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The true meaning....
Posted by: JLI (
Date: October 14, 2003 09:19PM

I would love to hear what anyone thinks the "true meaning" of E.J. Pratt's , 'The truant" is. (In case you're not familiar I pasted it below!!)

'What have you there?' the great Panjandrum said
To the Master of the Revels who had led
A bucking truant with a stiff backbone
Close to the foot of the Almighty's throne.

'Right Reverend, most adored,
And forcibly acknowledged Lord
By the keen logic of your two-edged sword!
This creature has presumed to classify
Himself - a biped, rational, six feet high
And two feet wide; weighs fourteen stone;
Is guilty of a multitude of sins.
He has abjured his choric origins,
And like an undomesticated slattern,
Walks with tangential step unknown
Within the weave of the atomic pattern.
He has developed concepts, grins
Obscenely at your Royal bulletins,
Possesses what he calls a will
Which challenges your power to kill.'

'What is his pedigree?'

'The base is guaranteed, your Majesty -
Calcium, carbon, phosphorus, vapour
And other fundamentals spun
From the umbilicus of the sun,
And yet he says he will not caper
Around your throne, nor toe the rules
For the ballet of the fiery molecules.'

'His concepts and denials - scrap them, burn them -
To the chemists with them promptly.'

The stuff is not amenable to fire.
Nothing but their own kind can overturn, them.
The chemists have sent back the same old story -
"With our extreme gelatinous apology,
We beg to inform your Imperial Majesty,
Unto whom be dominion and power and glory,
There still remains that strange precipitate
Which has the quality to resist
Our oldest and most trusted catalyst.
It is a substance we cannot cremate
By temperatures known to our Laboratory".'

And the great Panjandrum's face grew dark -
I'll put those chemists to their annual purge,
And I myself shall be the thaumaturge
To find the nature of this fellow's spark.
Come, bring him nearer by yon halter rope:
I'1t analyse him with the cosmoscope.'

Pulled forward with his neck awry,
The little fellow six feet short,
Aware he was about to die,
Committed grave contempt of court
By answering with a flinchless stare
Tile Awful Presence seated there.

The ALL HIGH swore until his face was black.
He called him a coprophagite,
A genus homo, egomaniac,
Third cousin to the family of worms,
A sporozoan from the ooze of night,
Spawn of a spavined troglodyte:
He swore by all the catalogue of terms
Known since the slang of carboniferous Time.
He said that he could trace him back
To pollywogs and earwigs in the slime.
And in his shrillest tenor he began
Reciting his indictment of the man,
Until he closed upon this capital crime -
'You are accused of staging out of key,
(A foul unmitigated dissonance)
Of shuffling in the measures of the dance,
Then walking out with that defiant, free
Toss of your head, banging the doors,
Leaving a stench upon the jacinth floors.
You have fallen like a curse
On the mechanics of my Universe.

'Herewith I measure out your penalty -
Hearken while you hear, look while you see:
I send you now upon your homeward route
Where you shall find
Humiliation for your pride of mind.
I shall make deaf the ear, and dim the eye,
Put palsy in your touch, make mute
Your speech, intoxicate your cells and dry
Your blood and marrow, shoot
Arthritic needles through your cartilage,
And having parched you with old age,
I'll pass you wormwise through the mire;
And when your rebel will
Is mouldered, all desire
Shrivelled, all your concepts broken,
Backward in dust I'll blow you till
You join my spiral festival of fire.
Go, Master of the Revels - I have spoken.'

And the little genus homo, six feet high,
Standing erect, countered with this reply -
'You dumb insouciant invertebrate,
You rule a lower than a feudal state -
A realm of flunkey decimals that run,
Return; return and run; again return,
Each group around its little sun,
And every sun a satellite.
There they go by day and night,
Nothing to do but run and burn,
Taking turn and turn about,
Light-year in and light-year out,
Dancing, dancing in quadrillions,
Never leaving their pavilions.

'Your astronomical conceit
Of bulk and power is anserine.
Your ignorance so thick,
You did not know your own arithmetic.
We flung the graphs about your flying feet;
We measured your diameter -
Merely a line
Of zeros prefaced by an integer.
Before we came
You had no name.
You did not know direction or your pace;
We taught you all you ever knew
Of motion, time and space.
We healed you of your vertigo
And put you in our kindergarten show,
Perambulated you through prisms, drew
Your mileage through the Milky Way,
Lassoed your comets when they ran astray,
Yoked Leo, Taurus, and your team of Bears
To pull our kiddy cars of inverse squares.

