Monday, March 13, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/13/2006: [And, the Last Day Being Come, Man Stood Alone]

[And, the Last Day Being Come, Man Stood Alone]

And, the last day being come, Man stood alone
Ere sunrise on the world's dismantled verge,
Awaiting how from everywhere should urge
The Coming of the Lord. And, behold, none

Did come, -- but indistinct from every realm
Of earth and air and water, growing more
And louder, shriller, heavier, a roar
Up the dun atmosphere did overwhelm

His ears; and as he looked affrighted round
Every manner of beast innumerable
All thro' the shadows crying grew, until
The wailing was like grass upon the ground.

Asudden then within his human side
Their anguish, since the goad* he wielded first,
And, since he gave them not to drink, their thirst,
Darted compressed and vital. -- As he died,

Low in the East now lighting gorgeously
He saw the last sea-serpent iris-mailed**
Which, with a spear transfixèd, yet availed
To pluck the sun down into the dead sea.

Trumbull Stickney 1905

* A pointed stick for driving cattle and other animals
** In rainbow-colored armor

I think my time with William Blake is attuning me to apocalyptic poetry - poems that reach farther than a certain moment. Take this poem, for example. It is essentially Stickney's vision of the Judgment Day; one wonders what kind of vision he had that prompted him to write it this way. Though there are, I suppose, no real warm visions of the apocalypse, this is a particularly cold and lonely one. There is no visitation by a god, merely the wails of animals and a giant sea-serpent. Stickney also folds in imagery from Genesis, inverting it for the End of Days. We have all of the elements of a "typical" apocalypse - judgment, chaos, Biblical diction, but Stickney builds on it in his own way.

The first stanza, though, assembles traditional elements; it begins with "And," indicating that this is a continuation of some previously established story. The diction here is distinctly Biblical. "Ere," "the Coming of the Lord," and "behold" draw upon Biblical conventions. Furthermore, the syntax of "being come" is recognizably Old Testament, as well. This first stanza recalls earlier episodes in the Bible - we have a Man standing alone on the edge of the world, which conjures up the image of Adam cast out of Eden, or perhaps Satan standing on the brink of Hell in Paradise Lost. But this is neither Adam nor Satan; the Man waiting here is man with a capital M, the final representative of humanity, a figure vague enough to be any one of us.

The second stanza, then, begins to re-write the Apocalypse, for no Lord comes to judge, merely an "indistinct" wailing from all around. By withholding the source, Stickney puts the reader in the same, confused space as Man. All we know is that there is a roar coming "from every realm / Of earth and air and water." The internal rhyme between "come" and "dun," "water" and "louder," the mixed use of polysyndeton and asyndeton (excessive use of conjunctions, no conjunctions), and the structural rhyme in the stanza (a-b-b-a) build the roar's energy. Stickney rhetorically turns up the volume again with the diction - this noise is high and low; the use of "heavier" lends it an almost tangible quality.

It is no surprise, then, that the Man is terrified in the third stanza. He looks "affrighted round," and suddenly is surrounded by the noisemakers: "every manner of beast." Their wail is so constant that it becomes part of the scenery, blanketing everything like grass. We can't restrict the line "the wailing was like grass upon the ground" to that, however; like the word "heavier" the second stanza, this similie gives the cacophony a physical presence. If we could see it, it would ripple like grass, comprised of as many individual strands. Also, "grass" is usually a more peaceful image, conjuring fields and gardens. As such, it adds a note of hope to this din; this is perhaps the saddest part, I think, for it makes us remember what is lost forever. The Apocalypse is emphatically an end, which grass' peaceful connotations reminds us of.

Though we don't know if the animals are the only things producing this noise, we know that they contribute to it in force. Their presence contorts Biblical convention, twisting the naming of the animals in Genesis. This reference heightens the poem's terror, for it contrasts these tortured cries with Eden's scene of fecund delight. They have fallen far, indeed.

Then, too, the animals are the arbiters of judgment in Stickney's apocalypse. Because the syntax is so knotted in the fourth stanza (mirroring Biblical diction and the tortured scene at hand), it is hard to see the chain of causality. We may rearrange the lines to read "Since man weilded a cattle prod, and since he did not give the animals enough to drink when they were thirsty, the animal's anguish suddenly darts 'compressed and vital' into his side." Man is judged because he was controlling and cruel. Stickney draws upon Matthew 25: 30-46. (Matthew or Jesus or somebody - anybody know who?) says that the righteous will be saved, "(35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me." Those who treat Jesus' lesser creatures with respect will be saved, but those who trod upon those beneath them will be cast into hell. Stickney adapts this by eliminating God in the process; the animals are enough to judge Matthew.

As he dies, pierced by their anguish, he sees the final destruction of the world. Another animal - a sea serpent in iris armor - stabs the sun, bringing about the end of time. With the image of the sea-monster in rainbow armor, Stickney again inverts Biblical convention. In Isaiah and Job, the sea monsters Leviathan and Rahab exist as conquered beings. They represent God's power in His ability to destroy them. Since Stickney has, so far, effaced God from this Apocalypse, it follows that the final agent of destruction be something that could only exist if God didn't. Stickney again works against a concept of a loving, benevolent, God with the rainbow armor. The rainbow was supposed to be God’s covenant to protect man and beast. It signaled, even when a storm came, God would keep us safe. To put God’s symbol of protection on the monster destroying the earth openly mocks Gods’ promises and powers.

More than the religious elements, the most striking element of the poem's end is the breathtaking, apocalyptic diction. If this is the end of things, what a way to go. The final dawn is "lighting gorgeously" the East as the sea serpent strikes the sun, plucking it from its resting place. There is something etherial about the word "transfixed," and "gorgeous," and "pluck," out loud, are nearly corporeal. Their robust, sensibile aspect heighten the power of this last moment, especially in contrast with the flatness of "the dead sea." But that, too, is a flat explanation. I think that I can't explain why the last stanza is so moving. We talk in my aesthetics class about how. in all discussion of art, we hit this wall where words fail. The only way I can even begin do it justice, I think, is to say that it carries the grief and beauty and energy that I imagine death does. A burst of light, a streak of color, a motion, and that's it. Beautiful.

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