“As for the soul, I tell you what: it’s there, but it’s the mortal part”

From THE PETTY TESTAMENT OF PETER THE CLERK
~ by John Holloway

First, for my body: my will
(Which I now formally declare)
Is, it be stripped of clothes and leather
And, with no fuss, be laid quite bare
Less than a foot below the soil:
To which by action of the weather
It may revert; for it’s no harm
To put things back where they come from.

Item, for my immortal part,
Being unsure of its size and feature,
I leave this question in abeyance,
Till I can better grasp its nature.
But some time after I depart,
Why, go ask at any seance:
If I find I cannot go
To tell you– cadit quaestio.

But I suspect that all this kind
Of talk is upside-down; and when
We die, the immortal body fuses
Into a worm, into a hen,
A root, leaf, blossom– this I find
Likelier than metempsychosis.
As for the soul, I tell you what:
It’s there, but it’s the mortal part.

Item, I now bequeath my wife
All the things no one else will want:
Bits from my pocket, souvenirs, scraps
Of paper, first drafts, things that don’t
Make sense unless you know the life
They fitted in to. Then perhaps,
When you do know, can make the most
Sense, and re-make the meaning best.

And to my children I bequeath
My name; and bid them keep it clean:
Not one half lacquered, one half rust,
Which is, I fear, what I have done,
But keep it trim and tidy with
A modest, half-indifferent trust
In down-to-earth things, common sense,
Just as I hoped I might do, once.

Item, my money, let it go
To those who’ll spend it in one day,
Or those who’ll let the pittance lie,
Thirsting for interest. Either way
It’ll do no harm at all, I know.
Or have it foisted lavishly
On those I hate; and let them fret
All night what they’ll get out of it.

Item, whatever friends I can
Still muster, I leave lonely folk:
Yet doubt that this will serve their ends;
For the blind groping of the root
To find its soil, strikes everyone
At first for lack of, then through friends.
And mine (though I’m glad to call
Them friends) aren’t more than typical.

To poets I leave every work
I have of learning: for the pure
Blaze of the flower, up from the earth
Makes verse. But let them use manure.
Gossip, plain women, drink and smoke,
Will breed, they’ll find, a monstrous birth.
I leave all verse to men of letters:
That they may plainly tell their betters.

To my employers– viz., the State,
I leave this list of the mistakes
That I committed while their clerk:
Only by observing that it makes
A longer list by far than that
Of slips they noticed in my work.
Whence I infer, nosce teipsum …
Of which I think the point escapes ’em.

Now for the sins I must confess:
Fearing infection, I once kept
My clean cat from a filthy child
Who suddenly read my thought, and wept.
Twice, I made love turn lust: as less
Arduous to please, and easier to jilt.
And three times (or maybe oftener still)
Made a good plain man seem a fool.

But I owe a stricter penitence
(Or the trim garden’s rank, unweeded)
That once, for prim convention’s sake,
Like a rat, I slunk from all I needed
Offered in one grave gentle glance:
Although I thought my heart would break.
It didn’t though. And kind Time has
Slobbed it to rights, the way it does.

And now, alas, what is there left
Of all things that once were mine?
For every book and every friend
And every vice and virtue’s gone
Like things left on the beach, that drift
With the blind tide away from land:
Only, I think that it will be
Some little time before I die.

For in my thirtieth year of age,
A boaster and a loud-voiced man
Often enough, I Peter, clerk,
Being none too sound or healthy in
The mind or body, on this page
Thus write my will; and just remark
That when this bitter winter’s gone,
I shall, next year, be thirty-one.

##

Cadit quaestio (literally “The question falls”) means essentially “The matter is resolved” in legal parlance. Nosce te ipsum is translated as “Know thyself” in philosophic literature. Viz. means “Namely” and is an abbreviation used by scholars. Clerk in this poem is pronounced “Clark” in the English way and it rhymes with remark. Clerk here means “Scholar,” in the old medieval sense.

Metempsychosis is the legend that the soul is imprisoned in the body, it is freed after death to commune with immortality for some time, but then it is ultimately transmigrated into a future newborn babe.

John Holloway proposes the opposite. The body is eternal, as it becomes part of the earth. The soul is temporal, and it dies with the brain.

Holloway, a Cambridge scholar, consciously emulates the classic testament poems of Francois Villon in the 1400s, and he uses Villon’s ballade stanzas of eight tetrameter lines. Here they rhyme in an abc-bac-dd pattern.

“The branches hold in the garden their silent, eloquent gestures, which in our case we have not got”

NAMING OF PARTS
~ by Henry Reed

Today we have the naming of the parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this
is the piling swivel,

Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please
do not let me

See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb.
The blossoms

Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards. We call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly
backwards and forwards

The early bees are assaulting and
fumbling the flowers.

They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring– it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb– like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking piece,
and the point of balance,

Which in our case we have not got,
and the almond blossom

Silent in all of the gardens, and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

##

A World War II drill instructor’s presentation is here perceived via the stream of consciousness of a highly distractible, spring-fevered young conscript.