'Boast not about your harmony,
Your perfect curves, your rings
Of pure and endless light - 'Twas we
Who pinned upon your seraphim their wings,
And when your brassy heavens rang
With joy that morning while the planets sang
Their choruses of archangelic lore,
'Twas we who ordered the notes upon their score
Out of our winds and strings.
Yes! all your shapely forms
Are ours - parabolas of silver light,
Those blueprints of your spiral stairs
From nadir depth to zenith height,
Coronas, rainbows after storms,
Auroras on your eastern tapestries
And constellations over western seas.

And when, one day, grown conscious of your age,
While pondering an eolith,
We turned a human page
And blotted out a cosmic myth
With all its baby symbols to explain
The sunlight in Apollo's eyes,
Our rising pulses and the birth of pain,
Fear, and that fern-and-fungus breath
Stalking our nostrils to our caves of death -
That day we learned how to anatomize
Your body, calibrate your size
And set a mirror up before your face
To show you what you really were - a rain
Of dull Lucretian atoms crowding space,
A series of concentric waves which any fool
Might make by dropping stones within a pool,
Or an exploding bomb forever in flight
Bursting like hell through Chaos and Old Night.

'You oldest of the hierarchs
Composed of electronic sparks,
We grant you speed,
We grant you power, and fire
That ends in ash, but we concede
To you no pain nor joy nor love nor hate,
No final tableau of desire,
No causes won or lost, no free
Adventure at the outposts - only
The degradation of your energy
When at some late
Slow number of your dance your sergeant-major Fate
Will catch you blind and groping and will send
You reeling on that long and lonely
Lockstep of your wave-lengths towards your end.

'We who have met
With stubborn calm the dawn's hot fusillades;
Who have seen the forehead sweat
Under the tug of pulleys on the joints,
Under the liquidating tally
Of the cat-and-truncheon bastinades;
Who have taught our souls to rally
To mountain horns and the sea's rockets
When the needle ran demented through the points;
We who have learned to clench
Our fists and raise our lightless sockets
To morning skies after the midnight raids,
Yet cocked our ears to bugles on the barricades,
And in cathedral rubble found a way to quench
A dying thirst within a Galilean valley -
No! by the Rood, we will not join your ballet.'

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 15, 2003 11:22AM

In the years following the First World War a lot of writers grappled with experiences that seriously challenged their faith in the kind of God they'd grown up believing in. For example, Shaw wrote a play, TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD, in which a character says that he feels like "a preacher who's had the Bible blown out of his hands" (I'm quoting from memory -- check before citing!)

So you had a generation of born-again atheists who were mad as hell at God for having turned out not to exist. This happened along with -- but was NOT QUITE the same as -- the emergence of Existentialism.

Pratt is one of these writers. (Mind you, a lot of NON-writers were also grappling with the same issues.) The poem says, "I refuse to be held back by a lot of totally obsolete notions based on an irrelevant theology." And he is not feeling alone and small in saying it with a burst of faith in what humanity can be without all that.


Moving from "true meaning" to "possible source," I suggest you check out the article at: []

This writer describes the poem in rather seminarian language ("a mechanistic and immutable conception of the universe" ... the Panjandrum, an inherently stupid personification of physical and metaphysical conformism"), but he then goes on to make a pretty good argument for where Pratt got the specific idea for the poem.

He also notes that the title character "is only a truant in the older sense of the word, as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary: a vagabond; an idle rogue or knave." ***

For more on Pratt, there is a book: "E.J. Pratt: The Truant Years, 1882-1927" by David G. Pitt. I have not read it, but the title suggests it would answer your question in great detail.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: JLI (
Date: October 15, 2003 12:24PM

Thank you. Your thoughts are much welcomed and they did help me to sort out specific lines and details in the poem. My thanks as well for providing me with the web addy. I looked for almost an hour last night for one interpretation, and could find none. Only the book if I wanted to buy it.

If anyone else has any ideas I would LOVE to hear them!!!
Have a great day!

