A Psalm of Life

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, it’s hard to believe that its been five years, and yet here we are; so much has happened, so much has changed and yet so much remains the same. I miss him so very much, I miss his wisdom, his humour, his strength but most of all I miss the comfort I felt simply knowing he was there. It was while I was thinking of him that I recalled this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow … which somehow feels apt…

(What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist)

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
"Life is but an empty dream!"
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,"
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Finds us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, -act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

…For Hecuba

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!

...  Hamlet: Act 2 : Scene 2 


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

     -- William Ernest Henley

From time to time we all need a little inspiration.

Jerusalem – James Fenton

Alan and Fiona gave me a copy of Being Alive for Christmas. It’s an anthology of poems dealing with many themes and written by many many different authors. It is a wonderful gift and one that I’m really enjoying 🙂

Within the covers of this book I found a poem entitled Jerusalem by James Fenton. It seemed apt to share this poem given the current crisis in Gaza.

It’s hard to watch such scenes and remain dispassionate. It’s a conflict, and indeed a place, that polarizes opinion. Yet it disturbs me that Israel as a nation seems to have forgotten that no nation in history has succeeded, through force of arms, to subjugate an entire population forever. During the second world war Hitler came to the same realization and devised his ‘Final solution to the problem of the Jews’ which culminated in one of the most barbaric and evil acts in human history – the Holocaust. Yet sixty years on we now hear of Israeli ministers talking about a their own final solution or Holocaust in Gaza. It strikes me as paradoxical that people are often doomed to become the very thing they loathe the most, we are doomed to become what we behold. I recall vividly the moment when a Jewish friend of mine told me that in her opinion

the only the thing the leaders in Israel learn’t from the holocaust was how to become Nazi’s themselves.

I recall how shocked I was at that statement, it felt wrong. It felt especially wrong that a Jewish person could make such a comparison. As I watch the news reports though, and as I listen to the rhetoric coming out of Tel Aviv – I wonder if history will prove her right?

Getting back to the poem, I think it is extremely poignant and made so by the conflicting claims the city inspires which are expressed in the poem as alternating, mutually exclusive statements – this structure is a striking metaphor in itself.

Stone cries to stone,
Heart to heart, heart to stone,
And the interrogation will not die
For there is no eternal city
And there is no pity
And there is nothing underneath the sky
No rainbow and no guarantee –
There is no covenant between your God and me.

It is superb in the air.
Suffering is everywhere
And each man wears his suffering like a skin.
My history is proud.
Mine is not allowed.
This is the cistern where all wars begin,
The laughter from the armoured car.
This is the man who won’t believe you’re what you are.

This is your fault.
This is a crusader vault.
The Brook of Kidron flows from Mea She’arim.
I will pray for you.
I will tell you what to do.
I’ll stone you. I shall break your every limb.
Oh, I am not afraid of you,
But maybe I should fear the things you make me do.

This is not Golgotha.
This is the Holy Sepulchre,
The Emperor Hadrian’s temple to a love
Which he did not much share.
Golgotha could be anywhere.
Jerusalem itself is on the move.
It leaps and leaps from hill to hill
And as it makes its way it also makes its will.

The city was sacked.
Jordan was driven back.
The pious Christians burned the Jews alive.
This is a minaret.
I’m not finished yet.
We’re waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
What was your mother’s real name?
Would it be safe today to go to Bethlehem?

This is the Garden Tomb.
No, this is the Garden Tomb.
I’m an Armenian. I am a Copt.
This is Utopia.
I came here from Ethiopia.
This hole is where the flying carpet dropped
The Prophet off to pray one night
And from here one hour later he resumed his flight.

Who packed your bag?
I packed my bag.
Where was your uncle’s mother’s sister born?
Have you ever met an Arab?
Yes, I am a scarab.
I am a worm. I am a thing of scorn.
I cry Impure from street to street
And see my degradation in the eyes I meet.

I am your enemy.
This is Gethsemane.
The broken graves look to the Temple Mount.
Tell me now, tell me when
When shall we all rise again?
Shall I be first in that great body count?
When shall the tribes be gathered in?
When, tell me, when shall the Last Things begin?

You are in error.
This is terror.
This is your banishment. This land is mine.
This is what you earn.
This is the Law of No Return.
This is the sour dough, this the sweet wine.
This is my history, this my race
And this unhappy man threw acid in my face.

Stone cries to stone,
Heart to heart, heart to stone.
These are the warrior archaeologists.
This is us and that is them.
This is Jerusalem.
These are dying men with tattooed wrists.
Do this and I’ll destroy your home.
I have destroyed your home.  You have destroyed my home.

     by James Fenton

Paradox of Life

        Paradox of Life
     by Sunday B. Fakus

True love, like tree branches,
Brings fruits in its due season.
Lofty trees of barren leaves
Is love that has nothing to give.

