Sonnet: England in 1819
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1922)
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who
Through public scorn,–mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless–a book sealed;
A Senate, Time’s worst statute unrepealed,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Not much has changed in 200 years. “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know” is the exact same disenfranchisement millions around the globe have felt in the protests following George Floyd’s murder. It in no way excuses the vandalism, looting and burning of buildings that are largely small business owners and community resources. More violence won’t move us forward. Change is going to have to come from soul searching and willingness to reinvent ourselves as a society where inclusion and common goals might mean real equity and freedom comes at the cost of some having less so that as a whole we have more.
In searching for poetry that helps me process what has played out in the past 10 days, poetry that bridges the impassioned, courageous, realistic and hopeful with anger and righteous indignation, I stumbled across this poem by Frank Yerby, a writer known more for his novels than poetry. I was struck by the poem below. The third stanza speaks to me. I think many of our brains have been boiling with injustice and insanity.
Yerby has the distinction of being the first African American author to reach 1 million sales mark in 1946 with his southern historical romance novel, The Foxes of Harrow. In all he wrote 33 novels, many of them historical fiction and romances. Yerby would break another barrier in 1946, when he became the first African-American to have a book purchased for screen adaptation by a Hollywood studio. 20th Century Fox optioned Foxes and the film of the same name was released in 1947 starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara.
I really enjoyed Yerby’s poem The Fishes and The Poet’s Hands. There is a lot going on in it. The gruesome description of Shelley’s funeral pyre, contrasted with the brutality of racism and state sanctioned violence against African Americans is striking. The poem builds across the three stanzas. I agree, that this is not a time for “pretty rhyming words.” But resilience comes in some part from finding modest continuity in the midst of choas; the cup of tea brewed on the battle field, a willingness to find civility in the middle of barbarity. Call me shallow, but I’ll continue enjoying a little rhyming poetry, despite the more weighty problems facing my community, simply to renew my sense of hope, that there is still beauty in the world and art and words. And even if in the end the battle between the elite and the oppressed has not changed in 200 years, we can do our best to move forward and keep hope alive through art.
The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands
by Frank Yerby
They say that when they burned young Shelley’s corpse
(For he was drowned, you know, and washed ashore
With hands and face quite gone—the fishes had,
It seems, but small respect for Genius which
Came clothed in common flesh) the noise his brains
Made as they boiled and seethed within his skull
Could well be heard five yards away. At least
No one can hear mine as they boil; but then
He could not feel his burn; and so I think
He had the best of it at that. Don’t you?
Now all the hungry broken men stand here
Beside my bed like ghosts and cry: “Why don’t
You shout our wrong aloud? Why are you not
Our voice, our sword? For you are of our blood:
You’ve seen us beaten, lynched, degraded, starved;
Men must be taught that other men are not
Mere pawns in some gigantic game in which
The winner takes the gold, the land, the work,
The breath, the heart, and soul of him who loses!”
I watch them standing there until my brain
Begins to burn within my head again—
(As Shelley’s burned—poor, young dead Shelley whom
The fishes ate) then I get up and write
A very pretty sonnet, nicely rhymed
About my latest love affair, how sad
I am because some dear has thrown me for
A total loss. (But Shelley had me there,
All his affairs turned out quite well indeed;
Harriet in the river drowned for love
Of him; and Mary leaving Godwin’s house
To follow where he led—quite well—indeed!)
You see this is ironical and light
Because I am so sick, so hurt inside,
I’m tired of pretty rhyming words when all
The land where I was born is soaked in tears
And blood, and black and utter hopelessness.
Now I would make a new, strong, bitter song,
And hurl it in the teeth of those I hate—
I would stand tall and proud against their blows,
Knowing I could not win, I would go down
Grandly as an oak goes down, and leave
An echo of the crash, at least, behind.
(So Shelley lived — and so at last, he died.
The fishes ate his glorious hands; and all
That mighty bulk of brain boiled when they burned him!)