Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, FROM THE AGES WITH A SMILE, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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FROM THE AGES WITH A SMILE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: How did the sculptor, voltaire, keep you quiet and posed
Last Line: Front the ages with a smile!
Subject(s): Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet De


How did the sculptor, Voltaire, keep you quiet and posed
In an arm chair, just think, at your busiest age we are told,
Being better than seventy? How did he manage to stay you
From hopping through Europe for long enough time for his work,
Which shows you in marble, the look and the smile and the nose,
The filleted brow very bald, the thin little hands,
The posture pontifical, face imperturbable, smile so serene.
How did the sculptor detain you, you ever so restless,
You ever so driven by princes and priests? So I stand here
Enwrapped of this face of you, frail little frame of you,
And think of your work -- how nothing could balk you
Or quench you or damp you. How you twisted and turned,
Emerged from the fingers of malice, emerged with a laugh,
Kept Europe in laughter, in turmoil, in fear
For your eighty-four years!
And they say of you still
You were light and a mocker! You should have been solemn,
And argued with monkeys and swine, speaking truthfully always.
Nay, truthful with whom, to what end? With a breed such as lived
In your day and your place? It was never their due!
Truth for the truthful and true, and a lie for the liar if need be --
A board out of plumb for a place out of plumb, for the
hypocrite flashes
Of lightning or rods red hot for thrusting in tortuous places.
Well, this was your way, you lived out the genius God gave you.
And they hated you for it, hunted you all over Europe --
Why should they not hate you? Why should you not follow your light?
But wherever they drove you, you climbed to a place more satiric.
Did France bar her door? Geneva remained -- good enough!
Les Delices close to some several cantons, you know.
Would they lay hands upon you? I fancy you laughing,
You stand at your door and step into Vaud by one path;
You stand at your door and step by another to France --
Such safe jurisdictions, in truth, as the Illinois rowdies
Step from county to county ahead of the frustrate policeman.
And here you have printers to print what you write and a house
For the acting of plays, La Pucelle, Orphelin.
O busy Voltaire, never resting....

So England conservative, England of Southey and Burke,
The fox-hunting squires, the England of Church and of State,
The England half mule and half ox, writes you down, O Voltaire:
The quack grass of popery flourished in France, you essayed
To plow up the tangle, and harrow the roots from the soil.
It took a good ploughman to plow it, a ploughman of laughter,
A ploughman who laughed when the plow struck the roots, and
your breast
Was thrown on the handles.

And yet to this day, O Voltaire,
They charge you with levity, scoffing, when all that you did
Was to plough up the quack grass, and turn up the roots to the sun,
And let the sun kill them. For laughter is sun-light,
And nothing of worth or of truth needs to fear it.

But listen
The strength of a nation is mind, I will grant you, and still
But give it a tongue read and spoken more greatly than others,
That nation can judge true or false and the judgment abides.
The judgment in English condemns you, where is there a judgment
To save you from this? Is it German, or Russian, or French?

Did you give up three years of your life
To wipe out the sentence that burned the wracked body of Calas?
Did you help the oppressed Montbailli and Lally, O well,
Six lines in an article written in English are plenty
To weigh what you did, put it by with a generous gesture,
Give the minds of the student your measure, impress them
Forever that all of this sacrifice, service was noble,
But done with mixed motives, the fruits of your meddle-some nature,
Your hatred of churches and priests. Six lines are the record
Of all of these years of hard plowing in quack-grass, while batting
At poisonous flies and stepping on poisonous snakes...

How well did you know that life to a genius, a god,
Is naught but a farce! How well did you look with those eyes
As black as a beetle's through all the ridiculous show:
Ridiculous war, and ridiculous strife, and ridiculous pomp.
Ridiculous dignity, riches, rituals, reasons and creeds.
Ridiculous guesses at what the great Silence is saying.
Ridiculous systems wound over the earth like a snake
Devouring the children of Fear! Ridiculous customs,
Ridiculous judgments and laws, philosophies, worships.
You saw through and laughed at -- you saw above all
That a soul must make end with a groan, or a curse, or a laugh.

So you smiled till the lines of your mouth
A crescent became with dimples for horns, so expressing
To centuries after who see you in marble: Behold me,
I lived, I loved, I laughed, I toiled without ceasing
Through eighty-four years for realities -- O let them pass,
Let life go by. Would you rise over death like a god?
Front the ages with a smile!





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