52 Poems, Week 39: Epistle To Be Left In the Earth (Archibald MacLeish)
EPISTLE TO BE LEFT IN THE EARTH
...It is colder now,
there are many stars,
we are drifting
North by the Great Bear,
the leaves are falling,
The water is stone in the scooped rocks,
Red sun grey air:
the crows are
Slow on their crooked wings,
the jays have left us:
Long since we passed the flares of Orion.
Each man believes in his heart he will die.
Many have written last thoughts and last letters.
None know if our deaths are now or forever:
None know if this wandering earth will be found.
We lie down and the snow covers our garments.
I pray you,
you (if any open this writing)
Make in your mouths the words that were our names.
I will tell you all we have learned,
I will tell you everything:
The earth is round,
there are springs under the orchards,
The loam cuts with a blunt knife,
Elms in thunder,
the lights in the sky are stars——
We think they do not see,
we think also
The trees do not know nor the leaves of the grasses hear us:
The birds too are ignorant.
Do not listen.
Do not stand at dark in the open windows.
We before you have heard this:
they are voices:
They are not words at all but the wind rising.
Also none among us has seen God.
(...We have thought often
The flaws of sun in the late and driving weather
Pointed to one tree but it was not so.)
As for the nights I warn you the nights are dangerous:
The wind changes at night and the dreams come.
It is very cold,
there are strange stars near Arcturus,
Voices are crying an unknown name in the sky
I can't say that I have the formatting and punctuation of this poem correct. As far as I remember I don't have it in any of my books, and I don't want to take time to search. So I looked for it online, and found several versions. Some did not have the indentation as I have it here, and I vaguely (very vaguely) recall that it looked something like this when I first encountered it in a high school textbook. I decided to use this copy.
I doubt that MacLeish's reputation is very high these days, and I think he wrote a lot of poetry that was mediocre or worse. But I thought this one was haunting and beautiful and fascinating when I read it in that textbook. As far as I can remember I hadn't read it since then and am pleased to find that it's as good as I recall. Maybe better, never mind that it's full of physical impossibilities. I was very much into science fiction at that age, and this is a somewhat science-fiction-y poem. That was certainly some of its appeal for me at age sixteen or whatever it was. I think there is a sci-fi novel called The Lights In the Sky Are Stars.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.
Thanks for sharing this. MacLeish is the first living poet that I recall encountering (not in person but in a TV interview). I went into the den and my father was watching Educational TV (I think this was before it became PBS). There were two men sitting in folding chairs in conversation. My dad told me, "That's Archibald MacLeish." There was something about the way my dad enunciated his name that let me know that this was someone to listen to. I was only 10 or 12 years old at the time, but much later, remembering his name, I found a book of his poetry in the library. Then as an adult, I went to see a local production of his play, JB (a modern re-telling of the story of Job).
Posted by: Charles Kinnaird | 09/27/2018 at 01:51 PM
Glad you like it. I read JB a long time ago and was not real impressed with it. I don't know what I'd think now. There are a couple of other short poems that I know and love, though: "You, Andrew Marvell" and "Ars Poetica."
Oh yeah, "ETV"--I remember it well.
Posted by: Mac | 09/27/2018 at 03:05 PM
"It is very cold,
there are strange stars near Arcturus,"
Do you pronounce the first "c" in Arcturus.
I wouldn't have really thought of the sci-fi aspect, but I see it.
I like the feel of the poem.
I saw a production of JB once and it was really awful. It may be because it was a high school production--I went because the wife was the daughter of a friend. It seems like a really bad choice for a high school play.
Posted by: Janet | 09/28/2018 at 01:44 PM
I pronounce the "c" but I don't know if that's correct or not.
The sci-fi aspect seems to be that the earth has been knocked out of its orbit somehow and set adrift. At least that's what I always thought it meant. But all that about drifting "north by the Great Bear" and passing the flares of Orion is pretty much nonsense, like the attack ships on fire in the Blade Runner speech. To start with, all life on earth would be wiped out pretty soon, certainly before the planet got as far as Jupiter on its way out of the solar system. And of course "Orion" is something that exists only from our perspective--the stars that make it up are actually vast distances from each other.
Sometimes I hate my "that couldn't actually happen" voice of reason.
Posted by: Mac | 09/28/2018 at 06:09 PM
I thought, I still think that it has to do with the constellations that are in the sky during winter.
The "c" question was in reference to Craig's blog post. :-)
Posted by: Janet Cupo | 09/28/2018 at 08:52 PM
But "None know if this wandering earth will be found". It's really not clear.
Posted by: Mac | 09/29/2018 at 08:50 AM
I see. Yes.
Posted by: Janet | 09/29/2018 at 09:20 AM
It's odd, really. It's not like he was writing before we knew about interstellar distances and such. Oh well, he made a good poem out of the idea, which my skepticism would not have allowed me to do, even if I'd had the ability.
Posted by: Mac | 09/29/2018 at 10:28 AM
A footnote to the previous discussion: the sci-fi novel in question was written by Frederic Brown. It was published in 1952 , when I was 15. I think it was the first time I really understood that book-titles can be searchlights in the dark. I was entranced when I realized that this line from Archibald Macleish’s poem “Epistle to be left in the earth” meant that another sentient creature had been moved enough by the string of seven monosyllables to savor ir, save it, and send it out into his own dark expanse of space. I guess MacLeish wasn’t a great poet, but he was a good enough one to recognize that those words vibrate like a bell and were worth putting down. We all go into the dark . . .
Posted by: Roger Downey | 11/28/2019 at 07:16 PM
Thank you. It seems the book still has enough of a following to have a Goodreads entry:
"It is the future; the year is 1997. Humanity reached Mars in 1964, five years ahead of its schedule for the first lunar landing, but space exploration came to a halt after reaching Venus...."
Those were the days.
The sentence ("The lights...") is really a remarkable demonstration of the way poetry works. It's absolutely simple in every way, yet it's true poetry.
Posted by: Mac | 11/28/2019 at 08:18 PM
I just put it on hold. It's coming from one of our partner libraries which means it could take a long time to get it.
Posted by: Janet | 11/29/2019 at 10:45 PM
I'm slightly surprised that you want to read it. Doesn't seem like your cup of tea especially, and a fair proportion of the Goodreads reviews are pretty dismissive.
Posted by: Mac | 11/30/2019 at 09:38 AM
Posted by: Janet | 11/30/2019 at 03:20 PM
I love this poem. It evokes a feeling of unease when I read it. I understand the sci-fi link. I always imagine the poem is set in future where everything has changed.
Some of my favourite parts:
“I pray you,
you (if any open this writing)
Make in your mouths the words that were our names.”
“Do not stand at dark in the open windows.”
Thanks for sharing this brilliant poem.
Posted by: Jonathan | 05/28/2022 at 09:01 PM
“The wind changes at night, and the dreams come” has always haunted me. You’re welcome.
Posted by: Mac | 05/29/2022 at 08:14 AM
How odd that almost everyone on this thread emphasizes the sci-fi aspect of the poem, and the reality or unreality of the details. To me, every great poem is great because it is a metaphor for something beyond itself, and every reader gets to decide what it means to them. That's what I think of as "numinous." Sometimes you don't actually get the metaphor until you're old. But there is something here that grabbed me when I was 20, and that woke me up last night at age 75.
Posted by: Carla Rabinowitz | 02/02/2023 at 10:41 AM
Looking over the comments, I don't think your "almost everyone" remark is quite fair. But that's ok, I'm glad you like the poem.
Posted by: Mac | 02/02/2023 at 12:25 PM