Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: DR. BURKE, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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DOMESDAY BOOK: DR. BURKE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: You've heard of potters' wheels and potters' hands
Last Line: This story to the coroner.
Subject(s): Death; Dreams; Life; Physicians; Religion; Dead, The; Nightmares; Doctors; Theology


You've heard of potters' wheels and potters' hands.
I had a dream that told the human tale
As well as potters' wheels or potters' hands.
I saw a great hand slopping plasmic jelly
Around the low sides of a giant bowl.
A drop would fly upon the giant table,
And quick the drop would twist up into form,
Become homonculus and wave its hands,
Brandish a little pistol, shoot a creature,
Upspringing from another drop of plasm,
Slopped on the giant table. Other drops,
Flying as water from a grinding stone,
Out of the giant bowl, took little crowns
And put them on their heads and mounted thrones,
And lorded little armies. Some became
Half-drooped and sickly things, like poisoned flies.
And others stood on lighted faggots, others
Fed and commanded, others served and starved,
But many joined the throng of animate drops,
And hurried on the phantom quest.

You see,
Whether you call it potter's hand or hand
That stirs, to no end, jelly in the bowl,
You have the force outside and not inside.
Invest it with a malice, wanton humor,
Which likes to see the plasmic jelly slop,
And rain in drops upon the giant table,
And does not care what happens in the world,
That giant table.

All such dreams are wrong,
My dream is wrong, my waking thought is right.
Man can subdue the giant hand that stirs,
Or turns the wheel, and so these visions err.
For as this farmer, lately come to town,
Picks out the finest corn seeds, and so crops
A finer corn, let's look to human seed,
And raise a purer stock; let's learn of him,
Who does not put defective grains aside
For planting in the spring, but puts aside
The best for planting. For I'd like to see
As much care taken with the human stock
As men now take of corn, race-horses, hogs.
You, Coroner Merival are right, I think.
If we conserve our forests, waterways,
Why not the stream of human life, which wastes
Because its source is wasted, fouled.

Perhaps
Our coroner has started something good,
And brought to public mind what might result
If every man kept record of the traits
Known in his family for the future use
Of those to come in choosing mates.

Behold,
Your moralists and churchmen with your rules
Brought down from Palestine, which says that life
Though tainted, maddened, must not be controlled,
Diverted, headed off, while life in corn,
And life in hogs, that feed the life of man
Should be made better for the life of man --
Behold, I say, some hundred millions spent
On paupers, epileptics, deaf and blind;
On feeble minded, invalids, the insane --
Behold, I say, this cost in gold alone,
Leave for the time the tragedy of souls,
Who suffer or must see such suffering,
And then turn back to what? The hand that stirs,
The potter's hand? Why, no -- the marriage counter
Where this same state in Christian charity
Spending its millions, lets the fault begin,
And says to epileptics and what not: --
"Go breed your kind, for Jesus came to earth,
And we will house and feed your progeny,
Or hang, incarcerate your murderous spawn,
As it may happen."

And all the time we know
As small grains fruit in small grains, even man
In fifty matters of pathology
Transmits what's in him, blindness, imbecility,
Hysteria, susceptibilities
To cancer and tuberculosis. Also
The soil that sprouts the giant weed of madness --
There's soil which will not sprout them, occupied
Too full by blossoms, healthy trees.

We know
Such things as these -- Well, I would sterilize,
Or segregate these shriveled seeds and keep
The soil of life for seeds select, and take
The church and Jesus, if he's in the way,
And say: "You stand aside, and let me raise
A better and a better breed of men."
Quit, shut your sniveling charities; have mercy
Not on these paupers, imbeciles, diseased ones,
But on the progeny you let them breed.
And thereby sponge the greatest waste away,
And source of life's immeasurable tragedies.
Avaunt you potter hands and potter wheels!
God is within us, not without us, we
Are given souls to know and see and guide
Ourselves and those to come, souls that compute
The calculus of beauties, talents, traits,
And show us that the good in seed strives on
To master stocks; that even poisoned blood,
And minds in chemic turmoils, mixed with blood
And minds in harmony, work clean at last --
Else how may normal man to-day be such
With some eight billion ancestors behind,
And something in him of the blood of all
Who lived five hundred years ago or so,
Who were diseased with alcohol and pork,
And poverty? But oh these centuries
Of agony and waste! Let's stop it now!
And since this God within us gives us choice
To let the dirty plasma flow or dam it,
To give the channel to the silver stream
Of starry power, which shall we do? Now choose
Between your race of drunkards, imbeciles,
Lunatics and neurotics, or the race
Of those who sing and write, or measure space,
Build temples, bridges, calculate the stars,
Live long and sanely.

Well, I take my son,
I could have prophesied his eyes, through knowing
The color of my mother's, father's eyes,
The color of his mother's parent's eyes.
I could have told his hair.

There's subtler things.
My father died before this son was born;
Why does this son smack lips and turn his hand
Just like my father did? Not imitation --
He never saw him, and I do not do so.
Refine the matter where you will, how far
You choose to go, it is not eyes and hair,
Chins, shape of head, of limbs, or shape of hands,
Nor even features, look of eyes, nor sound
Of voice that we inherit, but the traits
Of innner senses, spiritual gifts, and secret
Beauties and powers of spirit, which result
Not solely by the compound of the souls
Through conjugating cells, but in the fusion
Something arises like an unknown X
And starts another wonder in the soul,
That comes from souls compounded.

