Thursday, 17 January 2013

Edwin Arlington Robinson. The Man Against the Sky

American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson was born just after the time of the Civil War and lived to see the dramatic transformation of the world he was born into through the influence of so-called Enlightenment philosophies and the development of early industrial technologies. Like William Blake before him, he came to perceive at an early age the destructive effects of new forms of power made available by the actions of big government, big business and big industry.

The Man Against the Sky was written in 1916 at a time when all informed citizens in the Western world had begun to grasp the immensity of destruction wrought by political will and the new machineries of death unleashed during the First World War. As a poet, Robinson was also deeply conscious of a widespread devaluation of human life and a growing dismissal of the more subtle dimensions of human experience as encompassed by such terms as soul and spirit.

Among other things, this dramatic poem carries Robinson's impassioned response to the growing worship of science and scientism and the widespread negation of any transcendent meaning to human life by those who at that time espoused and vociferously promoted a materialist view of life.

Although written nearly a century ago, Robinson's depth of questioning continues to resonate into the present time when the philosophical and existential divides as articulated in this poem have, if anything, deepened further.

The Man Against the Sky can be streamed using the media player below. A CD quality audio file is also available for downloading here


Voice: vincentd
Music: Doc and Lena Selyanina, "Lofoten"
(Remix: vincentd)

With many thanks to Doc and Lena Selyanina who have so generously made available their creative and highly individuated music.



The Man Against the Sky

Between me and the sunset, like a dome
     Against the glory of a world on fire,
     Now burned a sudden hill,
     Bleak, round, and high, by flame-lit height made higher,
     With nothing on it for the flame to kill
     Save one who moved and was alone up there
     To loom before the chaos and the glare
     As if he were the last god going home
     Unto his last desire.
     Dark, marvelous, and inscrutable he moved on
     Till down the fiery distance he was gone, -
     Like one of those eternal, remote things
     That range across a man's imaginings
     When a sure music fills him and he knows
     What he may say thereafter to few men, -
     The touch of ages having wrought
     An echo and a glimpse of what he thought
     A phantom or a legend until then;
     For whether lighted over ways that save,
     Or lured from all repose,
     If he go on too far to find a grave,
     Mostly alone he goes.

     Even he, who stood where I had found him,
     On high with fire all round him, -
     Who moved along the molten west,
     And over the round hill's crest
     That seemed half ready with him to go down,
     Flame-bitten and flame-cleft, -
     As if there were to be no last thing left
     Of a nameless unimaginable town, -
     Even he who climbed and vanished may have taken
     Down to the perils of a depth not known,
     From death defended though by men forsaken,
     The bread that every man must eat alone;
     He may have walked while others hardly dared
     Look on to see him stand where many fell;
     And upward out of that, as out of hell,
     He may have sung and striven
     To mount where more of him shall yet be given,
     Bereft of all retreat,
     To sevenfold heat, -
     As on a day when three in Dura shared
     The furnace, and were spared
     For glory by that king of Babylon
     Who made himself so great that God, who heard,
     Covered him with long feathers, like a bird.

     Again, he may have gone down easily,
     By comfortable altitudes, and found,
     As always, underneath him solid ground
     Whereon to be sufficient and to stand
     Possessed already of the promised land,
     Far stretched and fair to see:
     A good sight, verily,
     And one to make the eyes of her who bore him
     Shine glad with hidden tears.
     Why question of his ease of who before him,
     In one place or another where they left
     Their names as far behind them as their bones,
     And yet by dint of slaughter toil and theft,
     And shrewdly sharpened stones,
     Carved hard the way for his ascendency
     Through deserts of lost years?
     Why trouble him now who sees and hears
     No more than what his innocence requires,
     And therefore to no other height aspires
     Than one at which he neither quails nor tires?
     He may do more by seeing what he sees
     Than others eager for iniquities;
     He may, by seeing all things for the best,
     Incite futurity to do the rest.

