Reading: A Dirge by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an American poet and Trappist monk in Kentucky who published over 70 books including a very popular autobiography. I selected a poem about the victims of war (Merton was a social activist) because I like its powerful language:

A dirge
Some one who hears the bugle neigh will know
How cold it is when sentries die by starlight.

But none who love to hear the hammering drum
Will look, when the betrayer
Laughs in the desert like a broken monument,
Ringing his tongue in the red bell of his head,
Gesturing like a flag.

The air that quivered after the earthquake
(When God died like a thief)
Still plays the ancient forums like pianos;
The treacherous wind, lover of the demented,
Will harp forever in the haunted temples.

What speeches do the birds make
With their beaks, to the desolate dead?
And yet we love those carsick amphitheaters,
Nor hear our Messenger come home from hell
With hands shot full of blood.

No one who loves the fleering fife will feel
The light of morning stab his flesh,
But some who hear the trumpet’s raving, in the ruined sky,
Will dread the burnished helmet of the sun,
Whose anger goes before the King.

I’ve read the graphic and concise World War One poems by Sassoon and Owen. Here is something else, something that feels like Ginsberg, expressionist, intangible. When those veterans where in the trenches, Mr. Merton lied in diapers. Still, his dirge is haunting. I like the opening sentences that strikes me like something translated from old Latin. To hear the bugle neigh, the Bard would be proud.

The structure of the poem is obvious: Each stanza begins with a sound and the final lines are an exception. The sky is ruined and the sun is a helmet, or, war is everything. And who is the King? It must be God, or His reincarnation after He died a few stanzas up. The angry sun, the natural world, must answer to the King. There is still some higher principle, some sense of right and wrong, although we can’t be sure about which is which. Anyway, I find this a difficult poem to dissect.

The betrayer is ignored by the faithful marching soldiers. Who cares about his flagness? Perhaps the betrayer is left to die in the desert and every stanza describes a different death to go with its opening sound?
The earthquake victims’ temples are still haunted by the treacherous wind. God died ‘like a thief’ reminds me of the great earthquake of Lisboa and its effects on the theodicy (Voltaire’s Pangloss).

We don’t hear our Messenger come home from hell? Hello, Jesus with your hands full of blood. I have the feeling that I am still missing something here. What could it be?

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