

“So in this next barbarian age,
Small clans we choose and hold apart,
Some few in whom the heavenly rage
Still blazes and keeps pure the heart;
The human jungle sets the stage
Where these new Levites learn their part:
To guard the coals and keep them fanned
And bear them towards the Promised Land.

“Good-bye my friend, the gift of sleep
I leave you, not my gift of song—
That epic power alone I keep
For one unborn. You waited long
But did not sow and shall not reap.
To you the lower slopes belong,
To him the peaks when time is due.
Now sleep—for I have much to do.”

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