To The Lacedemonians

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An old soldier on the night before the veterans
reunion talks partly to himself, partly to imaginary comrades:

The people—people of my kind, my own
People but strange with a white light
In the face: the streets hard with motion
And the hard eyes that look one way.
Listen! the high whining tone
Of the motors, I hear the dull commotion:
I am come, a child in an old play.

I am here with a secret in the night;
Because I am here the dead wear gray.

It is a privilege to be dead; for you
Cannot know what absence is nor seize
The ordour of pure distance until
From you, slowly dying in the head,
All sights and sounds of the moment, all
The life of sweet intimacy shall fall
Like a swift at dusk.

  Sheer time! Stroke of the heart
Towards retirement. . . .

  Gentlemen, my secret is
Damnation: where have they, the citizens, all
Come from? They were not born in my father's
House, nor in their fathers': on a street corner
By motion sired, not born; by rest dismayed.
The tempest will unwind-the hurricane
Consider, knowing its end, the headlong pace?
I have watched it and endured it, I have delayed
Judgment: it warn't in my time, by God, so
That the mere breed absorbed the generation!

Yet I, hollow head, do see but little;
Old man: no memory: aimless distractions.

I was a boy, I never knew cessation
Of the bright course of blood along the vein;
Moved, an old dog by me, to field and stream
In the speaking ease of the fall rain;
When I was a boy the light on the hills
Was there because I could see it, not because
Some special gift of God had put it there.
Men expect too much, do too little,
Put the contraption before the accomplishment,
Lack skill of the interior mind
To fashion dignity with shapes of air.
Luxury, yes-but not elegance!
Where have they come from?

  Go you tell them
That we their servants, well-trained, gray-coated
And haired (both foot and horse) or in
The grave, them obey . . . obey them,
What commands?

  My father said
That everything but kin was less than kind.
The young men like swine argue for a rind,
A flimsy shell to put their weakness in;
Will-less, ruled by what they cannot see;
Hunched like savages in a rotten tree
They wait for the thunder to speak: Union!
That joins their separate fear.

  I fought
But did not care; a leg shot off at Bethel,
Given up for dead; but knew neither shell-shock
Nor any self-indulgence. Well may war be
Terrible to those who have nothing to gain
For the illumination of the sense:
When the peace is a trade route, figures
For the budget, reduction of population,
Life grown sullen and immense
Lusts after immunity to pain.

There is no civilization without death;
There is now the wind for breath.

Waken, lords and ladies gay, we cried,
And marched to Cedar Run and Malvern Hill,
Kinsmen and friends from Texas to the Tide-
Vain chivalry of the personal will!

Waken, we shouted, lords and ladies gay,
We go to win the precincts of the light,
Unshadowing restriction of our day. . . .
Regard now, in the seventy years of night,

Them, the young men who watch us from the curbs:
They hold the glaze of wonder in their stare-
Our crooked backs, hands fetid as old herbs,
The tallow eyes, wax face, the foreign hair!

Soldiers, march! we shall not fight again
The Yankees with our guns well-aimed and rammed-
All are born Yankees of the race of men
And this, too, now the country of the damned:

Poor bodies crowding round us! The white face
Eyeless with eyesight only, the modern power-
Huddled sublimities of time and space,
They are the echoes of a raging tower

That reared its moment upon a gone land,
Pouring a long cold wrath into the mind-
Damned souls, running the way of sand
Into the destination of the wind!

© Allen Tate