CANTO V: THE GREATEST WAR
Our Sky was scarlet with the falling sun,
and, like an under-storm, the far-off fields
of cloud were curdling into darkness: bleak
and ominous, congealed from cirrus vales
to whipped-up thunderheads—on which Earth marched
to wreck Elysium. In rows now—millions—
countless divisions phalanxed forth, and loomed
their creeping pestilence or insect swarm
like locust-shadows on a harvest Heaven.
And all was hatred and a jaundiced pride
within the faith of men.
But God stood firm;
His Face: a statue-still, aura undimmed…
with all those myriad battalions
of suits and dresses, uniforms and ties
treading Transcendence blithely, careless, wise,
Jehovah as a blinding L I G H T ascends…
All looked in awe, amazed and terrified…
when now, He breaks to brightness—cosmic Light
beamed out, in all directions—endless, sky-filled
(the way a quasar’s gobbled gas and cloud
spew forth the laser of a billion suns
from a black hole)—then summoned Angels to Him
Multitude on multitude, up they come!
conjoining arches: arms in vortex swirls
churning in flight—like countless flocks of birds
arising from a cityscape, in arcs
that round the Godhead, Circle after Circle—
He, in the Angel-hurricane: The Eye
(as if tipped cyclones circumscribed). And all
around, bright swarming Seraphim, in rings,
chant haunting Hallelujahs to the LORD…
Earth’s armies slowed, and, coming to a halt,
gazed up in awe and horror at the sight
of T H E E M P Y R E A N now formed. The Dawn,
still sinking through the heavens, now was blocked
completely by revolving of the Hosts,
and darkness—like cloud on the clouds—cast shade
where Holy Light fell shadowed to a form.
The welkin pulsed.
Deep rumbles in the mist
troubled the sky, like seismic pangs—and air,
the air itself, buzzed nervous like a flame
as the weird songs of the Seraphic gyre
groaned from the Wheel like a hypnotic dirge
and frighted all Elysium.
the Holy Will of God at core conveys
what acts He’d see accomplished by His Prince
of Angels—Michael (swirling innermost)—
and what decrees of Providence performed
to exorcize rebellion from mankind.
These deep directives (learned like whispered thought)
thus treasured up, he doesn’t disobey—
but breaks the swiftest orbit of the Rose,
and hurtles spark-like from the swirling Blaze
a meteoric Angel—to the front.
Just like an osprey, when it eyes its aim
in subtle lakebeds far below, and dives
sheer down in falling flight until it arcs
the swift parabola of its descent
at watertop (to tear a fish away
in talons, glistening)—like that, the Seraph,
plummeting down, turned up his feathered sails
to catch the air, and eased his lightning-fall
to foggy ground, and foggy plumes of vale…
Mankind just watched, standing unsure in hordes
as the Archangel, fanning forth his wings,
erects himself in towered might before them,
flushed with divinity—and brandishing
a sacred saber from its sheath:
he bellowed—once the murmurs of the crowd
(which stretched from Faust and Job through regiments
into horizons of the heavens) lowered
to hear the messenger: a silhouette
of Herculean strength and dactyl feathers
before the fiery circuit of the LORD.
“BEHOLD” He flares again. “YOU HAVE TRANSGRESSED!
AND COME TOO NEAR A HOLINESS WHICH MAN
CANNOT ENDURE. RETURN, AND PRAY HIS GRACE
ABSOLVE YOU OF THIS PRIMAL BLASPHEMY.”
He glowed a radiant crimson at the last—
like embers or the dry, red heat of coal:
“GO! FOR THE PLACE ON WHICH YOU STAND ACCUSED
IS HOLY GROUND!”
at which the Seraph rose
into the air with billow-beats of wing
and clutched his monstrous saber savagely.
But Faust was uninspired…
And so, one gaze
upon his fleet he cast… another back
to Michael… out he draws a pistol, cocks,
then blows the brain out of the ruined Angel!
