The Great War

from Retrogression and Other Poems: Electronic Edition

Retrogression

Our daughters flower in vernal grace;

In strength our striplings wax apace;

Our cities teem ; our commerce rides

Sovereign upon the fawning tides.

But while, to this our stronghold—where

The North Wind's wandering children fair,

Like wild birds from the waters sprung,

Built their wild nest and reared their young—

The fleets of peace for ever pour

Fruitage and vintage, gems and ore;

While here, within each ocean gate.

Long barricadoed against Fate,

We are served by all the alien seas.

And fed from the Antipodes,

Lo, everywhere the unplenished brain!

Everywhere, dire as bondman's chain,

Or laws that crush, or creeds that blind,

The leanness of the unnourished mind.

For few and fewer do they grow.

Who know, or ever cared to know,

The great things greatly said and sung

In this heroic English tongue.

This craggy speech, the rough-wrought key

To palaces of wizardry.

Our fathers' glory, and our despair;

And many a fabric hung in air.

That firmer stands than boastful stone;

And many a tower of vigil lone.

Whence Wisdom sees, beneath her curled,

The involved, inextricable world.

And shouldst thou have in thee to-day

Aught thou canst better sing than say.

Shun, if thou wouldst by men be heard.

The comely phrase, the wellborn word.

And use, as for their ears more meet,

The loose-lipped lingo of the street,

A language Milton's kin have long

Accounted good enough for song.

Or don that vesture not less vile.

The beaded and bespangled style—

Diction o'erloaded and impure.

Thy thought lost in its garniture.

Till this itself becomes the goal.

The alpha, omega, and whole;

Thy Muse, ev'n to her raiment's hem,

Huddling uncostly gem on gem.

Striving her lax form to bestar

With all crude ornaments that are;

An empty and a dreary strife,

Vulgar in Letters as in Life.

Nor look for praise, save here and there

From a fast-dwindling remnant rare.

If thou beget with happy pain

The ordered and the governed strain

That peradventure had not shamed

Masters felicitously famed,

Dryden, the athlete large and strong,

Lord of the nerve and sinew of song;

The easeful victor, who subdued

Till conquest was but habitude;

A hewer and shaper who could see

In adamant plasticity,

Who tore from the entrails of the mine

The metal of his iron line—

Iron that oft all molten rolled.

Heaved to a billow, and crashed to gold,

Who, born beside the haughty tomb

Of that rank time of overbloom

When poets vied in gathering each

Full-bosomed apple and buxom peach

That odorous in the orchard burned,

Had, from their purple surfeit, leamed

The truth in Hellas seen so plain.

That the art of arts is to refrain;—

Or Gray, who on worn thoughts conferred

That second youth, the perfect word,

The elected and predestined phrase

That had lain bound, long nights and days,

To wear at last, when once set free,

Immortal pellucidity;

And who, in that most mighty Ode,

That like a pageant streamed and glowed,

Called up anew mid breathing things

The great ghosts of our tragic Kings,

With doom-dark brows to come and go,

Trailing the folds of gorgeous woe.