(The following is a part of a sequence of poems from Robert Lowell’s Notebook 1967-1968, to be published this spring.)

1. Allah

Like Henry VIII, Mohammed got religion
in the dangerous years, and smashed the celibates,
haters of life, though never takers of lives.
Changed their monasteries to iron-works,
changed their non-activist Buddhistic rote
to his clans’ strict laws of schrecklichkeit and honor.
The Pope still twangs the harp of chastity;
the boys of the jihad rush paradise
on horseback, roam gardens stocked with adolescent
beauties, both sexes for simple nomad tastes—
how ardently they sleep in golden alcoves,
love always renewed, and the air a rose;
woman wants man, man woman, as naturally
as the thirsty frog desires the rain.

2. Attila

Hitler had fingertips of apprehension,
“Who knows how long I’ll live? Let us have the war.
We are the barbarians, the world is near the end.”
Attila mounted on raw meat and greens
galloped to massacre in his single fieldmouse suit,
he never entered a house that wasn’t burning,
could only sleep on horseback, sinking deep
in his rural dream. Would he have found himself
in this coarsest, cruellest, least magnanimous,
most systematic, most philosophical…
this sedentary nomad, the “He who has, has”;
who wondered why the ancient world collapsed,
then also left his festering fume of refuse,
old tins, dead vermin, ashes, eggshells, youth?

3. Clytemnestra

No folly can secularize the sacred cow,
our Queen at sixty worked in bed like Balzac.
Once sun and moon lay hidden in the cornstalk,
wherever she moved she left the indelible sunset,
she ruled Argos with Pharaoh’s beard and beak,
the lower jaw of a waterbuffalo,
the weak intelligence, the iron will.
In one night boys fell ageless from her arms…
Later, something unsavory took place:
Orestes, the lord of murder and proportion,
saw that the tips of her nipples had touched her toes—
a population problem and bad art.
He knew the monster must be guillotined.
Orestes knew that Trojan chivalry was shit.

4. The Death of Count Roland

King Marsiliun in Saragossa
does not love God, he strides to the shade of his orchard,
he sits reclining on his bench of blue tile,
with more than twenty thousand men about him;
his speech is only the one all kings make,
it did to spark the Franco-Moorish War….
At war’s-end, Roland’s brains seep from his ears;
he calls for the Angel Gabriel, his ivory horn,
prays for his peers, and scythes his sword, Dureñdal—
farther away than a man might shoot a crossbow,
toward Saragossa, there is a grassy place,
Roland goes to it, climbs the little mound:
a beautiful tree there, four great stones of marble—
on the green grass, he has fallen back, has fainted.

5. Tamerlane Old

To wake some midnight, on that instant senile,
clasping clay knees…in such warlike posture
found by your grandsons, a sheeted, shivering mound,
pressed race car hideously scared, agog with headlight,
professor in glasses—this is Timur watching
his pyramid of ninety thousand heads,
not skulls these human heads still fresh as flowers—
an architect to make Vitruvius age.
A thing well done, even a pile of heads
modestly planned to wilt before the builder,
is art, if art is everything made by man…
We weep for the courage incurable not the victims.
The holidays in his book are mostly massacre—
fealty affirmed when friendship is a myth.

6. Bosworth Field

In a minute, two inches of rain stream through two flat
garden stones, clear as crystal, without trout;
we have gone down and down, gone the wrong brook—
Richard the Third was once Dickon, Duke of Gloucester,
long arm of the realm, goddam blood royal,
terrible underpinning of what could breathe—
no wonder, we have dug him up past proof.
Think of throwing your kingdom for a crown?
He threw much more, he won no life or kingdom—
Tiberius and Stalin, they killed people they knew….
What does he care for Tolstoy and Saint Bernard
pointing fingers at his polio’d body;
for the moment, he is king; he is the king
shouting: it’s better to have lived, than live.

7. Charles V by Titian

But we cannot go back to Charles V
barrelled in armor, more gold fleece than king;
he haws on the gristle of a Flemish word,
his upper and lower Hapsburg jaws won’t meet.
The sunset he tilts at is big Venetian stuff,
the true Charles, done by Titian, never lived.
The struggle he rides offstage to is offstage.
No St. Francis, he did what Francis shied at,
gave up office, one in twenty monarchs
since Saturn to willingly make the grand refusal.
In his burgherish monastery, he learned he couldn’t
even put together the wheels of a clock.
He had dreamed of the democracy of Europe,
and carried enemies with him in a cage.

8. The Army of the Duc de Nemours

“I am a Christian because I am a wanton”;
not Yeats this, who warned us not to lend a high
degree of reality to the Great War.
There are wars and wars, though ours are not the high-note
on the scale of sexual delirium
running the gamut of Moses’ anathemas:
wantonness, sodomy, bestiality.
The Italian mercenaries besieging Lyons
for the Duc de Nemours huzzaed great flocks
of goats before them—no billies, two thousand udders
decked up in sporty green coats trimmed with gold.
They served a sound man as a mistress. Small war,
one far distant from our army mascots;
and who remembers now what Lyons paid?

9. Bishop Berkeley

The Bishop’s nihilism is clerical,
no one was much imperiled by his life,
except he visited Newport and was Irish,
and he was not Rimbaud or Attila,
unhinged, amused to crack the world on his skull.
He lived with quality, and thought the world
is only the perceptions we perceive….
In Mexico, I met this private earthquake,
when the soil trembled in the soles of my feet;
it was only my high blood of the decline,
my river system saying: I am weak,
I am Whitman, I am Berkeley….all men,
bathing my feet in a tub of lukewarm water;
one foot scalds the water, one foot chills the water.

10. Old Hickory

Those awful figures of Yankee prehistory;
the prints were cheap once, and good faith came easy:
Stephen Decatur, spyglass screwed to raking
the cannonspout-smashed Bay of Tripoli—
still, the Mohammedan believes in war;
although we had no faith to send their souls
to heaven, we were death on piracy.
Some were democratic: primitive, high-toned
President Jackson on his hobby horse,
watermelon-slice hat and presentation sword;
he might have been the Tsar or Bolivar,
pillar of the right or pillar of the left—
Andrew Jackson, despite appearance,
stands for the gunnery that widened suffrage.

11. Sunrise

There’s always enough sunrise in hell to gasp the breeze;
the flower of what was left grew sweeter for them,
two done people conversing with bamboo fans
as if brushing the fireflies from their yard—
Admiral Onishi is still a cult to his juniors
for launching the Kamikazes; he became an osprey
by mistaking our armadas for game;
his pilots loved him to annihilation.
He chats in his garden, the sky is zigzags of fire.
One butchery is left; his wife keeps nagging.
Man and wife taste cup after cup of scotch;
How garrulously they talk about their grandchildren,
and when the knife goes home, it goes home wrong…
For eighteen hours you died with your hand in hers.

This Issue

April 24, 1969