Down in a heap the crumpled Seraph falls,
vast wings collapsing—clattered mail and arms
crushing the bones, as ichor dyed the vanes
and the ripped plumage, gnarled into a death.
“Yes… mea culpa,” clucked the Doctor, snide,
as all behind him slowly woke from shock
to flush with realization at the deed:
the flesh was able
and the Spirit weak!
But, high within the bright Empyrean,
did Godhead gape? amazed? dumfounded?—wild
for once with an amiss surprise, or rage
at this unprecedented injury?
For all the Seraphim there—turning (as
ordained)—let slip their even symphonies now
to an arrhythmic dissonance…
Elysium fell mute.
Some war had come.
All eyes had witnessed what could not be done…
Like the implicit pact
a body has with all its disparate parts—
spurring the molecules to mobilize
for clot and suture at the trauma-point,
while throbbing arteries with blood en-route
pump all their efforts to the wound—so God,
unspeaking, orders legion Hosts, in plume,
decouple from the whirling Rose and spill
themselves on mankind’s hemorrhaged mutiny.
They do! descending swarm-like—all at once—
as, under oceans, fluid in their shape,
enormous schools of fish or krill change course,
conglomerated, and confound our sense
Downward they fly! and skim
the mile of cloud which separates mankind
from Heaven’s soaring citadel—as God,
enthroned in air in Glory, looked below.
But terror had already struck, as now
man’s armies, staring up at the bright swarm,
changed confidence for wild alarm, and shook
seeing this Empyreal front soar forward.
Faustus alone stood calm, and, with it, steered
the worldly will to quicker wisdom: “DIG!”
he cried, and as some did his tapped defense
then dominoed to all the regiments
Mist and fog flew up like dirt now
as Ground was delved in for their barricade.
A million men, dew-soaked and sweaty, heaved,
and dug, and drew Foundation from their feet
as the invasion of the Angels threatened
and bore down heavy from the LORD’s Cathedral.
Then, from the sinking trenches, Faust’s grim means
to counter Heaven’s legions was revealed:
the cannon comes.
Ten thousand stands
to prop ten thousand sleek machineguns nest
upon the fresh hole’s lip: elaborate arms
men mass-compiled from factory-iron parts,
which engineers and grim industrialists
contrived through Faustian alchemy and science.
Now, all at once, they’re set in even places,
dotting the steep ravine like rivets, or
steel gems upon a band—each propped and aimed
with crosshairs on the charging of the Angels.
For on they came, undaunted: taking note
of Earth’s strange arms and engines, undeterred
(uncertain of their worth…
in Heaven’s ancient strength, and the sure code
of noble chivalries in Christendom).
So on they charged with faded swords and blades
against industrial artillery,
and made for slaughter—mechanized.
Seraphic clouds in range, “NOW!” looses fire—
setting the Skies ablaze with such a light
it humbled the Empyrean’s.
in clanking rattle riddled wing on wing—
piercing their neck and arms—tears faces off
God’s soldiery, to shred white robes and skin—
bodies repulsed, and punctured head to knees—
grated—exploding—puffing mists of red—
till down the vanguard of their murder falls
like crows the power lines electrocuted.
Their comrades fill the void—but meet the same:
bloodshed on bloodshed—endless streams of steel
and shrapnel hammering; till the vast brood,
peppered with metal, drop their corpses down,
already broken, to the rising heap
of shattered bones and ruined carrion
who were the Hosts of God.
Yet still they come!—
relentless as Infinity—as row
on row, and tier on eager tier, swept forward,
fearless, replacing the already-slain
for slaying—surging forth with simple blades
into an execution. Then, cast down,
and torn like rags, they stack the mounting carnage,
coating more dead like polyps on a reef:
all armies of Elysium shot-through
as humans decimate, and turn their stream
a waterfall of rushing Seraphim.
And all was death.
