I'm a jazz composition major at the University of Texas at Austin, and recently I've been itching to write a song cycle about the rise and fall of civilizations. At the moment, all I know for certain is that the last poem in the cycle will be Shelley's "Ozymandias" (printed below), which is the inspiration for the project.
If anyone knows of any good, relatively short poems that are related to this topic (the world/nature before civilization, the dawn of civilization, the peak of civilization, the fall of civilization), please post them here!
Ozymandias (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Two poems by Constantine P. Cavafy
The God Abandons Antony
At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive - don't mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen - your final pleasure - to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Waiting For The Barbarians
-What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
-Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What's the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
-Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
He's even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.
-Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
-Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
-Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
It's no good, if you can't eat it.
My name is Ozzy Mandias
King of Swing
look upon my works, ye hepcats and despair
On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
by John Keats
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
by Matthew Arnold
Set where the upper streams of Simois flow
Was the Palladium, high 'mid rock and wood;
And Hector was in Ilium, far below,
And fought, and saw it not--but there it stood!
It stood, and sun and moonshine rain'd their light
On the pure columns of its glen-built hall.
Backward and forward roll'd the waves of fight
Round Troy--but while this stood, Troy could not fall.
So, in its lovely moonlight, lives the soul.
Mountains surround it, and sweet virgin air;
Cold plashing, past it, crystal waters roll;
We visit it by moments, ah, too rare!
We shall renew the battle in the plain
To-morrow;--red with blood will Xanthus be;
Hector and Ajax will be there again,
Helen will come upon the wall to see.
Then we shall rust in shade, or shine in strife,
And fluctuate 'twixt blind hopes and blind despairs,
And fancy that we put forth all our life,
And never know how with the soul it fares.
Still doth the soul, from its lone fastness high,
Upon our life a ruling effluence send.
And when it fails, fight as we will, we die;
And while it lasts, we cannot wholly end.
The Isles of Greece
---George Gordon, Lord Byron
The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set...
The mountains look on Marathon--
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
A king sat on the rocky brow
Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations--all were his!
He counted them at break of day--
And when the sun set, where were they?
And where are they? And where art thou?
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now--
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
'Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush--for Greece a tear....
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade--
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning teardrop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.
Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swanlike, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne'er be mine--
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!
Kipling: Cities and Thrones and Powers
Hardy: In Time of the Breaking of Nations
Auden: The Fall of Rome
Beyond the Horizon
by Thomas M. Wolfe
Beyond the horizon
A land of forests and mighty rivers
A land of prairies and towering mountains
An untamed land
The first of Europe's peoples
Brave enough to sail across endless seas for new freedoms
Strong enough to carve out new homes from the wilderness
Determined enough to build new lives on new frontiers of land
Beyond the horizon.
They reached, too, for new frontiers of the mind.
"We hold these truths . . . that all men are created equal . . .
They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .
Life . . . Liberty . . . Pursuit of Happiness. "
And they fought and died to make safe that new frontier of mind that new concept of human dignity For their right to march on
Beyond the horizon.
With their freedom won
They pushed westward, saying:
"When you see the smoke of your neighbor's chimney, it's time to move on."
Yes, on into the setting sun
In prairie schooners 'cross the plains
On sailing ships 'round the Horn
On to new frontiers of land
Beyond the horizon.
But when they reached the Pacific, some cried:
"Now no new land to find.
No more new horizons."
Yet, in others' minds sprang still newer frontiers
The harvester to cut prairie grain
The steamboat to ply the rivers
Power looms to weave cloth for clothes
New frontiers of test tube and machine of technology
And Americans found new strength
Beyond the horizon.
From Europe's old, tired nations
Came others new pioneers
And read on Liberty's Statue
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled
masses yearning to breathe free....
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
And in the hearts of new frontiersmen
Was kindled the spark of freedom of the chance to build
Beyond the horizon.
And America grew strong
Outstripped in material wealth the whole of the Old World.
Skyscrapers reached high into the clouds
Machines echoed the beat of ocean waves
Power of rushing rivers and glittering oil
was harnessed to do her people's bidding.
New drugs saved lives
New paring knives sold for a dime each
New opportunity to move ahead
For a people who looked
Beyond the horizon.
But freedom was never cheap never sure
And Americans sweated and fought and died as its price.
In muddy trenches of the Argonne
In steeping jungles of the Philippines
They sweated and fought and died
To ensure their nation's right the right of
their children yet unborn
To look and to travel as free men
Beyond the horizon.
Yet today some cry:
"There are no new frontiers now."
"We've expanded to the limit.'
"Let's divide everything not try to multiply it."
"Let the Government plan blueprint organize everything."
While mourning those who died for freedom, they shout:
"Let others tell us what to do."
"There are no new horizons now."
Have they forgotten so soon?
Will we trade our success for failure?
Will we sell our birthrights
Of opportunity of human dignity
For a mess of pottage
A promise of Utopia from foreign lands?
A twisted phrase like "common man"?
A ball and chain "gilt-edged security"?
