Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, SIGNET, by GEORGE SANTAYANA

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

SIGNET, by                 Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography
First Line: So old, so new, so white, so olive-green
Last Line: May reap the harvest -- for the harvest waits.
Subject(s): Fools; Harvard University; Writing & Writers

So old, so new, so white, so olive-green,
When, Shades of Art, was such a palace seen?
When was Ionic with such grace applied?
When looked false columns half so dignified?
When to a roof so barbarously laid
Did screening Beauty add a balustrade?
When have armorial bearings so concealed
Pride in good taste as does our modest shield?
When went such simple furniture so far?
When flowed Castalian Springs o'er such a bar?
These chaste charms fetter but to purge the soul,
Coquetry peeps, yet Virtue holds control.
Ah, as when Dido, building Carthage, found
A bull-hide's circuit covered ample ground,
So we, to compass dreams of vaulting pride,
Took but the measure of a single Hyde,
And this luxurious freshness to dispose
Took but the counsel of a single Rose.
So great a prize our ancient merit drew
And brought us to fresh thrones and mansions new.
But will the eighteenth century return
Because we raise a gate or poise an urn?
Will riper spirits, marshalled on our shelves,
In our crude bodies re-create themselves?
In vain we boast to live in Georgian state:
Where's the trim garden, where the massive plate?
Our three gaunt elms will with but scanty leaves
Fan a few summers the overshadowed eaves.
In their fresh paint these battered beams decay
While iron bee-hives rise across the way.
The widow blushes in a bridal veil
But 'neath the rouge her wrinkles tell the tale.
Her the contractor's optimistic mind
Shoves on before, the mucker shoves behind,
Below, the rising tides of Charles invade,
Above, the L's inexorable shade.
Alas, gentility, alas, repose.
Thy quiet annals, rural Cambridge, close.
Oblivious tempests from the east and west
Sweep o'er the poets that in Auburn rest.
Those antique worthies that with shuffling feet
And prayerful eyeballs walked the village street,
Pure hearts, not too encumbered with their freight
Of little burdens to sustain the great.
Then pensive Emerson hushed the zealot's brawl,
Outsoared the creed and recomposed the All;
Then the boy Bryant with grandiloquent breath
Taught the young heart docility to death;
Then Whittier, psalmist to the rustic mind,
Kept the phrase lowly and the message kind;
Then Longfellow, delighting to rehearse
Selected legends in deliberate verse,
Travelled the world with bland and open heart
Till that smooth mirror caught the smile of art;
Then Lowell, too, contrived the civic lay,
If laboured eloquent, if artless gay;
And Norton, last sad relic of the clan,
Joined love of beauty with the love of man.
Kindly procession, honourable sires
Of gracious thoughts, their little light expires.
Their music tinkles cracked and faintly sweet
Like old pianos in some shabby street
Where the poor spinster starves to be genteel
And wheedles passions she could never feel.
Meantime the Book Trade spreads from pole to pole
Smothers the earth in words and rules the soul.
Every fresh morning thirty million reams
Covered with drivel, heralded with screams;
For daily surfeit thirty thousand cooks
Stuffing our stomachs with their half-baked books.
The vice of reading, the awful thirst for ink
Chokes us: all read, but who can speak or think.
To some few grunts the language is confined
And to review reviews exhausts the mind.
Driven, not led, without the boon of light,
We vilely scratch to scratch and write to write.
No master-voice prevails above the crowd.
Omnivorous, blind, ignoble, rash, and loud
The rumbling monster growls a muffled bark
Drags its slow coils and fattens in the dark,
And, big with unimagined arts and creeds,
Writhes in birth pangs, not knowing what it breeds.
New men, new minds, new century, new world!
In what a vortex, masters, are we whirled!
Earth rolls; its gods have suffered overthrow;
The Zodiac makes its round like any show;
Like aeronauts new-launched on ether's stream
The constellations are propelled by steam;
Bright Phoebus, with his cobs at length annoyed,
Rides in his golden bubble through the void;
(Him over Cambridge have I often seen
Blaze like the one and scorch like t'other Greene)
Nor may he hope, exhausted by the race,
For Thetis' bosom, night, and silent space;
Too many shocks have galvanised the air
And every whisper reaches everywhere.
The once serene and infinite inane
Shivers all through -- a neuresthenic brain!
Nor are the heavens only overstrung;
Even on earth, what wonders tie the tongue!
The nations tremble at a Harvard man,
The Hohenzollern turn republican,
A bit of Venice rises in the Hub,
The Signet lounges in the A D Club!
Nothing can stem the universal dance.
The world's a whirling dervish in a trance
That fast and faster plies the whip and prod.
Acceleration is our only God.
Well, let time hasten. Let the past recede.
The wind that rends the petal strews the seed.
Let the hoarse voices of the mighty mob
Drown every echoed song and futile sob.
Endure the deluge. Let each scribbling year
Dump all its rubbish in one marshy mere.
There putrefaction will transmute the mass;
Soon peeps the moss, soon sprouts the blade of grass;
There soon the sea-bird builds among the reeds;
First the coarse poppy buds, then sweeter weeds;
At length a shepherd threads that bosky vale;
Late comes the rose, and last the nightingale.
So from the substance of ignoble things
Rises each vision that the poet sings,
Love out of lust, and friendship out of wine,
And out of death philosophy divine.
Why should thy sodden lump of conscious clay,
Ignorant heart, be fruitful less than they,
Or the quick atoms of the fiery mind
Compose no star, their scattered rays combined?
Out of our common soil and brooding hours
Time, the magician, may evoke new flowers,
And from racked souls in vain ambitions caught
Eternity may call and summon thought.
One of you haply, darling of the Fates,
May reap the harvest -- for the harvest waits.

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