     Or with an even likelihood,
     He may have met with atrabilious eyes
     The fires of time on equal terms and passed
     Indifferently down, until at last
     His only kind of grandeur would have been,
     Apparently, in being seen.
     He may have had for evil or for good
     No argument; he may have had no care
     For what without himself went anywhere
     To failure or to glory, and least of all
     For such a stale, flamboyant miracle;
     He may have been the prophet of an art
     Immovable to old idolatries;
     He may have been a player without a part,
     Annoyed that even the sun should have the skies
     For such a flaming way to advertise;
     He may have been a painter sick at heart
     With Nature's toiling for a new surprise;
     He may have been a cynic, who now, for all
     Of anything divine that his effete
     Negation may have tasted,
     Saw truth in his own image, rather small,
     Forbore to fever the ephemeral,
     Found any barren height a good retreat
     From any swarming street,
     And in the sun saw power superbly wasted;
     And when the primitive old-fashioned stars
     Came out again to shine on joys and wars
     More primitive, and all arrayed for doom,
     He may have proved a world a sorry thing
     In his imagining,
     And life a lighted highway to the tomb.

     Or, mounting with infirm unsearching tread,
     His hopes to chaos led,
     He may have stumbled up there from the past,
     And with an aching strangeness viewed the last
     Abysmal conflagration of his dreams, -
     A flame where nothing seems
     To burn but flame itself, by nothing fed;
     And while it all went out,
     Not even the faint anodyne of doubt
     May then have eased a painful going down
     From pictured heights of power and lost renown,
     Revealed at length to his outlived endeavor
     Remote and unapproachable forever;
     And at his heart there may have gnawed
     Sick memories of a dead faith foiled and flawed
     And long dishonored by the living death
     Assigned alike by chance
     To brutes and hierophants;
     And anguish fallen on those he loved around him
     May once have dealt the last blow to confound him,
     And so have left him as death leaves a child,
     Who sees it all too near;
     And he who knows no young way to forget
     May struggle to the tomb unreconciled.
     Whatever suns may rise or set
     There may be nothing kinder for him here
     Than shafts and agonies;
     And under these
     He may cry out and stay on horribly;
     Or, seeing in death too small a thing to fear,
     He may go forward like a stoic Roman
     Where pangs and terrors in his pathway lie, -
     Or, seizing the swift logic of a woman,
     Curse God and die.

     Or maybe there, like many another one
     Who might have stood aloft and looked ahead,
     Black-drawn against wild red,
     He may have built, unawed by fiery gules
     That in him no commotion stirred,
     A living reason out of molecules
     Why molecules occurred,
     And one for smiling when he might have sighed
     Had he seen far enough,
     And in the same inevitable stuff
     Discovered an odd reason too for pride
     In being what he must have been by laws
     Infrangible and for no kind of cause.
     Deterred by no confusion or surprise
     He may have seen with his mechanic eyes
     A world without a meaning, and had room,
     Alone amid magnificence and doom,
     To build himself an airy monument
     That should, or fail him in his vague intent,
     Outlast an accidental universe -
     To call it nothing worse -
     Or, by the burrowing guile
     Of Time disintegrated and effaced,
     Like once-remembered mighty trees go down
     To ruin, of which by man may now be traced
     No part sufficient even to be rotten,
     And in the book of things that are forgotten
     Is entered as a thing not quite worth while.
     He may have been so great
     That satraps would have shivered at his frown,
     And all he prized alive may rule a state
     No larger than a grave that holds a clown;
     He may have been a master of his fate,
     And of his atoms, - ready as another
     In his emergence to exonerate
     His father and his mother;
     He may have been a captain of a host,
     Self-eloquent and ripe for prodigies,
     Doomed here to swell by dangerous degrees,
     And then give up the ghost.
     Nahum's great grasshoppers were such as these,
     Sun-scattered and soon lost.