But Gabriel could sense
a slaughter. Rendered chief by Michael’s murder,
he deems their charge catastrophe, and calls,
at once, for their immediate retreat:
to muster order from the multitudes
They do, turning as one
away from the harsh blare still downing—death
and showered bullets, indiscriminate—
while still men’s dark munitions sweep the field
and fill the backs of hectic Angels, shot
regardless of their helplessness to flee.
So guns blare on, and fell a wake to trace
the Angels’ trail in their defeat—unstopped,
until no holy thing lies still in range
to ghostly silence…
and shells coming to halt
till only blood—
the blood of Angels—could be heard, as pools
soaked deep into the sopping clouds and foamed
beyond the trench.
and Angels fleeing! Who could now dispute?
Man’s metal could outstrip the thunderbolt!
no gleeful battle cries rose out
from trembling trenches. Pale, and terrified,
and shaking with their conscience’ blot (like boys
the mangled beaks entrance, when daddy’s gun,
in secret, sweeps a chirping nest from boughs
to glut the curiosity of youth),
they wonder at their potent hands and dread
assumption of divinity.
Nor any scientist, or mechanist,
or Ford (Faust’s soulless famulus). They know:
man’s time is short—that, presently, in hordes,
indignant Angels will return in rage
and seek complete annihilation. So
they set to work.
Marshalling crews of men,
their dig into the Fundament resumes
with cold efficiency, as hand on hand
mine deeper—to the chemical—for core,
disturb the surface of Elysium,
seeking life’s crude, inchoate Elements
for warping into arms.
At last, they hit
a vein then plan immediate extraction…
My God…I still recall the image of them
(gazing on Heaven’s fields of clouds of carnage
while clutching tightly to my harp within).
For there, below, they seemed to form their own
Empyrean—a vast, mathematical
design—yet shorn of feeling… All became
a cog: mere cogs in clockwork of destruction,
as each with simple, patterned steps performed
the songless dance of their assembly line.
Human on human, like the links in chains,
drew out the elemental ore—each making
some fine adjustment at the prodding script
of scientists—until (these: PROCESSED, done…)
all labor’s confiscated up by Ford
for darker purposes, destroying Heaven…
But farther off on the vast fog of fields,
retreating Angels come to halt: some wings
frayed by barrage; some scuffed; some bruised; some bleeding—
all wearied by the harsh attack—and all
confused: how lesser mortals could confound
their strength, and question Deity… mock Truth…
Their leader, Gabriel, assesses each
as millions of the Seraphim regroup,
then hovers over all—to monster will—
once every Angel, Seraph, Throne, and Cherub
throbs in a flock to guard Elysium:
“THRONES! DOMINATIONS! PRINCEDOMS! VIRTUES! POWERS!
AND ALL HIGH HIERARCHIES OF THE SPHERES:
BE STRONG, MY FRIENDS REMEMBER NOW YOUR VALOR!
REMEMBER NOW THE BLOWS WE DEALT TO DAMN
THE MORNING STAR, AND WREAK A FALL ON HIM
WHO DARED DEFY OMNIPOTENCE TO ARMS!
SUCH MIGHT WE BROKE, SIFTING LIKE BRITTLE CHAFF
THE IRON STAFF OF WOULD-BE GODS. FEAR NOT, THEN,
MATERIAL MAN. HE BUCKS AND BRAYS, AND HOWLS
WITH DISCONTENT AT PARADISE, BUT IS
NO MORE MAJESTICAL THAN DUST-IN-CLOTH:
A DIRTY RACK OF FLESH THAT CANNOT STAND
ILLUMINATED BEING. SOMETHING LESS
THAN ANGEL, DO NOT TREAT HIM LESS THAN ANGEL,
BUT VENT THE FIERY WRATH OF INJURED RIGHT
ON FRAGILE FORMS NO LESS THAN MERITED
TO DEMONS CLAD IN MAIL! HE LOWERS GOD
TO WAR WITH HIM; LET’S MAGNIFY THE MAN!
AND SHOW TO HIM A GREATER RECKONING
TO MATCH A RECKONING OF GREATER PAIN!”
