Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In Memoriam LIV

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

* * *

This is a Luna moth I found in the stairwell of our apartment building. It had followed the lights and come inside, but then fell asleep because it thought it was daytime. Moths do this all the time, and call me pathetic, but I think it's sad. I moved this particular moth.

The poem quoted is part of a larger work that Tennyson wrote to process the death of his dear friend, Arthur Hallam. Intellectually, he believes that all things work together for good, that every tragedy has a reason, but despite his rational belief, he doesn't quite get it. He's like a baby crying in the dark (though, as a mother, I'm going to take a wild guess that the baby's not crying for the light, he's crying for his mother!) who doesn't understand what's going on. It's an uncertain poem, stating a moral but then casting doubt on it at the end -- saying, "Yes, I do believe this, but when the rubber hits the road this consolation does not really satisfy me." I like the honesty of it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


by Carl Sandburg

By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and
parcels and iron pipes carry gas and water in and
sewage out.
Wires climb with secrets, carry light and carry words,
and tell terrors and profits and loves--curses of men
grappling plans of business and questions of women
in plots of love.

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the
earth and hold the building to a turning planet.
Hour by hour the girders play as ribs and reach out and
hold together the stone walls and floors.

Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the
mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an
architect voted.
Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust,
and the press of time running into centuries, play
on the building inside and out and use it.

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid
in graves where the wind whistles a wild song
without words
And so are men who strung the wires and fixed the pipes
and tubes and those who saw it rise floor by floor.
Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging
at back doors hundreds of miles away and the brick-
layer who went to state's prison for shooting another
man while drunk.
(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the
end of a straight plunge--he is here--his soul has
gone into the stones of the building.)

On the office doors from tier to tier--hundreds of names
and each name standing for a face written across
with a dead child, a passionate lover, a driving
ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster's
ease of life.

Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls
tell nothing from room to room.
Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from
corporation officers, lawyers, efficiency engineers,
and tons of letters go bundled from the building to all
ends of the earth.
Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of
the building just the same as the master-men who
rule the building.

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor
empties its men and women who go away and eat
and come back to work.
Toward the end of the afternoon all work slackens and
all jobs go slower as the people feel day closing on
One by one the floors are emptied. . . The uniformed
elevator men are gone. Pails clang. . . Scrubbers
work, talking in foreign tongues. Broom and water
and mop clean from the floors human dust and spit,
and machine grime of the day.
Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling
miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for
money. The sign speaks till midnight.

Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence
holds. . . Watchmen walk slow from floor to floor
and try the doors. Revolvers bulge from their hip
pockets. . . Steel safes stand in corners. Money
is stacked in them.
A young watchman leans at a window and sees the lights
of barges butting their way across a harbor, nets of
red and white lanterns in a railroad yard, and a span
of glooms splashed with lines of white and blurs of
crosses and clusters over the sleeping city.
By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars
and has a soul.

* * *

I just got back from a trip to Chicago, so I was going to post Sandburg's "Chicago," but then I stumbled upon this one and like it much better. Normally, you know, I'm not a big fan of free verse (or even blank verse, much of the time), but I like the ideas in this poem.

Skyscrapers are so full of people you can almost feel it. Sometimes this is a good thing, and I feel friendly toward all those people. Other times, it's a smothering weight and you feel like a drone in a vast human beehive. My mother hates apartment buildings for this reason, and wrote a lovely poem once that began, "Going into the city, you fear you may lose your soul." I should ask her if I may post it; it was a great poem.

I've posted before about the Incarnation and how it makes the cities so much better, even holy. But there's another side -- cities were made by sinful men, and therefore they are sinful. A city is everything mankind is, concentrated as the people are concentrated.