Or will we have a new birth of freedom
Will we keep high the torch for the tired,
the poor, the huddled masses yearning
to breathe free.
Will we know that our frontiers of mind and heart are endless
That our stars freedom, opportunity, faith are ever constant
That our sun, the future unlimited, lies
Beyond the horizon.
THIS mighty empire hath but feet of clay:
Of all its ancient chivalry and might
Our little island is forsaken quite:
Some enemy hath stolen its crown of bay,
And from its hills that voice hath passed away
Which spake of Freedom: O come out of it,
Come out of it, my Soul, thou art not fit
For this vile traffic-house, where day by day
Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart,
And the rude people rage with ignorant cries
Against an heritage of centuries.
It mars my calm: wherefore in dreams of Art
And loftiest culture I would stand apart,
Neither for God, nor for his enemies.
A British-Roman Song
(A. D. 406)
"A Centurion of the Thirtieth"
My father's father saw it not,
And I, belike, shall never come
To look on that so-holy spot --
That very Rome --
Crowned by all Time, all Art, all Might,
The equal work of Gods and Man,
City beneath whose oldest height --
The Race began!
Soon to send forth again a brood,
Unshakable, we pray, that clings
To Rome's thrice-hammered hardihood --
In arduous things.
Strong heart with triple armour bound,
Beat strongly, for thy life-blood runs,
Age after Age, the Empire round --
In us thy Sons
Who, distant from the Seven Hills,
Loving and serving much, require
Thee -- thee to guard 'gainst home-born ills
The Imperial Fire!
Surely Mr. Wilbur is in jest.<br />
It is a cramped little state with no foreign policy,
Save to be thought inoffensive. The grammar of the language
Has never been fathomed, owing to the national habit
Of allowing each sentence to trail off in confusion.
Those who have visited Scusi, the capital city,
Report that the railway-route from Schuldig passes
Through country best described as unrelieved.
Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
"I'm afraid you won't find much of interest here."
Census-reports which give the population
As zero are, of course, not to be trusted,
Save as reflecting the natives' flustered insistence
That they do not count, as well as their modest horror
Of letting one's sex be known in so many words.
The uniform grey of the nondescript buildings, the absence
Of churches or comfort-stations, have given observers
An odd impression of ostentatious meanness,
And it must be said of the citizens (muttering by
In their ratty sheepskins, shying at cracks in the sidewalk)
That they lack the peace of mind of the truly humble.
The tenor of life is careful, even in the stiff
Unsmiling carelessness of the border-guards
And douaniers, who admit, whenever they can,
Not merely the usual carloads of deodorant
But gypsies, g-strings, hasheesh, and contraband pigments.
Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.
Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte
---George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron
'Tis done -- but yesterday a King!
And arm'd with Kings to strive --
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject -- yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew'd our earth with hostile bones,
And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscall'd the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.
Ill-minded man! why scourge thy kind
Who bow'd so low the knee?
By gazing on thyself grown blind,
Thou taught'st the rest to see.
With might unquestion'd, -- power to save, --
Thine only gift hath been the grave,
To those that worshipp'd thee;
Nor till thy fall could mortals guess
Ambition's less than littleness!
Thanks for that lesson -- It will teach
To after-warriors more,
Than high Philosophy can preach,
And vainly preach'd before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre sway
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.
The triumph and the vanity,
The rapture of the strife --
The earthquake voice of Victory,
To thee the breath of life;
The sword, the sceptre, and that sway
Which man seem'd made but to obey,
Wherewith renown was rife --
All quell'd! -- Dark Spirit! what must be
The madness of thy memory!
The Desolator desolate!
The Victor overthrown!
The Arbiter of others' fate
A Suppliant for his own!
Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
Or dread of death alone?
To die a prince -- or live a slave --
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!
He who of old would rend the oak,
Dream'd not of the rebound:
Chain'd by the trunk he vainly broke --
Alone -- how look'd he round?
Thou, in the sternness of thy strength,
An equal deed hast done at length,
And darker fate hast found:
He fell, the forest prowler's prey;
But thou must eat thy heart away!
The Roman, when his burning heart
Was slaked with blood of Rome,
Threw down the dagger -- dared depart,
In savage grandeur, home --
He dared depart in utter scorn
Of men that such a yoke had borne,
Yet left him such a doom!
His only glory was that hour
Of self-upheld abandon'd power.
The Spaniard, when the lust of sway
Had lost its quickening spell,
Cast crowns for rosaries away,
An empire for a cell;
A strict accountant of his beads,
A subtle disputant on creeds,
His dotage trifled well:
Yet better had he neither known
A bigot's shrine, nor despot's throne.
But thou -- from thy reluctant hand
The thunderbolt is wrung --
Too late thou leav'st the high command
To which thy weakness clung;
All Evil Spirit as thou art,
It is enough to grieve the heart
To see thine own unstrung;
To think that God's fair world hath been
The footstool of a thing so mean;
And Earth hath spilt her blood for him,
Who thus can hoard his own!
And Monarchs bow'd the trembling limb,
And thank'd him for a throne!