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 16, 2003 05:45PM

Correcting a typo in my own post (though I'm sure you made out my meaning):

And he is not feeling alone and small in saying it with a burst of faith in what humanity can be without all that.


And he is not feeling alone and small. He is saying it with a burst of faith in what humanity can be without all that.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: October 16, 2003 06:34PM


Drat! Kills my interpretation, dunnit?

Nice find, Marian!

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 16, 2003 06:58PM

Give it a shot anyway, Hugh.

JLI might like your interpretation better!

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: October 16, 2003 07:10PM

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 17, 2003 05:02PM

Okay, I've read the earlier discussion of the same poem (the one Hugh provided a link to) and I am now more confused than before.

To add to the confusion, here's a song lyric that takes the same problem from a very different p-o-v:

God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)
by Randy Newman -
(onthe albums "Sail Away" and "RN Songbook vol 1")

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind

I recoil in horror fro the foulness of thee

From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, "Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please, please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: October 17, 2003 08:37PM

Well, Hell's bells, let's not leave Thomas Hardy out of this:


I towered far, and lo! I stood within
The presence of the Lord Most High,
Sent thither by the sons of earth, to win
Some answer to their cry.

--"The Earth, say'st thou? The Human race?
By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay: I have no remembrance of such place:
Such world I fashioned not." -

--"O Lord, forgive me when I say
Thou spak'st the word, and mad'st it all." -
"The Earth of men--let me bethink me . . . Yea!
I dimly do recall

"Some tiny sphere I built long back
(Mid millions of such shapes of mine)
So named . . . It perished, surely--not a wrack
Remaining, or a sign?

"It lost my interest from the first,
My aims therefor succeeding ill;
Haply it died of doing as it durst?" -
"Lord, it existeth still." -

"Dark, then, its life! For not a cry
Of aught it bears do I now hear;
Of its own act the threads were snapt whereby
Its plaints had reached mine ear.

"It used to ask for gifts of good,
Till came its severance self-entailed,
When sudden silence on that side ensued,
And has till now prevailed.

"All other orbs have kept in touch;
Their voicings reach me speedily:
Thy people took upon them overmuch
In sundering them from me!

"And it is strange--though sad enough -
Earth's race should think that one whose call
Frames, daily, shining spheres of flawless stuff
Must heed their tainted ball! . . .

"But say'st thou 'tis by pangs distraught,
And strife, and silent suffering? -
Deep grieved am I that injury should be wrought
Even on so poor a thing!

"Thou should'st have learnt that Not to Mend
For Me could mean but Not to Know:
Hence, Messengers! and straightway put an end
To what men undergo." . . .

Homing at dawn, I thought to see
One of the Messengers standing by.
- Oh, childish thought! . . . Yet oft it comes to me
When trouble hovers nigh.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: -Les- (
Date: October 18, 2003 12:23AM

Wait, if you can bring Hardy into it, how about a little doubting Thomas?

Four Quartets
by Thomas Stearns Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all out exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Little Gidding V,
Four Quartets.
-- T.S. Eliot (1943)

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 21, 2003 06:52PM

One more thought about E.J. Pratt's "The truant":

I read some various thoughts about who the Master of the Revels is.


"the great Panjandrum" = God (omnipotent ruler type)

"truant" = human being(s)

"Master of the Revels" = The Church

The Church, in my interpretation, is the HUMAN voice that bemoans the drift away from religion.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Pam Adams (134.71.192.---)
Date: October 21, 2003 07:40PM

HUMAN voice that bemoans the drift away from religion

which then wakes us, and we drown!


Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Hugh Clary (
Date: October 22, 2003 01:00PM

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Pam Adams (134.71.192.---)
Date: October 22, 2003 05:59PM

The eternal footman's not just snickering at me, he's rolling on the floor, laughing.


Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: October 28, 2003 01:12PM

I own a coffee spoon* but I try to measure out my life in soup ladles.

* And for the young and U.S.-born who don't know what a coffee spoon IS, it looks like an ordinary teaspoon but half the size.

Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: Pam Adams (134.71.192.---)
Date: October 28, 2003 10:03PM

I use mine as a paddle when I go to sea in my sieve.


Re: The true meaning....
Posted by: -Les- (
Date: October 29, 2003 01:21AM

Wait, I think I hear the music from a farther room.


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