Sunday, June 17, 2007


We haven't had a poem for a while.

Thumbing through an anthology, I find my morbid eye settling on all the gloomy ones, the ones that reek of despair and death. No, no, I don't want to drag you down with me!

How about this one - downbeat, certainly, but richly allusive.


"What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I."

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

I taught one of de la Mare's grandsons once. Or great-grandsons, more probably.

The oppressive image of desolation in the word 'solitude' here reminds me of the line the Roman historian Tacitus famously put into the mouth of Calgacus - a Scottish (or 'Caledonian', at that time) chieftain supposed to have led the resistance to Rome, until defeated at the battle of Mons Graupius by the Roman general Agricola in 83AD. Tacitus imagines Calgacus delivering a speech to his men to inspire them just before the battle (a commonplace device in early history writing, which was more literary than 'scientific'). Tacitus so completely assumes the 'enemy' point of view that he produces a very fine piece of rhetoric, including a climactic line of savage satire, one of the most memorable condemnations of Rome's imperialism - of all imperialism - ever written.

"Faciunt solitudinem; pacem appellunt."

("They make a desert; they call it 'Peace'.")

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