     Whatever the dark road he may have taken,
     This man who stood on high
     And faced alone the sky,
     Whatever drove or lured or guided him, -
     A vision answering a faith unshaken,
     An easy trust assumed of easy trials,
     A sick negation born of weak denials,
     A crazed abhorrence of an old condition,
     A blind attendance on a brief ambition, -
     Whatever stayed him or derided him,
     His way was even as ours;
     And we, with all our wounds and all our powers,
     Must each await alone at his own height
     Another darkness or another light;
     And there, of our poor self dominion reft,
     If inference and reason shun
     Hell, Heaven, and Oblivion,
     May thwarted will (perforce precarious,
     But for our conservation better thus)
     Have no misgiving left
     Of doing yet what here we leave undone?
     Or if unto the last of these we cleave,
     Believing or protesting we believe
     In such an idle and ephemeral
     Florescence of the diabolical, -
     If, robbed of two fond old enormities,
     Our being had no onward auguries,
     What then were this great love of ours to say
     For launching other lives to voyage again
     A little farther into time and pain,
     A little faster in a futile chase
     For a kingdom and a power and a Race
     That would have still in sight
     A manifest end of ashes and eternal night?
     Is this the music of the toys we shake
     So loud, - as if there might be no mistake
     Somewhere in our indomitable will?
     Are we no greater than the noise we make
     Along one blind atomic pilgrimage
     Whereon by crass chance billeted we go
     Because our brains and bones and cartilage
     Will have it so?
     If this we say, then let us all be still
     About our share in it, and live and die
     More quietly thereby.

     Where was he going, this man against the sky?
     You know not, nor do I.
     But this we know, if we know anything:
     That we may laugh and fight and sing
     And of our transience here make offering
     To an orient Word that will not be erased,
     Or, save in incommunicable gleams
     Too permanent for dreams,
     Be found or known.
     No tonic and ambitious irritant
     Of increase or of want
     Has made an otherwise insensate waste
     Of ages overthrown
     A ruthless, veiled, implacable foretaste
     Of other ages that are still to be
     Depleted and rewarded variously
     Because a few, by fate's economy,
     Shall seem to move the world the way it goes;
     No soft evangel of equality,
     Safe cradled in a communal repose
     That huddles into death and may at last
     Be covered well with equatorial snows -
     And all for what, the devil only knows -
     Will aggregate an inkling to confirm
     The credit of a sage or of a worm,
     Or tell us why one man in five
     Should have a care to stay alive
     While in his heart he feels no violence
     Laid on his humor and intelligence
     When infant Science makes a pleasant face
     And waves again that hollow toy, the Race;
     No planetary trap where souls are wrought
     For nothing but the sake of being caught
     And sent again to nothing will attune
     Itself to any key of any reason
     Why man should hunger through another season
     To find out why 'twere better late than soon
     To go away and let the sun and moon
     And all the silly stars illuminate
     A place for creeping things,
     And those that root and trumpet and have wings,
     And herd and ruminate,
     Or dive and flash and poise in rivers and seas,
     Or by their loyal tails in lofty trees
     Hang screeching lewd victorious derision
     Of man's immortal vision.

     Shall we, because Eternity records
     Too vast an answer for the time-born words
     We spell, whereof so many are dead that once
     In our capricious lexicons
     Were so alive and final, hear no more
     The Word itself, the living word no man
     Has ever spelt,
     And few have ever felt
     Without the fears and old surrenderings
     And terrors that began
     When Death let fall a feather from his wings
     And humbled the first man?
     Because the weight of our humility,
     Wherefrom we gain
     A little wisdom and much pain,
     Falls here too sore and there too tedious,
     Are we in anguish or complacency,
     Not looking far enough ahead
     To see by what mad couriers we are led
     Along the roads of the ridiculous,
     To pity ourselves and laugh at faith
     And while we curse life bear it?
     And if we see the soul's dead end in death,
     Are we to fear it?
     What folly is here that has not yet a name
     Unless we say outright that we are liars?
     What have we seen beyond our sunset fires
     That lights again the way by which we came?
     Why pay we such a price, and one we give
     So clamoringly, for each racked empty day
     That leads one more last human hope away,
     As quiet fiends would lead past our crazed eyes
     Our children to an unseen sacrifice?
     If after all that we have lived and thought,
     All comes to Nought, -
     If there be nothing after Now,
     And we be nothing anyhow,
     And we know that, - why live?
     'Twere sure but weaklings' vain distress
     To suffer dungeons where so many doors
     Will open on the cold eternal shores
     That look sheer down
     To the dark tideless floods of Nothingness
     Where all who know may drown.