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Archibald MacLeish

Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) was an American poet, playwright and Librarian of Congress (1939-1944). He was also a speechwriter for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a statesman in his administration, serving as Director of the War Department's Office of Facts and Figures (1941), Assistant Director of the Office of War Information (1942-1943) and Assistant Secretary of State (1944-45). During his long writing career MacLeish received three Pulitzer Prizes: two for poetry and one for drama. He also won a National Book Award for poetry, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, a Tony Award for Best Play (J.B.), an Academy Award for Documentary Feature (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story), and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. MacLeish also served as an editor of Harvard Law Review, New Republic and Fortune magazine.

MacLeish's best-known poem, "Ars Poetica," contains a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic: "A poem should not mean / But be." But later in life he broke with modernism's insistence on "art for the sake of art." MacLeish himself was deeply involved in public life: he was one of the better anti-war poets and he actively opposed fascism, communism, the excesses of capitalism, and McCarthyism. MacLeish came to believe that being a social activist was "not only an appropriate but an inevitable role for a poet."

How did MacLeish reconcile his anti-war poetry with his jobs at government propaganda outlets? MacLeish said that he "detested" some of the propaganda issued, but he considered it a necessary evil when the nation was at war. In his "Invocation to the Social Muse," MacLeish refers to poets as "whores" who follow competing army camps and will sleep with either side, and thus with people of opposing views. He furthmore claims that "The rules permit them to further the business of neither." And he concludes the poem by asking rhetorically, "Is it just to demand of us also to bear arms?"

Hypocrite Auteur

mon semblable, mon frère

Our epoch takes a voluptuous satisfaction
In that perspective of the action
Which pictures us inhabiting the end
Of everything with death for only friend.

Not that we love death,
Not truly, not the fluttering breath,
The obscene shudder of the finished act—
What the doe feels when the ultimate fact
Tears at her bowels with its jaws.

Our taste is for the opulent pause
Before the end comes. If the end is certain
All of us are players at the final curtain:
All of us, silence for a time deferred,
Find time before us for one sad last word.
Victim, rebel, convert, stoic—
Every role but the heroic—
We turn our tragic faces to the stalls
To wince our moment till the curtain falls.

A world ends when its metaphor has died.

An age becomes an age, all else beside,
When sensuous poets in their pride invent
Emblems for the soul’s consent
That speak the meanings men will never know
But man-imagined images can show:
It perishes when those images, though seen,
No longer mean.

A world was ended when the womb
Where girl held God became the tomb
Where God lies buried in a man:
Botticelli’s image neither speaks nor can
To our kind. His star-guided stranger
Teaches no longer, by the child, the manger,
The meaning of the beckoning skies.

Sophocles, when his reverent actors rise
To play the king with bleeding eyes,
No longer shows us on the stage advance
God’s purpose in the terrible fatality of chance.

No woman living, when the girl and swan
Embrace in verses, feels upon
Her breast the awful thunder of that breast
Where God, made beast, is by the blood confessed.

Empty as conch shell by the waters cast
The metaphor still sounds but cannot tell,
And we, like parasite crabs, put on the shell
And drag it at the sea’s edge up and down.

This is the destiny we say we own.

But are we sure
The age that dies upon its metaphor
Among these Roman heads, these mediaeval towers,
Is ours?—
Or ours the ending of that story?
The meanings in a man that quarry
Images from blinded eyes
And white birds and the turning skies
To make a world of were not spent with these
Abandoned presences.

The journey of our history has not ceased:
Earth turns us still toward the rising east,
The metaphor still struggles in the stone,
The allegory of the flesh and bone
Still stares into the summer grass
That is its glass,
The ignorant blood
Still knocks at silence to be understood.

Poets, deserted by the world before,
Turn round into the actual air:
Invent the age! Invent the metaphor!

Memorial Rain: for Kenneth MacLeish

Ambassador Puser the ambassador
Reminds himself in French, felicitous tongue,
What these (young men no longer) lie here for
In rows that once, and somewhere else, were young . . .

All night in Brussels the wind had tugged at my door:
I had heard the wind at my door and the trees strung
Taut, and to me who had never been before
In that country it was a strange wind, blowing
Steadily, stiffening the walls, the floor,
The roof of my room. I had not slept for knowing
He too, dead, was a stranger in that land
And felt beneath the earth in the wind’s flowing
A tightening of roots and would not understand,
Remembering lake winds in Illinois,
That strange wind. I had felt his bones in the sand

. . . Reflects that these enjoy
Their country’s gratitude, that deep repose,
That peace no pain can break, no hurt destroy,
That rest, that sleep . . .

At Ghent the wind rose.
There was a smell of rain and a heavy drag
Of wind in the hedges but not as the wind blows
Over fresh water when the waves lag
Foaming and the willows huddle and it will rain:
I felt him waiting.

. . . Indicates the flag
Which (may he say) enisles
1 in Flanders plain
This little field these happy, happy dead
Have made America . . .

