The Great Baboons


I am the last King of the Great Baboons
Who are all dead now, every one but me,
My people, a good people, brave and strong.
I was their king and, as I taught them, they
Worshipped Old Hairy, the Baboon Supreme
Who lives above the sky and only speaks
When he is angry. When they heard his voice,
They would be still and listen and leave off
Fighting or mating, browsing, picking fleas
And watch me as I barked back from this rock;
And sometimes they would ask me what he said.

My people, a good people, but not wise:
They fought, they fed, they mated and they slept;
I ruled them and I taught them to be strong.
Even the lions feared them in their rage
When, manes a-bristle and great canines bared,
My foragers charged and drove them from a kill.
And, at the first, content with what they had;
Their test of most things: is it good to eat?
Great quarrellers, it kept them quick and keen;
Great maters, they were at it day and night;
And when they slept, I was their sentinel,
Sitting alone up here beneath the stars.

Those were the times Old Hairy talked to me;
We would consult each other as king to king;
Sometimes I asked him what was best to do;
Sometimes he grumbled, sometimes told me tales
Of the old fathers, the first Great Baboons
And once he asked me what they thought of him,
The people he had given into my care.
“Well, Hairy,” I answered, “it is hard to tell.
They say they worship you, and yet I know
The only things they think about are four:
Fuck, fight, food, fleas; you know, the four great F’s
Old Hairy gave baboons to think about.
What they call thinking’s quite another thing:
In the new moon, when all baboons are wild,
They meet for ‘think-think’ in the great ravine.
They have a language for it, full of words,
Delicious words that make them drunk with joy.
‘Love’, they say, ‘love’; baboons were made for love.
‘Duty’, they say, ‘Art’, ‘Philosophy’,
‘Science’ and ‘Culture’; God knows what beside;
I listen just as little as I can;
A king can’t be mixed up in things like that.
A king must rule and keep his common sense
And hold the peace those words would soon destroy.
You know this, Hairy, you a king like me.

“I tell my people of you when they ask:
You made the world, a good baboon-made world,
And best of all your works you made baboons.
Each night you turn the mountains up like stones
And find delicious grubs there five miles long;
When a star falls, I point to it and say:
‘Old Hairy plucking berries from the sky!
He makes a long arm, children, so beware!’
Sometimes at twilight sitting here I see
A female coming from the water-hole,
Her tail a-wagging in a special way,
And when the others gather round she tells
How someone seized her as she stooped to drink,
Someone behind her whom she did not see:
‘Prodigious mating and prodigious joy!
A hundred times he mounted me and spent;
Yet, when I turned to flea him, he was gone.
‘That must have been Old Hairy,’ I reply.
And true enough, their young are sure to grow
To giant baboons, almost as huge as me,
Warriors and mates to whom all things give way.

“Then when they hear your anger’s rumbling growl
Roll round the sky and see it split with fire
That makes the valleys shake and brings the rain,
They squat up close and ask me what you mean,
Believing you have special words like theirs,
The ‘think-think’ words they use in the ravine.
I tell them, no! I tell them how at night
Keeping my watch, their king, their sentinel,
Sitting with you, and talking, king with king,
I feel your fingers prowling through my fur
And hear your teeth crack on celestial fleas.
They know this, but my people are not wise;
They mix you up with those mad words of theirs.”

Old Hairy laughed: a great slice of the cliff
Sheered off and crashed to the ravine below.
Old Hairy laughed and tugged my royal mane.
“The tree, tell them about the tree,” he growled,
“Seven days, seven nights toward the east it grows,
Always in fruit, great golden fruit that hang
Thick on the boughs, juicy and sweet and strong.
Till now it was forbidden my baboons,
Last made of all things when I made the world,
But now the time has come for them to know
Good customs from the evil that destroy.
“Tomorrow early, walk towards the sun
Seven days, seven nights, and I will be your guide,
And find the tree and break yourself a bough
And bear it back to make your people wise.”

The sun rose. I set off. I found the tree,
Tasted the fruit; it made me drunk with joy;
Tore off a branch, came singing, reeling back
Seven days, seven nights and reached my people’s caves
And called them to me: there was no reply.
They were all gone. I called and searched and called.
I sat and waited: none of them came back.
And when at last I found them, they were dead.
No, one still breathed and just before he died
He told me what had happened.

Left alone,
My foolish people, left without their king,
Went wild. When I had left them seven nights
The new moon rose. From then till my return
They held a “think-think” in Old Hairy’s name.
Each night they made up new and headier words
Which drove them to a frenzy; every day
They used them in wild arguments to prove
That some baboons are right and some are wrong.
My poor baboon was dying—a broken back—
He could not well remember all those words;
But on the fifth day, so he said, they made
In Hairy’s name, such words as “sin” and “soul”,
“Salvation”, “conscience” and “immortal life”;
And the strong poison drove them all apart
To hate each other by so-called “moral law”.
Such nonsense! but for the first time it was
Baboons against baboons in parties, not,
As it should be, baboons against the world.

On the sixth night they found new words again:
“Liberty”, “justice”, “brotherhood of baboons”,
“Enlightenment”, “The Social Contract”—well,
I ask you! As the great debate went on
It was decided I must be deposed:
No kings, no kings, since all baboons are free.
But on the seventh a new quarrel broke out
On what was the best state for all baboons
To live in, now that kings had ceased to rule.
Two of the “Sons of Hairy”, as we call
Baboons begotten at the water-hole,
Took issue: they were eloquent and strong.
Soon force or fear or foolishness of words
Brought half my people to each side. At first
Two parties, then two armies, then two mobs
Maddened to fight, to kill, to tear to shreds
Their brothers in the name of brotherhood,
Even the breeding females, even the babes
In arms all creatures spare, they tore apart.

I had forgotten Old Hairy. The first night
Of the new moon he thought it would be sport
To hear a “think-think”; so, with me away,
He came and sat here on the king’s own rock.
Night after night he came and heard it all,
All that insane corroboree of words.
All night he listened but left before the dawn.
He watched, but what he thought nobody knew.
Not one of all my word-crazed children saw
That mighty shadow blotting out the stars.
But on the seventh night, the massacre
Of brothers in the cause of brotherhood,
When all were bloody and half of them were dead
He stirred. Then suddenly Old Hairy laughed
And as before, a great piece of the cliff
Fell ruining down and finished all the rest.
Next morning just at sunrise I came back
Bringing my people the once-forbidden fruit
But found them gone: the fruit had come too late.

Now they are all dead. Here among the rocks
With only Him to talk to, it is sad.
I mourn my foolish people and I yearn
For the good talk I had with them before
And that good life based in the four great F’s.
Old Hairy, too, is changed: he never speaks
A language now that I can understand.
I lost his tongue that time I ate the fruit
And when I speak to him, he sometimes keeps
His answer back for hours, for days on end.
Only at midnight, drowsing here alone
Above these caves that need no sentinel,
An old mad king with nobody to rule,
I sense a shadow fall across my rock
And feel Old Hairy’s fingers groom my scalp.

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