So Gabriel incited all the Hosts,
beaming new brightness by the Ire of God:
he raised his sword. Then, turning fiery eyes
behind to Angel fronts, he wildly roars:
“FOR THE ETERNAL GOD!”—and surged ahead:
to break the deep defensive front of men
by force of mass and courage over arms.
So on the barren stretch of cloud they charge
incalculable—gushing in one great spume
all strength and means of Heaven towards the trench,
that, from the citadel, their flowing jet
of blended light and cloth in halo’s feather
seem, as a whole, turned liquid-like, and stream
a molten spew of Seraphim —or stars,
if all a sudden such a galaxy
as ours stretched out, black-emptied to a hole,
and all the Milky Zodiac whirled forth
to its destruction. So their legions on,
poured from the spigot of Elysium,
as God, their power’s Fountain, looked below.
All their ocean arms—
thought out of range—now suddenly throw up
large parts of charging fronts, sporadically,
in blood and smoke!—as unexpected blasts
butcher their legs away in savage bursts
and hurl up mangled remnants like a rain.
The Angels reel—but hurry boldly on
through devastating minefields men have laid
to winnow them: fresh means and cruel inventions
wrought in the cold precision of their mines
and mock-Empyrean. So legs and arms,
flesh, cloth, muscle, eyes and ears, and parts
of lung and thick intestine, bowels, bones,
and hearts in spattered pieces spew their chunks
from burns, mess all the punished field, and fleck
the novel wasteland of the Heavens
with shattered Spirits as the dauntless Hosts
Mankind just watched—(though some fell sick
in seeing Angels inside-out, and folded,
vomiting). Still, onward their legions come—
determined—dodging obstacles of blood
and organs of their friends, and fresh explosions—
all for their God,
God and Purpose.
How could they know a greater evil waited?
In a sudden cloud it overtakes them,
shot in their midst as canisters and cans,
suffusing ghostlike: mists of putrid green
enveloping eruptions on the field
and opened bodies, mutilate.
entire waves are downed to it, as fumes
in noxious chlorine nebulas enshroud,
constricting eyes and throats. And the blown haze,
like vapor from a lake, breathed up pollutants
in emerald specters, suffocating.
In a thick fog of phosgene it attacks—
burns lungs to acid and asphyxiates
the gasping legions of the LORD: man’s worst
—until the greatest triumph of his work
in brutal alchemy and science fouls
the field: for now
sulfuric mustard pours.
In toxic billows, in a yellow cloud,
it spreads its thick contagion, phantom-like,
and eats them all. Angel on Angel fall
in agony, and clutch their eyes—puss-bled
and seared to blindness—as their ruined skin,
crackling in plague and blister-boils, breaks down,
chemical-burned, to slough away in crusts
or yellow bubbles, festering.
of chemists from the trenches looked away…
They do not see the stunned and dazed mowed down
or have their chests eviscerated. How?
How come? —why should they? All have done their part.
Why call them from their hiding to survey
the devastation of experiments
and little things they microscoped with smiles
turned larger than all God’s Elysium?
But others do.
With bug-eyes and their trunk
of tubes, a million faces, still as grass,
stand staring through the gas-masks on the fields
where thirty million Angel corpses lie,
or fall, or choke, or spasm, or cry for God
through such atrocity. Machinegun-fire
lights up their goggled staring through the tint,
that all of them appear depraver doctors
in their bird-suits, gazing on pyres of plague
a ravaged Europe’s pestilence stacked up
when similar apocalypse swept through
and made grim prophets whisper
of an End.
Indeed, it is enough of triumphing
it goads some hubris from them. Slowly, death
by death, they grow more confident in hopes
of taking Heaven, till—made drunk with fire—
and deeming each a god, invincible—
whole scores leap up from trenches—gunning—shriek
in wails in mimicry of savage Powers
and hurl themselves to fore.
himself!!!—ELYSIUM ENTIRE!!! is theirs
(they think) for utter subjugation, rape
and ruin, as the Heavens meet their fresh
and potent overlords!
