Friday, April 22, 2011

pointing to the agony of death and birth

Because every day needs a little poetry, and no less Good Friday:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

    Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

    The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

    The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

    The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

-T.S. Eliot, "East Coker" IV


  1. I have ignored poetry for so long and am only know learning better, so I always like it when you take the time to point out something excellent like this - and then I go trying to make 'food', 'blood', and 'good' all rhyme and I sprain a synapse. I suppose there must be a number of accents that can make it happen (although they'd probably disagree on how)...

  2. @Will: I think it's called "sight rhyme"--i.e., the words look like they should rhyme, even though they don't. It seems like a bit of a cheat, but I find that it helps push the unsettling and disorienting climax of this section of verse, by simultaneously keeping to and breaking the established rhyme scheme. I don't know whether that was Eliot's intent or just happy side-effect, but the dissonance of it works for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  3. Here's one with no rhymes at all. I've just discovered George Mackay Brown:

    Via Dolorosa: A Beggar

    I know when there's a trial.
    A sentence given.
    There are three strokes on a black drum then.

    There's always a cluster of bronze greaves,
    A ring of hooves.
    Today, at the roadside,
    A column of pure silence.

    Being blind, I know better than most
    A butterfly lighting on a rose.
    I know
    When a man stumbles on stones.

    A rare thing in women, such silence.
    (All women know it, the hour after a birth.)
    Pray for me, mother, on the way.

    Pray for the stranger
    They have dragged out of the mob
    To lend a hand (I know his country smells).

    The girl from the linen shop, surely?
    The unfolding,
    A bright sweetness in the wind,
    The fabric fallen on blood and sweat.

    The road is steep now. The dancer
    Measures his length again in the hot dust.

    That pure silence still
    Among lamentation the wildest keening I've ever known.
    A penny, sir. Thank you. I think
    It may come to thunder later indeed.

    I know. I've heard it. This man
    Went from hill to hill, lord of the dance.
    His dance is broken today.

    They've taken his dancing coat away.
    For the patchwork coat of wounds.

    Now they are nailing his dancing feet,
    A threefold iron clang.

    But the song goes on for three hours,
    World's woe,
    The psalm of the black sorrow of the shepherd king.

    Lady, out of your death-bearing stillness,
    Pray for us sinners,
    All our deaths scattered through history.

    I heard the man they are burying
    Put light into a blind man's skull lately.
    I am content not to see
    The man evils done under the sun.
    (Thank you, sir. It has been a rough day, indeed.)

  4. What Rebecca said about rhymes. Also, the iambic tetrameter, with the exception of the fourth line of each stanza, allows for a bit of consistency, so the slant rhyming doesn't really end up bothering me as much.

    Amaryllis, that's a lovely poem.