In 1968, the most miserable year of my life, I was teaching at Spalding, my first year there. Students were riotous all day every day. I was living in Morton with two guys who were users in every sense of the world, miserable excuses for friends.
Nixon had just been elected & I put away my Yellow Submarine button for, as it turned out, 40 years and nearly two months. All my friends from Marquette, especially Jo, and Peoria were dispersed hither and yon: to Madison, to Vietnam, to the county hospital in Milwaukee, to New York.
To cheer myself up, I’d turn out all the lights, crack a quart of Pabst and listen to CAEDMON TREASURY OF MODERN POETS READING THEIR WORKS, beginning with THE WASTE LAND and T.S. Eliots’ sepulchral tones: “The Burial of the Dead. April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…”
One poem by Conrad Aiken knocked me out & I wanted to teach it but didn’t know what the title meant. So I looked Aiken up in WHO’S WHO & sent him a letter.
And so Conrad Aiken wrote me in 1968 in Morton explaining the title and thanking me much for sending him a 22-year-old’s fan mail as he endured the suffering of age & neared his own ‘Tetelestai’ point.
“Here you are,” he wrote, “22 years old, full of vigor, and here I am, 60 years older, falling over furniture and you send me this note about a poem I wrote when I was 22 years old. Your letter did me a world of good. Bless you for it.”
“Tetélestai” is also a poem by Conrad Aiken, reflecting on the unrealized hopes of the dead, and calling out in their voice to recognize that every person struggles, every person fails, and yet every person deserves honor in death.
How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead,
The great man humbled, the haughty brought to dust?
Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?
I am no king, have laid no kingdoms waste,
Taken no princes captive, led no triumphs
Of weeping women through long walls of trumpets;
Say rather, I am no one, or an atom;
Say rather, two great gods, in a vault of starlight,
Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end
One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor
And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece
Forgotten there, left motionless, is I…
Say that I have no name, no gifts, no power,
Am only one of millions, mostly silent;
One who came with eyes and hands and a heart,
Looked on beauty, and loved it, and then left it.
Say that the fates of time and space obscured me,
Led me a thousand ways to pain, bemused me,
Wrapped me in ugliness; and like great spiders
Dispatched me at their leisure… Well, what then?
Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust,
The horns of glory blowing above my burial?
Morning and evening opened and closed above me:
Houses were built above me; trees let fall
Yellowing leaves upon me, hands of ghosts;
Rain has showered its arrows of silver upon me
Seeking my heart; winds have roared and tossed me;
Music in long blue waves of sound has borne me
A helpless weed to shores of unthought silence;
Time, above me, within me, crashed its gongs
Of terrible warning, sifting the dust of death;
And here I lie. Blow now your horns of glory
Harshly over my flesh, you trees, you waters!
You stars and suns, Canopus, Deneb, Rigel,
Let me, as I lie down, here in this dust,
Hear, far off, your whispered salutation!
Roar now above my decaying flesh, you winds,
Whirl out your earth-scents over this body, tell me
Of ferns and stagnant pools, wild roses, hillsides!
Anoint me, rain, let crash your silver arrows
On this hard flesh! I am the one who named you,
I lived in you, and now I die in you.
I your son, your daughter, treader of music,
Lie broken, conquered… Let me not fall in silence.
I, the restless one; the circler of circles;
Herdsman and roper of stars, who could not capture
The secret of self; I who was tyrant to weaklings,
Striker of children; destroyer of women; corrupter
Of innocent dreamers, and laugher at beauty; I,
Too easily brought to tears and weakness by music,
Baffled and broken by love, the helpless beholder
Of the war in my heart of desire with desire, the struggle
Of hatred with love, terror with hunger; I
Who laughed without knowing the cause of my laughter, who grew
Without wishing to grow, a servant to my own body;
Loved without reason the laughter and flesh of a woman,
Enduring such torments to find her! I who at last
Grow weaker, struggle more feebly, relent in my purpose,
Choose for my triumph an easier end, look backward
At earlier conquests; or, caught in the web, cry out
In a sudden and empty despair, ‘Tetélestai!’
Pity me, now! I, who was arrogant, beg you!
Tell me, as I lie down, that I was courageous.
Blow horns of victory now, as I reel and am vanquished.
Shatter the sky with trumpets above my grave.
…Look! this flesh how it crumbles to dust and is blown!
These bones, how they grind in the granite of frost and are nothing!
This skull, how it yawns for a flicker of time in the darkness,
Yet laughs not and sees not! It is crushed by a hammer of sunlight,
And the hands are destroyed… Press down through the leaves of the jasmine,
Dig through the interlaced roots — nevermore will you find me;
I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me…
Take the soft dust in your hand — does it stir: does it sing?
Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun?
Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble
In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?…
Listen! …It says: ‘I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart! …Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent.’
Listen again! …It says: ‘I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand?
But tomorrow, perhaps… I will wait and endure till tomorrow!’…
Or again: ‘It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence… Tetélestai!…’
Hear how it babbles! — Blow the dust out of your hand,
With its voices and visions, tread on it, forget it, turn homeward
With dreams in your brain… This, then, is the humble, the nameless, —
The lover, the husband and father, the struggler with shadows,
The one who went down under shoutings of chaos, the weakling
Who cried his ‘forsaken!’ like Christ on the darkening hilltop!…
This, then, is the one who implores, as he dwindles to silence,
A fanfare of glory… And which of us dares to deny him?