They Had No Poet

"Vain was the chief's, the sage's pride!
They had no poet and they died."
-- POPE.

    BY Tigris, or the streams of Ind,
         Ere Colchis rose, or Babylon,
    Forgotten empires dreamed and sinned,
         Setting tall towns against the dawn,

    Which, when the proud Sun smote upon,
         Flashed fire for fire and pride for pride;
    Their names were . . . Ask oblivion! . .
         "They had no poet, and they died."

    Queens, dusk of hair and tawny-skinned,
         That loll where fellow leopards fawn . . .
    Their hearts are dust before the wind,
         Their loves, that shook the world, are wan!

    Passion is mighty . . . but, anon,
         Strong Death has Romance for his bride;
    Their legends . . . Ask oblivion! . . .
         "They had no poet, and they died."

    Heroes, the braggart trumps that dinned
         Their futile triumphs, monarch, pawn,
    Wild tribesmen, kingdoms disciplined,
         Passed like a whirlwind and were gone;

    They built with bronze and gold and brawn,
         The inner Vision still denied;
    Their conquests . . . Ask oblivion! . . .
         "They had no poet, and they died."

    Dumb oracles, and priests withdrawn,
         Was it but flesh they deified?
    Their gods were . . . Ask oblivion! . . .
         "They had no poet, and they died."

    Don Marquis (1878-1937)

Don Marquis is best remembered for his satirical prose filled with the kind of insight one usually associates with humorists like Mark Twain. He first became successful with his column The Sun Dial which he began writing in 1912 in the New York Sun. Before his creation of the character archy the cockroach a verse libre bard and his unlikely pal mehitabel an alley cat who was once Cleopatra, Marquis wrote some very good poetry.

This one is based on a line in Pope's Iliad, which Marquis uses as an epigraph. An iconoclastic observation on pretensions, politics, and our place in the cosmos with a hint of irony where men are the subjects of the whims of oblivion instead of the Fates because "They had no poet, and they died." It's from Marquis' 1915 book. Dreams and Dust.


Blair, Bob:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

CST Approved.

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