Fair Freedom! we may hold thee dear,
When thus thy mightiest foes their fear
In humblest guise have shown.
Oh! ne'er may tyrant leave behind
A brighter name to lure mankind!
Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
Nor written thus in vain --
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
Or deepen every stain:
If thou hadst died as honour dies,
Some new Napoleon might arise,
To shame the world again --
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?
Weigh'd in the balance, hero dust
Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
To all that pass away:
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
To dazzle and dismay:
Nor deem'd Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.
And she, proud Austria's mournful flower,
Thy still imperial bride;
How bears her breast the torturing hour?
Still clings she to thy side?
Must she too bend, must she too share
Thy late repentance, long despair,
Thou throneless Homicide?
If still she loves thee, hoard that gem, --
'Tis worth thy vanish'd diadem!
Then haste thee to thy sullen Isle,
And gaze upon the sea;
That element may meet thy smile --
It ne'er was ruled by thee!
Or trace with thine all idle hand
In loitering mood upon the sand
That Earth is now as free!
That Corinth's pedagogue hath now
Transferr'd his by-word to thy brow.
Thou Timour! in his captive's cage
What thought will there be thine,
While brooding in thy prison'd rage?
But one -- "The word was mine!"
Unless, like he of Babylon,
All sense is with thy sceptre gone,
Life will not long confine
That spirit pour'd so widely forth--
So long obey'd -- so little worth!
Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,
Wilt thou withstand the shock?
And share with him, the unforgiven,
His vulture and his rock!
Foredoom'd by God -- by man accurst,
And that last act, though not thy worst,
The very Fiend's arch mock;
He in his fall preserved his pride,
And, if a mortal, had as proudly died!
There was a day -- there was an hour,
While earth was Gaul's -- Gaul thine --
When that immeasurable power
Unsated to resign
Had been an act of purer fame
Than gathers round Marengo's name,
And gilded thy decline,
Through the long twilight of all time,
Despite some passing clouds of crime.
But thou forsooth must be a king,
And don the purple vest,
As if that foolish robe could wring
Remembrance from thy breast.
Where is that faded garment? where
The gewgaws thou wert fond to wear,
The star, the string, the crest?
Vain froward child of empire! say,
Are all thy playthings snatched away?
Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes --one--the first--the last--the best--
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath'd the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!
Ruins of Rome
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
-- William Butler Yeats
The Richard Wilbur poem ("Shame" - posted above) is new to me and fascinating. I'm getting two views of it.
In one, the "little state" is an actual nation, and part of the message is "There's nothing like an invasion to bring out the national fervor in people who ordinarily give their national identity no thought."
In the other, the "state" is SHAME itself, and its about a similar phenomenon on people.
Marian, I think it's a "state" of mind (or mindlessness, if you prefer).
Scusi, the capital city ...
the railway-route from Schuldig ...
Pardon & Guilty? Excuses & Guilt?
country best described as unrelieved ...
I'm not touching that one.
I am as constipated as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no loosing of this firmament.
For the beginning of the human race/civilization, there's A.D Hope's "Imperial Adam" (sorry about the pop-ups on the site)
Pop-ups, not a problem here:
Imperial Adam, naked in the dew,
Felt his brown flanks and found the rib was gone.
Puzzled he turned and saw where, two and two,
The mighty spoor of Yahweh marked the lawn.
Then he remembered through mysterious sleep
The surgeon fingers probing at the bone,
The voice so far away, so rich and deep:
"It is not good for him to live alone."
Turning once more he found Man's counterpart
In tender parody breathing at his side.
He knew her at first sight, he knew by heart
Her allegory of sense unsatisfied.
The pawpaw drooped its golden breasts above
Less generous than the honey of her flesh;
The innocent sunlight showed the place of love;
The dew on its dark hairs winked crisp and fresh.
This plump gourd severed from his virile root,
She promised on the turf of Paradise
Delicious pulp of the forbidden fruit;
Sly as the snake she loosed her sinuous thighs,
And waking, smiled up at him from the grass;
Her breasts rose softly and he heard her sigh --
From all the beasts whose pleasant task it was
In Eden to increase and multiply
Adam had learned the jolly deed of kind:
He took her in his arms and there and then,
Like the clean beasts, embracing from behind,
Began in joy to found the breed of men.
Then from the spurt of seed within her broke
Her terrible and triumphant female cry,
Split upward by the sexual lightning stroke.
It was the beasts now who stood watching by:
The gravid elephant, the calving hind,
The breeding bitch, the she-ape big with young
Were the first gentle midwives of mankind;
The teeming lioness rasped her with her tongue;
The proud vicuna nuzzled her as she slept
Lax on the grass; and Adam watching too
Saw how her dumb breasts at their ripening wept,
The great pod of her belly swelled and grew,
And saw its water break, and saw, in fear,
It squaking muscles in the act of birth,
Between her legs a pigmy face appear,
And the first murderer lay upon the earth.
How about T.S. Eliot's The Gift of the Magi?
Pam, did you mean Journey of the Magi? "Gift of the Magi" is by O. Henry I believe.
The Journey of the Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Yep, I did. Thanks!