Friday, January 16, 2009

Poem of the Week 11/24/2008: Trismegistus


O Egypt, Egypt—so the great lament
Of thrice-great Hermes went—
Nothing of thy religion shall remain
Save fables, which thy children shall disdain.
His grieving eye foresaw
The world’s bright fabric overthrown
Which married star to stone
And charged all things with awe.

And what, in that dismantled world, could be
More fabulous than he?
Had he existed? Was he but a name
Tacked on to forgeries which pressed the claim
Of every ancient quack—
That one could from a smoky cell
By talisman or spell
Coerce the Zodiac?

Still, still we summon him at midnight hour
To Milton’s pensive tower,
And hear him tell again how, then and now,
Creation is a house of mirrors, how
Each herb that sips the dew
Dazzles the eye with many small
Reflections of the All—
Which, after all, is true.

Richard Wilbur

If there's one thing that intrigues me about this poem, it's the movement of the poem's attitude towards Hermes, its questioning and confusion, its doubts and beliefs, and its final longing for whole, magic world. From a statement that the great myths of a great man become no more than children's stories and fables, to the discussion of the modern world's division of nature from itself, the sky from the earth, and people from each other, the poem moves finally to a mustard seed of longing for that state. The final stanza offers the sense one perhaps had as a child questioning its life at night, staring at the world with such wonder and hope--Wilbur uses the word "awe" for this--but having to do it in secret. That, the poet proposes, is the burden of the modern world--that we cannot question in open, that in spite of all we believe to have come to know, that something is still missing, that there is still some desire for what has been lost, and a desire for a self-reflective whole. And what a way to end it! Wilbur's simple last line, "Which, after all, is true," relaxes the poem, opening its end and its call to the daily man, including a modern poet's voice with the voice of ancient longing, shall we say.

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