Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tetelestai by Conrad Aiken

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 lips 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?


I have not, as Harold Bloom suggests any lover of poetry should do, memorized many poems. However, I felt compelled to memorize the incredible first stanza of Conrad Aiken's self-elegy "Tetelestai," the remainder of which you can read here. (Being both sound in mind and body, I did it while on the treadmill at the gym.)

I love "Tetelestai" because its strong affirmation of the value of life. Not as cheery as Whitman, yet it has the Whitmanian sense of value in the smallest things, the smallest lives especially:

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?


Reading Whitman often makes me feel like all human life is puppy dogs and buttercups, but "Tetelestai" is truer to my own heart's feeling, that to be a human being is often times a wretched, miserable endeavor. Haven't you felt this way?:

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...


Elsewhere in the poem is a litany of human guilt and impotence:

...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!


And yet, like the sonnet's volta, Aiken declares, "Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust, / The horns of glory blowing above my burial?" Life is mean; life is petty; those of you waiting for it to settle itself into a neat order that exhibits its purpose and its grandeur shall be disappointed in this lifetime. And yet for all that, Aiken tells us, each life is worthwhile, and deserves its own exit music. (And note the little neatness of the "I," which we find twice at the end, the death, of each line...)

The title "Tetelestai" links the speaker with Christ, who speaks these words in the book of John: "It is finished." In the latter stanzas, Aiken makes this comparison explicit, calling himself "[t]he weakling / Who cried his "forsaken!" like Christ on the darkening hilltop!" Unlike "Poem on His Birthday," "I Am," and, to a lesser, or perhaps weirder, extent, "Shadows," I do not think that "Tetelestai" shares a vision of a Christian afterlife. "Press down through the leaves of jasmine," he writes, "Dig through the interlaced roots--nevermore shall you find me; / I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me..." Here death is an eradication.

And yet, by linking himself Christ, Aiken asserts the value of his own life and of others. Whatever Christ may have been, so we are, and whatever his value ours is, too. "Tetelestai," it is finished--but what is finished? For Aiken, the answer is, "something worth celebrating."

1 comment:

Esther said...

Hi Christopher. Poor Conrad Aiken seems to have been somewhat (unjustly!) forgotten in the canon of American literature - don't you think? He is not even included in my penguin 'Book of American Verse' editd by Geoffrey Moore.

I've only just discovered Aiken, through The Biography of Senlin and Tetelestai, but I liked both of these very much and am looking forward to reading more. I like his musicality and the strange, overlapping quality of his images. I've just read a review that argues his diction and style is too imitative of Eliot, Stevens and Pound, and too reliant on poetic the conventions that the modernists were making obsolete. I like to think, though, that Eliot and Stevens, and certainly Aiken are Romantics too, and did not necessarily want to sever themselves from their literary heritage.

Anyway, I'm hoping to do some illustrations of The Biography of Senlin, so looking for other people's opinions and interpretations of it. Do you have any?