Coroner
You have done well to study Elenor Murray.
How do I view the matter? To begin
Here is a man who looks upon a woman,
Desires her, so they marry, up they step
Before the marriage counter, buy a license
To live together, propagate their kind.
No questions asked. I'll later come to that.
This couple has four children, Elenor
Is second to be born. I knew this girl,
I cared for her at times when she was young --
Well, for the picture general, she matures
Goes teaching school, leaves home, goes far away,
Has restlessness and longings, ups and downs
Of ecstasy and depression, has a will
Which drives her onward, dreams that call to her.
Goes to the war at last to sacrifice
Her life in duty, and the root of this
Is masochistic (though I love the flower),
Comes back and dies. I call her not a drop
Slopped from the giant bowl; she is a growth
Proceeding on clear lines, if we could know,
From cells that joined, and had within themselves
The quality of the stream whose source I see
As far as grandparents. And now to this:

We all know what her father, mother are.
No doubt the marriage counter could have seen --
Or asked what was not visible. But who knows
About the father's parents, or the mother's?
I chance to know.

The father drinks, you say?
Well, he drank little when this child was born,
Had he drunk much, it is the nerves which crave
The solace of the cup, and not the cup
Which passes from the parent to the child.
His father and his mother were good blood,
Steady, industrious; and just because
His father and his mother had the will
To fight privation, and the lonely days
Of pioneering, so this son had will
To fight, aspire, but at the last to growl,
And darken in that drug store prison, take
To drink at times in anger for a will
That was so balked.

Well, then your marriage counter
Could scarcely ask: What is your aim in life?
You clerk now in a drug store, you aspire
To be a lawyer, if you find yourself
Stopped on your way by poverty, the work
Of clerking to earn bread, you will break down,
And so affect your progeny. So, you see,
For all of that the daughter Elenor
Was born when this ambition had its hope,
Not when it tangled up in hopelessness;
And therefore is thrown out of the account.
The father must be passed and given license
To wed this woman. How about the mother?
You never knew the mother of the mother.
She had great power of life and power of soul,
Lived to be eighty-seven, to the last
Was tense, high voiced, excitable, ecstatic,
Top full of visions, dreams, and plans for life.
But worse than that at fifty lost her mind,
Was two years kept at Kankakee, quite mad,
Grieving for fancied wrongs against her husband
Some five years dead, and praying to keep down
Desire for men. Her malady was sensed
When she began to wander here and there,
In shops and public places, in the church,
Wherever she could meet with men, one man
Particularly to whom she made advances
Unwomanly and strange. And so at last
She turned her whole mind to the church, became
Religion mad, grew mystical, believed
That Jesus Christ had taken her to spouse.
They kept her in confinement for two years.
The rage died down at last, and she came home.
But to the last was nervous, tense, high keyed.
And then her mind failed totally, she died
At eighty-seven here.

Now I could take
Some certain symbols A and a, and show
Out of the laws that Mendel found for us,
What chances Elenor Murray had to live
Free of the madness, clear or in dilute,
Diminished or made over, which came down
From this old woman to her. It's enough
To see in Elenor Murray certain traits,
Passions and powers, ecstasies and sorrows.
And from them life's misfortunes, and to see
They tally, take the color of the soul
Of this old woman, back of her. Even to see
In Elenor Murray's mother states of soul,
And states of nerves, passed on to Elenor Murray
Directly by her mother.

But you say,
Since many say so, here's a woman's soul
Most beautiful and serviceable in the world
And she confutes you, in your logic chopping,
Materialistic program, who would give
The marriage counter power to pick the corn seed
For future planting:

No, I say to this.
What does it come to? She had will enough,
And aspiration, struck out for herself,
Learned for herself, did service in the war,
As many did, and died -- all very good.
But not so good that we could quite afford
To take the chances on some other things
Which might have come from her. Well, to begin
Putting aside an autopsy, she died
Because this neural weakness, so derived,
Caught in such stress of life proved far too much
For one so organized; a stress of life
Which others could live through, and have lived through.
The world had Elenor Murray, and she died
Before she was a cost. -- But just suppose
No war had been to aureole her life --
And she had lived here and gone mad at last
Become a charge upon the state? Or yet,
As she was love-mad, by the common word,
And as she had neurotic tendencies,
Would seek neurotic types therefore, suppose
She had with some neurotic made a marriage,
And brought upon us types worse than themselves;
Given us the symbol double A instead
Of big and little a, where are you then?
You have some suicides, or murders maybe,
Some crimes in sex, some madness on your hands,
For which to tax the strong to raise, and raise
Some millions every year.

Are we so mad
For beauty, sacrifice and heroism,
So hungry for the stimulus of these
That we cannot discern and fairly appraise
What Elenor Murray was, what to the world
She brought, for which we overlook the harm
She might have done the world? Not if we think!
And if we think, she will not seem God's flower
Made spotted, pale or streaked by cross of breed,
A wonder and a richness in the world;
But she will seem a blossom which to these
Added a novel poison with the power
To spread her poison! And we may dispense
With what she did and what she tried to do,
No longer sentimentalists, to keep
The chances growing in the world to bring
A better race of men.

Then Doctor Burke
Left off philosophy and asked: "How many
Of you who hear me, know that Elenor Murray
Was distant cousin to this necrophile,
This Taylor boy, I call him boy, though twenty,
Who got the rope for that detested murder
Of a young girl -- Oh yes, let's save the seed
Of stock like this!"

But only David Borrow
Knew Elenor was cousin to this boy.
And Merival spoke up: "What is to-day?
It's Thursday, it's to-morrow that he hangs.
I'll go now to the jail to see this boy."
"He hangs at nine o'clock," said Dr. Burke.
And Merival got up to go. The party
Broke up, departed. At the jail he saw
The wretched creature doomed to die. And turned
Half sick from seeing how he tossed and looked
With glassy eyes. The sheriff had gone out.
And Merival could see him, get the case.
Next afternoon they met, the sheriff told
This story to the coroner.





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