A Worker Reads History
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
This is another of Brecht’s didactic works. I am afraid Joyce might
consider its art flawed by the heavy-handedness of its message. However
it has always stuck with me. Like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” [Poem #22], which
examines the fate of glory, this one examines its origins. Humanity loves
leaders, and records their names as a shorthand for the movements they
Poetically, the repetition of statement and question established a pattern
that leads the reader to question all the historical “facts” we hold dear.
History is our mythology, and as Zeus the Thunder God is behind all
storms, so Washington defeated the British and Lenin overthrew the Tsar.
The mass of humanity that follows and enables our leaders toils in their
shadows, and vicariously shares in their glory.
Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg: “But in a larger sense we can not
dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow this ground. The
brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far
above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor
long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.”
We remember what was said there, by the Great Man, but who remembers the
brave unknowns who fought and died, in just one of so many, many battles?