In the ripe grain
The wind coiled glistening, darted, fled,
Dragging its heavy body: at Waereghem
The wind coiled in the grass above his head:
Waiting—listening . . .

. . . Dedicates to them
This earth their bones have hallowed, this last gift
A grateful country . . .

Under the dry grass stem
The words are blurred, are thickened, the words sift
Confused by the rasp of the wind, by the thin grating
Of ants under the grass, the minute shift
And tumble of dusty sand separating
From dusty sand. The roots of the grass strain,
Tighten, the earth is rigid, waits—he is waiting—
And suddenly, and all at once, the rain!

The Silent Slain

We too, we too, descending once again
The hills of our own land, we too have heard
Far off―Ah, que ce cor a longue haleine―
The horn of Roland in the passages of Spain,
the first, the second blast, the failing third,
And with the third turned back and climbed once more
The steep road southward, and heard faint the sound
Of swords, of horses, the disastrous war,
And crossed the dark defile at last, and found
At Roncevaux upon the darkening plain
The dead against the dead and on the silent ground
The silent slain―

The Thrush in the Gaelic Islands

for my Gaelic son

By the sea loch the island cattle,
auctioned off for overseas,
shriek in their frantic pens in the late
light and the thrush answers:

pure song
perfect indifference like the will of God.

I am remembering something . . . No,
not remembering: my father told me:
Years ago in the highlands, the Hebrides,

landlords cleared the land for sheep.
There were ships on the sea, weeping children.

Afterward a man could walk
from Northbay over Barra clear to the
far side and the crofts empty,
the dogs running in and out of the open doors

and the thrush sang.

Dozing On The Lawn

I fall asleep these days too easily―
doze off of an afternoon
in the warm sun by the humming trees―
but I wake too soon:

wake too soon and wake afraid
of the blinding sun, of the blazing sky.
It was dark in the dream where I was laid:
It is dark in the earth where I will lie.

You, Andrew Marvell

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
high through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on...

The Old Gray Couple

They have only to look at each other to laugh–
no one knows why, not even they:
something back in the lives they’ve lived,
something they both remember but no words can say.

They go off at an evening’s end to talk
but they don’t, or to sleep but they lie awake–
hardly a word, just a touch, just near,
just listening but not to hear.

Everything they know they know together–
everything, that is, but one:
their lives they’ve learned like secrets from each other;
their deaths they think of the in the nights alone.

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit

As old medallions to the thumb

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

A poem should not mean
But be

Reproach to Dead Poets

You who have spoken words in the earth,
You have broken the silence,
Sayers in all lands to all peoples,
Writers in candle soot on the skins
Of rams for those who come after you,
Echoed at night in the arched doors,
And at noon in the shadow of fig trees,
Hear me!
Were there not
Were there not words to tell with?
Were there not leaf sounds in the mouths
Of women from over-sea, and a call
Of birds on the lips of the children of strangers?
Were there not words in all languages—
In many tongues the same thing differently,
The name cried out, Thalassa! the sea!
The Sea!
The sun and moon character representing
Brightness, the night sound of the wind for
Always, for ever and ever, the verb
Created after the speech of crickets—
Were there not words to tell with?
                                        —to tell
What lands these are:
                                  What are these
Lights though the night leaves and these voices
Crying among us as winds rise,

Or whence, of what race we are that dwell with them?
Were there not words to tell with,
you that have told
The kings' names and the hills remembered for battles?

Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered:
These were lies.

The words sound but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone―and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore I will not praise your knees nor your fine walking
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young, and your arms straight, and your mouth scarlet:
I shall say you will die and none will remember you:
Your arms change, and none remember the swish of your garments,
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hand's strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste
Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.

(What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost
Or a dead man's voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most)

Therefore I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I will say you were young and straight and your skin fair
And you stood in the door and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders
And a leaf on your hair―

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!


The star dissolved in evening—the one star
The silently
                   and night O soon now, soon
And still the light now
                                    and still now the large
                     and through the pools of blue
Still, still the swallows
                                       and a wind now
                                                            and the tree
Gathering darkness:
                              I was small. I lay
Beside my mother on the grass, and sleep

          slow hooves and dripping with the dark
The velvet muzzles, the white feet that move
In a dream water
                        and O soon now soon
Sleep and the night.

                              And I was not afraid.
Her hand lay over mine. Her fingers knew
Darkness,—and sleep—the silent lands, the far
Far off of morning where I should awake.


The incoherent rushing of the train
Dulls like a drugged pain

To an ether throbbing of inaudible drums

Hush within hush until the night withholds

Only its darkness.
                            From the deep
Dark a voice calls like a voice in sleep

Slowly a strange name in a strange tongue.


The sleeping listeners a sound
As leaves stir faintly on the ground

When snow falls from a windless sky—
A stir    A sigh

The Rock in the Sea

Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?

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