Secret love, like hidden treasures,
Has worth- when it's ripe.
A thousand words of empty promises
Is hope that has nothing to yield.

Shattered dream, like broken hearts,
Takes away the joy of life.
Every love that a liar gives
Is nothing but a gate of grief.

A restless heart, like raging winds,
Rubs the mind of all its peace.
Silent pain of a lonely soul
Is worse than worries of hopeful lovers.

The Conflict of Convictions

Been feeling torn lately … so I’ve been reflecting a lot on why that is … was almost ironic that during my introspection I recalled a passage from one of Melville’s old poems, I’ve transcribed the piece below in full …

    The Conflict of Convictions
       by Herman Melville

On starry heights
  A bugle wails the long recall;
Derision stirs the deep abyss,
  Heaven's ominous silence over all.
Return, return, O eager Hope,
  And face man's latter fall.
Events, they make the dreamers quail;
Satan's old age is strong and hale,
A disciplined captain, gray in skill,
And Raphael a white enthusiast still;
Dashed aims, at which Christ's martyrs pale,
Shall Mammon's slaves fulfill?

    (Dismantle the fort,
    Cut down the fleet--
    Battle no more shall be!
    While the fields for fight in æons to come
    Congeal beneath the sea.)

The terrors of truth and dart of death
  To faith alike are vain;
Though comets, gone a thousand years,
    Return again,
Patient she stands--she can no more--
And waits, nor heeds she waxes hoar.

    (At a stony gate,
    A statue of stone,
    Weed overgrown--
    Long 'twill wait!)

But God his former mind retains,
  Confirms his old decree;
The generations are inured to pains,
  And strong Necessity
Surges, and heaps Time's strand with wrecks.
  The People spread like a weedy grass,
  The thing they will they bring to pass,
And prosper to the apoplex.
The rout it herds around the heart,
  The ghost is yielded in the gloom;
Kings wag their heads--Now save thyself
  Who wouldst rebuild the world in bloom.

    And top of the ages' strike,
    Verge where they called the world to come,
    The last advance of life--
    Ha ha, the rust on the Iron Dome!)

Nay, but revere the hid event;
  In the cloud a sword is girded on,
I mark a twinkling in the tent
  Of Michael the warrior one.
Senior wisdom suits not now,
The light is on the youthful brow.

    (Ay, in caves the miner see:
    His forehead bears a blinking light;
    Darkness so he feebly braves--
    A meagre wight!)

But He who rules is old--is old;
Ah! faith is warm, but heaven with age is cold.

    (Ho ho, ho ho,
    The cloistered doubt
    Of olden times
    Is blurted out!)

The Ancient of Days forever is young,
  Forever the scheme of Nature thrives;
I know a wind in purpose strong--
  It spins against the way it drives.
What if the gulfs their slimed foundations bare?
So deep must the stones be hurled
Whereon the throes of ages rear
The final empire and the happier world.

    (The poor old Past,
    The Future's slave,
    She drudged through pain and crime
    To bring about the blissful Prime,
    Then--perished. There's a grave!)

  Power unanointed may come--
Dominion (unsought by the free)
  And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founders' dream shall flee.
Agee after age shall be
As age after age has been,
(From man's changeless heart their way they win);

And death be busy with all who strive--
Death, with silent negative.

    YEA, AND NAY--

The Dream Called Life

       The Dream Called Life

A dream it was in which I found myself.
And you that hail me now, then hailed me king,
In a brave palace that was all my own,
Within, and all without it, mine; until,
Drunk with excess of majesty and pride,
Methought I towered so big and swelled so wide
That of myself I burst the glittering bubble
Which my ambition had about me blown,
And all again was darkness. Such a dream
As this, in which I may be walking now,
Dispensing solemn justice to you shadows,
Who make believe to listen; but anon
Kings, princes, captains, warriors, plume and steel,
Aye, even with all your airy theatre,
May flit into the air you seem to rend
With acclamations, leaving me to wake
In the dark tower; or dreaming that I wake
From this that waking is; or this and that,
Both waking and both dreaming; such a doubt
Confounds and clouds our moral life about.
But whether wake or dreaming, this I know,
How dreamwise human glories come and go;
Whose momentary tenure not to break,
Walking as one who knows he soon may wake,
So fairly carry the full cup, so well
Disordered insolence and passion quell,
That there be nothing after to upbraid
Dreamer or doer in the part he played;
Whether tomorrow's dawn shall break the spell,
Or the last trumpet of the Eternal Day,
When dreaming, with the night, shall pass away.

            -- by Edward Fitzgerald

A Dream Within A Dream

       A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow --
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand --
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep -- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

        --by Edgar Allan Poe


    1913 A Boy's Will

WE make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

          -- by Robert Frost