Image by Caroline Forbes

Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle

David Gascoyne


Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle

David Gascoyne


Poem introduction

This is a poem dating from 1984.

Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle

Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle

Incessant urging, curt, peremptory:
Write what you will, in verse, or otherwise,
Intelligible, using simple metaphors.
Address a reader not just hypothetical
But flesh and blood in no need of harangues.
The time has come. We're on the very brink
Of what? Can any prophet, true or false,
Make himself heard above the mad uproar
Of all the mingling and ambiguous,
Self-righteous or dismayed denunciations,
Warnings and dire predictions that assail us from
All 'informed sources' media-debased and bent?

- If this is a poem, where are the images?
- What images suffice? Corpses and carrion,
Ubiquitous bloodshed, bigger, more beastly bombs,
Stockpiled atomic warheads, stanchless wounds,
Ruins and rubble, manic messiahs and mobs.
- But poets make beauty out of ghastliness...
- You think I want to? Think truth beautiful?
- 'A terrible beauty is born...' - It is indeed.

In youth I did in spite of everything
Believe with Keats and Shelley such things as
That poets can 'legislate' and prophesy;
Or like Stravinsky when he wrote 'The Rite'
Become transmitting vessels for new sounds
From an inspiring, unknown world within.
I'm over sixty now, my dubious gift has gone,
I can but grope for unexpected similes.
But now as in the 'Thirties I can once again
Feel passion and frustration and that sense
Of expectation, imminence and pressing need
To express something that just must be said.
Mature awareness knows that poetry
Today demands the essence and the minimum;
That only Silence such as God's could say the Whole.
One stark vocabulary at least remains.
The litany of lurid headline-names
Merely to mention which can nag the nerves:
Vietnam, Angola, Thailand and Pakistan,
Chile, Cambodia, Iran, Afghanistan,
Derry's Bogside, Belfast and Crossmaglen;
Up in Strathclyde or down on Porton Down,
On Three Mile Island or in Seveso Italy
Then there are Manson, Pol Pot and Amin,
To name at random just three myth-monsters,
Too many more to mention, all mass- murderers:-
None of them need an adjective and though we're sick
Of being sickened by them they will stay engraved
Or branded on even callous consciences.

And yet I yearn to end by trying to evoke
A summer dawn I saw when I was not yet eight,
And having risen early watched for an hour or more
A transcendental transformation of auroral clouds,
Like a prophetic vision granted from on high.
I cannot see much now. The dawn is always new
As nature is, however much we blind ourselves and try
To poison the Earth-Mother. But an ancient text
Tells of what I believe may happen soon today:
The raven disappears as night draws to its close,
Then as the day approaches the bird flies without wings;
It vomits forth the rainbow and its body becomes red,
And on its back a condensation of pure water forms.
For that which is above is still as that which is below
For the perfecting of the One Thing, which is now
As it shall ever be, World without End, D.V.


from Selected Poems (Enitharmon Press, 1994), copyright © David Gascoyne 1994, used by permission of the Estate of David Gascoyne and the publisher.

Recordings

David Gascoyne Reading from his poems

1Ecce Homo

2Winter Garden

3I.M. Benjamin Fondane

4Apologia

5A Wartime Dawn

6An Elegy

7The Gravel-Pit Field

8The Sacred Hearth

9Lido Gala Fireworks

10Evening Again

11From Night Thoughts

12Half-an-Hour

13A Further Frontier

14Snow in Europe

15November in Devon

16Prelude to a New Fin-de-Siècle