These Dead Are Dead

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, IX:

Now we are back to normal, now the mind is

Back to the even tenor of the usual day

Skidding no longer across the uneasy camber

Of the nightmare way.

We are safe though others have crashed the railings

Over the river ravine; their wheel-tracks carve the bank

But after the event all we can do is argue

And count the widening ripples where they sank.

October comes with rain whipping around the ankles

In waves of white at night

And filling the raw clay trenches (the parks of London

Are a nasty sight).

In a week I return to work, lecturing, coaching,

As impresario of the Ancient Greeks

Who wore the chiton and lived on fish and olives

And talked philosophy or smut in cliques;

Who believed in youth and did not gloze the unpleasant

Consequences of age;

What is life, one said, or what is pleasant

Once you have turned the page

Of love? The days grow worse, the dice are loaded

Against the living man who pays in tears for breath;

Never to be born was the best, call no man happy

This side death.

Conscious — long before Engels — of necessity

And therein free

They plotted out their life with truism and humour

Between the jealous heaven and the callous sea.

And Pindar sang the garland of wild olive

And Alcibiades lived from hand to mouth

Double-crossing Athens, Persia, Sparta,

And many died in the city of plague, and many of drouth

In Sicilian quarries, and many by the spear and arrow

And many more who told their lies too late

Caught in the eternal factions and reactions

Of the city-state.

And free speech shivered on the pikes of Macedonia

And later on the swords of Rome

And Athens became a mere university city

And the goddess born of the foam

Became the kept hetaera, heroine of Menander,

And the philosopher narrowed his focus, confined

His efforts to putting his own soul in order

And keeping a quiet mind.

And for a thousand years they went on talking,

Making such apt remarks,

A race no longer of heroes but of professors

And crooked business men and secretaries and clerks;

Who turned out dapper little elegiac verses

On the ironies of fate, the transience of all

Affections, carefully shunning an over-statement

But working the dying fall.

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it

Page by page

To train the mind or even to point a moral

For the present age:

Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,

The golden mean between opposing ills

Though there were exceptions of course but only exceptions —

The bloody Bacchanals on the Thracian hills.

So the humanist in his room with Jacobean panels

Chewing his pipe and looking on a lazy quad

Chops the Ancient World to turn a sermon

To the greater glory of God.

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple

These dead are dead

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas

I think instead

Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,

The careless athletes and the fancy boys,

The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics

And the Agora and the noise

Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring

Libations over graves

And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly

I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

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