I am reminded of Richard Eberhart’s lines from “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,”….. “They are gone to early death, who late in school distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.”

“Naming Of Parts” is the first of a series from Henry Reed, “Lessons Of The War,” each of the poems based on the drill instructor motif. Reed also adapted “Lessons Of The War” into a radio drama presentation for two voices, which was broadcast by the BBC.

“There is no such thing as the State and no one exists alone”

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
~ by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty Second Street
Uncertain and unafraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives.
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave,
Analyzed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief.
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse.
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream?
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home.
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish.
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart.
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love,
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come
Repeating their morning vow,
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game.
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man in the street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky.
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone.
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police.
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies.
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages.
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show and affirming flame.

##

September 1, 1939 was the date of Nazi Germany’s assault on Poland at the very beginning of World War II. W. H. Auden here sees Adolf Hitler, growing up in Linz, Austria, as developing in the manner of a psychopath and coming to represent the Authoritarian State. The “low dishonest decade,” the 1930s, was a time of emerging dictatorships under Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, et al., as nations struggled with international economic depression and sought desperate remedies in totalitarian statism.

“I’m a crude existential malpractice and you are a diet of worms”

GOD, A POEM
~ by James Fenton

A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You’d thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you’ll get from th’Almighty,
Is all that you’ll get underground.

Oh he said, “If you lay off the crumpet
I’ll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on to the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum, I’m your friend.”

But if you remind him, he’ll tell you,
“I’m sorry, I must have been pissed–
Though your name rings sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.

“I didn’t exist at Creation,
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
I won’t be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud,

“Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.

“You’re a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You’re a drawing pin caught in my sock.
You’re the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I’d have thought would be firm as a rock,

“You’re a serious mistake in a nightie,
You’re a grave disappointment all round,
That’s all that you are,” says th’Almighty,
“And that’s all that you’ll be underground.”

##

Finally God speaks to someone who is not psychotic– and it’s to the very satirical James Fenton.

“Crumpet” is here used as a crude slangy synonym for women. “I’ll see you alright” means I’ll take care of you. A “drawing pin” is a straight pin (used by a draftsman to affix his work to a drafting table.) “Pissed” means drunk in this context, as in “pissed to the gills.” “Sorteriological” means pertaining to matters of salvation. An “existential malpractice” is the attribution of existence to something that cannot be verifiably observed. And “diet of worms” punningly alludes to The Diet Of Worms of 1521, an assembly dealing with Martin Luther’s historic dissent from church doctrine.

“If the Christians felt a little blue– well people being eaten often do”

SUNT LEONES
~ by Stevie Smith

The lions who ate the Christians
on the sands of the arena
By indulging native appetites
played what has now been seen a
Not entirely negligible part
In consolidating at the very start
The position of the Early Christian Church.
Initiatory rites are always bloody
And the lions, it appears
From contemporary art, made a study
Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy
Liturgically sacrificial hue
And if the Christians felt a little blue–
Well people being eaten often do.
Theirs was the death and theirs the crown undying,
A state of things which must be satisfying.
My point upon this which has been obscured
Is that it was the lions who procured
By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone
The martyrdoms on which the Church has grown.
I only write this poem because
I thought it rather looked
As if the part the lions played
was being overlooked.
By lions’ jaws great benefits
and blessings were begotten
And so our debt to Lionhood
must never be forgotten.

##

After reading though this and many other whimsies by Florence Margaret Smith, I feel Ogden Nash must certainly have read every word of hers. Her Latin title translates as “There be lions.”

“I’ve no idea what this acoutered frowsty barn is worth”

CHURCH GOING
~ by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church. Matting, seats, and stone,
And little books. Sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now. Some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end. The small neat organ.
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new–
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know, I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did. In fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for, wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What shall we turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone,
Pick simples for a cancer, or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random.
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
The place for what it was? One of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood lofts were?
Some ruin bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas addict, counting on a whiff
Of gowns and bands and organ pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation– marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these– for whom was built
This special shell? For though I’ve no idea
What this acoutered frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here.

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

##

This is very much Philip Larkin’s own Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard for the mid-twentieth century, a pivotal masterpiece lamenting the loss of simple faith. Faith had once defined our communities, and it’s now replaced by science, also by social science, and by the use of secular powers, corporate and governmental.

“Not silken dress but toil shall tire thy loveliness”

from TWO SONGS
~ by Cecil Day Lewis

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment shall afford.

I’ll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer frocks.
At evening by the sour canals
We’ll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain. Not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone.
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

##

A dockworker replaces Christopher Marlowe’s shepherd in this 1930s proletarian version of a pastoral lyric. Polluted canals replace freshwater brooks. Reading a magazine full of ads for unaffordably expensive dresses replaces a beautiful handmade kyrtle. Juxebox noise replaces ancient madrigals.

When Cecil Day Lewis uses the the line, “Not silken dress but toil shall tire thy loveliness,” he is playing upon the idiom of Marlowe’s era when “tire” would mean “to attire.” The backstage area where Marlowe’s actors put on their costumes was the “tiring house.”