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The Nineteenth Century as a Song

Robert Hass


The Nineteenth Century as a Song

Robert Hass


Poem introduction

This is a poem called 'The Nineteenth Century is a Song' - a sort of fantasia that came to me really from the quotation from a nineteenth century translation of a French poet that is the first line of the poem.

The Nineteenth Century as a Song

The Nineteenth Century as a Song

"How like a well-kept garden is your soul."
John Gray's translation of Verlaine
& Baudelaire's butcher in 1861
shorted him four centimes
on a pound of tripe.
He thought himself a clever man
and, wiping the calves' blood from his beefy hands,
gazed briefly at what Tennyson called
"the sweet blue sky."

It was a warm day.
What clouds there were
were made of sugar tinged with blood.
They shed, faintly, amid the clatter of carriages
new settings of the songs
Moravian virgins sang on wedding days.

The poet is a monarch of the clouds

& Swinburne on his northern coast
"trod," he actually wrote, "by no tropic foot,"
composed that lovely elegy
and then found out Baudelaire was still alive
whom he had lodged dreamily
in a "deep division of prodigious breasts."

Surely the poet is monarch of the clouds.
He hovers, like a lemon-colored kite,
over spring afternoons in the nineteenth century

while Marx in the library gloom
studies the birth rate of the weavers of Tilsit
and that gentle man Bakunin,
home after fingerfucking the countess,
applies his numb hands
to the making of bombs.


from Field Guide (Yale University Press, 1973), copyright © Robert Hass 1973, used by permission of Yale University Press, www.yale.edu.

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