Yet such vain reach
is quickly checked. For on the wasted field
their phantom glories
victims at once
to their own dark means—when the mines, and gas,
and spraying bullets of their own machines
pummel their backs, rob each of air, or blow
their high-aspiring hearts to pieces.
self-slaughtered by their dreams
of stealing Thunder, and apotheosis
to savage Lords.
“Pull back! Pull back!” yelled Job,
but too-late heard through endless blaring guns,
and the thick fog, green with their gas, of smoke
and smother rolling. So some million fall,
strewn on the craters of a broken world,
and glaze the Angels’ offal with their own
as, over them, munitions’ music plays
a grating dirge for men, and requiem
for slaughtered Angels…
Yet, the Dawn—its piece
now ending (rest impending as it neared
the final bar of the Horizon)—bled
still deeper crimsons on the field, as night,
its death, crept close. Chill nipped the air, and winds
unfelt before in Heaven blustered through
(though deafening cannon, engines, mines and flares
of light still mocked the day, and made its end
seem artificially prolonged for murder).
as dawnlight’s dregs soaked in to mountains, and
the dreaded omen of a night in Heaven
fell—then still-fighting Seraphim looked up…
looked out on all their shattered casualties
for nothing, and, with doubt
—with doubt and wonder—
As a wave of in-drawn pebbles breaks
and falters on the watermark to tide
(which, broken, scatters backwards on the beach
when sea reclaims it), so the Angels broke—
at last—their ranks along the line, and left,
confused and horrified for Heaven. All
But Gabriel alone screamed hoarse,
and flung rebuke on all those fleeing spheres
of Holy Ones. With reddened face and sword
unsated since unpowerful, he cries:
“YOU WIND! YOU GHOSTS! ABANDONERS OF GOD!
SO FALLS ANOTHER THIRD OF HEAVEN’S STARS!
BUT I, FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, WILL BLAZE, AND BURN
AND BURST MY LAST EXPLOSION OVER THEM—
TO TAKE AS MUCH OF REBEL EARTH INSIDE
MY GLORY TILL I BREAK AND, DARK AT LAST
IN ANGRY SPACE, SUBSIDE TO NOTHINGNESS!”
So wept the only Angel to remain,
and, with a final roaring, ran headfirst
into the cannon-fire.
And yet, what for?
What was it worth? What was this madness’ meaning?
For there, at once, his face is torn away
by heavy shelling, and stampeding sprays
of metal, dribbling gut. His body falls,
clanging to Heaven clutching worthless arms
of prior centuries, and stains the edge
of trench and line, one drop descending in—
high-watermark of the Angelic siege:
whose blot means what?
It is already gone.
Again men’s guns fell silent, Seraphim
retreating to the Walls, where, high above,
stares off, unblinking—face
a cryptic hieroglyph of God-Enigma:
riddle on riddle painted eerie in,
and Meaning in the eyes: inscrutable.
Yet those who dare to look on Him take calm
in vagueness, comforted by Mystery,
that plan in this catastrophe might rear,
revealing higher wisdom—this the God
(they reason), after all, who blessed His Son’s
destruction with the world…
darkening Paradise in dreary pall
and buying truce with shadow. Darkness veils
the dead, and Faust, and Job, and millions—men
and women, artists, scientists, and all
the souls invested in emancipation,
all fiercely ‘modern men’ (and those who follow)—
all these, in countless, wearied regiments,
abandon now their guns, and move
(though trembling hands prove newest enemies
to pitch a tent.)
So tense armistice spreads,
and the obligatory smile: victory theirs!
…yet, for the words, the sentiment expressed
lacks any sense of triumph.
Through the fog,
the human camp burns blurry amber: dots
of light which signal settling, sleep, and time
to gather bodies from the fields of Heaven.
Warring must wait.
Unfinished lies the game.
And God, with a concluding look, walks off
into the lonely echoes of his Chamber
from forty million bodies on the plain.