Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE GOLDEN CORPSE, by STEPHEN VINCENT BENET



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THE GOLDEN CORPSE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Stripped country, shrunken as a beggar's heart
Last Line: And the ice harden like a god's disdain on it.
Subject(s): Youth


(for Donald Malcolm Campbell)

STRIPPED country, shrunken as a beggar's heart,
Inviolate landscape, hardened into steel,
Where the cold soil shatters under heel
Day after day like metal cracked apart,
Winter Connecticut, whose air is clean
As a new icicle to cut the throat,
Whose black and rigid trees will not demean
Themselves to swagger in a crystal coat.

I hate you as a bastard hates his name
When your cramped hills are hostile with the white.
But, every year, when March comes in the same,
A frozen river rolling in the night,
I must go back and hunt among your snow
Something I lost there, much too long ago.

It was not innocence, it was not scorn,
And yet it had these names and many more.
It was a champion blowing on a horn,
It was the running of a golden boar.
It was a stallion trampling the skies
To rags of thunder with his glittering shoes,
It was a childish god with lazy eyes,
It was an indolent and reckless Muse.

More than all this, it was a spirit apart,
Purely of fire and air and the mind.
No fear could eat the temper from its heart
Nor any fleshly bandage make it blind.
It was a broken lightning in the blast.
It was the first of youth, and it has passed.

I left it in a bare and windy street
Between two sets of bells whose casual chimes
Answer each other, janglingly and sweet,
Like the concord of long-repeated rhymes.
I left it in a since-demolished bar,
And underneath a rain-streaked paving-stone
And, men and things being what they are,
The hidden ghost had better couch alone.

I shall not rattle with an iron fist
The relics, scattered into sticks of chalk,
Of what was once the carcass of a hawk
That sat like Wrath on an archangel's wrist.
Nor disinter, to make my house look smart,
That thunder-broken and ferocious heart.

Men that dig up a mandrake know dis-ease.
This body is committed to its bones
Down where the taproots of New England trees
Suck bare existence from the broken stones.
All summer cannot quicken it with heat,
Nor Spring perturb it with a budding bough,
Nor all the glittering devils of the sleet
In snowing Winter rack its quiet now.

But, in October, when the apples fall,
And leaves begin to rust before the cold,
There may occur, by some unnoticed wall,
A sigh, a whisper in the rotten gold.
A breath that hardly can be called a breath
From Death that will not yet acknowledge Death.

Unnoticed -- for the years have hardier tasks
Than listening to a whisper or a sigh.
They creep among us with a bag of masks
And fit them to our brows obsequiously.
Some are of iron, to affront the gay,
And some of bronze, to satirize the brave,
But most are merely a compost of clay
Cut in the sleepy features of a slave.

With such astuteness do they counterfeit
We do not realize the masks are on
Till, gaudy in our folly, bit by bit
We notice that a neighbor's face seems drawn.
And then, with fingers turned to lumps of stone,
Touch the inhuman cast that was our own.

There is no doubt such workmanship is sage,
The bound and ordered skies could not abide
A creature formed of elemental rage
For longer than a moment of its pride.
The hand that stooped to Adam from the cloud
And touched his members with a fiery spine
Designed as well the pattern of the shroud
That should convince him he was not divine.

And there are sorceries more excellent
Than the first conflagration of the dust,
But none are quite so single in intent
Or unsophisticated with distrust.
The ripened fruit is golden to the core.
But an enchantment fosters it no more.

Therefore, in neither anguish nor relief,
I offer to the shadow in the air
No image of a monumental grief
To mock its transience from a stony chair,
Nor any tablets edged in rusty black.
Only a branch of maple, gathered high
When the crisp air first tastes of applejack,
And the blue smokes of Autumn stain the sky.

A branch whose leaves cling to the withering staff
Like precious toys of gilt and scarlet paint,
An emblem Life and Death share half-and-half,
A brittle sceptre for a dying saint.
Unburning fire, an insubstantial Host,
A sleeping cloud, a beauty of the ghost.

So much in memory. For the future, this.
The checker-boarded house of Day and Night
Is but a cavern where a swallow flies
To beat its wings an instant at the light
And then depart, where the incessant storm
Shepherds the planets like a drunken nurse.
It does not need an everlasting form
To dignify an ecstasy so terse.

But while the swallow fluttered and was quick
I have marked down its passage in the dark,
And charred its image on a broken stick
With the weak flame of an uncertain spark.
The fire can have it now, the rain can rain on it,
And the ice harden like a god's disdain on it.




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